Like many Americans, he wept. Openly. The events of Sept. 11 had moved him to tears.
Most citizens wouldn’t think twice about displaying emotion about one of the most devastating events in U.S. history. What made this guy different is that he’s a newsman. A television news anchor. And he wept on national TV.
He’s not supposed to be like the average citizen. He’s supposed to be dry-eyed and neutral; after all, that’s what journalists are taught. He’s not supposed to do his job differently because his country is at war. While the rest of his countrymen may feel a desire to proclaim allegiance to the nation and the government, he’s supposed to more stringently criticize and question. Putting political decision-makers’ feet to the fire, that’s what he’s supposed to do.
And that’s part of the problem, at least as far as the American public is concerned.
Journalists like to wear their independence as a badge of professionalism. But to the regular guy walking down Main Street, journalists may as well be from another planet. The journalists just don’t get it, polls say.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, amid astoundingly high marks for news coverage, one thing remained constant: the divide between the public and the media over how the media should do their job. Poll after poll suggests that while the public may have been impressed with Sept. 11 news coverage, it still fundamentally believes that the press doesn’t understand how the public wants it to act.
At the same time, media analysts believe that it’s the public that doesn’t understand the unique role a journalist has in society. Commentator after commentator points to the media’s role as constitutionally ordained, as one of the few professions with constitutional protection. It’s our role, journalists say, to serve as the official watchdog of the government on behalf of the American public, even if the public oftentimes wants to send that dog to the kennel.
And in times of international hostilities – such as the U.S. strikes against Afghanistan and the terrorist network al Qaeda – the divide becomes more pronounced.
TEARS AND RIBBONS
When CBS anchorman Dan Rather openly wept on “The Late Show with David Letterman” less than a week after the terrorist attacks, journalists were stunned. Here was a tough newsman showing emotion, being human. His colleagues cut him slack, even though emotional displays are typically a reporting no-no.
But NBC’s Washington bureau chief and “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert got no slack after he wore a red, white and blue ribbon on his lapel as he interviewed Vice President Dick Cheney. He was roundly criticized. Journalists shouldn’t wear emblems of the United States, the argument went, because that would be an unspoken gesture of support for U.S. policy, verboten for members of the media, even in times of crisis.
Then came the bans on patriotic pins and flags at news outlets around the country. A Long Island-based television station was inundated with complaints after its news director banned employees from displaying the flag, saying that, “We have to avoid giving a false impression that we lean one way or another.” ABC News likewise came under fire for its ban on patriotic lapel pins after its spokesman said, “[W]e cannot signal how we feel about a cause, even a justified and just cause, through some sort of outward symbol.”
This didn’t sit well with the general public, which couldn’t understand why journalists couldn’t wear a pin or a ribbon symbolizing their country and still do their jobs as straight news reporters. Callers burned up radio talk show lines and wrote letters to the editor. Angry e-mails were fired off by people unable to comprehend what was wrong or unprofessional about showing a flag.
Some journalists did side with the public, saying that they could still do their job and be patriotic. “Covering the war on terrorism is not like covering the New Hampshire primary, presidential impeachment or a missing intern,” Russert said in an October speech in Boston. “In times of war, the media should lower our voices – modulate our tone. Yes, we are journalists, but we are also Americans.”
Even staunch media critics, like the Media Research Center, said they didn’t understand the hubbub. “If you watched that [Russert] interview, at no time did Russert seem to be shying away from the tough questions because he had a [ribbon] on his chest,” said Rich Noyes, director of media analysis.
POLLS SHOW DIVIDE
Several polls released between September and November 2001 – after an initial surge of approval, up to 89 percent at one point – show that when it comes to the media’s job, the public doesn’t understand where journalists are coming from. They don’t think that the fourth pillar of democracy needs to have its own set of mores aside from just giving them accurate information.
Noting that the media received their best grade for accuracy (46 percent) since 1992, a November Pew Research Center poll found that while the public “holds more favorable opinions of the press’s professionalism, morality, patriotism and compassion,” it wants tighter government control over news and fewer details about national security. Respondents seemed to indicate that they trusted Pentagon officials to tell the truth. A plurality of people in the poll (47 percent) criticized the media as politically biased, while 51 percent said the media get in the way of society attempting to solve its problems.
An October CNN/Time poll found that 68 percent of respondents believed that the media were providing too much information about potential U.S. military activities.
