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MEDIA UNDER FIRE IN A BATTLE OF CONSCIENCE

That goofy guy Patrick Buchanan was on “Nightline” recently, complaining to Ted Koppel about the rotten news media. It was the usual blabber from Buchanan, a former Nixon aide who now works for President Reagan:

Most of the media are biased, left-wing vermin.

Several days later, Boston TV reporter Susan Wornick was sentenced to three months in prison for refusing to identify a source who said that he had seen police officers looting a drug store.

Although separate incidents, Buchanan’s TV blast and the Wornick case are related in a broad way. Both reflect the media under attack.

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Not long ago, the rigidly conservative Buchanan was merely an amusing TV clown who verbally bullied liberal guests on Cable News Network’s “Crossfire,” the nightly interview program he co-hosted with Tom Braden.

Oh, Buchanan also wrote a syndicated column, but his chief exposure came from the confrontational TV program, where he and avowed liberal Braden were often unwittingly as comic as Abbott and Costello as they shouted at their guest victims and each other.

No longer a mere CNN pitty pat, though, Buchanan is now a clown with clout as Reagan’s White House communications director, reported by pundits to be behind some of the President’s most acerbic and doctrinaire public statements and speeches.

All administrations instinctively mistrust and want to control the press. But in the view of some reporters, Buchanan has carried that even further, becoming the Administration’s Attila the Pat.

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His White House reemergence comes at a time when much of America seems willing to view the media as an enemy and to give government carte blanche to jeer the press and conduct public business in the shadows.

It’s a time when PBS has agreed to air a TV program produced by conservatives that supposedly rebuts a previously aired 13-part series on the Vietnam War, which the conservative group had attacked as being left-slanted.

It’s also a time when Ted Turner is trying to acquire a resistant CBS and conservatives are increasingly accusing the media of being either dupes or a devoutly leftish fifth column attempting to undermine basic American values.

To say nothing of devoutly inept.

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For the sake of argument, let’s say that Buchanan, Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.) and other conservative critics of the media are right--that reporters, editors, anchors and producers are predominantly liberal scum with a mission to celebrate Sandinistas and journalistically sabotage the Reagan Administration.

So what happens next? Replace all liberals with conservatives? Then the liberals would howl. Establish media hiring quotas according to political philosophy? Impossible. Conservatives would never go for anything that smacks of quotas or affirmative action.

Who’s to blame, anyway, if journalism attracts more liberals than conservatives? The Communists? Maybe we can abort the flow of liberals into the media by bombing Fidel Castro.

The media tend to use the First Amendment as a mother’s skirt to hide behind when under attack. That’s often a knee-jerk defense. We should be held accountable.

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The public should demand that the media be good, not liberal or conservative. It should demand that the media be as honest and fair as possible. And when we are not honest or fair, then we deserve to be criticized.

There’s nothing else to be done, though. Not in this country. No firing squad. No Inquisition. No prison. No smashing of presses or reporters’ heads. For better or for worse, we go on . . . unencumbered and imperfect.

That’s the price--a small price, at that--of a free press.

Susan Wornick is paying her own price.

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Suffolk Superior Court Judge James Donohue charged the WCVB-TV reporter with “undermining our system of law and order” by refusing to reveal the name of her source, who had appeared on TV with his back to the camera. The source said he feared that his wife and small child would be in danger were he to reveal his name.

“A reporter is only as good as his word,” Wornick said outside the courtroom. “I gave a man my word. I can’t go back on it. I could never go out and do my job again.”

Of course she’s right. If reporters begin revealing their sources, failing to honor their trust, sources will dry up. The press then will have to rely solely on the public record and public relations puff for news, resulting in the crippling of a free media.

Wornick was a guest on Michael Jackson’s KABC radio show this week. Jackson asked her if she would change her position if the person she was protecting were a mass murderer.

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Wornick begged off, noting that she was not harboring a fugitive from justice or a criminal, merely protecting the identity of an alleged eyewitness to a crime.

The press is no extension of the criminal justice system, Wornick correctly noted. Still, Jackson’s question was valid. Where does a reporter draw the line? When does he sacrifice journalistic principle for the greater good of society?

That’s a personal decision, obviously.

Yet it’s hard to imagine any responsible citizen--let alone reporter--willingly and knowingly withholding the identity of a murderer. A killer, serial or otherwise, wouldn’t deserve such a bargain, and his or her danger to society would far outweigh an abstract principle.

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The line is blurrier in other areas.

The movie “Under Fire” was about a hotshot American news photographer who sympathized with anti-government rebels in a repressive Central American nation. When their charismatic leader was killed, they convinced the photographer to fake his picture and have it published, making it seem that the leader still lived. Hence, the revolution continued.

Though flawed in many ways, “Under Fire” did raise an important question. At what point should a reporter cease being a professional observer of life and become an active participant? If the rebel leader’s death had been made public, a revolution against a repressive regime might have collapsed. So what was the photographer to do, heed his conscience or his professional ethics?

To Buchanan and others, the argument is probably moot. They believe, wrongly, that the media have already crossed the line.

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