Let us now sing the qualified praises of questioning patriotism.
Last Sunday, Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame appeared on Chris Wallace’s must-watch show, Fox News Sunday. Having the CBS liberal lion appear on the upstart Fox–particularly after Fox had so much fun with the 60 Minutes “Memogate” story–made it the journalistic equivalent of an exciting crossover episode. You know, like when Happy Days was continued on Mork & Mindy. The fact that Chris is the son of Mike made it simultaneously more and less interesting.
The less interesting part was that the interview was fairly soft, and it probably wouldn’t have taken place had not the son wanted to help dad move his new book. What made it more interesting was that Mike Wallace felt a bit more relaxed to speak freely.
To wit: Chris asked Mike, “Do you understand why some people feel such disaffection for the mainstream media?”
“Oh, yes,” Mike answered. “They think we’re wild-eyed commies, liberals. Yes?”
“That’s what they think. And how do you plead?”
“I think it’s damn foolishness,” dad retorted, continuing, “Look, you know as well as I, reporters are in the business because they want to be–first of all, they’re patriots just as much as any conservative. Even a liberal reporter is a patriot, wants the best for this country. And people–you know, your fair and balanced friends at Fox–don’t fully understand that.”
Well, not only is that more than a little condescending. It’s highly concentrated damn foolishness. What Wallace doesn’t fully understand is that lots of people have good reason to suspect that media Brahmans like him are less patriotic than the average Joe.
Now, before everybody gets their knickers in a twist, let me be clear. I’m not saying that journalists are unpatriotic. Nor am I discrediting the argument that it is the hallmark of the true patriot to tell unpleasant or inconvenient truths. Chesterton was right when he declared: “My country right or wrong is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ “
But what Mike Wallace and so many others seem to forget is that patriotism, like most any other trait, comes in varying quantities. Person A can be less nice than person B and still be perfectly nice. Joe can be more tolerant than Phil, but that doesn’t make Phil a bigot. And Mike can be less patriotic than whomever and not be a traitor or a “wild-eyed commie.”
Indeed, many journalists seem to believe that a certain impatience for patriotic appeals is a hallmark of good journalism. One such journalist is Mike Wallace. In a famous PBS-televised seminar at Columbia University (so famous I’ve written about several times), the moderator imagined a hypothetical in which the late Peter Jennings was imbedded with enemy troops in a Vietnam-like war. He then asked whether, if given the opportunity, he’d warn American troops they were about to be ambushed or whether he’d hang back and simply “roll tape” on the slaughter.
Jennings agonized. “I think,” he said after a long pause, “that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.”
Mike Wallace was appalled. “I am astonished” that you would interfere, he said to Jennings. “You’re a reporter!” When asked if American reporters have a higher duty to their country or fellow Americans, Wallace replied, “No, you don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter.”
This browbeating was enough to get Jennings to change his mind.
This is just one of countless examples of how patriotic waters run tepid in the elite media. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, ABC’s David Westin told journalism students that he couldn’t take a position on whether or not the Pentagon was a legitimate target. Other journalists agonized about whether or not there was an inherent conflict between wearing a tiny American flag on their lapels and doing their jobs. In World War II, American journalists–including Walter Cronkite and the legendary Ernie Pyle–wore American military uniforms and saw no conflict.
Some of this has to do with the growing cosmopolitanism of American journalism. Elite reporters like Mike Wallace and the late Jennings think they are “citizens of the world.” Years ago, CNN banned the use of the word “foreigners” to describe, well, foreigners.
And some of this has to do with tendency to define good reporting as revealing or exaggerating America’s problems to the world. This is a needed and important trait in reporters, but like any trait, including patriotism, one can have too much of it, or too little.
–(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services