Appearing as a guest on Sunday's Reliable Sources on CNN to plug his book, Exit Interview, former ABC News president David Westin recounted his decision to continue barring journalists from wearing American flag lapel pins on air even after the 9/11 attacks, and ended up defending his decision. Westin: (Video at bottom)
And we'd long had a policy at ABC News that we wouldn't let people wear any lapel pins of any sort, the theory being that when you're reporting the news, you should be reporting the news, not taking a position.
And I said quickly, "We're going to stick with our policy and stand by that." And I believe to this day that was the right decision.
In October 2001, Westin's desire to be neutral about the 9/11 attacks went so far that he advised a group of students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism that it was important that he as a journalist should not have a "position" about whether it was "right or wrong" to attack the Pentagon.
Asked by a student, "Do you believe the Pentagon was a legimate military target, even if the missile was not?" Westin responded:
The Pentagon as a legitimate target? I actually don't have an opinion on that, and it's important I not have an opinion on that as I sit here in my capacity right now. The way I conceive my job running a news organization, and the way I would like all the journalists at ABC News to perceive it, is there is a big difference between a normative position and a positive position. Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be, and, when we get into the job of what ought to be, I think we're not doing a service to the American people.
I can say the Pentagon got hit, I can say this is what their position is, this is what our position is, but for me to take a position this was right or wrong, I mean, that's perhaps for me in my private life, perhaps it's for me dealing with my loved ones, perhaps it's for my minister at church. But, as a journalist, I feel strongly that's something that I should not be taking a position on. I'm supposed to figure out what is and what is not, not what ought to be.
The then-president of ABC later apologized after the MRC drew attention to his words.
Westin, in an email to the MRC in October 2001:
I was wrong. I gave an answer to journalism students to illustrate the broad, academic principle that all journalists should draw a firm line between what they know and what their personal opinion might be.
Upon reflection, I realized that my answer did not address the specifics of September 11. Under any interpretation, the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification. I apologize for any harm that my misstatement may have caused.