This article originally appeared on BillMoyers.com.
I have a story I want to share with my fellow journalists. Its essence is: sometimes telling the truth requires taking a stand (though it must be done rarely and carefully) and neutrality is not necessarily objectivity.
In my first broadcast news class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in the late 1970s, our instructor was the legendary Fred Friendly, producer for Edward R. Murrow and former president of CBS News. Professor Friendly showed the class a television news report on a new weapon America had deployed for its war in Vietnam. The weapon was an anti-personnel bomb filled with three-inch nails. When exploded, an area the size of a football field would be hit with the nails every six or so inches. The idea was to severely maim, but not kill the enemy. A crippled soldier requires greater resources, typically four or five persons to take care of him or her.
For this report, the US Army demonstrated the weapon on an inch-thick piece of wood, which a couple of dozen nails easily ripped into.
Friendly asked for the students’ reaction to the story. My classmates complimented the writing, the visuals, and the subtlety of the story. Then it was my turn. As a former activist who had organized opposition to the Vietnam War, I was torn. I had received a small fellowship to attend Columbia and was concerned that if I said what I felt, I might jeopardize my standing in this prestigious school. Then I said to myself, “Fuck it.”
Out loud I said, “If it were me, I would have shown what that weapon does to bodies — what it does to human beings and not just a piece of wood.”
My classmates all attacked me. Even my best friend said that I was not being objective and was biased. I responded, “So if you were covering the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, you would not have shown the piled-up dead bodies of the victims, only artistic shots of swinging gas chamber doors?”
They yelled, “That’s different.”
I yelled, “Why? Because these victims are Asian and not white?”
They yelled back, “Come on. That’s ridiculous.” The entire class of mainly white, two Black, and one Latino student disagreed with me. The yelling went back and forth until one student called me “dangerous” because I was clearly not “objective.”
There was silence and then a pause. The class turned to Professor Friendly. At first, he said nothing. Then quietly, which was an unusual volume for him, he said, “If Ed Murrow were here today [at this point, I expected him to say that Murrow would kick me out of the school], he would have backed Ti-Hua.”
The class and I were all stunned. He continued, “Sometimes to tell the truth you have to take a stand. Sometimes there is only one side to a story.”
The next day Friendly called me into his office and in a booming voice said to me, “What you learned yesterday is the most important thing you will learn at Columbia. But you’ll get fired a lot in your career.” I remember thinking, “What does he know, this old man?” Of course, he was right.
Several decades later I understood why he was so quiet that day in class. Late one night, after working a night shift for a local New York television station, I watched Good Night, and Good Luck, the George Clooney movie about Murrow and Friendly. The movie detailed how Murrow and Friendly excoriated Senator Joe McCarthy on their CBS program, “See It Now.”