Who Has Guts?
Tough questions about morality and bravery
Each year, the new york-based Committee to Protect Journalists convenes to honor journalists from around the world who have demonstrated extraordinary courage and independence. (Of the four 1999 recipients, one was in prison and another in exile.) CPJ offers an additional award, in memory of Burton Benjamin, an esteemed CBS News producer and a chairman of CPJ; it usually honors the already much-honored.
In 1997, the recipient of the Benjamin award was Ted Koppel of ABC News, who refreshingly chose to examine the varieties of courage that journalism might demand and that its practitioners might or might not supply. He paid tribute to the award winners from abroad: “They function, when they can, at the risk of their freedom and often their lives.” He counted himself among those called on to display a second type of courage—the correspondents who “have worked in dangerous places and have certainly taken risks.” He added: “The risks we took tended to be overseas. We could always come home.”
But for America’s at-home journalism he had words of scorn, charging that it lacked a particular kind of courage—the strength to challenge its audience:
It is not death, or torture or imprisonment that threatens us as American journalists, it is the trivialization of our industry. We are free to write and report whatever we believe is important. But if what is important does not appeal to the reading or viewing appetites of our consumers we’ll give them something that does. . . . we’re afraid of the competition; afraid of earning less money; afraid of losing our audience. They face death and torture and imprisonment; and we are afraid.
Everything Koppel said about trivialization, about the fear of competition was borne out, in spades, during the subsequent Year of Lewinsky. And yet, looking closely at his admonishment, one wonders just who is the “we” he refers to as American journalists. Koppel’s “we” is clearly managerial by implication; the practices he deplores rest on profit-driven, audience-driven corporate policies—not usually the province of the working reporter or editor. Another type of courage is conspicuous by its omission: that is, the willingness of individuals to define and defend their own standards while operating in an organizational setting. This kind of courage was evoked in the statement issued earlier in 1997 by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, which said, essentially, that employees could no longer depend on owners and managers to articulate journalists’ responsibilities, and that practitioners must speak out to define their own purposes and principles.
Thus, we find three or four types of courage: the courage to resist legal and physical threats on one’s native ground, the courage to risk danger to tell disquieting news to the world of the comfortable, the corporate courage to offer audiences what they do not necessarily want to hear, and the courage to become a dissident inside an organization.
CPJ’s main business, calling attention to persecution of journalists around the world, is delineated in its annual report, Attacks on the Press in 1999. It offers abundant examples of physical courage—journalists facing intimidation, kidnapping, physical assaults, imprisonment, torture, death. But the report does not go everywhere; it has nothing at all to say on the apparently unafflicted media of Western Europe, Britain, Japan and Canada. Nor does it offer much on the United States, except to note attacks on the immigrant press and death threats issued to the free-lancer Robert Friedman by Russian gangsters—essentially phenomena imported from the other world.
That other world, CPJ makes clear, remains perilous ground for independent journalism. Governments combine the ancient legal weapons of licensing and criminal libel with secret-police methods. Outlaw factions—criminal, religious, political—carry on wars of their own. CPJ reports 34 assassinations last year—that is, individuals killed because they were journalists: 10 in a burst of revolutionary violence in tiny Sierra Leone, six in Yugoslavia, five in Colombia. Just an average year, perhaps slightly sub-average; since 1990, 458 have been killed in 56 countries. Moreover, as of the end of 1999, 87 remained in prison, and many others have been forced into exile. These are only the most visible cases, far outnumbered by hundreds threatened by actions designed to obstruct and terrorize.
There is a seeming gulf between the protected world of the technologically advanced journalism of what could be called the North Atlantic civilization and the generally smaller-scale journalism of the rest of the world. In many countries, journalism is still struggling to gain independence and find its place in societies that are not accustomed to independent scrutiny, may not welcome it and may try to destroy those who attempt it.
American journalists, wrapped in a usually protective legal and cultural tradition, may regard the struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe as peculiarly alien. But there was a time when America was not that different. In his innovative 1994 study, Violence Against the Press, John Nerone paints a historical landscape that will be unfamiliar to those brought up on conventional onward-and-upward texts about newspaper history. Nerone destroys the notion that attacks on the press and on journalists in America are anomalous, mere “episodes and accidents.” Rather, he finds that they have been endemic, “an integral part of the culture of public expression in the United States.” Mob action, he asserts, was a means of channeling, even regulating the press. His evidence is plentiful—for example, continual assaults on the abolitionist press, 111 instances of mob actions against newspapers during the Civil War and cases stretching into this century of attacks on the minority, ethnic, labor and left press.
