Peter Jennings, RIP
My own most notable memory of Jennings comes from a late 1980’s PBS roundtable discussion comprised of several journalists and several members of the US military hierarchy, moderated by Charles Ogletree. The discussion was one of a series called Ethics in America, which gathered groups of influential people in various areas of professional life, and posed to them a series of ethical dilemmas which they were then asked to discuss and solve.
This particular show was called “Under Orders, Under Fire”, and placed both journalists and military men into battle situations, asking what they would do under certain trying circumstances. The moderator presented the following situation to the journalists: You are covering the war, and have somehow gained permission to be embedded with a unit of the enemy. While traveling with them, they come across and establish a plan to ambush a unit of unsuspecting American soldiers. The question was then put to Jennings: With foreknowledge of the ambush, would you simply roll film and record the ensuing massacre?
After much thought, Jennings said that he would personally do whatever he could to warn the Americans. The moderator turned to Mike Wallace (of CBS’ 60 Minutes fame), who proceeded to upbraid Jennings for his decision. Wallace, seemingly without a trace of a second thought, claimed that Jennings’ first and highest duty was as a reporter, not an American, and that he should approach the situation as a disinterested reporter. Jennings then completely wilted, saying that he had “chickened out” and had made the wrong decision.
I agree that Jennings chickened out, although certainly not in the way he thought. The contempt with which the military men went on to hold the two journalists was, I think, well deserved.
For a more extensive recap of the show, see James Fallows’ description of the event. And you can see the show itself (along with the rest of the series), although you do have to go through a free sign up to get it. Page down to number 6 an 7.