Want to Be a Patriot?
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
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
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
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 (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.
is a contributing editor to CJR.