A Play Within a Play


WE RETURN to the sheltered environment of Harvard, looking ahead to the Real World with confidence that our integrity will sustain us. But the ideals we nurture here have a hard life out there.

WORKING in Washington as a reporter and writer for a daily newspaper, I was assigned a story about Newsweek revealing that Lt. Col. Oliver North was a confidential source in a 1985 Achille Lauro story. When I accepted the internship, I knew my politics did not mesh with the conservative agenda of the paper, but I was confident I would not be put in a situation in which our values would clash.

I was wrong.

In nationally televised hearings this summer, North charged that members of Congress had been the source of the Achille Lauro leaks. My editor wanted me to find out why the magazine decided to break perhaps the most sacred rule of journalism--protection of a confidential source--and what other prominent journalists thought about Newsweek's move.

Reporting the story, I called leading journalists, people with one foot in the detached audience of Washington observers and the other foot backstage where they help pull the cords to the curtain which often hides crucial scenes from the audience.

Fresh from the intense scrutiny of the press for its handling of the Gary Hart affair, Washington journalismcircles were all hotly arguing the ethics and pragmatics of the Newsweek story. As I tried to grasp the debate, each reporter and editor I interviewed spoke ardently for his position, whether he defended or attacked Newsweek.

Some journalists criticized Newsweek for breaking the vow with North, a trust they compared to that between priest and parishoner or attorney and client. Uncovering truth and finding trusting sources in the future, they said, could be made a great deal more difficult because of the magazine's story.

Other journalists hailed Newsweek's actions, their arguments turning to what they called a higher ideal: making the truth known to the public. North was deliberately misleading the public in his testimony, they said, and it was up to the press to safeguard the truth and expose his lies.

In considering the issues involved, veteran journalists--as well as myself--were forced to return to the ideals that compelled them in their youths to enter the field. It became a quest for truth.

Deadline brought an early end to my search for the truth, and I filed my story.

Although my editor and I had discussed a few points and agreed on a story, I returned the next morning to find a drastically altered story had been printed.

Without my knowledge, whole paragraphs with no basis in fact had been inserted to slant the story in an angle parallel to the political extremism espoused by the editor-in-chief, giving a distorted view of the circumstances.

Additions to the story gave the impression the Newsweek intended to discredit and victimize North unfairly. The edited article went so far as to cast doubt that North was indeed the secret source two years ago.

My editor had made the changes on the directions of the editor-in-chief. In his mind, one story and one summer reporter were not worth a fight with his boss.

LOOKING back, my experience was like a play within a play. As I wrote a story about an ethical dilemma of the press, my own publication was violating what I consider absolute standards of behavior.

Maybe that's what will happen to us in the Real World: We'll take the non-confrontational road to a nice-dinner waiting at home after another day at work.

For me, it was just a summer job before returning to Harvard in the fall. I could have quit. I thought about it, but I decided to finish out my internship. I made a choice of values that fell somewhere in that perennial gray area--just as my editor had.

When we leave this atmosphere of intellectual freedom for our destined lives in the Real World, our quests for truth may not always be as easy as here in this academic haven. That fact is something for which we must try to prepare in our brief stays here but something to which we must not succumb.

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