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Times Staff Writer

While ABC news executives downplayed the ethics of Barbara Walters secretly acting as a White House courier for Manucher Ghorbanifar, the nation’s most respected journalism pundits were fuming over the incident on Tuesday.

From Harvard to Stanford, Walters was uniformly condemned, even though her own network announced that she would not be disciplined for acting as an off-camera go-between for the Iranian arms dealer.

“I think her conduct was outrageous and unethical if the facts are as we understand them to be now,” said James Risser, director of the James S. Knight professional journalism fellowship program at Stanford University and former Washington bureau chief of the Des Moines Register. “I think that journalists, no matter how important they are or how much of a quasi-public figure, should not become part of a story or act as an agent for anyone.”


Howard Simons, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and a former managing editor at the Washington Post, echoed Risser:

“I don’t think she should be doing that,” he said. “That’s not the job of a journalist.”

“Journalists ought to, as much as they can, stay out of the scene they are reporting on,” said Ben Bagdikian, dean of the journalism school at UC Berkeley and former ombudsman for the Post. “And they ought not to keep from the public things that they know.”

On Monday, ABC’s “World News Tonight” reported the incident as a “tell”--an anchorman simply reading the network position on the incident. Tom Jarrell, sitting in for vacationing Peter Jennings, read:

“An ABC News statement today confirmed earlier today that correspondent Barbara Walters passed messages on to the White House from Manucher Ghorbanifar, the key middleman in the Iranian arms deal. They were passed on at his request after Walters interviewed Ghorbanifar and Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi last fall.

“ABC news today said its policy expressly limits journalists cooperating with government agencies unless threats to human life are involved. Ms. Walters believed that to be the case with the Americans held hostage in Lebanon. Ms. Walters understands, the statement continued, that the transmission of her information to the President was in violation of a literal interpretation of news policy.”

Walters was not available for comment Tuesday. Her publicist referred all calls to ABC News spokesmen who read a prepared statement contending that the 10-year ABC veteran passed the information to the White House because she believed it “could be of assistance to the remaining hostages (in Lebanon).” She told her editors at ABC what she was doing, but did not tell ABC management, according to the statement.


Walters’ role was first revealed in a Wall Street Journal story published Monday. The article said she sent a message to President Reagan following her December interviews with Ghorbanifar and Khashoggi.

One of the memos was printed Tuesday in the Washington Times. In it, Ghorbanifar said that in several secret preliminary negotiations between U.S. officials--presumably headed by Lt. Col. Oliver North of the National Security Council--and “conservative” Iranians, “substantial payments financed by loans were made . . . in Iran with the hope the funds would be recovered at a later stage from arms sales. Consequently the contacts were under way for more than 18 months without any leak. The whole thing was blown up when it suddenly became an issue in the power struggle in Tehran.”

Ghorbanifar claimed that secret U.S.-Iranian contacts began almost two years ago as “a slow process of normalization of relations between the two countries to counterbalance expansion of Soviet influence in Iran and in the region. . . . The problem of hostages and the arms deal was only a byproduct of the process.”

Bagdikian said that Walters’ actions might have been justified if there had been either a risk to the hostages or national security. In an interview with National Public Radio on Monday, he pointed to a similar precedent in 1963, when television correspondent John Scali acted as a courier between the Kremlin and the White House during the Cuban missile crisis.

But, Tuesday, Bagdikian said he had revised his opinion.

“I assumed that the Ghorbanifar/Walters memo had some impact on hostages,” Bagdikian said. “But if that (the memorandum published by the Washington Times) is correct, I don’t see any justification for Barbara Walters’ action at all.”

All three major television networks have written policies carefully circumscribing how and when a correspondent can become personally involved in a story. The NBC policy is 10 pages long and the ABC policy takes up about a page in its news standards manual.


The CBS policy, entitled “Personal Involvement in Story That Is Being Covered” is the shortest and most succinct. Dated April 14, 1976, it states:

“CBS News Division personnel who are covering a news event must not participate in that event in any way or for whatever reason. Our responsibility is to report and record news events--and not to initiate or shape them.”

Bagdikian and Simons were both adamant on what they see as two exceptions to the CBS rule.

“Exceptions to that are a clear and immediate threat to life or if there is a grave danger to the country,” Bagdikian said. “Then, the head of state ought to know before the news media.”

The information in the Ghorbanifar message was “something that is probably not very advantageous for the Administration, but that’s the luck of the game when you’re trying to make hay with elements in the Iranian government,” Simons said. “Mr. Ghorbanifar and Mr. Khashoggi never had any trouble in the past getting messages through to the government. Why should they have any trouble now?”

John Scali could not be reached at his office at the ABC Washington bureau Tuesday for his own views on the incident, but Simons defended the TV news veteran:

“He probably violated the rules, too, but the magnitude of the difference between a potential nuclear war and whatever this was are two different ballparks. Sometimes, you’re hard bound to live by your own rules. We used to have a rule (at the Post) that we would not print the names of rape victims, but I can give you a dozen names right now where we would probably violate that now, starting with Margaret Thatcher or the President’s wife.

“I happened to live through the Cuban missile crisis as a reporter and it was very scary . . . almost as scary as Mr. Ghorbanifar is.”


Walters, who the network said would make no further public statement over ABC about the Ghorbanifar incident, is scheduled to interview Mrs. Thatcher on ABC’s “20/20” Thursday night.