Much has been written and said about the changes wrought upon America by Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism. How deep and how lasting is that change, and how will it affect journalism? The signs are troubling.
In September and October, The Seattle Times ran a series subtitled “Dispatches from A New Nation.” In December, Charles Krauthammer wrote in Time magazine, “The fire at Ground Zero … forged a new America.” Newsweek commentator Jonathan Alter, warning of complacency after initial successes in the war, wrote, “Saying we’re a different country doesn’t make it so. Changing the American metabolism permanently will be harder than it seems.”
Krauthammer was talking about an America that had awakened to new dangers and was resolved to confront them. But in that resolve there is fear. And in that fear there is a demonstrated willingness to compromise some of the freedoms that we are supposed to be defending, the freedoms that are at the core of America’s metabolism.
In November, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked 731 American adults this question: “Which is more important to you, that the government be able to censor news stories it feels threaten national security, or that the news media be able to report stories they feel are in the national interest?”
By 53 to 39 percent, the people endorsed censorship. That was slightly narrower than the 58-32 margin that the same pollsters found when they asked the same question in March 1991, just after the war against Iraq. However, the recent poll was taken at a time when regard for journalists and their work had rebounded to its highest level in decades – reflecting the appreciation that readers, viewers and listeners had for the coverage of Sept. 11 and its aftermath. That was serious, substantive coverage that people both wanted and needed. But, as Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz reminded us, public opinion also was “perhaps influenced by correspondents with flag lapels and cable networks sporting Stars-and-Stripes logos.”
Underlying the public’s willingness to censor is a greater willingness to compromise other freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment and other parts of the Bill of Rights. Polls have found strong support for national identification cards, wiretapping lawyer-client conversations and indefinite detention of legal immigrants, for example. And there are anecdotal examples of a chilled atmosphere.
When Janis Besler Heaphy, publisher of The Sacramento Bee, dared to question such actions, and the possible establishment of secret military tribunals, in a commencement speech at California State University-Sacramento on Dec. 15, she was drowned out by stomping, clapping and heckling, and was forced to stop speaking.
For me, this was the most vivid manifestation of the anti-First Amendment attitude that has developed in this country since Sept. 11.
Here’s some of what Heaphy was not allowed to say: “Our liberty will not be assured until terrorism is wiped out, but we cannot allow our personal freedoms to erode in the process. It is for this very reason that we should question what the long-term effect of some of the administration’s policies will have on our values.”
The long term is what worries me, too. In other wars, journalists and other Americans have been willing to accept restrictions on their freedoms for the sake of the war effort. But with the exceptions of our revolution, fought before the Bill of Rights was written, and Vietnam, which posed no credible domestic threat, this nation has never fought a war lasting longer than four years. Now our government leaders are warning that the war on terrorism could last decades, perhaps half a century. Today’s temporary sacrifices could become tomorrow’s routine and the next generation’s way of life. That has profound implications for all of us who honor and rely on the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment.
Right now, Congress and state legislatures are considering various laws that would compromise the freedom of information. Once on the statute books, these measures will be difficult to remove. SPJ, its chapters and members should play a leading role in defending this freedom.
Also at this critical time, journalists should take advantage of our improved standing with the public and do a better job of explaining the principles that underlie our work. For example, one of the greatest misconceptions among the public is that we report information that could endanger troops in the field. In fact, the American press has a good record of NOT doing that. In this war, The Washington Post has granted several Pentagon requests to withhold details of military and intelligence activities when it concluded that publication would “clearly endanger human life or realistically endanger national security,” as Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie defines the paper’s standard.
For more than a decade, SPJ’s Project Watchdog has tried to engage the public in a dialogue about the role of the news media in a free society. The project, which relies largely on efforts by our chapters, is named after journalists’ role as watchdogs on government. The public still sees great value in that First Amendment function. In the Pew poll, 52 percent of Americans said journalists “should be digging hard to get all the information they can” about the war on terrorism, while 40 percent said we “should trust government and military officials if they refuse to officially release some information.”
As we talk with the public, we must also talk among and about ourselves, as Alter did at the end of his Newsweek piece. He suggested that news outlets were sliding toward complacency by not probing deeper into America’s vulnerabilities, and gravitating back to the dollars of circulation and ratings with “consumer-health news and verbal food fights.”
That’s the kind of performance that lowered the public’s opinion of us in the past two decades and could put us back in the tank. Then it will be all the more difficult to defend our freedoms.
Al Cross is president of SPJ and a political columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.