Like all Americans, 23-year-old Tom Gutting was shocked and horrified by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Like all journalists, he worked overtime reporting the developments in the war on terrorism. And like many of his readers in the small town of Texas City, Gutting shared feelings of fear, despair, and a fierce love of country in the days after the twin towers fell.
What he didn’t share was confidence in the leadership of their favorite son: President George W. Bush. Bush’s speech on Sept. 20 did little to increase the young city editor’s confidence in the President.
Gutting felt that journalists everywhere seemed to be jumping on the Bush bandwagon. They weren’t asking the tough questions about war. No one was trying to figure out America’s objectives or demanding strategic details. Instead, television anchors were wearing red, white and blue ribbons on their lapels while flags flew in the background. Star-spangled newspaper logos shouted slogans like: “America fights back.”
“This isn’t democracy,” said Gutting, whose responsibilities at the Texas City Sun included writing a weekly column. “This is some sort of patriotism gone bad.”
But he learned just how bad things had gotten when he published a column criticizing Bush – and was quickly fired from the Sun. Gutting’s dismissal drew international attention, listed by worldwide press freedom group Reporters Without Borders as an indication that the First Amendment is in trouble.
The question of where to draw the line between nationalism and objectivity is a tough one for many American reporters, even as it draws criticism from foreign observers. During this time of war, some see the roles of patriot and journalist in constant conflict. Others believe the media’s questioning of government to be the very definition of democracy.
As for Gutting, the whole question has left him disillusioned with a career he’s wanted to pursue since he was 15 years old.
“I had faith – I guess it was naive faith – in the news,” he said. “I figured people would say, ‘I don’t agree with what you have to say, but I’d die for your right to say it.’
“If this new climate for debate becomes a permanent part of America, we’re in for some serious trouble.”
For a time, Gutting shared the spotlight with Bill Maher, whose show, “Politically Incorrect,” was pulled by several ABC affiliates and boycotted by advertisers after he called the United States’ decision to shoot cruise missiles at Afghanistan from 2,000 miles away “cowardly.”
“I don’t think (Maher) said anything wrong, I just think he said it at the wrong time,” said Michael Miner, media columnist at the Chicago Reader. “… People were paying a price for being critics when we didn’t want critics. These have been great times for newspapers – great times for circulation – and publishers don’t want to mess that up.”
He calls the likes of Gutting and Dan Guthrie, an Oregon columnist fired under similar circumstances, “journalism martyrs.”
“Free speech has always been the right to say what you want and to suffer for it,” Miner said.
James W. Carey, journalism professor at Columbia University, said the messages weren’t necessarily the problem – it was the approach. Because people were feeling personally wounded by the attacks on American soil, they were more likely to react emotionally to media messages.
“Most people got in trouble for criticizing the government without following the proper ritual format,” he said. “First, you should take time out to remember the dead, to recognize the terrible tragedy. Then criticize. If you don’t do it that way, no one’s going to listen to you. No one’s going to arrest you, but they’re going to think you’re a lousy human being.”
PATRIOTISM IN CONFLICT
World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle is an example of a journalist who played the roles of both reporter and patriot. Revered as an icon of the American press, Pyle donned fatigues and interviewed “our boys” in the trenches. If anyone questioned his fairness or feared he was a government pawn, the criticisms are long forgotten. So why all the fuss here in the 21st century?
Because things have changed, according to Carey. He said World War II and the war on terrorism have only one thing in common: citizens feel they were invaded or attacked in some fundamental way. The World Trade Center’s collapse mirrors the attack on Pearl Harbor, but that’s where the similarities end.
“This situation is far more problematic for journalists than World War II,” Carey said. “World War II was unambiguous. The Nazis were obviously the danger. This whole thing is shrouded in vagueness. Who are we fighting? Is this a real threat? How much of a threat is it?”
The public’s attitudes about the media have changed as well, largely because of Vietnam.
“Vietnam was a turning point,” Carey said. “The whole experience of those events was corrosive of the relationship between the press and the government, the press and the public. The suspicion still lingers.”
Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, described the World War II model of journalism as collaborative with the government, while journalists of the Vietnam era were more skeptical.
“Right now we have both of those models in our brains at the same time,” he said.
The pendulum swung back to the pro-government side during the Gulf War, said Stephen Reese, director of the school of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Pro-government reporting shaped public opinion in favor of the war. A lot of the suffering in Iraq was not reported, people assumed the military effort was a great success, and Americans became overconfident.
Reese said the seeds of the current conflict were sown during the Gulf War, but because Americans had developed a simplified view of the world and foreign policy, they didn’t realize it.
PINS AND RIBBONS
Miner believes journalists have different roles at different times. Sometimes, as in investigative stories, they are to be civic boosters, defining causes and amassing evidence to support them. In the first few days after the attacks, journalists filled a similar role, supporting the cause of national unity.
“By putting on those (flag lapel) pins and doing their jobs, they were doing something useful. It was reassuring,” he said.
But the appropriate time for such displays didn’t last long. Once the immediate shock of Sept. 11 wore off, journalists’ roles changed.
“What people want now are the facts,” Miner said. “We trust journalists to give us the facts without fear, favor or bias. A flag on the lapel or behind the desk now says, ‘I’m a P.R. person for the administration. You can’t count on me for bad news or straight news.’”
Syndicated media columnist Norman Solomon agreed wholeheartedly on a recent episode of C-SPAN’s “Washington Review,” saying the press has been acting more like a fourth branch of government than a Fourth Estate and has lost sight of its duty to tell people what they may not want to hear.
Solomon called the flags on newscasters’ lapels “totally inappropriate.”
“This is not a country we can look at through glasses that are tinted red, white and blue,” he said.
