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Want to Be a Patriot? Do Your Job

Journalists are wrapping themselves in the stars-and-stripes at a time when tough-minded reporting is needed more than ever.
 
 
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In the aftermath of September 11, Dan Rather publicly shed patriotic tears on David Letterman’s show, demonstrating that he was in as much pain as any American and as loyal to the national cause. At the same time, TV news programs across the country were wrapping themselves in stars-and-stripes graphics as news outlets of all kinds rushed to associate themselves, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, with the nation’s surge of patriotic emotion.

Flag-waving is not surprising in the aftermath of a full-scale attack on American civilians. As individuals, we are all part of a severely traumatized body politic. But it is precisely during the most trying periods that journalists must distance themselves from their emotions if they are to do their best work. And it is also imperative to distinguish between patriotism, love of one’s country, and nationalism -- the exalting of one’s nation and its culture and interests above all others. If patriotism is a kind of affection, nationalism is its dark side. Nationalistic pressure also makes it hard for journalists to do their job. Even today, eight months after the events, many journalists are troubled by a sense that we have failed an important test, that we have allowed certain kinds of honest reporting to be portrayed as somehow disloyal.

Raising questions about the wisdom of government actions in wartime, particularly early in a war, is not easy. For example, early in Operation Desert Storm, ABC anchor Peter Jennings says he commissioned a piece on the antiwar activist Ramsey Clark. Despite his own sense of urgency, Jennings recalls that it took weeks to get the piece on the air. "It was not quite the right moment," he says. Internally, "people were arguing less about the relationship between the media and the administration than about the media’s relationship with its public." To confront a popular government at such a time, he says, is to be "running emotionally upstream."

When war began in Afghanistan, Jennings says, "We decided early on that we would not exploit the violence of all of this without losing sight of how violent it was, and that we would be reluctant to sloganeer." But when Jennings and his people departed from the patriotic consensus they paid a price. Jennings had a howling pack after him, inflamed by Rush Limbaugh’s charge that the anchor was disloyal for raising questions about Bush’s conduct on September 11, when the presidential plane zig-zagged across the nation while the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were burning. (ABC eventually was able to get Limbaugh to issue a correction noting that Jennings had merely observed that some presidents are perceived as handling crises better than others.) After a study showed that Jennings paid more attention to civilian casualties in Afghanistan than either his NBC or CBS rivals, he was subject to on-air criticism from Fox News’s Brit Hume, while conservative media critics pointed to his Canadian citizenship.

Another news program that successfully upheld journalistic principles in the post-9/11 world was Ted Koppel’s Nightline, which consistently asked pointed questions about the executive branch’s newly assumed domestic law-enforcement powers, and insisted on airing cautionary voices. This on a show that, during the Letterman affair, an unnamed ABC executive called irrelevant.

We are, of course, at war. And the public does not have a right to know everything. Still, in the post-September 11 world, an official obsession with secrecy has grown out of the war against terrorism, making the job of the journalist even harder. As we know, Americans have been given less information about what is being done in this war than in any prior conflict in U.S. history (see "Access Denied," cjr, January/February). Lack of access to information is not, in itself, a journalistic dereliction of duty. Failing to make a public issue out of it is, however.

"Information is being managed in this war, and frankly, we can’t expect a lot of breaks," says Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman at National Public Radio. But why don’t we read and see more news about this serious problem? Walter Cronkite, who set the standard for television anchors, laments that TV no longer has the kind of editorial voice typified by the late Eric Sevareid. Cronkite says if it were up to him, he would be running "opinion of the management" editorials. "Complaining to the Pentagon is not good enough," he says. "We should be letting the public know the restrictions under which we operate."

The need for tough-minded reporting has never been clearer. When journalists hold themselves back -- in deference to their own emotions or to the sensitivities of the audience or through timidity in the face of government pressure -- America is weakened. Journalism has no more important service to perform than to ask tough, even unpopular questions when our government wages war.

Russ Baker is a contributing editor to CJR.