Reading Nerone and the CPJ report in juxtaposition, one can readily imagine that today’s throng of journalists around the world, struggling to maintain their right to speak or to print, are spiritual successors to the American printers and editors of preceding centuries—the wartime dissidents, abolitionists, radicals and unionists who asserted, in the abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison’s words, “I will be heard!” And to tell the truth, not all the news in the CPJ report is bad; more than a few nations are slowly moving toward internationally recognized guarantees of freedom of expression. There are places where seditious-libel laws have been replaced by legislation assuring the right to criticize governments and officials with impunity. Just as in the United States, American printers and editors staked the early claims for freedom of the press by simply continuing to publish and assert their rights, those on other continents are now winning for themselves the space to practice independent journalism.
Their courage is self-evident. What astonishes is the breadth and persistence of their efforts. If prudence ruled, half of the world would have to do without journalists. But just the opposite is the case; countries that once had no journalism worthy of the name have spawned newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, and, above all, men and women audacious enough to practice the craft. A few flee; most remain and risk the consequences. Clearly, they are driven by more than money or glory; instead, they see themselves as improving, cleansing their societies.
Between the two worlds of journalism, the journalism of safe places and the journalism of dangerous places, there is a small clan that belongs truly to neither. Correspondents are employed by the West’s big media engines, but they constantly expose themselves to the dangers of the other more hostile world. The 1999 CPJ report notes fatalities among these outsiders—for example, an Associated Press correspondent in Sierra Leone and a German reporter and photographer in Kosovo.
Two such intermediaries, of the type who almost compulsively seek out disorder, violence and personal danger, have recently written accounts of their work, strikingly different in character.
Leslie Cockburn has been practicing her dangerous trade for almost 25 years. She broke in at NBC in 1976 and has been employed by CBS, ABC, PBS and Vanity Fair. Her book speaks little about her employers; instead, she has written the classic foreign correspondent’s memoir—“how I got that story.” It is a breathtaking, and sometimes breathless, narrative. As the cover blurb asserts, she “has dined with the Cali Cartel, marched with the Khmer Rouge, hunted down the Black Turban in Afghanistan, pursued the Russian mafia to the Arctic Circle, shared pomegranate sauce with the ayatollahs, and stopped a small Kurdish war.”
Her narrative is informed by a political sensibility—a determination to bring to the attention of the public what it may least want to hear about the rest of the world. Her tone is optimistic, even joyous, darkened only when somebody places obstacles in the way of her mission. For example, she spent weeks preparing a story for ABC on turbulence and famine in Somalia, only to have to yield time to Koppel, flown in for the landing of American troops. Her dessicated segment “was packaged between teases, bumpers, ads for Tylenol, Ben-Gay, and a jeep parked on the edge of the Grand Canyon.”
Looking for Trouble is written in the first person, but it is neither truly personal nor revelatory. Cockburn recounts even her riskiest excursions with immense cool. Although any one of a dozen ventures could have turned out badly, she says little about the risks. Her jacket blurbs suggest courage, but she takes no note of it. It is a kind of classic tough-guy approach.
By contrast, Anthony Loyd confronts the question of courage repeatedly and directly. My War Gone By is as painful and self-scourging as skin turned inside out. A member of a military family and briefly a soldier himself, he went to Yugoslavia in 1993 to find war, having been disappointed by what he saw in the Gulf in 1991. He had no trouble catching up with combat in Bosnia, first as a haphazardly trained, semiaccredited free-lance photographer, eventually as a military correspondent for The Times of London. He also made a horrendous side trip to the first war in Chechnya.
That he managed to become a journalist while fighting off personal crises—his father’s hostility and death, a serious drug addiction, psychotherapy—seems a small miracle. But at the same time personal crisis opened him to absorbing not only the facts of the war but its ethos, its ferocity, danger and unpredictability. One vignette among many: three Muslim prisoners pushed out into no-man’s-land, mines strapped to their bodies and trailing wires, blown up as they approached their comrades, their legs left to lie on the field for days afterward.
Loyd conducts a continual inquest on himself. He asserts initially that going to the war had nothing to do with personal courage but was “more an absolution of self-responsibility, a releasing of myself into the hands of chance.” Later, facing not merely danger but the probability of death under fire, he found that he was not willing to give away his life to happenstance. He was overcome with dread, shaken into immobility. When he had restabilized, he reflected: “I did not learn to accept courage in a different form, I grew to see it as a meaningless term of glorification used by the ignorant to describe the actions of others whose real motivations are more often instinctive than altruistic.”
Clearly, he does not distinguish between the courage of a soldier and that of a journalist who happens to be on the same battlefield with soldiers. The purely journalistic courage—although he, like Leslie Cockburn, would no doubt shun the term—emerges in other terms, in his newfound passion to tell the world of the war’s rights and wrongs: “...the writing suddenly gave me a sense of purpose. I had found the war to be as unjust as it was brutal. ... I believed that something fundamental was at stake in the war.” What fuels him in the end is not playing pseudosoldier, although he still acts the part, but exposing himself so as to expose the war.
At the same time, the war ruins him for the routines of civil life, and he is irresistibly drawn to the battlefield: “Sometimes I pray for another war just to save me.” It was not surprising to read that in October 1999 Loyd was detained at the Chechnya border, no doubt still trying to mend himself by getting close enough to the fighting to hear the bullets go by.
A survey that john nerone did for Violence Against the Press found that today’s mainstream American journalism inspires only scattered incidents of violence or threatened violence. Most journalists in America no longer consider their work physically dangerous, despite having to deal with a quotient of anger from those who believe their privacy or right to be heard has been violated. Nerone suggests that in general journalism no longer stimulates an aggressive public response. What was once a public has been reduced to an audience. Publics act; audiences consume.
What they consume is the well-packaged work of those who consider themselves professionals. Nerone believes that professionalism itself has insulated journalism from the public. Journalists once were participants in the public life of local communities; now they operate—particularly those in the national news media—by a “set of codes and cues that only insiders can master” barricaded within their organizations.
This notion of the journalist as insider places a paradoxical twist on the title of the Michael Mann film, The Insider, released late in 1999. The film deals with the difficulties a “60 Minutes” producer encountered in seeking to put a major tobacco whistle-blower on the air. Clearly, the insider of the title is Jeffrey Wigand, the scientist from Brown & Williamson who decided to go public. At the same time, though, Lowell Bergman, the “60 Minutes” producer who found and worked with Wigand, is also an insider, encountering dilemmas of personal and professional integrity within CBS strikingly parallel to those faced by Wigand. In the end, the Bergman character, too, becomes a whistle-blower.
The Insider is said to be based primarily on an article by Marie Brenner, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which appeared in the May 1996 issue of Vanity Fair. She tells how Wigand was fired by Brown & Williamson for, essentially, unwillingness to go along with the fiction that tobacco companies did not know that their products were addictive. Wigand knew in fact that Brown & Williamson sought additives to enhance cigarettes’ addictiveness. He became known to “60 Minutes” more or less by chance and, after months of courtship, agreed in the summer of 1995 to be interviewed on camera. He had to abandon his confidentiality agreements with his former employer; not incidentally, his marriage dissolved under pressures of financial insecurity and, apparently, threats against his children.
In October 1995, CBS legal counsel directed “60 Minutes” not to broadcast the interview—and to break off all contact with Wigand—on the ground that CBS could be sued by Brown & Williamson for “tortious interference” with Wigand’s confidentiality agreements. In the background was the pending sale of CBS to Westinghouse, a conglomerate with tobacco connections; the film makes a point of listing out the millions that would be harvested by those involved in killing the Wigand interview. Not mentioned, but probably of much more importance, is the expensive settlement that Capital Cities/ABC had just made with another tobacco giant, Philip Morris, and its retraction of a broadcast charging that Philip Morris had hyped nicotine levels. Not until The Wall Street Journal obtained and published Wigand’s secret data (without mentioning Wigand by name) and CBS had been publicly embarrassed by exposure of its self-censorship did Wigand’s interview appear in its original form. The Journal won a Pulitzer for its efforts; CBS reaped embarrassment.
As a film, this tale is not a paean to journalism like All the President’s Men. Yet here it is, 158 minutes of it, and in its way, I suppose, as true to real life in the 1990s as the Woodstein saga was to newspapering in the 1970s. The Insider offers little guts and glory; it is all moral quandaries—not only Wigand’s, but those faced or avoided by television newspeople.
