Ruth Bass: Facts needed to figure out the sergeant


RICHMOND -- As journalists we were taught the importance of seeing things clearly. It meant getting two or five or seven sides of the story if that’s the kind of story it was. And no slanting -- no pushing the story in a direction you wanted it to take, wanted to make it take. And the reporter was rarely part of the narrative -- it wasn’t about you, it was about them -- or it.

Being objective wasn’t always easy. In some stories, people you personally could not like, would not ever invite for lunch, were providing correct information. In others, people who appealed to you immediately had the hazard of turning out to be liars.

The sorting process could be hard.

The late Tom Morton, as managing editor of The Eagle, often counseled that stories about people weren’t valid if they just went on and on about how wonderful they were. "Show the warts," he’d say, correctly assuming that even the saints have bumps on their noses or their souls.

A later managing editor, Bill Caufield, would condemn the "single source" story, largely on the same principle -- if you only interview one source, you probably won’t know enough. Maybe too many warts, maybe not any.

The lines between opinion and reporting blur more and more as we move further away from objective journalism, especially as more people embrace TV and the Internet at large as their main sources of information.

One of the problems today, with lots of air time and few facts -- as in the case of the missing Malaysian airplane -- consultants and experts are marched onto the screen to speculate about what happened, where the plane might be and whether the pilot was perturbed or even in the midst of a breakdown. And the gossip chain begins, where over-the-fence talk turns opinion into fact.

It’s the case of Sgt. Bergdahl that made these thoughts surface.

At one time, President Obama was being pressured by lots of people, conservative and liberal, to bring him home. So he did. And then some of the very same pressurizers pounced on him for trading too many people, supposedly very bad people, for the return of the sergeant.

Unable to ask the sergeant what he had in mind five years ago when he left camp, the media found outspoken members of the sergeant’s unit who were outraged that he had left them, outraged that they had looked for him and just generally angry. Their misstatements about how many died during the search were quoted as fact here and there. A little searching might have found someone who could say he liked the young man and knew he was having a hard time with the Afghan war. The mental state of the pilot of Flight 370 was scrutinized, but we have no idea whether the sergeant was a misfit in his group, was harassed, was terrified, no longer wanted to shoot anyone.

Somehow, the media has let the public think Bergdahl wanted to meet the Taliban. Given that 247 U. S. Army personnel killed themselves in nine months in 2012, compared to 222 killed in Afghanistan in that time period, it might be logical to assume the sergeant just had to get out, perhaps no longer cared about his life.

War is hell, said William Tecumseh Sherman, the northern general who burned his way across the South. Certainly he’d seen it as hellish and helped make it more so. It was in him to keep going, despite the suffering he saw and the suffering he created -- but it’s not in everyone. Fact is, the sergeant had to come home.

It’s time to step back, get Bowie Bergdahl off the evening news and wait for the fact-finders to tell us who he is. Judging prisoners of war is a touchy business, and we need to wait. The story should be told before we tell the story.

Ruth Bass writes from Richmond. Her web site is


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