Friday, December 10, 2004

The Fourth Estate

Kudos to Edward Lee Pitts.

The fourth estate has, in recent years, seen one of its primary raisons d’etre eroded to the point of non-existence: the discovery and revelation of injustice and malfeasance. Where once journalists would tread heavily, brazenly asking the tough questions to uncover the truth behind the flak, now they meekly report what they are told, hoping to hold on to their precious credentials and be invited to the next junket.

This is not, however, entirely the fault of the esteemed press. Rumors (and more) abound on the reticence of the current administration to deal openly with reporters; limiting opportunities for journalists to ask questions of our elected and appointed officials, restricting the sorts of questions that may be asked, and refusing to answer those that make them uncomfortable. So these reporters, in efforts to retain what little they have, now obey these mandates and find themselves penning government-approved fluff.

Not so this week, as Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Edward Lee Pitts did the unthinkable, shocking right-wing pundits with his audacity. Knowing that only soldiers would be allowed to ask questions of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a Kuwait-based press conference, Pitts encouraged a soldier in the 278th Regimental Combat Team (with which Pitts is embedded) to ask a pointed question about armor on certain war vehicles.

"I was told yesterday that only soldiers could ask questions so I brought two of them along with me as my escorts," wrote Pitts in an email to co-workers. "Beforehand we worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor their vehicles going into combat have." Pitts also said he arranged for the questioners to get recognized. "While waiting for the VIP, I went and found the Sgt. in charge of the microphone for the question and answer session and made sure he knew to get my guys out of the crowd,"

Spc. Thomas "Jerry" Wilson, 31, of Nashville, asked Rumsfeld why, after almost two years of war, soldiers were searching dumps for metal to weld on vehicles destined for hostile territory. "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" Wilson said. The question appeared to surprise Rumsfeld and prompted cheers among the soldiers listening to him in a hangar.

So the question was a valid one, and it was a question well-received by other soldiers. It is indisputably one of concern, and one to which the America people deserve an answer. This is the sort of question that needs to be asked, even if not answered, and Pitts made sure it was heard. His method of wrangling such an opportunity may be ungentlemanly, but the job of a reporter is not to be liked; rather, a reporter must find out that which is otherwise hidden, and reveal important, relevant information. That’s what the news should be for.

Pitts sums up his reasons for slipping the question in thusly: "I believe lives are at stake with so many soldiers going across the border riding with scrap metal as protection," Pitts wrote. "It may be too late for the unit I am with, but hopefully not for those who come after."

If journalists can, through their work, bring light to the world and shed it on such happenings, more power to them; they represent the public’s only tested method of obtaining information that, though sometimes hard to hear, is necessary for our protection and welfare.

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