Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 2001/ 19 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Wesley Pruden

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When mickeymouse
offends even Mickey -- YOU'VE got to give Mickey Mouse his due. Sometimes mickeymouse is too much even for Mickey.

When David Westin, the lawyer in charge of ABC News, delivered a little homily on journalism ethics the other day in which he said he couldn't really say whether the terrorist attack on the Pentagon was morally wrong, Mickey hit the roof. Or whatever it is that a mouse hits when he gets mad.

Executives at Disney, which owns ABC-TV and a lot of other media stuff, told Mr. Westin to apologize. They get it, even if Mr. Westin does not. So he apologized, sort of. Not under pressure, of course; he intended to apologize all along. The apology was the usual sorry-if-I-did-any-harm apology, suggesting that he doesn't really understand what upset Mickey and probably doesn't care.

What upset Mickey and the Disney executives was that when a student at a seminar at the Columbia University School of Journalism asked whether the Pentagon was a legitimate target for terrorists, Mr. Westin replied with a mouthful of heartfelt moonshine: "I actually don't have an opinion on that and it's important I not have an opinion on that as I sit here in my capacity right now. The way I conceive my job running a news organization, and the way I would like all journalists at ABC News to perceive it, is [that] there is a big difference between a normative position and a positive position.

Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be and when we get into the job of what ought to be I think we're not doing a service to the American people for me to take a position [on whether] this was right or wrong, I mean, perhaps for me in my private life, perhaps it's for me dealing with my loved ones, perhaps it's for my minister at church. But as a journalist I feel strongly that's something that I should not be taking a position on."

It's not difficult to understand how the president of a network news organization could say something as goofy as this (no offense intended to Mickey's pal, Goofy). Some men are of such extraordinary refinement and sensibility that they don't think and feel the things real people do. Most men, for example, would not say that murder - which is what the terrorists inflicted in wholesale numbers on September 11 - is something that could be right or wrong, who knows which, or that murder and mayhem would "perhaps" be wrong "with my loved ones." Pity poor Mrs. Westin, if there is one, at 3 o'clock in the morning with an intruder in the Westin house: "Umm, uh, dear, this man is a rapist and he insists on raping you and maybe even killing you, and perhaps I shouldn't interfere since I'm, er, ah, a journalist, and for me to take a positive position rather than a normative position on this would perhaps not be doing a service to you and to the American people, so I will continue to sit on my capacity ")

Of course, David Westin is not a journalist at all. He never has been, not even a television journalist, and as anyone at ABC News could tell you, he wouldn't know how to get off his ample capacity to cover a grass fire. He's a lawyer, not a journalist, which is a very different kind of public enemy. He probably thinks this is the way celebrity journalists are supposed to talk, remembering how Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace, on a similar occasion a decade ago, insisted that if they were accompanying enemy soldiers and learned of an imminent attack on American positions they wouldn't warn the Americans even if they could. The code of journalists is a strict one.

These are tough times for the ladies and gents of Entertainment News, with a war already more than a month old and no villains to drag on camera. The distant bang-bang is getting old, and so far there's not even an American atrocity. Vietnam was better than this. Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, actually took this question at a briefing earlier this week: "What can the Pentagon do to keep the American public engaged in this [so] that a certain amount of boredom doesn't set in, as with Iraq? You know, every now and then we'd go and we'd bomb a little something, and everybody yawned. Unless there's a bombing here [in the United States] every month, how do we really keep the public engaged?"

The reporter's complaint seemed to be aimed more at Osama bin Laden than at Mr. Rumsfeld. We keep getting warnings and nothing happens. The anthrax story is dying: good news is no news. Besides, it's hard to get good film of people lying in a hospital, struggling to fight off disease. What TV news needs is a reprise of September 11; maybe, as the FBI and Gov. Gray Davis of California suggested last night, an attack on the Golden Gate Bridge. That would get everybody off their capacities, maybe for a whole week.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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