Mike Baker: News Decision Dilemma

“A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed.”

—John Steinbeck, "Flight"

It’s not that we don’t have real heroes to read about, it’s just that sometimes you have to dig to page 15 of The New York Times in to find them.

Here’s a little quiz for the PWB faithful to see if you, too, could be a senior editor of one of the country’s most recognized newspapers. It’s a typical day in the newsroom… windows open, lots of crusty newspaper folks banging away on their Underwoods, cigarette smoke swirling about, little Jimmy the eager intern running copy back and forth. OK, maybe that’s a typical day from 1943. Doesn’t matter, you get the picture…

You, as the new kid on the block, are given the job of deciding on the day’s front-page stories. Here are your options…

A) An almost half-page creepy photo of one of the Texas polygamist families…

B) A story on how Sen. Barack Obama hopes to claim victory soon…

C) An article on Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and how he is using his control over the intelligence services to create a society of informers…

D) A little ditty about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s continued squashing of free speech and democratic practices in old Mother Russia…

E) A piece on efforts by U.S. women’s colleges to recruit students from the Middle East…

F) A small story on the cost of pensions for New York City…

G) The obituary for the rock ‘n’ roll innovator Bo Diddley…

H) An article on the awarding of the Medal of Honor posthumously to forever 19-year-old Ross McGinnis, a private who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades.

Lemme’ see… if it was you or me smoking a stogie and shuffling the potential front-page stories around on the desk I suspect we might take a look at item H. This would not seem to be rocket science, but then again, we don’t have the big brains to understand what makes a good story.

I happen to think McGinnis’ story is good. Front-page good, not page 15 good. Page 15 is where I’d stick the crap stories about the never-ending political campaign. Stuff that I didn’t think mattered as much as what I put on the front page.

If you don’t remember the story from a-year-and-a-half ago, McGinnis died in early December 2006 in a Baghdad neighborhood while riding in the gunner’s hatch of a Humvee. An insurgent tossed a grenade that dropped through the hatch and into the vehicle where his four comrades were riding.

What happened then was a selfless act of courage made all the more remarkable by his youth. McGinnis yelled “grenade”… one of his comrades shouted “where?”… McGinnis replied “in the truck,” dropped into the vehicle, put his back against the grenade and covered the blast. He died instantly, saving the others from death or serious injury.

From his position in the gunner’s hatch, McGinnis could have escaped the blast by jumping out. Instead, in that split-second of time where boys become men and where incredible acts of courage reside, McGinnis saved others instead of himself. For that remarkable decision, the family of Ross McGinnis was at the White House Monday to receive his Medal of Honor. A medal awarded fewer than 3,500 times since the Civil War.

Remarkable. Well, perhaps not as remarkable as items A through G listed above if you’re over at The New York Times. Those stories ended up on the front page. McGinnis’ story and his picture could be found on page 15.

Was the picture of Mr.& Mrs. Polygamist and their sad-eyed daughter so compelling to the editorial cabal over at the NY Times that they just had to use up almost a quarter of the front page?

And, by the way, are we so screwed up that we have to argue in courts whether a secluded polygamist ranch where young teenage girls appear to get pregnant on a regular basis is a safe and appropriate place to raise children? We’re so damn afraid of getting up in anyone’s grill anymore that we can’t bring ourselves to act in the best interests of children. What a load of crap.

But back to our grizzled Times editors and their front-page choices. Did someone read the Putin article about his ability to squash political opposition and think “My God… when did this happen… quick, Sparky, get this on the front page with the headline “Putin – Apparently not all that Democratic.”

The Chavez article? Who knows. Perhaps Chavez surprised the Times with the idea that maybe, just maybe, he’s an authoritarian tool who’s hell-bent on screwing the citizens of Venezuela. By the way, the Chavez story would have been more interesting if it included quotes justifying his actions from Sean Penn and Harry Belafonte.

The story about Obama hoping to claim victory after Tuesday’s two remaining primaries in South Dakota and Montana? Front-page news? Perhaps it was just a technical matter, they hadn’t hit their quota this week for allocated number of glowing Obama stories.

And the other two pieces that apparently were judged more worthy than McGinnis'… women’s colleges trolling the Middle East for new (presumably full-tuition-paying) students and the article mentioning that someone underestimated the pension costs for New York City. Clearly these are burning issues that could not be relegated to the back pages.

Finally, Bo Diddley’s obituary? Well, he was one of the founders of rock ‘n’ roll. How could McGinnis’ Medal of Honor ceremony possibly trump that? Me, I would’ve referenced Bo’s passing at the bottom of the front page in that little summary area and then done a front-page layout in the Style section.

Here’s the thing. During the Iraq war only four soldiers, including McGinnis, have been awarded the Medal of Honor. McGinnis joins Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor and Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham. Each one of these young men should have had their award ceremony prominently displayed on the front page of every major paper across this country.

And just in case you can’t separate the forest for the trees, it’s not about the war. These amazing acts of courage occur in wartime, but that’s only the setting. It’s about a person’s ability to behave in a way that the vast majority of us will never really understand.

In today’s world we hear all the time about how selfish the younger generation is or how they’re lacking in direction or motivation. And then along comes a Ross McGinnis and we’re reminded that every generation has its slackers and every generation produces heroes.

McGinnis wasn’t some anointed all-star with a fabulous grade point average and a reputation for being a standout kid. But he and the others before him had something that allowed them to consciously sacrifice themselves for others. As a parent, I have no idea how you raise a child so that they see beyond themselves and have the capacity to make that choice.

Sometimes you wonder if you’re getting through to your kids. You try to teach them right from wrong, fair play, honesty and courage. I suspect McGinnis’ parents wondered sometimes if they were teaching him well. They obviously did, and I hope that his final acknowledgement of their lessons helps in some way to ease their loss over the years.

I cut out the story about McGinnis to show to my daughter. And when my son gets older I’ll show it to him, along with stories of Mike Monsoor and the other Medal of Honor recipients. They’re good stories with important lessons. If I were editor, they’d be front-page material.

Till next week, stay safe.

Respond to the Writer.

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures and two new BBC drama series finishing production in the U.K.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.