February 18, 2005

Wallace's Prime Directive

Carroll Andrew Morse

Over at NRO, Myrna Blyth references a famous panel discussion involving Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace. Here’s the extremely short summary. Jennings and Wallace were asked to place themselves in the positions of American reporters somehow embedded with an enemy military unit. During their assignment, they learned of plans to ambush a group of American soldiers. The question: should they try to warn the Americans? Wallace, and eventually Jennings, came to the conclusion that, as a matter of journalistic principle, they should not. Tim Graham provides a link to a fuller account of the discussion.

This discussion is referenced from time to time in discussions about the media and the military. As far as I know, since the original panel, no reporter has taken an occasion of equally high profile to either reaffirm or repudiate Wallace’s Prime Directive -- a reporter is bound to act in a way that allows a story to develop as if he or she were not there, regardless of the consequences. Do reporters still believe in Wallace’s Prime Directive?

Though he never stated it, my feeling was always that Wallace’s Prime Directive unfairly singled out members of the military as less worthy of protection from journalists as other citizens. Allow me to use the following example to make my case. A reporter is doing a story on teenage alienation. In the course of his story, he discovers a group of teenagers are planning to blow-up their high school. Does Wallace's Prime Directive apply here also, i.e. is he forbidden from interfering with what would develop if he were not present?

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Wallace might say that your example doesn't equate with the scenario asked in the panel discussion. He might say that since the children are planning on killing "innocent" civilians who have no warning or means to defend themselves, it is wholly different than 2 groups of belligerents that are armed and fully aware they are at war.

My personal opinion is that it is irrelevant whether or not you are doing a story on teens where one group is going to harm another or teams of combatants trying to harm each other. I would try to alarm the Americans that they were in danger.

I'll put forward that Wallace and Jennings were thinking of the current military situations we find ourselves in. In other words, they don't support our foreign policy as conducted through our military.

If they were asked if they would warn the US upon learning of the German Ardennes Offensive in Dec. 1944, my guess is that they would. For instance, the scale of carnage mixed with civilian deaths would compel them to action. Add that to the underlying goal of American involvement -- to rid the world of militarist fascism -- and they would feel obligated in what they would consider a much more worthy cause than some "trumped-up war for oil."

So, in my cyber-world of analysis, Wallace and Jennings just might be typical, liberal, moral-relativists.

Posted by: Martin at February 23, 2005 12:12 PM