Monday, March 24, 2003

"It never ceases to amaze me," writes legendary communitarian thinker Amitai Etzioni, "how some issues that seem so cut and dry to me, evoke such heated debate among others." I know how he feels. His subject is an old debate, dating back to 1989, over what an American journalist traveling ("embedded", in current parlance) among soldiers of a hypothetical foreign country ("North Kosan") ought to do upon learning that those soldiers are about to ambush American soldiers. When the question was first posed, several prominent journalists answered that their job as journalists was to report the story, not to protect American soldiers. Needless to say, military and government officials asked the same question saw things differently. Etzioni's opinion is apparently captured by his rhetorical question: "No one was asked if they might warn the troop of North Kosanese if they were to about to walk into an American ambush."

Well, that question might clarify the issue for Etzioni, but I'm at a loss to see how. In the original scenario, the journalist's duty to "objectivity" or "the story" is placed in conflict with the journalist's duty to country. In Etzioni's version, the two duties are in harmony, both arguing in favor of not warning opposing troops. What light, then, does it shed on the more difficult original case?

A more revealing hypothetical would place the journalist among a criminal or terrorist gang about to ambush and murder a group of police officers, or innocent civilians--or even members of the journalist's own family. Two points are thus illuminated:

  • There are some duties higher than the journalist's duty to "the story". Whether duty to country is among them is a measure of one's relative estimate of the importance of duty to country.

  • By agreeing to be hosted by a person or group, a journalist implicitly places him- or herself in a position of trust with respect to the hosts. If that group is inclined to commit targeted acts of violence, then voluntarily trusting oneself to its care implicitly expresses faith in the group's judgment in choosing targets. Such faith should not be placed lightly, lest it be betrayed in exceedingly ugly fashion.

  • The question is thus not, "what should a loyal, law-abiding American journalist do when traveling with soldiers ambushing Americans, or criminals or terrorists ambushing their victims?", but rather, "what is a loyal, law-abiding American journalist doing consorting with troops fighting against Americans, or criminals, or terrorists, lending them legitimacy by trusting in them so completely?" If the answer is, "there's nothing wrong with that", then obviously there's nothing wrong with the journalist cooperating with his or her hosts in other ways as well--such as keeping mum about one of their impending atacks.

    At that point, the journalist has effectively become an accomplice, and American troops or police should be expected to deal with him or her accordingly.

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