ANYONE WHO CARES DEEPLY about the craft of journalism must feel a sense of shame at the death of Adm. Jeremy Boorda, who took his own life, his friends say, out of his own sense of shame.
Boorda shot himself after learning that he was about to be processed through a press meat grinder that passes these days for investigative reporting. His death behooves us to take a hard look at that process.Some 45 years ago, when I started out in this business as a copy boy on the old New York Herald Tribune, the best reporters took a professional pride in doing their own leg work. Today, few media stars do their own digging. Most are too busy appearing on TV panels or raking in big bucks on the speech circuit to come up with hot stories. So outsiders are relied upon for those mundane tasks.
That's how the Boorda tragedy began. The nub of the story came from the National Security News Service, an anonymous four-person Washington news out-let. The service has never met its bills by selling its news report. Instead, most of its money comes from several low-profile foundations that sprang up during the Vietnam era as a part of the antiwar movement.
About 18 months ago, the service got a tip that Boorda wore on his chest two undeserved Vietnam combat valor pins. After the group filed a Freedom of In-for-ma-tion Act request seeking the citations authorizing the decorations, Boorda heard about it from his staff and took off the pins.
When the citations finally arrived in the mail, the service went to Newsweek and ABC News with what they thought they had. They had done it many times before. That is how such whistle-blower outfits operate in today's bounty-hunter environment.
Contrast this type of pilot-fish work with the likes of Seymour Hersh, a free-lancer who in 1970 broke the story of the My Lai massacre. As an unknown, Hersh had lots of trouble getting the mainstream press to pay heed to his story. But in time his heartbreaking account ran under his own byline across 30 double-column pages in Harper's Magazine. Hersh also won a Pulitzer Prize for his effort.
The late I.F. Stone, a topnotch investigative reporter in his day, never interviewed anyone. Nor did he rely on inside sources to feed him news tips. What Stone did was to read often arcane government documents and voluminous congressional texts. He knew how to connect the dots and find meanings where others had failed to look.
Boorda, whose whole life was the Navy and whose name had never been sullied by scandal, saw no way out.
He knew how to engage the enemy in a sea battle or a how to fight a bureaucratic skirmish in the Pentagon. But taking on a voracious press monster that often discounts factual explanations as sneaky evasions was more than he could bear.
And that is why he is dead.