Hating the Media

On Integrity

The Poetry Judge

Man on Horseback

There is more to the incident described by James Fallows in "Why Americans Hate the Media" (February Atlantic ) concerning Mike Wallace's opinion on whether a reporter working with an enemy patrol is morally obliged to warn fellow Americans about to be ambushed.

In preparing a book on the military and the media, I came across a secondhand account of that discussion and wrote Mr. Wallace to verify it. He responded immediately, by telephone. "I responded without having had time to think about the subject," he said, "and immediately began to have second thoughts."

"I am an American," he continued. "I fought for our country in World War Two. I am not going to see American fighting men and women killed or injured if there is anything I can do to stop it. But, having had time to think about that question, I don't think it can be addressed outside of the much larger question of whether the press should seek to get people behind enemy lines in time of war. Once you are in there . . . you are no longer a free agent."

Year after year reporters, and sometimes their editors, participate in war-college symposia and go away thinking they have "explained" the press to the military. But what the military has learned from those encounters is, first, that every reporter is on his or her own, and will gladly cut the throat of any colleague; and, second, that the press lacks the depth to understand any complex story, not just stories about the military.

Contrary to what R. W. Apple Jr. claims in the February 4 New York Times "Week in Review," it was not exclusion by the military that distorted coverage of the Persian Gulf War but careful exploitation of those two observed weaknesses. That will continue to be the case until the press overhauls its entire concept of organization and training. Fallows's article and book make an important contribution to creating the public pressure that must be built up in order for that to happen.

William V. Kennedy

James Fallows's castigation of the news media is a valuable and convincing alert: a crucial component of our democracy is not functioning. But Fallows does not dispute certain basic facts of news economics that are surely known to him and his readers: issues research is more costly than political chitchat, and chitchat sells better anyway. The hard-news carnivores his article features are not representative of our entertainment-loving citizenry. Polls showing a desire for more upbeat news do not indicate a thirst for elucidation of policy issues. It is in fact reasonable to assume that journalism is effectively responding to its economic incentives, as one would expect. In terms of solutions, Fallows's essay thus amounts to an exhortation to the news industry to act more honorably despite its self-interest--which is obviously futile.

Uriel Wittenberg

On Integrity

In reference to Stephen L. Carter's "The Insufficiency of Honesty" (February Atlantic ): integrity has its roots in "in" (not) "tangere" (to touch), and means the quality of being "untouched, whole, complete." It is related to "integrate," to "make whole or complete by adding or bringing together parts."

In reference to human beings, integrity implies that one is complete unto oneself. And to be human and whole is to know and accept ourselves with strengths and weaknesses and to relate intimately with others on the basis of our inner wholeness and knowledge rather than outer customs or morals. Integrity further implies inner and outer consistency.

Which takes us to Carter's dying man. Carter no doubt chose this extreme example because he assumes that most people will say, "Of course the man shouldn't tell."

He's right: most people live distant lives, shut off from other people by what they will not tell. And they have many excuses, the most frequent being that they might hurt someone's feelings. This is a ruse, as Carter points out; they are afraid to tell the truth because they are trying to protect themselves from loss (of power, love, position), from anger, from the nakedness of exposure.

A person of integrity would not wait thirty-five years to tell his wife about an affair, and he would never "confess." He would tell his wife immediately, or he might even tell her before it happened, when it was just a thought but not yet a plan. And if he made the mistake of putting off his telling, he would eventually tell because the affair was a fact of his life that intruded on the intimacy between him and his wife, not because it was "killing his spirit." A person of integrity does not judge either himself or others so harshly as to kill off parts of himself or other people.

Carter's ending for the story, his melodramatic description of the twice-faithless man and the grieving soon-to-be widow who would choose illusion over substance, aptly demonstrates the errors we make when we treat others not as beings having integrity but as children whom we must arrogantly protect in much the same way that Carter's manager protected his employee. Neither Carter, as the story's author, nor his character can assume knowledge of the wife's reaction to her husband's affair, because we don't know if she is a woman of integrity. Maybe she, too, had an affair, and would feel great relief, the lifting of her own guilt. Maybe she would feel sorry for her husband for suffering so long when he could have told her and would have been forgiven. Maybe she would confirm a long suspicion and have newfound confidence in her intuition. Maybe she wouldn't give a damn. Maybe she would give her husband an extra dose of morphine to end it all just a bit sooner.

The person of integrity would never, ever take from her the opportunity to make her own choice and respond as she will.

Rebecca L. Shannon

To the husband whose deathbed confession of infidelity hurts his wife I say, Go for it! Why shouldn't he manage his death as he chooses, doing for himself what he needs to do?

If her happiness was predicated on a fiction, what was its intrinsic worth? As an adult, why shouldn't she be responsible for doing the hard work of reconciling this fact about the marriage she was a party to with the fiction she had imagined? To protect her from this information is to patronize her and rob her of vital knowledge about the reality of her own life.

Rather than accept Carter's sappy deathbed moral melodrama, which casts the wronged woman as a passive victim, I choose to believe that she will marshal the strength to confront the truth and the resilience to learn from it and move on.

Hating the Media

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