In the process of debating the merits of publishing, and now continually hyping, the Abu Ghraib photos, I keep hearing that it is contrary to the American journalistic tradition to let patriotism or concern about the negative effects of bad news interfere with coverage. I have no idea where this idea comes from.
Take Ernie Pyle, perhaps the most universally revered of America’s war correspondents. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was not the sort of objective chronicler of the facts the Columbia Journalism School churns out today. No, he was the sort of ink-stained wretch who proudly put on a military uniform and wrote glowing tributes to “our” brave boys at the front for whom he used his column to agitate for higher pay. As Michelle Malkin wrote a few years ago, “The writing that earned Ernie Pyle a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 would have gotten him fired today.”
Indeed, most of the press in World War II donned military uniforms–and proudly. They agreed to considerable censorship, which Walter Cronkite insists was fair and reasonable.
Ask yourself how that squares with, say, today’s press corps which, after 9/11, agonized over the ethical quandary of whether it was appropriate to wear a tiny American flag on their lapels?
Or consider I. F. Stone. He wouldn’t make my list of great journalists, but he’s on many people’s lists. Peter Jennings dubbed Stone, “a journalist’s journalist.” The Los Angeles Times said he was the “conscience of investigative journalists.” Former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis gushed that he was “the reporter who taught us to penetrate the squid-ink of official truth.”
Well, be that as it may, he was also among the most partisan journalists of the 20th century, falsely accusing the United States of using chemical weapons during the Korean War and apologizing–if not openly rooting–for Stalin, Mao, the Viet Cong, and Castro.
That such a man could be the “conscience of investigative journalism” should tell you where on the ideological spectrum the media’s conscience resides and how the press came to redefine good journalism.
But my aim isn’t to score ideological points about liberal bias. This isn’t about attacking liberals. Most of the “giants” of journalism were, after all, liberals protecting liberal politicians and liberal objectives.
For example, for all the self-congratulation that’s come with the press’s “bravery” in running the images from Abu Ghraib, you might think the press has always stuck to a standard of telling hard truths during wartime. Nonsense.
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.”
Maybe the press was right to show restraint. Maybe it was wrong. But at least journalists didn’t think their best work was work that treated America as a hostile power. The Ernie Pyle Journalism Award, for example, recognizes journalists who show “unwavering support and loyalty to the United States of America in the pursuit of fair and accurate reporting.”
Fox News offers a lesson here. I know the network’s detractors think it’s a right-wing propaganda factory. And, I certainly agree that much of Fox’s programming is conservative (though liberals’ sudden concern with ideologically loaded coverage is ironic). But at least one of the things that has made Fox News successful isn’t that it’s right-wing, it is that it’s populist.
This is an important distinction. From the beginning, Fox anchors weren’t ashamed to wear American flags on their lapels. They aren’t afraid to refer to American troops as “our brave fighting men and women” or some such. They aren’t terrified that they will lose their objectivity merit badges if they sound like they hope America wins.
If Fox goes overboard sometimes, it’s only compared to a new standard Ernie Pyle wouldn’t recognize.
In 1987, for example, Peter Jennings and CBS’s Mike Wallace explained on a PBS show that they wouldn’t warn American troops they were about to be ambushed. When Wallace was asked if saving American lives might be a higher duty than getting 30 seconds of videotape, he snapped back: “No. You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!”
More recently, after the 9/11 attacks, David Westin, the president of ABC News, got into a lot of hot water with the public–though not much with fellow journalists–for refusing to express an opinion on whether the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon was legitimate: “As a journalist I feel strongly that’s something that I should not be taking a position on.”
Copyright (c) 2004 Tribune Media Services