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POWs, Dead Dictators, and Journalistic Ethics

Would any journalist have turned down the opportunity to interview Gilad Shalit?
October 27, 2011

The young Iranian prisoner was no more than fourteen, still caked with a thick layer of dust from the battlefield. He was among thousands of old men and young boys being held in an Iraqi POW camp somewhere outside Basrah. It was September 1980, the early weeks of the Iran-Iraq War, and my CBS News crew and I had been taken to the camp by our Iraqi “minders.” A few dozen miles away, the battle for Khorramshahr raged with a level of slaughter not seen since World War One.

For weeks, we had been hearing that before they dispatched children and old men into the mine fields on massive human wave assaults, Iran’s mullah gave each of the soon-to-be martyrs a “key to paradise.” Through a translator, I asked the boy if that was true. He looked at me shyly and nodded yes. I asked if I could see it. He gave a sidelong glance at the guards, reached into the elastic waist of his POW uniform, pulled something out and held it up. The key to paradise–a thin metal disk with some Persian script. In the West, we call that a dog tag. Later, in the prison hospital, I asked a fifty-something Iranian schoolteacher whether he, too, had been told the dog tag was his key to paradise. “Yes,” he told me. Did he believe it? His face broke into a wide grin: “No, but they told me they would kill me if I didn’t go.”

Those encounters provided unrivalled insight into the mindset that was fueling the carnage that would ultimately claim more than 500,000 lives. It was also illegal. The Geneva Convention prohibits reporters from interviewing POWs. But when I aired the piece on The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, no one objected.

I thought about that story last week as I read of the uproar surrounding Egypt TV reporter Shahira Amin’s interview with Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier freed by Hamas after two five years in captivity.*

The interview, held just after Shalit crossed the border into Egypt and while he was still guarded by masked Hamas gunmen, “violated all the basic ethical rules of journalism,” according to one Israeli commentator.

But how many reporters can honestly say that, given the opportunity, they would have turned down the chance to be the first to speak with Shalit? Would Israel TV have said no?

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I have interviewed hostages and I have watched with professional jealousy when others beat me to it. Five years after I spoke with those poor Iranian POWs, I was horrified to learn that my ABC competitor in Beirut, Charlie Glass, beat my pants off by not only interviewing, but shooting an entire dinner with, some of the American hostages from TWA flight 847, which had been hijacked by Islamist militants. ABC broke into primetime programming with graphic banners celebrating its exclusive. Glass took some guff about not showing the Hezbollah thugs with the guns watching over the dinner, but few questioned his journalistic chops in landing the coup. Days later, when a few other hostages were trotted out in public, a scrum of reporters elbowed each other to get those microphones in place.

Basic journalist ethics can be a slippery—and contextual—thing.

When considering the ethics of the Shalit interview it might be useful to separate the ethics of doing the interview from the ethics of how the interview was conducted.

In short, consider the source. Shahira Amin is an anchor at Nile TV, the English-language service of the government-owned station that sanitized the revolution. She spent much of her career communicating the official Mubarak government line and while she resigned amid much fanfare when it was fairly clear the government would fall, she was back at work not long after.

In the Shalit interview, her questions ranged from the illogical to the ridiculous. Why didn’t he do more videos from captivity? What “lessons” did he learn? Would he campaign for the release of Palestinian prisoners? And through it all, she kept fishing for complements about Egypt’s role in the release.

It was a classic performance by an Arab state broadcaster: one part journalism, two parts propaganda. Habits, after all, are hard to break.

“It was important to let the world know he was alright,” Amin said in defense of the interview. If she had stopped there, critics would have had a bit less ammunition.

Still, journalists in glass newsrooms might want to hesitate before lobbing verbal rocks. Let’s recap the ethics of journalism when it comes to the Middle East:

• It’s OK to air bin Laden interviews, until the White House says it’s not;

• It’s OK to show John Walker Lindh, “the American Taliban,” strapped naked to a stretcher, but images of U.S. POWs are verboten;

• And it’s wrong to show dead Americans, but it’s OK to endlessly loop video of bleeding and/or dead Gaddafi.

On the morning Gaddafi was killed, an ebullient Wolf Blitzer told Sen. John McCain that he knew the senator was pleased on “this very special day.” The look on Blitzer’s face and the celebratory tone of his network left little doubt that he—or CNN—agreed.

As I said, “basic journalistic ethics” can be a slippery thing.

Correction: We originally reporters that Gilad Shalit had spent two years in captivity. In fact, he had spent five years in captivity. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.