An Unimpressive Showing

Taking Note

QUESTION: What happens when a journalist is the subject of a major story?

Answer: The objectivity of the national press goes right out the window. Or at least it does if the way the press has handled the Daniloff case and more recently the resignation of State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb are any indication.

From the moment Nicholas S. Daniloff '56, the Moscow correspondent for U.S. News and World Report, was arrested by the Soviet Union on charges of espionage, the national press was on his side. Major news organizations, which are normally skeptical of our government's explanations, seemed all too willing to believe that Daniloff was not a spy, but rather a brave reporter who had been set up by the Soviets.

In fact, it only took one day for the Washington Post to run as its lead editorial an admonition to the American public to avoid falling into the trap of questioning whether Daniloff was a spy or not. Not only was the Post unwilling to question Daniloff's involvement with the CIA, it came close to asserting that anyone who did make such an inquiry was unpatriotic.

IT SEEMS reasonable to ask whether the Post would have been as confident of Daniloff's innocence had he not been a journalist. Suppose for instance he was a businessman, or an American student studying in Moscow--wouldn't have someone in the press have done a serious investigation into whether or not Daniloff was a spy?


Since his release, one major paper has reported that Daniloff was in contact with the CIA during his tenure in the Soviet Union and that he did perform tasks for them. Is it simply coincidence that this story did not appear in the national media until after Daniloff was home, and the American public's attention was elsewhere?

While the jounalist in this case appears not to have been a spy, his innocence or guilt is irrelevant. The press is not meant to assume anything, nor should it choose sides. If it wants to be perceived as objective, the media has to be willing to investigate members of its own fraternity.

Which brings us to the case of Bernard Kalb. The lesser known of the two televison correspondent brothers, Bernard has suddenly found himself a cause celebre among political journalists across the country. Kalb resigned a week ago after it was learned that the Reagan Administration had intentionally planted false stories about increased tensions with Libya to scare Col. Muammar Khadafy.

The Kalb affair was reported by the press as a victory for the press; the analysis did not run deeper. No one bothered to ask Kalb why he agreed to sign on with an Administration notorious for covert activity in the first place. No one seemed interested in Kalb's motive for resigning or his involvement in the misinformation scheme to begin with. The press chose to take Kalb at his word--a practice journalists are usually uncomfortable with.

THE EFFUSION of praise for Kalb was so total that the ombudsman of the Washington Post felt compelled last week to use his position to provide balanced coverage. He asked, because no one else would, if Kalb's manner of resignation, a public news conference, was appropriate. He also wondered whether someone who is a State Department spokesman does his fellow journalists a favor by resigning rather than trying to change the Reagan Administration's perception of the press.

Whether one agrees with these criticisms or not, it should be of concern that an ombudsman, whose function it is to conduct internal reviews of a newspaper's coverage, should have to play the role of commentator because political journalists are in unanimous agreement. That he felt so compelled leads one to wonder if such agreement among journalists would result if the Administration official in question had not been a former television correspondent and if the issue had not been press relations.

The press increasingly finds itself in the position of being not only observer, but subject. The press is often unable to understand, however, that it has an obligation to report objectively even if the story concerns a journalist. To the extent that the press fails to live up to this challenge, the press will increasingly be seen as a club rather than a profession.

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