Unavoidably, much of the discussion of this film, which purports to represent real events, has centered on its factual fidelity. Certain participants, notably Mike Wallace, claim to have been misrepresented. A workaday “60 Minutes” producer, Lowell Bergman, is glamorized and enlarged by the superstar Al Pacino. And the techniques are indubitably those of fiction film—dancing cameras, spectacular settings, wrenching music and innumerable shifts of chronology and detail. But as best as this outsider can determine, by comparing the film with both the Brenner article and, especially, the exhaustive narrative of the crisis at CBS in Lawrence K. Grossman’s January/February 1996 Columbia Journalism Review article, “CBS, ‘60 Minutes,’ and the Unseen Interview,” many essentials are there in the film: that Bergman made a solemn commitment to put Wigand on the air, that CBS killed the Wigand interview under an apparently unprecedented, perhaps imagined, threat of a lawsuit; and that, ultimately, CBS tried to leave Wigand twisting in the wind.
The film invidiously nominates heroes and nonheroes at CBS. Bergman, in true Pacino style, is unwavering. His colleagues are weaker, depending on their distance from the top. Wallace is shown as willing to go along with management’s decision, but eventually turns around. Don Hewitt, the executive producer, is shown as a patsy (a portrait that Bergman hinted, in an interview, was unfair). The head of CBS News, given a fictional name, is portrayed as a spineless supporter of management. The chief CBS lawyer, also given a fictional identity, is a straight-out heavy. But to a viewer of the film these nuances of compliance do not matter a lot. Who would expect that a corporation, in a matter involving millions or perhaps billions, to have at its heart a conscience, rather than prudence? And who would expect its deputies, even those engaged in journalism, to dissent or disobey?
Indeed, that is the question, and the dilemma faced by the film’s Bergman. How far before disagreement becomes dissent? And before loyal dissent becomes disloyal? And to whom and to what is loyalty owed? The Bergman played by Pacino is not a particularly reflective person; he simply keeps fighting to get his story out and to keep faith with Wigand.
Ultimately, what is portrayed as his climactic act of rebellion is leaking the story of CBS’s self-censorship to a New York Times reporter, played by Pete Hamill of all people. Curiously, most real-life accounts of the affair slide by the leak as incidental and do not even attribute it to Bergman. Yet it did occur, and it resulted in a Page One Times story on November 9, 1995, by television-beat reporter Bill Carter.
The leak was glancingly acknowledged by Bergman himself in an interview with David Weir in the on-line magazine Salon on November 5, 1999: “ ... in the movie, it’s clear I leaked the story to The New York Times that made it all public. You know, so that is true.”
Was this an act of courage or a dirty, even traitorous tactic? In the film, Christopher Plummer as Wallace rebukes Pacino/
Bergman, more in sorrow than in anger, for an act of disloyalty. If it is, it is hardly unprecedented. Warren Breed’s still illuminating old study, “Social Control in the Newsroom,” found that reporters caught in tight policy situations often subverted management, customarily by leaking to another organization on the unspoken premise that the public was entitled to know.
The question is always the urgency of the need to know. Although Bergman (in the film) clearly had personal reasons to try to break out the story—his belief that he had failed Wigand and his chagrin over losing exclusivity—the substantive side of the story was also of extraordinary importance in shaking the tobacco industry from its long-term position of denial on smoking and health. But eventually the story of the network’s self-censorship loomed almost as large as the tobacco angle.
Bergman’s actions are (were?) ambivalent. The film—which Bergman called in the Salon interview his “final act as a whistle-blower”—emphasizes his courage in going outside the rules of the game. Yet he can be viewed as reckless (he could have been fired) or self-aggrandizing (he could have become what Plummer/Wallace calls a “First Amendment martyr.”)
But perhaps every act of journalistic courage contains such a duality. Loyd offers himself with infinite nerve on battlefields, but at the same time he gets the fix he wants most—war.
The apparently purest form of journalistic courage, displayed by those that CPJ seeks to defend on other continents, may be mixed with politics, personal ambition and even personality defects. Even the sainted William Lloyd Garrison was regarded by his contemporaries as Boston’s leading crank. We probably will never find courage unalloyed, and we need to accept it for what it offers.
James Boylan, professor emeritus of journalism at
the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, was founding editor
of the Columbia Journalism Review.