Oct. 29, 2001: Conrad Fink is a professor at the Grady College of Journalism

Conrad Fink is a professor at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia and a distinguished journalist. Fink has had an illustrious career as a reporter, foreign correspondent and vice president of Associated Press. As one who puts my time and tithes into the Grady College, I’m glad he is there, but I have a serious difference of opinion with him on the government’s conduct in the war on terrorism.

In a recent column in the Athens Banner-Herald, Fink charged that the government is not sharing enough information with the news media on its plans to flush out the terrorists in Afghanistan and that it is wrong for the American people to agree with that decision.

In fact, Fink is wrong.

Fink cites his experiences in the Vietnam War, which he covered extensively for AP, as an example of how government tried to mislead the American public through evasion, distortion and outright lies. In the intervening years since Vietnam, we have learned not to trust our government with the childlike faith we once did, but we don’t trust the media either, Professor.

To compare Vietnam to the current war against terrorism is to compare butter to butterflies. As unfortunate and divisive and traumatic as Vietnam was, our very existence was not at stake then. Now it is. Fink need look only at the students at the Grady College. The morning after the terrorist attacks, professors were ready to discuss the media coverage of the events of September 11. The students were more interested in knowing whether or not they were going to have a future. So much for the ol’ Ivory Tower.

At the same time that Fink was lamenting how the government is feeding reporters sparse news “in the name of patriotism,” a nitwit named Loren Jenkins, who is senior foreign editor of National Public Radio, was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying he would report the whereabouts of U.S. Special Forces on secret mission if he could because he doesn’t feel any duty to “help out the government.” His job, he says, is to “smoke ‘em out.” I assume that if our soldiers were killed and our national security compromised as a result of his irresponsible reporting, that would be okay with this modern-day Ernie Pyle. Excuse me, Professor Fink, but that kind of arrogant, almost treasonous attitude doesn’t make me real anxious that your colleagues know much more than that Afghanistan is somewhere east of Mobile, Alabama. I’ll take my chances with George Bush and Colin Powell, thank you.

As for the media, it has a growing credibility problem with the American people that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Public support is eroding as we speak. The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in its 2001 survey reports that while 82 percent of those polled say that the media should keep the government in check, 71 percent also say that the government should keep the media in check. In another study by the Center in 1999, over half of all Americans said the media has too much freedom, a figure that is up dramatically from just two years earlier. Those numbers are disturbing and should serve as a wake-up to call to journalists and to those who teach them.

We are in a fight for our survival. The United States has an enemy that wants to eradicate us, pure and simple. We have told our government in no uncertain terms that we want the terrorists found and their hides permanently fried. Use whatever means it takes. We aren’t choosy. Just get it done. If the media can help, fine. If not, then they need to stay the hell out of the way. This is a whole new world, and the media needs to understand that like the rest of us.

In the meantime, I would feel a lot better if Conrad Fink would assure us that our journalism colleges aren’t spawning a bunch of Loren Jenkins clones but, rather, reporters and editors who we can trust to show good judgment and common sense. After all, they do work for us.

Fink thinks the American public needs more information. What the American public needs is more confidence that the media will provide that information responsibly. At this time, we clearly have more faith in our government than we do in our media. For that, you can blame the media, Professor, not us.