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Journalists Report for Duty
September 30, 2001
Time magazine's special issue about the events of Sept. 11, chilling
photos evoke the horrific slaughter in Manhattan. All of the pages are
deadly serious. And on the last page, under the headline "The Case
for Rage and Retribution," an essay by Time regular Lance Morrow
declares: "A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of
rage. Let's have rage."
country to relearn the lost virtues of "self-confident
relentlessness" and "hatred," the article calls for "a
policy of focused brutality." It's an apt conclusion to an edition of
the nation's biggest newsmagazine that embodies the human strengths and
ominous defects of American media during the current crisis.
Much of the
initial news coverage was poignant, grief-stricken and utterly
appropriate. But many news analysts and pundits lost no time conveying --
sometimes with great enthusiasm -- their eagerness to see the United
States use its military might in anger. Such impulses are extremely
night after night on cable television, Bill O'Reilly has been banging his
loud drum for indiscriminate reprisals. Unless the Taliban quickly hands
over Osama bin Laden, he proclaimed on Fox News Channel, "the U.S.
should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble -- the airport, the power
plants, their water facilities and the roads."
What about the civilian population of Afghanistan? "We should not
target civilians," O'Reilly said, "but if they don't rise up
against this criminal government, they starve, period." For good
measure, O'Reilly urged that
the U.S. extensively bomb Iraq and Libya.
A former New
York Times executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal, was able to top O'Reilly in
the armchair militarism derby. Rosenthal added Iran, Syria and Sudan to
O'Reilly's expendable-nation list, writing in the Washington Times that
the U.S. government should be ready and willing to deliver a 72-hour
ultimatum to six governments -- quickly followed by massive bombing if
Washington is not satisfied.
In a similar spirit, New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy demanded
oceans of innocent blood: "As for cities or countries that host these
worms, bomb them into basketball courts." The editor of National
Review, a young fellow named Rich Lowry, was similarly glib about
recommending large-scale crimes against humanity: "If we flatten part
of Damascus or Tehran or whatever it takes, that is part of the
More insidious than the numerous hothead pundits are the far more numerous
reporters who can't stop providing stenographic services to official
sources under the guise of journalism.
We've heard that it's important for journalists to be independent of the
government. Sometimes that independence has been more apparent than real,
but sometimes it has been an appreciable reality and a deserved source of
professional pride. But today, judging from the content of the reporting
by major national media outlets, such pride has crumbled with the World
Trade Center towers.
More than ever, as journalists report for duty, the news profession is
morphing into PR flackery for Uncle Sam. In effect, a lot of reporters are
saluting the commander-in-chief and awaiting orders.
Consider some recent words from Dan Rather. During his Sept. 17 appearance
on David Letterman's show, the CBS news anchor laid it on the line.
"George Bush is the president," Rather said, "he makes the
decisions." Speaking as "one American," the newsman added:
"Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make
Media coverage of U.S. military actions has often involved a duplicitous
two-step, with news outlets heavily engaged in self-censorship and then
grousing -- usually after the fact -- that the government imposed too many
restrictions on the press.
Two months after the Gulf War ended a decade ago, the Washington editors
for 15 major American news organizations sent a letter of complaint to
then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. They charged that the Pentagon had
exerted "virtually total control" over coverage of the war.
Now, as CNN reported in passing the other day, the Defense Department
intends to impose "heavy press restrictions." For example,
"the Pentagon currently has no plans to allow reporters to deploy
with troops or report from warships, practices routinely carried out in
the 1991 Persian Gulf War."
Here's a riddle: If the U.S. government's restrictions on media amounted
to "virtually total control" of coverage during the Gulf War,
and the restrictions will now be even tighter, what can we expect from
news media in the weeks and months ahead?
Restrictive government edicts, clamping down on access to information and
on-the-scene reports, would be bad enough if mainstream news organizations
were striving to function independently. American journalism is sometimes
known as the Fourth Estate -- but Dan Rather is far from the only
high-profile journalist who now appears eager to turn his profession into
a fourth branch of government.
Norman Solomon's weekly syndicated column -- archived at
www.fair.org/media-beat/ -- focuses on media and politics. His latest
book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.
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