But a November Gallup organization poll challenged Pew’s assertions that the media were held in high regard by the public. The Gallup survey found that 43 percent approved of the way the news media handled war coverage, while 54 percent disapproved. Gallup officials accounted for the drop in approval, from 89 to 43 percent, by saying: “One reason for the lower rating of the news media may be that their role in a democratic system of government makes them the bearers of bad news and often puts them at odds with government officials – who, at this time, are perceived by the public in very positive terms.”
“While most people want to hear the news,” the Gallup analysis continued, “they can easily become overwhelmed with the details and the horror of what is being reported. Also, the public itself appears somewhat conflicted: On the one hand, some polling results suggest that people think the media are acting responsibly in covering the [U.S. war on terrorism], but at the same time other results suggest people are not completely satisfied with the media’s performance.”
When presented with declining popularity numbers and calls by the public to defer to the government, some media decision-makers remained unmoved.
“Well, our job is not to be popular,” Steve Friedman, executive producer of CBS’ The Early Show, said during a November CNN interview. “Our job is to ask questions, and I think when you ask some tough questions, all of a sudden people think you’re not patriotic. I think it is patriotic to ask tough questions, and I think our approval rating will continue to go down as we ask tougher and tougher questions.” Later in the “Reliable Sources” segment, Friedman added, “[W]e shouldn’t even care about our public opinion ratings. I mean, we’re not running for office.”
Bob Giles, curator of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, said that in times of national crisis, the media have to ignore public sentiment and intensely focus on what government officials are doing.
“The national government takes on a great deal of power and authority [in a crisis],” Giles said, adding that Congress typically gives the president the money and authority he needs to take care of national threats. “The role of the media becomes all the more important. … Patriotism is not the journalist’s first job.”
Bob Steele, media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, said journalism is a unique craft whose values must remain constant, regardless of public opinion and international crisis.
“That difference [in opinion] is exacerbated in times of strife,” he said. “The obligation of journalists is to be watchdogs.”
PERSISTENT IMAGE PROBLEM
But the divide between the public and the media doesn’t just stem from questions about patriotism or war coverage. The difference between how the media see the world and how the American public sees the world has been glaring for a long time, critics say.
In his new book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg said reporters and media executives perceive issues in a fundamentally different way than the general public, contributing to a level of disconnect. He cited a March 2000 study by The Orlando Sentinel of 3,400 journalists which found “that they are less likely to get married and have children, less likely to do volunteer community service, less likely to own homes, and less likely to go to church than others who live in the communities where they work.” The lifestyle differences, combined with what Goldberg labeled a liberal point of view, produce a media that are “blissfully detached from the very people watching and reading their news reports.”
“News executives are always saying we need our staffs to look more like the real America,” Goldberg wrote. “How about if those reporters and editors and executives also thought just a little more like the real America? And shared just a little more of their values? And brought just a little more of their perspective to the job?”
A pre-Sept. 11 Gallup poll on the media – before the national rally-round-the-flag sentiment took hold – showed some level of distrust. While the Sept. 7 poll found that 53 percent of respondents had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the mass media, 47 percent had little or no confidence. Forty-five percent said the media are too liberal, 40 percent said they’re middle-of-the-road and 11 percent said they’re too conservative. Sixty-five percent said the media are often inaccurate.
The November Pew survey found that since the mid-1980s, the public has believed the media to be biased and that it gets “in the way” of the nation’s problem solvers.
The disconnect between the media and news consumers is that there is a basic misunderstanding of a journalist’s role in society, according to Paul McMasters, the First Amendment ombudsman for The Freedom Forum. “The public doesn’t want to get it,” he said.
Echoing CBS’ Friedman’s sentiments, McMasters said dedicated journalists don’t and shouldn’t consider what the public wants to see or hear before reporting the news because they play a fundamental role in keeping the government honest.
The media have “a constitutional role to bring about governmental accountability and the full partnership of the American public in governance,” he said, even when what they’re reporting or how they are reporting it is unpopular. “… Journalists need to ask the type of questions that put these things into a constitutional perspective.”
Acceding to the public’s wishes not to provide too much detail about military operations or to allow the government a greater role in controlling international defense news, McMasters said, would be an abdication of journalists’ responsibility.
The issue of what media critic James Fallows described as “an astonishing gulf between the way journalists – especially the most prominent ones – think about their impact and the way the public does,” was thoroughly dissected several years ago in his book Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.
The former U.S. News & World Report editor opined in 1997 that “Americans have never been truly fond of their press.” He said the American public believes “that the news media have become too arrogant, cynical, scandal-minded and destructive. Public hostility shows up in opinion polls, through comments on talk shows, in waning support for news organizations in their showdowns with government officials and in many other ways.”
In his indictment of his profession, an assessment which some say still holds true today, Fallows said the media don’t take kindly to being criticized.
“In response to suggestions that the press has failed to meet its public responsibilities, the first instinct of many journalists is to cry ‘First Amendment!,’ which is like the military’s reflexive use of ‘national security’ to rebut outside criticism of how it does its work,” he wrote. “Criticize reporters or editors for their negativity, and you will be told that they are merely reflecting the world as it is.”
Then things such as the David Westin incident occur.
In October, Westin, ABC News’ president, told a group of Columbia University journalism students that he had no opinion about whether the Pentagon was a legitimate target for terrorist attack. (One hundred and eighty-nine people died when a hijacked plane crashed into the government building.)
“… [A]s a journalist, I feel strongly that’s something that I should not be taking a position on,” Westin said. “I’m supposed to figure out what is, and what is not, not what ought to be.”
Though Westin retracted the statement days later after a national uproar ensued – saying that he gave his comments based on “academic principles that all journalists should draw a firm line between what they know and what their personal opinion might be” – Harvard’s Giles thought Westin was right on the money. “He should not have an opinion on that,” Giles said.
Non-journalists have a hard time understanding where thinking like that comes from. Conservatives, who believe the media are filled with liberals looking to promote social issues rather than report the news, believe it comes from a political viewpoint. Some, such as Goldberg, think it stems from cultural differences. Critics like Fallows think it comes from arrogance.
“Mr. Westin’s response was the logical result of decades of religiously held beliefs in the special vocation of journalists – an order of fact-seekers sworn to neutrality, divested of all allegiances that cumber the minds of ordinary citizens,” posited Dorothy Rabinowitz in her Wall Street Journal column.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote in a November column that what Westin lacked was a sense of perspective. “The problem is that Westin sounded as if he was taking a moral pass on mass murder,” Kurtz said.
Steele said one can make a moral judgment about obvious wrongdoing and still be a solid journalist. “Certainly we can take a stand that the taking of thousands of lives, even dozens, is wrong,” he said. “It wouldn’t violate a journalist’s neutrality to say that the Sept. 11 [attacks] were criminal.”
A month after the flap, Westin told The New York Times that there was no need to promote an America-first sentiment at ABC. “Our people don’t have to lead the American people to the conclusion they should reach about these horrible acts,” he said.
Political columnist Fred Barnes, writing for The Weekly Standard, said that while the press initially was “in sync with the American people” in the days immediately after the attacks, it has slipped back into its role of being out of touch.
“The press is in bad odor around the country,” Barnes wrote. “At a time when President Bush, Congress, the postal service, the Centers for Disease Control, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, homeland security chief Tom Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft are wildly popular, a majority of Americans disapprove of the news media.”
Clark Hoyt, Knight Ridder’s Washington editor, said news consumers are largely on the side of the government right now. “The public is giving the [Bush] administration the benefit of the doubt,” he told The Associated Press.
POST SEPT. 11 CONVERTS
But Barnes said that perhaps Sept. 11 may have yielded some converts. In a broadcast a few days after U.S. bombing commenced in Afghanistan, CBS’ Rather said: “Our thoughts and our love are with our warrior men and women. We know that some may come back in flag-draped caskets, but we reluctantly and sadly accept that as a reality of war forced upon us.” Pre-Sept. 11, this sort of sentiment would likely have been nixed, Barnes said.
Noyes, whose organization routinely criticizes Rather for what it sees as a liberal bias, said he was surprised by the change in Rather’s reporting. He is a good example, Noyes said, of “how to be a patriot and still do one’s job. I don’t think he’d pull any punches.”
So when it comes to a journalist emoting on camera, it’s okay to share the same feelings as the general public, as long as one doesn’t succumb to the public’s desire to soften one’s questions, censor the news or forget the watchdog role, some media critics assert.
Renowned CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who himself famously teared up when he reported the death of President Kennedy, said of Rather’s Letterman appearance: “I don’t blame anybody for showing emotion on air. I don’t think I would trust a reporter, male or female, who didn’t show any emotion.”
McMasters likened it to being a doctor and having to put one’s emotions in check before doing one’s job. “There’s nothing in any ethics code that says a journalist should not be human or be patriotic. … But the American people are being asked to provide the political resources, money and the human bodies to fight terrorism. They should be fully informed,” he said.
If the media ever hope to reconnect with their readers and viewers, Goldberg said, they need to do a lot more of what they did after the World Trade Centers collapsed. “They gave us the news on that day the way they should give us the news all the time,” he wrote. “ … For a change, they gave it to us straight.”
Meredith O’Brien is a free-lance writer.