Monday in New York a mentally ill man pushed another man in front of an oncoming subway train.  A third man, instead of helping the fallen man, photographed his death and sold the images to the New York Post.  His name is R. Umar Abbasi, and many people are upset with his priorities.

In its story on the incident Tuesday, the Post reported Abbasi was waiting on the platform when he saw the man fall onto the tracks. He said he ran towards the oncoming train, firing his camera’s flash to warn the driver.

“I just started running, running, hoping that the driver could see my flash,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

“In that moment, I just wanted to warn the train — to try and save a life,” the Post quoted him as saying.

Some critics, however, questioned Abbasi’s motives.

One Twitter user questioned why someones first instinct would be not to help the man, but instead to “snap a photo of him about to die and sell it to the NY Post.”

Reached by CNN, Abbasi was adamant that he would talk to the network only for pay.

Roundups of the professional outrage over Abbasi’s apparent cold heartedness and the Post’s sensationalism are ubiquitous, with news people like Larry King, Soledad O’Brien, and Al Roker weighing in with disgust over (a) a man’s snapping a newsworthy photo instead of trying to save a life, and (b) a newspaper’s profiting from that photo under the guise of newsworthiness.

Got it?

Good.  Now let’s rewind to 1989 and a PBS television episode on which two (now late) giants of American broadcast news, Peter Jennings of ABC and Mike Wallace of CBS, appeared with moderator Charles Ogletree to discuss ethics in journalism.  Ogletree invented a hypothetical war, the U.S. v North Kosan, and asked both men what they would do if they had the choice between warning the Americans of an imminent surprise attack by the North Kosanese (with whom they were embedded) or covering the attack.  It went without saying that they would then broadcast the slaughter on (inter)national television.

At first Jennings responded: “If I was with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.” Wallace countered that other reporters, including himself, “would regard it simply as another story that they are there to cover.” Jennings’ position bewildered Wallace: “I’m a little bit of a loss to understand why, because you are an American, you would not have covered that story.”

“Don’t you have a higher duty as an American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting fact?” Ogletree asked. Without hesitating Wallace responded: “No, you don’t have higher duty…You’re a reporter.” This persuaded Jennings, who changed his view: “I think he’s right, too. I chickened out.”

Military advisers and generals on the panel suggested “you’re Americans first, and you’re journalists second.” Wallace remained mystified by the concept, wondering “what in the world is wrong with photographing this attack by North Kosanese on American soldiers?”

Two memories from this exchange have never faded.  First is Jennings’ instinct to do right before being shamed—I suppose that’s the word—into compliance by Wallace’s cock certainty.

This seems particularly instructive, because at the time Jennings was the sole anchor and managing editor of ABC World News Tonight, making him the network’s highest-ranking newsman and one of the three most important in television.  Yet he blushed with embarrassment when the most famous face on CBS’s 60 Minutes claimed to care more than he did about doing the bidding of our enemies by capturing and broadcasting footage that any clear thinker would recognize as propaganda for the other side.

The second memory that sticks with me from that show was Ogletree’s obvious failure to follow up and ask Wallace whether he’d give the same answer if his own family were among the troops facing ambush—just as each of those men in uniform was someone else’s family.  Or he could have asked, “What if you were a soldier yourself in that platoon?  Would you expect the journalists to warn you?” The answer would have been no less revealing.

The angry reaction of another panel participant, Marine Corps colonel George Connell, presciently anticipated incidents of lost/captured reporters in our coming wars—beginning with this one that happened to one of 60 Minutes‘s own less than two years later.

“I feel utter contempt. Two days later they’re both walking off my hilltop, they’re 200 yards away and they get ambushed. And they’re lying there wounded. And they’re going to expect I’m going to send Marines up there to get them. They’re just journalists, they’re not Americans….And Marines will die, going to get a couple of journalists.”

 
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