Beneath The Waves

THE CALLS AND LETTERS ARE POURING INTO NEWSWEEK. "Please tell me you have more important issues to investigate than whether or not an individual should have worn a bronze "V' measuring 3 mm by 4 mm," wrote Theron Lee Cohen of Tustin, Calif. "Cancel my subscription." "I hold you directly responsible for the death of Admiral Boorda," wrote I. V. deChellis of New York. "Shame on you."

The tragic suicide of Adm. Jeremy (Mike) Boorda last week as two NEWSWEEK reporters waited to question him about his medals shook not just the military but American journalism. Beyond the tragedy itself lies a startling gap between the views of the media and at least some of the public. Reporters were more shaken by Boorda's death than the press-haters imagine. "I feel sick about this," says Evan Thomas, NEWSWEEK'S Washington bureau chief. But neither Thomas nor any other journalist contacted last week believes that NEWSWEEK bore responsibility for Boorda's suicide. Many other Americans obviously disagree. The issues of journalistic accountability are these: What was the magazine's news-gathering process? Did NEWSWEEK act ethically? Even if ethical, did the magazine exercise good judgment in pursuing the story of valor awards that the admiral had apparently ceased wearing? And finally, what does the story tell us about the way the media contribute to grinding down public officials?

A chronology: NEWSWEEK'S Editor Maynard Parker first heard about the story on May 11, five days before the suicide, when David H. Hackworth, a part-time contributing editor and highly decorated retired army colonel, reported that he had been working on it for weeks and had secured an appointment with Boorda. Hackworth believed that wearing an undeserved combat valor pin was a grave matter of honor in the military, "the worst thing you can do," and at one point he mused to his assistant that if it were known "he [Boorda] might just put a gun to his head." NEWSWEEK editors didn't learn of that comment until after the suicide. Questioned about it by Managing Editor Mark Whitaker, Hackworth said: "I was in total disbelief when I heard the news [of the suicide]. It was the remotest thought. I never thought he [Boorda] would do it, or I would have told Evan Thomas." NEWSWEEK editors say that had they known of even musings about suicide, they obviously would have approached the story differently, although even Boorda's associates now say they never noticed any signs of instability.

Because Hackworth had to undergo oral surgery in Montana that prevented travel, Thomas decided that he and NEWSWEEK national-security correspondent John Barry would question Boorda about it. But first they arranged a meeting with Hackworth's friend and source, a retired marine corps officer named Roger Charles. Thomas acknowledges that he was wary of Charles, who is a reporter for a small Washington outfit called the National Security News Service, because Charles had been "too conspiracy-minded" on an earlier story he had worked on with NEWSWEEK. (Charles has also assisted ABC News and other news organizations.) "Outsiders generally make me nervous. They're not our own people. Hackworth makes me nervous; I think of him as more of a soldier than a journalist. I wanted to have the [full-time] correspondents I most trust involved," Thomas says. Hackworth says that Thomas is usually turf-conscious about Washington, but when first told of the reporting, Thomas thought it could be a "big story."

The meeting with Charles went well, and Thomas agreed to give the National Security News Service some credit for the story (no consulting fees were involved). Charles produced documents from 1995 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and intriguing photos. One picture from the 1970s showed no "V"s on Boorda's chest. Three from the 1980s showed Boorda wearing the "V"s and one from January of 1996 showed no "V"s. "That was sort of puzzling," Thomas recalls. "I wanted independent reporting, so I asked both Barry and [Greg] Vistica to make some calls." Vistica, who is loathed by navy brass because of his controversial new book on the decline of the navy but who had little to do with this story, then contacted a navy source who said, without prompting, "This is about Admiral Boorda, isn't it?" The disclosure that navy officers already knew of the medal issue gave the story more impetus.

Before noon on May 15, Adm. Kendell Pease, the navy's spokesman, called Thomas to ask what would be discussed in the interview. Thomas went further than many reporters in such cases, and previewed all of the allegations. "Pease sounded quite friendly and cool about the whole thing," Thomas says. But just as Thomas and Barry arrived at the Pentagon for their 2:30 appointment, they were told of reports of gunshots at Boorda's residence.

Now to the broader issues: In terms of strict journalistic ethics, NEWSWEEK'S position is defensible. The suicide took place not only before any article appeared, but two full days before the reporting was complete. And the reporting that did take place was not duplicitous; Boorda was given plenty of time to respond or provide additional documents. If he had sat for the interview with NEWSWEEK, would Boorda have provided information that changed the context or put his decisions in a different perspective? We'll never know. It is possible he could have moved the story in a different direction, or talked the magazine out of publishing anything on the matter at all.

Overall, the assumption that NEWSWEEK'S behavior was unethical is premised on the idea that some questions are simply out of bounds. Journalists unanimously reject that premise, insisting that they be judged on what they publish, not what they inquire about. Admiral Pease seemed to agree last week when he said, "NEWSWEEK did nothing wrong."

But beyond ethics lies the larger issue of whether the story was worthy or not. Was it too trivial to pursue? Robert McFarlane, a former national-security adviser who tried to commit suicide over the Iran-contra scandal, argues that while there was "no wickedness of purpose" by the media, there was an error in judgment. Because the admiral ceased wearing the combat "V"s a year ago, McFarlane says, the press shouldn't have bothered with it.

In the same vein, NEWSWEEK'S John Barry says that "if the story had come to me, I would have been inclined to confide to [Boorda's] aide, "For God's sake, get those "V"s off of him,' rather than do a story that smacked of "gotcha' journalism." But retired Col. James E. Longhofer echoed the response of many current and former military officers when he wrote NEWSWEEK that the valor-awards issue was anything but trivial. The official punishment for an officer improperly displaying a valor award, he notes, "is to have his buttons and epaulets ripped off and be thrown back into civilian life." Moreover, if the valor-awards issue was as minor as it is being made out to be by navy officials, why did it so upset Boorda?

The Boorda suicide may be a weak example of media malfeasance, but it's a strong sign of the distrust that the press is up against. It's also a good reminder that even if reporters don't really kill, what we write and say can have grave consequences. This shouldn't make the press less aggressive in pursuing stories, just more thoughtful. Public officials need to be judged in a more complex context than a mere recitation of their troubles. While NEWSWEEK has covered the navy extensively, this week's magazine should not have been the first time (beyond two tiny references) that Boorda appeared in our pages. No matter what we resolve, we journalists can't guarantee that tragedies won't happen. But we can insist that the picture of public life be textured enough to prevent the exposure of human foibles from destroying everything that a person like Admiral Boorda has built.