When the media does the right thing

A few years back — some 30, to be exact — the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency showed up at my office to ask that a story obtained by our Pentagon correspondent be withheld, not because it was inaccurate but because it would endanger the life of an operative inside the Soviet Union.

He made a very persuasive case that the information on which the story of Soviet laser technology was based was so tightly held that it was highly likely that revealing the United States had knowledge of it would point the finger at the source.

My boss and I acceded on the condition that when it was determined there was no further threat to the operative we would be informed and freed of our obligation. The DIA general not only agreed but also pledged to provide details when that time came. He was as good as his word, and six months later our correspondent, Al Horton, wrote the first story on Soviet progress in particle-beam and other similar technologies.

The decision by the notoriously unruly British press to put aside its highly competitive and sensationalist tendencies to protect the life of an heir to the throne, Prince Harry, and those who might be around him during a military tour in Afghanistan is not only a similar situation, it is in the highest traditions of journalism when news organizations are civilized enough to put a greater good ahead of their own interests. That may seem a bit over the top, but the fact that the withholding of the news about the third in line to be king of England was agreed to not by one newspaper but by the entire British press establishment makes it utterly remarkable and lends hope that responsible journalism may survive after all, even in the face of the rapaciously irresponsible Internet.

The sad note, of course, is that this rather extraordinary act of good faith was undermined by the disclosure of Harry’s military assignment by a notoriously unprofessional American blogger, once again demonstrating that more and more we are being left at the mercy of those whose Web sites are unencumbered by any ethical or legal considerations or oversight. With no one to answer to, the damage they can cause to individuals and institutions and even to democracy can be substantial.

That certainly doesn’t include those reporters from mainline news organizations who are trying desperately to keep alive the highest standards of the craft. It is a struggle in the face of the pajama-wearing typists who never leave their own kitchens and turn raw, unvetted, unsubstantiated material into snippets of inside dope that travel the world at lightning speed. As we all know, the threat to responsible journalism can be seen in the steady decline in influence and number of traditional news outlets whose efforts to provide accurate, honest reports are facing a continuing loss of young readers transfixed by computers. But that’s another story and one in which editors and publishers and electronic-news directors also don’t come out looking brilliant.

The revelation of Harry’s service ended it as the British military hierarchy immediately whisked him out of harm’s way, clearing the path for full-out coverage of his activities in a war zone. Before he met his father and brother at the airport, he was seen by millions rather plaintively announcing that his one chance to live a somewhat normal life was over.

It probably would have ended much sooner had blogger Matt Drudge found out about it earlier. Those who condemned the deal made by the British press in the first place are completely wrong. This was not an attempt by a government to hide a controversial, even legally and morally questionable action like the CIA’s infamous rendition process or the torture of prisoners, both of which were exposed by traditional journalism. It was a simple plea to allow a young man to perform a dangerous service for his country without being exposed to almost-certain targeting by hostile forces.

Drudge and other bloggers have at times brought to light information that has led to significant legitimate news. But too often it is a crapshoot whether hurt and harm result. Too often the compulsion to be first drives them to just put it out there. Condemning the traditional press as a whole has always been a national pastime — shoot the messenger and all that — but in Prince Harry’s and other cases, it should be highly praised.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)