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Journalism and Patriotism

November 6, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: Can journalists be both objective and patriotic? What is the appropriate role for the media in a time of crisis? Those questions have arisen following the comments of two heads of news organizations.

CNN’s Walter Isaacson, seeking balance in coverage from Taliban-controlled areas, recently sent a memo to his foreign correspondents urging them to “redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people.”

And ABC News President David Westin caused a stir two weeks ago at Columbia University when he was asked whether he thought the Pentagon was a legitimate military target. Westin 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.” Westin later apologized for the remarks, saying, “I was wrong. Under any interpretation, the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification. I apologize for any harm that my misstatement may have caused.”

TERENCE SMITH: Joining us to discuss the media’s role are former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson. He is now a visiting professor at the University of Wyoming and media critic Geneva Overholser. She is a member of the faculty of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Welcome to you both. Senator Simpson….

ALAN SIMPSON, Former Wyoming Senator: How are you?

TERENCE SMITH: Glad to have you.


TERENCE SMITH: As you can tell from those statements that we just quoted, news organizations are groping for what the appropriate role is right now. What do you think the appropriate role is?

ALAN SIMPSON: Well, they’re not there to be cheerleaders. We wouldn’t expect that of them. But they’re there to replace one ism with another ism. They’re there to replace skepticism with patriotism. That sounds corny. I can just hear them now. “Oh, Simpson there he is whacking around on us.” I just think… I would like them to think of one thing, and that would be if they were overseas in the uniform of the United States of America, how would they feel if this were happening to them, if they were seeing, you know, continually stuff from bin Laden and stuff, you know, of babies dying and so on; and then become the ugly ones.

I think as a media person or as a human being, think of the people who are serving our country. Do you want them injured? Do you want them maimed? Do you want them killed? Because some of the questions they ask in this situation are so stupid as to, you know, “where will they attack? What will they use?” And they seem to have kind of rocks for brains when they don’t understand that they’re watching everything that comes over our television.

TERENCE SMITH: Are you arguing that journalists ought to be Americans first and reporters second?

ALAN SIMPSON: I could just say it in an old western vocabulary, I sure as hell do.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Geneva Overholser, I wonder what you think about that and what your reaction was to Walter Isaacson’s cautionary note to his troops.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, Terry, I always hesitate to differ with Sen. Simpson, but the fact is that I think American journalists are best patriotic when they retain their skepticism. That isn’t cynicism. But we need to think about whether the public more needs a flag-waving journalist who says “I’m here because I’m mostly an American and not a journalist” or whether they need good, reliable, solid information in order to be citizens who….

TERENCE SMITH: What did you think when Walter Isaacson issued that sort of note to his correspondents?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I understand Walter Isaacson’s concern that they not be used as propaganda arm of the Taliban but the fact is there are far more constraints on the free flow of information than there are forces calling for good reporting. I think, frankly, it sounded more like he was worried about what people think of CNN than he ought to be.

We can’t be out there vying for popularity. We’ve got to be giving people information they need, which isn’t always a popular thing to do. What we need to remember is they also serve who do the reporting. We hope they are over there, Sen. Simpson, seeing what’s going on. But it’s a hard war to report on.



ALAN SIMPSON: I don’t have any problem with those things. I think you’ve taken my point a little further than I did. I’m just saying we are all Americans first. That doesn’t mean you get on and distort your vision as a journalist and neutrality and so on. But the question was asked, are you an American first or a journalist first? Are you a patriot first or are you someone who remains neutral?

I did a show with Fred Friendly years ago and the question was asked in a hypothetical: journalist walking behind a group in Vietnam and they see an ambush coming. The question was asked, it your duty to advise the commander of the troops that there’s an ambush coming or is it your duty as a journalist just to record what you see is going to happen. This journalist said my duty is to record what happens. The light colonel jumped out of his seat and practically pummeled his brains out. And I couldn’t blame him a whit.

TERENCE SMITH: Senator, journalists often feel and believe and know that they’re being used by one side or the other or both sides. How do they walk a fine line in your view between being used by, let’s say, the Taliban, or, on the other hand, by the Pentagon?

ALAN SIMPSON: Well, common sense would be a wonderful place to start instead of deadlines, marketing and advertising revenue. It would be a wonderful place to start with just common sense and ignoring these other pressures, which have never been there in any war where every day we see a new logo, watch CNN, watch ABC, watch CBS, watch NBC. We’ve got a new one for you. Stick around. You’ll have gas ulcers and heartburn before we finish with you today. That’s marketing. I think you have to really watch that one.