“We don’t need our journalists to be waving flags. We need our journalists not to speak for the U.S. government, but to speak to the crucial mission of journalists to … give us facts, give us information.”
Reese agreed that the excessive use of flag symbols skewed the role of the journalists. “Using flags as backdrops suggests we’re speaking as Americans first, journalists second,” he said.
But newspaper columnist Michelle Malkin calls that the attitude of “media snobs.”
“The media backlash against public displays of patriotism reveals a lot about modern American journalism’s true colors,” she wrote recently. “Many of today’s leading purveyors of journalism are simply embarrassed to identify with the average citizen. They view flag-waving as a maudlin exercise … and the U.S. military as an outdated, hierarchical, racist, sexist, homophobic and imperialistic institution.
“Well, it’s those brave men and women in uniform …who will leave their families, their security and their way of life behind to defend all of ours. What’s wrong with showing a small token of solidarity and appreciation?”
Walter S. Mossberg, technology columnist at the Wall Street Journal, chooses to wear a small American flag pin as just such a symbol. And he doesn’t take it off for his weekly television appearance.
“A ribbon worn on clothing is a symbol of mourning and sympathy, not a political badge. All that my ribbon or flag shows is that I stand in solidarity with America and against terrorism,” he wrote. “It doesn’t bind me to support President Bush, or his particular policies and strategies against terrorism.”
Migael Scherer, author and consultant for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, believes journalists should be people first, and asking them to shun patriotism may be leading them down a slippery slope. If wearing a red, white and blue ribbon is inappropriate for journalists, Scherer asks: should they also refuse to wear red AIDS ribbons or pink ribbons supporting breast cancer research?
She questions whether reporters should be striving for objectivity in the first place.
“Why would humans strive to treat others as objects?” she asked. “Instead, the values I see in the best journalists and journalism are these: fairness, accuracy, balance, understanding, context. Everyone has biases. No one is objective; the job is to acknowledge our own biases and still give readers and viewers what they need.”
AN AMERICAN PRESS
But flags and red, white and blue lapel pins are just the surface of a deeper question: What does it mean to be a journalist in the United States?
“If there are conflicts between totalitarian and democratic governments, the American journalist’s allegiance is clear,” Carey says. “If the totalitarian wins, (reporters) lose their jobs, their careers.”
The Poynter Institute’s Clark agrees.
“Journalism is the oxygen of democracy. One doesn’t exist without the other,” he said. “Because of the First Amendment, we’re inside the system, and we play a prescribed role inside the system … . If you were to move journalism to Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany or, I suppose, to Iraq, what passes for journalism is more crudely propaganda.”
But even a Democratic press isn’t totally without propaganda. What Clark likes to call “truthful propaganda” lies within the boundaries of what American journalists should do in times of national crisis, he said.
For example, he argues that reporters should pay as much attention to solutions as to problems. They should make an effort not to overwhelm citizens with negative news. They should reassure the public when it’s warranted. They should help citizens make reasonable risk assessments, such as reminding them they are more likely to die of the flu than they are of anthrax.
Clark also points out that self-censorship isn’t always a bad thing. In times of war, the press often chooses not to reveal certain facts that would put American lives in jeopardy, such as the specific locations of U.S. troops.
But foreign observers worry that self-censorship by American reporters is just as damaging as the government-imposed kind. A recent report from Reporters Without Borders, a group that aims to support press freedom and fight censorship, concludes that there are several major causes for concern with recent U.S. media coverage. One is the government’s attempt to control news content – for example, arrests of photographers near Ground Zero and an attempt to ban an interview with a Taliban leader on radio network Voice of America. The report also points out that media coverage sounds a lot like statements of U.S. government policy, which does not bode well for journalism’s watchdog role.
“We all know that in times of conflict the temptation of censorship or self-censorship is always present,” said French journalist Alexandre Levy, co-author of the report. “But in my opinion, the journalists have to resist and continue to do their job in covering all sides of the war.”
Levy said that if faced with a similar situation, journalists in his native France and throughout Europe would have raised more questions about the consequences of foreign policy. They also likely would have been less reluctant to criticize government than their American counterparts are today.
“I can understand this need for national unity, but in my opinion the mission of the press – all the press – is to make public all the information, even the most unpleasant, for the American people,” he said.
Francois Bugingo, a Rwandan journalist now living in Canada, also worked on the Reporters Without Borders report. Although American journalists may not seem less credible within our country’s borders, they certainly do in European countries, he said.
“Despite the anguish and sorrow (American reporters) witnessed, I think they would have been more useful by being balanced and cautious,” he said. “But here they are, just reporting press conferences of the administration – which are in a way propaganda – and agreeing to the request of censorship by Condoleezza Rice. How can one expect them to be credible?”
Gutting believes the best way for journalists to express their love of country is not to blindly agree with government.
“Patriotism is more than putting the flag up and singing ‘God Bless America.’ Real patriotism in America is debating things and making America work,” he said.
Gutting hopes his column in the Texas City Sun helped do that by bringing national attention to the all-important right of free speech. He summed up his position in an op-ed column in the Houston Chronicle: “America today is under the world microscope more than ever, and that means it is more important than ever to adhere to our ideals. In my case, this turned out to mean losing my job. I’m happy to have been able to answer the president’s call for sacrifice.”
Reporters who report the facts without ideological filtering are doing the greatest service to their country, the Chicago Reader’s Miner said. But he acknowledged that may be difficult to do.
“You feel like you have a vested interest in the outcome,” he said. “As an American, you worry about your kids, too, and you have to watch that.
“It’s a time for very useful journalism and very courageous journalism. (Reporters) are there as a witness. They’re there to be our eyes and ears, and you don’t need a flag to do that. A flag just gets in your way.”
Gina Barton is a reporter at the Indianapolis Star.