Saturday, October 02, 2004

Dinosaurs huddle together as shrews rampage

The people who had the temerity to question Dan Rather's authority are part of a "political jihad," says Tom Brokaw, another anchor at the end of his career.
Rather, Brokaw and Peter Jennings spoke to reporters Saturday about the abysmal lack of respect accorded journalistic royalty in this country.

"I don't think you ever judge a man by only one event in his career," said Jennings, anchor on ABC.

Anyway, this isn't about Rather. "News executives" (I speculate that means legal staff) had told Rather not to say anything about Rathergate while the investigation was under way.

He did, apparently, have permission to whine about his bad treatment, and managed to raise an interesting question:
"If the country is in dire peril, as the president of the United States says it is ... I want to be a patriotic journalist," he said. "You know that the role of the patriotic journalist is to put your fear aside, stand up, look them in the eye, ask the rough questions. But you also know that when you do that, you're going to get hammered.... So what happens is you just say ... maybe tomorrow."

Never mind that if he had actually said "maybe tomorrow" about the fake documents, he wouldn't be in this mess, and never mind that everybody else has to learn that no good deed goes unpunished, that sometimes courage means doing what you believe in in the face of criticism, but focus on the fact that he wants to be a "patriotic journalist."

Patriotism has become the most coveted personal quality of the 2004 election season. Kerry and his advocates earnestly protest that any criticism of their stated policies or voting record is a foul attempt to denigrate their patriotism, and in the same speech will specifically say that their enemies are not patriotic. In a speech calling for more civility in political debate, Teresa Heinz Kerry referred to "un-American traits" at the Democratic convention, though she later declined to explain what she meant by that.

So what is "patriotism"? Is "un-Americanism" its opposite? "Anti-Americanism"? If so, what are they and how do they differ from each other?

Is it a love of the land? If so, what is that? A feeling? Aesthetic enjoyment? Appreciation of the major landmarks?

Is it love of the people? All of them? Even the tiresome ones who are not like us (whoever your "us" happens to be)?

Is there such a thing as a love for the entity as a whole? A willingness to sacrifice to preserve it? What if one person's view of "preservation" seems to fit another's definition of "destruction"?

I've been reading The Kalahari Typing School for Men. At one point, the protagonist thinks about her admirable father, and she speaks with pride about her country, Botswana, about its lack of scandal, its honor, the honesty and uprightness of the people and leadership. I know nothing about Botswana, but her patriotism--for it was certainly that--seemed of an innocent sort, the kind that Americans may have had when teachers told the story about Washington and the cherry tree. But now we know about the Trail of Tears, the scandal of Watergate and the perjury of a sitting president. We know about the Teapot Dome and the continuing criticism of the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Japanese internment, and on and on and on.

There has to be a patriotism that survives disillusionment.

But if anyone is disillusioned, it's someone like Dan Rather. He says he wants to be a "patriotic journalist," but he flings the word around as if it has a meaning. In fact, journalists have been trying to come to terms with the "patriotic" designation for a while, without much success.

Here is a PBS NewsHour discussion of the topic from November 2001, soon after ABC News President David Westin, asked whether he thought the Pentagon was a legitimate military target on Sept. 11, 2001, replied, "I actually don't have an opinion on that, and it's important I not have an opinion on that as I sit here in my capacity right now. As a journalist, I feel strongly that's something that I should not be taking a position on."

Jonah Goldberg compares these conflicted motivations with the World War II reporters.
There were more than 35,000 pictures of FDR taken. Two show him in a wheelchair. Why? Because the press almost unanimously agreed that — despite the huge news value — depicting FDR as a cripple would be bad for the war effort. The few dissenting photographers from that consensus were routinely blocked or deliberately jostled by the senior photographers so as to shield FDR from embarrassment and the public from its "right to know."
Bob Steele, director of the Poynter Institute's ethics program, wrote a column titled "Patriotism and Journalism" and didn't get any further than more questions:
Must a journalist accept the patriotic absolutism championed by President Theodore Roosevelt? "There can be no 50-50 Americanism in this country," the Rough Rider roared in 1918. "There is room here for only 100 percent Americanism, only for those who are Americans and nothing else."

Or, can a journalist uphold the passion of patriotism advocated by presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952? "I venture to suggest that patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion," Stevenson offered, "but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime."
A commenter on his site makes a telling observation:
Right after 9/11 I was working at one of the newsrooms that forbade their anchors from wearing red, white, and blue ribbons on air. The news directors' reasoning behind this was it was "taking sides". I found this insane at first, but then thought about it and realized we are totally suppossed to be unbiased and showing American bias counts. How can you trust international coverage of a station that wraps itself in red, white and blue.
I'm not getting any closer to a definition that satisfies my own mind, but here's the Google page if you want to chase the question some more.

If a politician can't define patriotism, he really shouldn't say that other people don't have it. If a professional journalist isn't sure whether he ought not be above all that attachment to any one country, then he shouldn't wrap himself in a flag when someone criticizes his professionalism.


No comments: