The story the journalists held

The Washington Post has an interesting op-ed article by Michael Berlin, a professor emeritus at Boston University and former United Nation correspondent for the New York Post and Washington Post, about a story that he and several others had that was important and of universal interest.

But neither he nor his journalistic colleague reported the story until government officials gave them the go-ahead.

The story occurred at the beginning of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took everyone there hostage. The incident escalated to international importance and eventually helped topple the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

During those first days of the crisis, however, Berlin and other reporters (Berlin says there were “hundreds” of reporters in on this) realized that not everyone who had been assigned to the embassy was there when the students took over the place.

 

But six American officials happened to be outside the compound, elsewhere in the Iranian capital, at the time of the takeover. The militants never realized that some Americans were missing; they were being sheltered by Canadian diplomats in Tehran, who were risking their own safety to protect them.

When Berlin confirmed the story through a number of sources, he was called by a high-ranking American official at the UN and asked to hold the story. He checked with his editors who wanted some assurance that they would be notified quickly when the story could be released. He received those assurances, and he and his news organization sat on the story — as did many others.

Late in January 1980, the embassy officials were smuggled out of Iran, and the Canadian ambassador to Iran was hailed in this country as a national hero. Berlin and others wrote about the incident, but no one could claim the scoop.

 

Do I regret not getting my scoop on the hostage story? Not a bit. Over the years, I’ve run into dozens of reporters who had a piece of the story before it broke, including those who covered the State Department for The Washington Post, and they all felt the same way.

The Canada-hostage story proves that reporters and news organizations can be trusted, en masse, to make the right call on security information they uncover. And neither Iranian officials nor Iranian news media got wind of it.

Berlin oversells his piece at the beginning implying that anyone who broke the story could have become internationally famous and could have “made” a reputation and career by doing so. That is doubtful. More likely, that person would have been seen as treacherous.

But Berlin deals with a more important point at the end of his piece.

Do I think that a thousand reporters could be trusted today to make the same call that we did in 1979? I wonder. Even back then, there was the fear that some rogue reporter would ignore the pleas and go with the story. In today’s journalism world, I fear that some blogger or counterculture ideologue using journalism as a political tool rather than as a mechanism for dispensing straight information, would make the wrong call. I hope I’m wrong about that.

I hope so, too.
Jim Stovall (Posted July 21, 2006)

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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