TERENCE SMITH: Geneva, what about David Westin’s initial point when he was arguing that he and journalists should set aside their emotions, even about something like the attacks on September 11th?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well it was certainly made inelegantly; I think, but his essential point that we need to be very careful about letting our grief, our desire for others to understand us, our willingness to go along with the government concerns, of course, about very valid reasons we can’t be reporting on troop movement, all of those things are real; but we can’t let them stand in the way of pressing for information.

We can’t afford to be a propaganda arm for the Taliban, nor can we afford to be a propaganda arm for the American government. The public needs us to be pressing. The place I do differ with you, Sen. Simpson, is to say we replace skepticism with patriotism. Skepticism is patriotism for a journalist.

ALAN SIMPSON: Let’s try cynicism then. That might be a better word.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I agree with that. Let’s do away with that one. I also agree with you at doing away with the marketing. That’s one more reason that journalists pull punches, frankly, because now increasingly they’re owned by corporate owners who really don’t want them to be doing unpopular things.

ALAN SIMPSON: I was so privileged to know Bill Kovach at Harvard as he directed the Nieman Center. Let me tell you there’s a journalist with class. He’s the guy who told The Atlanta Constitution to stuff it because they wanted him to stop doing things that irritated one of their big advertisers. He said “this is not journalism to me.” Those are the things you have to watch. I think that’s… That’s what I say. Ratings and so on and, look, you look now and it says “guess who’s watching CNN and coverage of the war?” And there’s these little percentages and timetables. That’s phony. People don’t like that.

TERENCE SMITH: Senator, Reuters News Agency has caused something of a controversy in recent days by refusing… Its policy… refusing to refer to the people who perpetrated Sept.11th’s attacks as terrorists. They refer to them as hijackers or others. They argue that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. What do you think of that?

ALAN SIMPSON: I think they’ve had a serious overdose of political correctness and they ought to go gather up some new vapors somewhere. I think that’s bizarre. But if that’s what Reuters wants to do, but you have got to remember the American people here who have sons and daughters over there, who see in their brain every night the destruction of these two towers and who are dealing with human beings that are spouting rattlesnake venom. I mean that’s what we’re dealing with.

This isn’t the Wanda Wallflower league. These are the most evil people… I always… I can’t believe as I guess it’s… You get too old. You get 70 years old and you remember World War I. We were told that loose lips sink ships. Didn’t have anything to do with making journalists feeling lesser. It had to do with protection. It’s protecting our people. You can’t protect them when you have stupefying, bone-headed questions coming from journalists saying what are you using now in the bomb? Was anybody hurt over here? Let me tell you if we didn’t have secrecy in World War II, you’d be speaking German.

TERENCE SMITH: What about the words terrorist or hijacker?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I think we ought to worry less about that kind of terminology and know we’ve got to be willing to ask those questions. Ever since those “loose lips sink ships” days we have been narrowing the access. We can’t afford to fail to ask questions.

ALAN SIMPSON: A narrowing of the access (laughing) —

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: — whether or not Reuters is using the right terminology, we have definitely narrowed the access. Right now in Afghanistan is it is extremely hard, much harder than in the Gulf War, much harder than in Kosovo for our forces to be accompanied by the press. It is… We know that during the Gulf War, which was known as a briefing war itself that these kinds of constrictions meant that we would have smart bombs that weren’t striking the right targets and the people would never be told. This is a dangerous thing when the thing we say is these are evil people over there, which clearly they are, I couldn’t agree with you more, rattlesnake venom and all. They need to be reporting on this war.

ALAN SIMPSON: What do you want to do? Do you want journalists to go in with the commandos and the special forces and intrude on their work? I was an old infantryman. You don’t want some guy wandering around in the field of battle while you’re doing heavy lifting.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: They did wander around in Vietnam. They’re not going to wander around here.

ALAN SIMPSON: Well, at least they wandered around with the troops.


ALAN SIMPSON: During Iraq we had Peter Arnett being put to bed every night by the enemy government with clean sheets. He was reporting back to us. Who do you think the only instrument of the propaganda left was? Peter Arnett.

TERENCE SMITH: The issue, Senator, I think really is is it important to have a record, an independent record of what happens and what the U.S. troops are doing in Afghanistan?

ALAN SIMPSON: It sure is if you want to do it the right way. And that’s just mount up and have journalists going in with special forces. And no commander is going to allow that to take place, so if you want to sit and pout about that, I can’t do anything about that.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Nobody wants to sit and pout. We need to be getting information.

ALAN SIMPSON: Then go get it, but the military is not going to allow you to go get it because it’s too hazardous unless you want to kill some of your own. Maybe you want martyrs instead of reporters.

TERENCE SMITH: Thank you both very much. We’re out of time.

GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Thank you, Terry.