Press Corps Patriotism
Jonah Goldberg yearns for the golden days of yore, when American journalists wore their patriotism on their sleeve.
In a recent speech at the National Press Club, Katie Couric expressed somber disapproval of the jingoistic excesses after 9/11. Among the things that vexed her: “The whole culture of wearing flags on our lapel and saying ‘we’ when referring to the United States.” From what I can tell, nobody among the journalistic swells bothered to ask, “Who isn’t ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”
I don’t want to revisit those supposedly Orwellian flag pins, which sat so heavily on so many journalistic lapels. But it’s worth recalling that during World War II, civilian correspondent Walter Cronkite — whose anchor job Couric now holds — gladly wore a uniform, not just a pin, and subjected himself to military censors. He also used, I’m sure, the word “we” when referring to the United States.
That was a different time and a different war. FDR’s kids joined the military, too, and the whole economy switched over to support the war effort. For this war, the president quite literally told Americans that they could best help by going shopping.
Do we really want Katie Couric wearing a military uniform? For that matter, isn’t Cronkite the guy who, a couple of decades later, is blamed for singlehandedly turning public opinion against the Vietnam War after Tet?
Matthew Yglesias thinks the question bizarre, anyway, wondering how Goldberg could possibly “think that American nationalism is insufficiently present in American television news?”
Marc Danziger thinks it in fact is but, more importantly, tends to agree with Goldberg’s premise that the particular strain of liberalism that dominates the elite media is one of a cosmopolitan rejection of the very notion of nationalism. He contends that the “civic religion” of flag waving, Fourth of July celebrations, and all the rest is essential for binding a nation of immigrants into a cohesive society.
Many liberals hear talk of national culture and shout, “Nativist!” first and ask questions later, if at all. They believe it is a sign of their patriotism that they hold fast to the idea that we are a “nation of immigrants” — forgetting that we are also a nation of immigrants who became Americans.
As the host of the “Today” show in 2003, Couric said of the lost crew members of the space shuttle Columbia: “They were an airborne United Nations — men, women, an African American, an Indian woman, an Israeli. . . .” As my National Review colleague Mark Steyn noted, they weren’t an airborne U.N., they were an airborne America. The “Indian woman” came to America in the 1980s, and, in about a decade’s time, she was an astronaut. “There’s no other country on Earth where you can do that,” Steyn rightly noted.
That’s certainly true technically; there aren’t many countries where one can become an astronaut, period. There are other societies that take in immigrants and assimilate them into their society but the United States is no doubt one of the most open in that regard and certainly unrivaled in the sheer diversity of our immigrant population.
Just how far journalists should go in preaching the civic religion is an interesting question, although not one I’m sure I can answer. Americans rightly criticize the foreign press for its distorted vision of American policy and scoff at journalists in less free societies who are mere shills for the government. For that matter, conservatives like Goldberg routinely criticize the Katie Courics of the world for interjecting their personal ideological bias into their reporting. More “objectivity” rather than more cheerleading is likely to produce the best reporting.
At its extreme, though, I agree that journalists are Americans first. Marc and I have both referred to this exchange 1987 roundtable discussion between the late Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace about a hypothetical war to make that point:
With Jennings in their midst, the northern soldiers set up a perfect ambush, which will let them gun down the Americans and Southerners, every one. What does Jennings do? Ogletree asks. Would he tell his cameramen to “Roll tape!” as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to ambush the Americans? Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds after Ogletree asked this question. “Well, I guess I wouldn’t,” he finally said. “I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.” Even if it means losing the story? Ogletree asked.
Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life, Jennings replied. “But I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That’s purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction.” Immediately Mike Wallace spoke up. “I think some other reporters would have a different reaction,” he said, obviously referring to himself. “They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover.” “I am astonished, really,” at Jennings’s answer, Wallace said a moment later. He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: “You’re a reporter. Granted you’re an American”-at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. “I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American, you would not have covered that story.” Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn’t Jennings have some higher duty, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot? “No,” Wallace said flatly and immediately. “You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!” Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said. “I chickened out.” Jennings said that he had gotten so wrapped up in the hypothetical questions that he had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached.
Fairness in covering the story, including conveying an understanding of the enemy’s point of view, is a journalist’s job. Being neutral to the point of allowing fellow citizens to be murdered, it seems obvious, is crossing a bright line. I’m not sure, however, about the many shades of gray in between.