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photo credit: terryballard

My ethics professor hosted a screening of The Most Dangerous Man in America, a documentary by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. I’ll leave the issue of awards nominations to the entertainment professionals who know far more about the process than I do. Furthermore, the documentary does a fantastic job of telling Ellsberg’s story through family experiences, military service, a Pentagon career, and through the decision making process of leaking the Rand Corporation‘s report – over 7,000 pages on Vietnam – to The New York Times, and there’s lots of material written on the Supreme Court‘s 1971 decision New York Times Co. v. United States.

Map of Indochina including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand

Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection

What I’d like to think about here are the various journeys – physical, emotional, and ethical, just to name a few – that led to the publication of top secret papers and, subsequently, historical decisions in both political policy and First Amendment law. No one in this story knew what was ahead or, once events started, how or where they would end.

Ellsberg’s journey from childhood to adulthood influenced his views on responsibility. Ellsberg also moved from military service to a career as a military analyst – a transition that took him behind the scenes of military decision making and into clearance “beyond top secret.” His trip to Vietnam was made in this capacity, where he saw for himself the conditions on the ground from troop movements and “non-existent patrols” to experiencing combat with both its effects on American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. Ultimately, Ellsberg went from certainty to uncertainty. People he met along the way, from colleagues to followers of Gandhi, affected the way he saw the world and how he made decisions. Watching children pick through burning debris for a favorite doll in person during his trip in Vietnam gave him a different perspective by showing him things he couldn’t see from his desk in Santa Monica, California.

Once the Pentagon Papers were leaked to reporters, a whole new set of people faced new set of decisions. Reporters had to consider their responsibilities to their editors and the public as well as the risk to their sources. Editors had to consider their reporters, their publications, and the public. Lawyers for all involved had to weigh the pros and cons. In the end, The New York Times ran the story, and when they were ordered to stop, so did The Washington Post, then The Boston Globe – and then papers all across the country. The case worked its way all the way through the system until the Supreme Court’s Decision.

1972 population map of Vietnam from Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection

1972 population map of Vietnam from Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection

Watching this movie as a journalism student in the Cronkite School‘s First Amendment forum definitely added a personal angle to the experience. While situations like the Pentagon Papers may be once in a lifetime or only for a few, it’s very likely that I’ll encounter ethical situations, quite possibly with sources and sensitive material.

I’ll have to make my own decisions, and no matter how helpful a rule book or ethical code may be, in the end, I agree with my professor – no hypothetical situation will have all the information – so there’s no way to completely prepare for the real life situations that require handling on a case by case basis. In real life and real time, you may have to make tough decisions without all the information.

Every bit of preparation and guidance along the way will be helpful when a moment comes that I’m on the spot alone. My mother has compared it to learning CPR without knowing when you’ll use it, so that when an accident happens, you start with an idea of what to do, even if it has to be adapted to the situation in front of you – waiting to learn life skills till the accident’s already happened won’t give you much time to prepare.

Would I have made the same decisions that reporters like Neil Sheehan & Hedrick Smith made? Even with all the information available today, can I even answer that question without being there in that time and place?

At one point in the film, Ellsberg says, “The people there were more than pictures for me and they were more than numbers.” I think that ultimately, that’s what it may always come down to. Numbers are predictable, understandable, logical. There’s a clarity and neatness – at least before the fixing begins – that makes working with them simple. People? Not so much.

If you’ve ever been on the spot, what helped you make decisions along the way?

photo credit: Jeb Ro

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Yes – I know I promised Burj Khalifah, and yet here’s another Haiti post. Since classes started again last Tuesday, I’ve been busy (or, as Steven would say, busier) again. Yet I’m painfully aware that here I must come across as someone who’s been glued to CNN, unable to function in because of events happening thousands of miles away. I see that in print, I wonder why I’d feel uncomfortable for allowing my life to be disrupted over something serious, yet the embarrassment is as palpable as the guilt for not “staying on task” and coming up with the goods I’ve promised. But, when if there’s a too late to switch back to covering Dubai, is there also a too soon? When is the best time to switch from “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” to “Las Vegas on Steroids?”

The weird reality is that all these links from the last three entries have surfaced through homework – I am on task, or at least no more off task than normal. Following disasters and disaster coverage are both now – a part of my job? Ok. But I’m not a journalist in the field – and there’s plenty of debate there, too.

