When Journalists Report for Duty
In Time magazine's special issue about the events of Sept. 11, chilling photos evoke the horrific slaughter in Manhattan. All of the pages are deadly serious. And on the last page, under the headline "The Case for Rage and Retribution," an essay by Time regular Lance Morrow declares: "A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let's have rage."
Exhorting our country to relearn the lost virtues of "self-confident relentlessness" and "hatred," the article calls for "a policy of focused brutality." It's an apt conclusion to an edition of the nation's biggest newsmagazine that embodies the human strengths and ominous defects of American media during the current crisis.
Much of the initial news coverage was poignant, grief-stricken and utterly appropriate. But many news analysts and pundits lost no time conveying -- sometimes with great enthusiasm -- their eagerness to see the United States use its military might in anger. Such impulses are extremely dangerous.
For instance, night after night on cable television, Bill O'Reilly has been banging his loud drum for indiscriminate reprisals. Unless the Taliban quickly handed over Osama bin Laden, he proclaimed on Fox News Channel, "the U.S. should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble -- the airport, the power plants, their water facilities and the roads." And what about the civilian population of Afghanistan? "We should not target civilians," O'Reilly said, "but if they don't rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period." For good measure, O'Reilly urged that the U.S. extensively bomb Iraq and Libya.
A former New York Times executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal, was able to top O'Reilly in the armchair militarism derby. Rosenthal added Iran, Syria and Sudan to O'Reilly's expendable-nation list, writing in the Washington Times that the U.S. government should be ready and willing to deliver a 72-hour ultimatum to six governments -- quickly followed by massive bombing if Washington is not satisfied.
In a similar spirit, New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy demanded oceans of innocent blood: "As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts." The editor of National Review, a young fellow named Rich Lowry, was similarly glib about recommending large-scale crimes against humanity: "If we flatten part of Damascus or Tehran or whatever it takes, that is part of the solution."
More insidious than the numerous hothead pundits are the far more numerous reporters who can't stop providing stenographic services to official sources under the guise of journalism.
We've heard that it's important for journalists to be independent of the government. Sometimes that independence has been more apparent than real, but sometimes it has been an appreciable reality and a deserved source of professional pride. But today, judging from the content of the reporting by major national media outlets, such pride has crumbled with the World Trade Center towers.
More than ever, as journalists report for duty, the news profession is morphing into PR flackery for Uncle Sam. In effect, a lot of reporters are saluting the commander-in-chief and awaiting orders.
Consider some recent words from Dan Rather. During his Sept. 17 appearance on David Letterman's show, the CBS news anchor laid it on the line. "George Bush is the president," Rather said, "he makes the decisions." Speaking as "one American," the newsman added: "Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call."
Media coverage of U.S. military actions has often involved a duplicitous two-step, with news outlets heavily engaged in self-censorship and then grousing -- usually after the fact -- that the government imposed too many restrictions on the press.
Two months after the Gulf War ended a decade ago, the Washington editors for 15 major American news organizations sent a letter of complaint to then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. They charged that the Pentagon had exerted "virtually total control" over coverage of the war.
Now, as CNN has reported in passing, the Defense Department intends to impose "heavy press restrictions." For example, "the Pentagon currently has no plans to allow reporters to deploy with troops or report from warships, practices routinely carried out in the 1991 Persian Gulf War."
Here's a riddle: If the U.S. government's restrictions on media amounted to "virtually total control" of coverage during the Gulf War, and the restrictions will now be even tighter, what can we expect from news media in the weeks and months ahead?
Restrictive government edicts, clamping down on access to information and on-the-scene reports, would be bad enough if mainstream news organizations were striving to function independently. American journalism is sometimes known as the Fourth Estate -- but Dan Rather is far from the only high-profile journalist who now appears eager to turn his profession into a fourth branch of government.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.