- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

The press deflated a few millimeters yesterday after ABC's David Westin discovered that blithe claims of journalistic independence pale when America's very soul is at stake.
It may be the first stirrings of a media on the verge of legitimate, mature war footing.
In a terse mea culpa, the network's news president apologized for remarks he made Oct. 23 at Columbia University, broadcast on C-SPAN four days later. Primed from a lengthy speech on the First Amendment, Mr. Westin implied his role as media kingpin superceded U.S. loyalties.
A student asked him if the Pentagon was a "legitimate" terrorist target.
"I actually don't have an opinion on that, and it's important I not have an opinion on that," Mr. Westin said. "The way I conceive my job running a news organization, and the way I would like all the journalists at ABC News to perceive it, is there is a big difference between a normative position and a positive position."
"Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be and when we get into the job of what ought to be I think we're not doing a service to the American people for me to take a position this was right or wrong, I mean, that's perhaps for me in my private life," he said. Later adding, "As a journalist, I feel strongly that's something that I should not be taking a position on. I'm supposed to figure out what is and what is not, not what ought to be."
The jaunty words fermented to a bitter brew in the aftermath.
"Journalists often try to paint with the neutral shades of a wide, morally relevant brush," noted Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs yesterday. "Westin failed to realize that no brushes are wide enough to be neutral regarding the terrorist attacks."
"Another item to file under 'journalist first, American second,'" observed Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center.
Meanwhile, an online poll (www.vote.com) found that 90 percent of about 8,000 voters felt Mr. Westin should resign because he "doesn't have a clear sense of judgment" and would cause ABC to lose all credibility.
At his Web site, Matt Drudge chronicled the fuss at ABC's parent company Disney itself a possible terrorist target. "Furious" executives demanded Mr. Westin mend his ways. He did.
"Like all Americans, I was horrified at the loss of life at the Pentagon, as well as in New York and Pennsylvania on September 11," Mr. Westin said in a statement released by ABC yesterday afternoon. "When asked at an interview session at the Columbia Journalism School whether I believed that the Pentagon was a legitimate target for terrorists I responded that, as a journalist, I did not have an opinion. I was wrong."
Perhaps he was caught up in the heat of campus discourse. Not only that, he's not a journalist at all, but a lawyer.
"I gave an answer to journalism students to illustrate the broad, academic principle that all journalists should draw a firm line between what they know and what their personal opinion might be," Mr. Westin said. "Upon reflection, I realized that my answer did not address the specifics of September 11. Under any interpretation, the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification. I apologize for any harm that my misstatement may have caused."
Such straight talk has not been the norm between an often petulant press and an administration struggling to maintain security in a relentless 24-hour news cycle.
White House and Pentagon officials have called for "sensible" news coverage that informs the public without compromising the national interest. They have repeated that the war on terrorism does not come with talking points and "sequential" action.
Last week, 26 news organizations protested "the increasing restrictions by the U.S. government that limit news gathering," while mournful analysts claimed the press was forced to choose between First Amendment rights and their own patriotism.
This is not the first time for such angst.
In 1989, Mike Wallace of CBS and Peter Jennings of ABC were asked if they would warn American troops or cover the story, had they been accompanying an enemy battalion as journalists.
Mr. Wallace replied, "Your job is to cover what's going on in that war." Mr. Jennings, agreed. At the time, media critic James Fallows took them to task, calling them "poster boys for moral cowardice" and prompting Americans to hate the press.
"I am afraid, Jim, that you missed the point," Mr. Wallace replied to his critic. "The television audience understood our dilemma better than you did."
Some news organizations, however, have seen the light this week. Yesterday, CNN executives vowed to present more "balanced images and redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be reporting from [the Talibans] vantage or perspective." CNN would not be "used as a propaganda platform."
MSNBC host Don Imus told journalists to "butt out and stop asking all those questions that are frankly none of your business."
"This is not covering the New Hampshire primary or the impeachment of Bill Clinton," observed NBC's Tim Russert. "This is the real deal. This is life and death. And we have to modulate our tone and lower voices and have a conversation."
Media analyst Mr. Felling thinks this indicates journalists are on the cusp of becoming the "critical and dispassionate observers they aspire to be, while having passion for the country defending us."
Even as the media stands knee-deep in a reality check, American viewers have spoken about print and broadcast coverage of the war on terrorism.
Nielsen ratings released yesterday found that CNN's viewership hit 3.3 million the week of September 11, but fell to 946,000 last week. Likewise, Fox News Channel got 1.75 million viewers initially, but later dropped to 738,000 by Oct. 28. MSNBC averaged 1.28 million, falling to 547,000 viewers.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide