Patriotism and the Press
When the news comes veiled in stars and stripes, something powerful is lost



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Confronting the traumatic aftermath
By Barbara Rothbaum

December 01/January 02 Academic Exchange

Living with the Dead
History, politics, and loss

By Gary Laderman
December 01/January 02 Academic Exchange

Additional Scholarly Responses to September 11


In the somber mood of unity that followed the terrorist attacks of last September, Americans took refuge in a grim confetti of red, white, and blue. Even those covering the news caught the spirit. Headlines struck a note of aggressive nationalism not seen since World War II. Flags unexpectedly began to flash on reporters’ lapels and on television screens that carried pictures of those two great towers falling. Reporters and editors who did not quickly take the mood sometimes found their jobs in jeopardy. In the first few weeks after the attacks, several journalists were fired from their jobs after questioning the president’s first actions or talking of peace when those in power spoke of war.

Even the Gulf War with all its jingoistic press coverage and heart-stopping pride (remember those Patriot missiles that “never missed a shot”?) did not lead us down this path. And that should make us all uncomfortable. For when the news comes wrapped in patriotic bunting, something powerful is lost.

Consider this: If you visited a foreign country and saw that every newscast had a national flag prominently displayed on air, would you trust that station to be thorough and report the news without a bias? Would you trust it to deliver varied points of view, to act as watchdog on its government, and hold truth above ephemeral political imperatives? Probably not. The subliminal message is a salute.

Then again, we were attacked. We all shared that. Why should it matter?

How could it not?

I got into quite a tangle recently over just this point. At a conference on ethics, I made the comment that journalism’s highest ideals are embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, not the words and actions of any one government, no matter what the stakes and pressure. To show the flag implies a present-tense conformity that journalists can ill afford. I spoke against it.
“The United States flag represents the Constitution!” barked an angry listener. “It is a symbol of the Constitution. I can’t believe you don’t know that!”

I wish he were right. But nothing is so simple—certainly not flags and what they may or may not represent. That much came clear in the next moments. A young woman shook her head. “For me,” she corrected, “it’s not the Constitution.
It shows support for all our soldiers overseas.” Another listener said the flag “reminds me every day and every minute of every day” of the innocent civilians who died in the World Trade Towers. A woman said she pinned Old Glory to her backpack to show solidarity with the president, “even if I don’t always agree with him.” For someone else, it was a signal we should fight to win, “just like in sports.” Across the table, a young man mumbled, “Revenge!”

What a welter! What a string of passionate—and different—sentiments. But why should nbc take part in this, or any other news organization for that matter? The proper place for patriotism, mourning, political allegiance, and support for our nation’s military is in the news, not on it. In fact, it is precisely now, as we struggle with a complex crisis, that we need an independent press the most. For the questions we face are many-sided and call for cool heads and a certain emotional distance to help us find our way.

Some debates already rage. Should we remake the laws regarding immigration and detention in the aftermath of this tremendous tragedy? Shall we use secret military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, or move them through the existing legal channels that have served us well through history? Is there justification for the use
of “unusual means” of getting at the truth from those in prison, or should our standing laws and civil protections hold a greater sway, as they have always done?

There will be more hard choices. If George Bush is right, that we have just begun a war that is likely to take years to win, then we have only started to grapple with all the complicated legal and moral tangles such a war will present. With that in mind, what does it tell our citizens, our visitors, our critics, if those debates take place behind a veil of stars and stripes?

“Truth is my country,” an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor said at a panel held on campus recently. He did not mean that he was not American, nor did he mean that he did not feel a deep allegiance to all America stands for. Instead, he was supporting that part of our shared legacy that says we deserve and will protect a free press that can criticize, cajole, applaud, cast doubt, and facilitate debate. It is
a powerful role. It is an independent role. And it is protected by the Bill of Rights.

The framers of our laws well understood that in times of peace and in times of war, a trustworthy voice is crucial to a healthy republic and a well-informed electorate. So let the voters wear their flags and plant them on their lawns and wave them anywhere they will. But keep reporters out of it.