TWELVE YEARS AGO, a group of past presidential press secretaries faced a room full of future reporters at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Among the spokesmen was a journalist who had served Lyndon Johnson, promoting his shadowy version of the Vietnam War.
Although in his job now he is a respected network news commentator, in his job then he delivered the fictitious enemy "body counts." One student rose to ask the former spokesman how he could have faced the press with what he knew were lies. The answer was that he had always tried to blink or screw up his face while reading the figures in front of the cameras in the conviction that his fellow journalists would pick up the signal. His ethics were just as skewed as his statistics and his facial expressions.Now the press is reeling with the Washington Post story that the press once again has been used in a "disinformation" plot against Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy.
Administration officials have been quick to admit they had a contingency plan that called for attempting to misinform the public and the press. Secretary of State George Shultz's statements on the affair have come close to open ridicule of the news media for being such dupes. For the press, the two most pressing questions to answer are whom do you trust and whom do you blame.
The first one is easy. The press should trust no one. Its job is to question, to doubt and to check stories to the best of its ability right down to deadline. The question of whom the press should blame is more complex. Certainly, the sources of disinformation are responsible for spreading lies. Beyond that, the press has to blame itself. With few exceptions, it has failed to measure up to the standards it has set for itself. In swallowing the administration line, it has asked the questions who, what, when and where but it has neglected to ask why. The question of why goes beyond idle curiosity. It acts as a fail-safe mechanism for stories like the Khadafy disinformation campaign that just don't seem to add up.
More stringent application of another journalistic rule might also be in order for future phony stories planted by administration sources.
It has long been a principle that stories deserve high placement in the press when they come from high officials. Perhaps this rule should govern the placement of stories spoon-fed to the media by the disinformation campaigners. Their success in misleading the public has until now depended on the full faith and credit that editors have given to their every word. Let them continue to speak, but let them speak on the back page where they belong.