Then I stumbled across “Good Intentions Are Not Enough: An honest conversation about the impact of aid“, and found a wealth of material, both collected and written by Saundra Schimmelpfennig addressing another kind of disaster involvement (and the impact on coordination after a disaster) : travelers. Sometimes they are volunteers, sometimes tourists like those on the 3,100-passenger Navigator of the Seas, sometimes a hybrid of both.

Schimmelpfennig introduces the (new to me) concept of Disaster Tourism and describes it’s (mostly negative) impact on natural disaster survivors and aid efforts. Disaster tourism. I’d heard of “dark tourism” – defined by a travel seminar class in my undergrad career as “death tourism – and the concept made me deeply uncomfortable. There’s also the “more grey” – if there is such a thing – travel dubbed “development tourism.”

Explaining that well-intended attempts to help after a disaster may make a confusing situation worse, the Schimmelpfennig starts a list of four articles with Guideline #1 for Volunteering Overseas and follows up the series with “What to look for when evaluating an aid agency.”

Going a step further, I’ve explored the idea of travel being more than just getting on a plane – it can rise from a book, flow through a television, or over the radio. Can disaster tourism be virtual too – does that help explain my fears and chagrin at potentially being perceived as frozen in my living room?

CNN and Anderson Cooper have already been the whipping boy for frustrations over media coverage, while editors at The Washington Post and New York Times have weighed in to explain their publications’ respective stances.

It’s a concern that shifts uneasily when I come across links like this one to CNN’s new interactive video feature shot January 17. Before I play with it and forward it to my ethics instructor, I can’t help notice that the technology is a) cool and b) celebrating it too much would feel a little macabre given the nature of the footage. By the way, they may not be there much longer.

Well, no one ever told me this wouldn’t be messy – there’s no one to blame but myself.

On the other hand, Conan O’Brien’s directive against cynicism transcends its network battle context.

The coordinated disaster and medical professionals going in are truly priceless. As my friend Tina will discover Feb 8 through her hospital’s programs, there will be seriously tough times ahead. I worry and at the same time, remember her as the awesome babysitter she was to me before becoming an amazing doctor and Alea’s mother, and I believe she can make small but important differences. Sites like Biosurveillance: Operational issues in the practice of biosurveillance has set up a dedicated website for Haiti to address the demand for information and the information coming in for people like Tina and everyone they hope to help.

In the meantime, I have a very different kind of work to do – including covering both Haiti AND the Burj Khalifah – before catching, hopefully, a few hours of badly needed sleep.

Finally, to steal from Dispatches one more time, people don’t remember loved ones as CNN portrays them – this is how people will be remembered.

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A quick thoughts post… covering a disaster – and looking at how a disaster is covered – can quickly bring up some dicey ethical questions. My instructor for Journalism Ethics says he avoids hypothetical situations, and one major reason this makes sense to me is that it seems real live ones are everywhere you turn and much more relevant than anything constructed from the abstract. The big one everyone’s talking about is Anderson Cooper’s on camera moment, though First Draft quickly moves the debate from Cooper to the coverage as a whole with this article: The Giggly Twerps on the Evening News.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has created an index of their multimedia coverage, which simultaneously feels organized and… odd… Do I pick the video or the photography next for my visuals of earthquake victims? I feel strange asking myself the question – and yet I am.

Prison Photography asks the questions bluntly and graphically with posts like this: Staring at Death: Photographing Haiti.

And yet the work of photographers / reporters like Minksy is undeniably important, and her quick thinking and speed are definitely a factor in the impact of her work: Behind the Lens: There for the Quake (from the New York Times’ Lens Blog). Reports like Minsky’s Haiti coverage or Melissa Bloch’s China coverage both have an immediacy because of how and when the work was done that can’t be replicated by people who weren’t there because it records both the earthquakes themselves and the experiences of someone going through them – and then beginning to report on others (I wrote about NPR’s radio coverage here during last semester).

Finally, for those who really want to wonder about the metaphysical – media coverage of how people are using media: How does Haiti communicate after the earthquake? (BBC).

If you’ve got thoughts or answers for how to handle these kinds of questions and issues, let me know below…

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