There’s a notion that journalists aren’t supposed to share their opinions about controversial topics. But some reporters can get away with saying what they think, so long as it doesn’t step on the wrong toes or push a policy that might be considered too critical of the status quo.
The current U.S. policy debate over Egypt is about the possibility of cutting off U.S. military aid to the country. There are plenty of reasons to do so–U.S. law would seem to require it, for instance–but most coverage sticks to the usual formulation about the United States walking a “fine line” in balancing its interests with its regard for human rights. The Washington Post‘s Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson (8/17/13) wrote:
For now, the Obama administration is playing a balancing game, trying to send tactically sharp messages while preserving influence in an increasingly polarized society, protecting other national security interests in the region and positioning the United States for a long-term strategic relationship.
But on Meet the Press (8/18/13), NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel appeared to make his feelings known: The U.S. should not cut off aid to the Egyptian military:
People in this country and around the region think it would be an absolutely disastrous idea for the United States to cut off aid, that Washington has real interest with the Egyptian military, preferential access to the Suez Canal, military over flights, and not to mention the Camp David Accords.
The Camp David Accords brokered by the United States, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, says in principle that U.S. aid should be commensurate between Israel and–from Washington to Israel and from Washington to Egypt. And does the United States really want to be the first country that breaks the spirit of the Camp David Accords? Whether it is breaking the law or not, it would certainly be seen here as breaking the spirit.
Also, does Washington really want to back the Muslim Brotherhood? At the end of the day, we can talk about process and our love for the democratic process, but now that is broken and the choice is binary. Do we want to be with the military or do we want to be with the Brotherhood? Israel doesn’t think we should drop the military and side with the Brotherhood. Neither does Saudi Arabia, neither does Jordan, neither does the UAE. I don’t know why Washington would want to go against so many of its key allies.
Since Engel’s point was that things must stay as they are, it’s not likely that his words will cause much controversy–certainly things would be different if he’d have given an equally impassioned rationale for cutting off aid.
It’s not exactly uncharted territory for him. Back in 2011 (NBC Nightly News, 4/23/11), he was worried that the Arab Spring would be bad for Israel:
This whole movement in the Middle East–and I’m worried about it, because while people in the region deserve more rights and they want more rights and they’re embracing more of the will of the Arab street, well, the will of the Arab street is also ferociously anti-Israel, against Israel. And there’s many people who believe that if you empower the Arab street and the Arab street wants to see a war or wants to see more justice for the Palestinians, then down the road, three to five years, this could lead to a major war with Israel.
And during the NATO bombing of Libya, Engel appeared to call for more U.S. military assistance to the anti-Qaddafi rebel groups (MSNBC, 3/23/11): “The rebels are begging for close air support. They want Apaches, A-10s. And it really wouldn’t take that much. A few Apaches flying over and taking out these tanks would allow the rebels to go forward and sort of finish the job.”
It’s not that journalists shouldn’t have opinions–they inevitably do, and they reveal them in numerous ways. But weighing in like this seems especially permissible when a journalist is taking a position that supports existing U.S. policy. It’s only opposing such policies that’s considered “advocacy.”