Preparing for a possible war story

Editor's note

Many readers, I suspect, are trying to mentally prepare themselves for war in Iraq, regardless of how they feel about the wisdom of a US attack.

Those of us in the news business have been preparing ourselves, too. And while we approach such events with a certain degree of professional detachment, this is also a time of soul- searching among journalists.

I think that is because this is not just another story. Not even just another war story. This conflict finds journalists a little unsteady on their feet because, in the 16 months since Sept. 11, the rules of waging war have changed. Attacking a nation preemptively to forestall a threat has gone from the margins of US policy to its center. That shift means war and peace decisions will rely more heavily on judgment and best guesses, just the sort of squishy criteria that make journalists suspicious and insecure.

The Jan. 27 issue of Editor and Publisher highlights this moment of journalistic angst. Many Americans, the article asserts, feel largely unprepared for a war with Iraq and many in the news business are wondering if they themselves are partly to blame for not being aggressive or thorough enough in reporting the story.

That sort of self-questioning is going on at the Monitor, too. It should. We will be better for it.

Of course, readers are the ultimate judge of our work. But a discussion of our goals may provide useful context.

We at the Monitor start with a feeling of responsibility to a mandate set out by the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy. "The object of the Monitor is to injure no man, but to bless all mankind," she wrote in 1908.

Those words take on extra import when the event in question quite literally involves massive potential injury to many people. But the founder's words are not a clear-cut antiwar formula. Use of force in Iraq, advocates would argue, is in order to prevent greater potential injury to more people later.

In any case, while many at the Monitor undoubtedly have their own views about a possible conflict, we are decidedly not trying to answer for readers the question whether the US should or shouldn't take military action. Rather, we are trying in our news coverage to give readers the tools for making up their own minds.

While the founder's statement isn't meant as a formula, its spirit acts as a test of the motivation for all we do. Are we motivated in our story selection, composition, and treatment by a desire to bless, rather than injure?

We see great value, and blessing, in fostering understanding. That means getting as close to the truth as we can on issues of consequence. It also means giving that "truth" a sense of context and proportion. With a founding statement that includes the words "all mankind," we see context as meaning a scope that is global.

The pursuit of understanding requires asking the right questions. And since Sept. 11, the Monitor has sought to isolate and explore these three:

Why did it happen?

How is the US responding?

And how is the world changing?

We approach conflict with Iraq within much the same framework, because whatever connection there might be between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, which is in dispute, there is little doubt the attacks on New York and Washington created an impetus for action against Baghdad. Indeed, the move to disarm Mr. Hussein seems to be one clear answer to "How is the US responding?"

Similarly, understanding why Sept. 11 occurred has its parallel with Iraq. In the days following the attacks, the Monitor asked, "Why do they hate us?" The answers were raw and disturbing, but disclosed a pervasive enmity toward America throughout the Muslim world. And hindsight tells us that enmity helped provide a seedbed for the extremism of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

On Sept. 11 2002, as President Bush prepared to seek an ultimatum against Iraq from the United Nations, the Monitor pushed further in trying to understand the US role in the world, as perceived from beyond its borders. We asked: "Is America the good guy?" Our conviction then and now is that the nation's - and indeed the world's - future health depends in part on whether the US is seen as a just power or a selfish tyrant.

Exploring how America has changed since Sept. 11 is equally relevant today. Anxiety about the nation's security is weaving itself into policy and politics, creating a test of how the nation will strike a new balance between the freedoms we have known and the greater security we seek.

So, in many respects our journalistic goals have remained consistent since the calamitous events of Sept. 11, 2001. The larger story that began on that date seems poised to move on to Chapter 2.

Asking the right questions, of course, is not the only thing we do to prepare for possible war.

The Monitor, for instance, shuttered its Tokyo bureau and opened a bureau in Istanbul, assuming that Turkey would be a better place to cover a conflict with Iraq and the growing importance of the Islamic world. We have also taken practical steps to protect our staff. All our full-time foreign correspondents and a photographer have been through a one-week training program for operating in conflict zones. Other Monitor reporters in the US have been through Pentagon training to prepare them for possibly accompanying troops into action. And all reporters and photographers moving into the potential field of operation now are taking flak jackets and suits designed to protect them from chemical and biological weapons.

These are our friends and colleagues. We hope they never need those suits of protection. But if they do, they will be in the middle of a brand-new war, fighting on behalf of an age-old cause: helping readers make meaning out of a world of change.

Paul Van Slambrouck is the Editor of the Monitor.

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