Patriotism & Censorship
Some journalists are silenced,
while others seem happy to muzzle themselves
by Peter Hart and Seth Ackerman
Extra! magazine (FAIR), December 2001
War fever in the wake of the September 11 attacks has led
to a wave of self-censorship as well as government pressure on
the media. With American flags adorning networks' on-screen logos,
journalists are feeling rising pressure to exercise "patriotic"
news judgment, while even mild criticism of the military, George
W. Bush and U.S. foreign policy are coming to seem taboo.
On September 17, Bill Maher, host of ABC's Politically Incorrect,
took issue with Bush's characterization of the hijackers as "cowards,"
saying that the label could more plausibly be applied to the U.S.
military's long-range cruise missile attacks than to the hijackers'
suicide missions. Maher, a hawk on military issues, intended his
comment as a criticism of Bill Clinton's emphasis on air power
over ground troops, but major advertisers, including Federal Express
and Sears, withdrew their sponsorship, and several ABC affiliate
stations dropped Maher's show from their lineups (Washington Post,
Commenting at an official news briefing, White House spokesman
Ari Fleischer called Maher's remark "a terrible thing to
say," adding, "There are reminders to all Americans
that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and
this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."
The White House's transcript of Fleischer's remarks mysteriously
omitted the chilling phrase "watch what they say," in
what White House officials later called a "transcription
error" (New York Times, 9/28/01).
Maher might consider himself lucky to still have a job. A
columnist for the Oregon Daily Courier, Dan Guthrie, said he was
fired for writing a column (9/15/01) that criticized Bush for
"hiding in a Nebraska hole" in the aftermath of the
September 11 attacks (AP, 9/26/01). After the column sparked angry
letters to the editor, the paper's publisher printed an apology
to readers (9/18/01): "Criticism of our chief executive and
those around him needs to be responsible and appropriate. Labeling
him and the nation's other top leaders as cowards as the United
States tries to unite after its bloodiest terrorist attack ever
isn't responsible or appropriate." The publisher denied Guthrie
was fired for what he wrote, but declined to elaborate.
Similarly, the city editor of the Texas City Sun, Tom Gutting,
was fired after writing a column (9/22/01) critical of Bush's
actions the day of the attacks. His column was also the subject
of an apology from the paper's publisher (9/21/01), who wrote
an accompanying op-ed headlined "Bush's Leadership Has Been
Superb" (Editor & Publisher, 9/27/01).
Veteran progressive radio host Peter Werbe found that in the
wake of the terrorist attacks, his syndicated show was no longer
wanted at KSCO/KOMY-AM in Santa Cruz, Calif. On October 6, station
co-owner Michael Zwerling came on the air to criticize Werbe's
program. Days later, Kay Zwerling, Michael's mother, denounced
the show's political content and criticism of the Bush administration
in an on-air editorial, saying "partisanship is out; we are
all Americans now." She added that "we cannot afford
the luxury of political divisiveness." Apparently accusations
that peace marchers are committing "treason" and calls
for "nuking Afghanistan" made by rightwing syndicated
host Michael Savage, who is aired on the station for six hours
daily, do not qualify as divisive (Metro Santa Cruz, 10/24/01).
"Just tell me where"
Other journalists loudly proclaimed their support for the
government and military action. CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather
was the most conspicuous, declaring on CBS's Late Show with David
Letterman (9/ 17/01): "George Bush is the president. He makes
the decisions, and, you know, it's just one American, wherever
he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the
call." Rather issued a similar call on the show Entertainment
Tonight (10/2/01), according to a transcript from the Media Research
Center: "If he needs me in uniform, tell me when and where-I'm
It should be remembered that Rather is not only a news reader
but also the managing editor of CBS Evening News, and his attitude
has the potential to influence the work of the reporters who work
under him. Both ABC and NBC have dealt with the criticisms of
the U.S. food aid program in Afghanistan, airing the views of
aid workers in the region who dismissed the food program as an
ineffective PR ploy. CBS Evening News did not address the issue.
ABC's Cokie Roberts also appeared on the Letterman show (10/10/01)
to proclaim her deep faith in military spokespeople: "Look,
I am, I will just confess to you, a total sucker for the guys
who stand up with all the ribbons on and stuff and they say it's
true and I'm ready to believe it."
At the dozens of stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast
Group, pro-Bush editorial statements were read on the air by station
managers. At Sinclair's WBBF and WNW in Baltimore, news anchors
and other on-air journalists read the statements (Baltimore Sun,
"Reining in" journalism
Attempts by the U.S. government to exert control over media
have been broad. In early October, Secretary of State Colin Powell
voiced his concerns about the Al Jazeera television network during
a meeting with Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Thani, the emir of Qatar.
Powell reportedly told Thani to "rein in" Al Jazeera,
which operates out of Qatar and relies on the government for significant
funding (Washington Post, 10/9/01). Though the channel is considered
by many to be the most independent TV news outlet in the Arab
world, Powell and other U.S. officials were reportedly upset by
the channel re-airing old interviews with bin Laden and the inclusion
of guests who are too critical of the United States on its programs.
(In attempting to muzzle Al Jazeera, Powell was mirroring the
complaints of Arab nationalists who contend that the channel too
often airs the views of Israelis and Western officials.)
Once the airstrikes began, Al Jazeera provided the only footage
coming out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, documenting the
killing and maiming of civilians. The station also aired videotaped
statements delivered to it by Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group-
which were picked up and replayed by U.S. television networks.
In an October 10 conference call with national security adviser
Condoleeza Rice, executives from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN reportedly
acceded to her "suggestion" that any future taped statements
from Al Qaeda be "abridged," and any potentially "inflammatory"
language removed before broadcast.
Originally, the administration expressed concern about the
possibility of Al Qaeda members sending "coded messages"
to their followers in the segments-without offering any evidence
that such a technique had ever been used, or that censoring U.S.
news broadcasts would be an effective means of keeping any hidden
messages that did exist from terrorists.
But Rice's main argument to the networks seems to have been
that bin Laden's statements should be restricted because of their
overt content. NBC News chief Neal Shapiro told the New York Times
(10/11/01) that Rice's main point "was that here was a charismatic
speaker who could arouse anti-American sentiment getting 20 minutes
of air time to spew hatred and urge his followers to kill Americans."
The following day, Fleischer took the administration's campaign
further and contacted major newspapers to request that they consider
not printing full transcripts of bin Laden's messages. "The
request is to report the news to the American people," said
Fleischer (New York Times, 10/12/01). "But if you report
it in its entirety, that could raise concerns that he's getting
his prepackaged, pretaped message out."
To its credit, the New York Times has apparently resisted
such requests, even editorializing (10/11/01) that the 'White
House effort is ill advised." But some media executives seemed
to actually appreciate the White House pressure. In an official
statement, CNN declared: "In deciding what to air, CNN will
consider guidance from appropriate authorities" (AP, 10/10/01).
CNN chief Walter Isaacson added, "After hearing Dr. Rice,
we're not going to step on the land mines she was talking about"
(New York Times, 10/11/01). 'We'll do whatever is our patriotic
duty," said News Corp executive Rupert Murdoch (Reuters,
10/11/01), who took U.S. citizenship when his Australian passport
interfered with his buying American TV stations.
Indeed, when a taped segment from bin Laden spokesman Suleiman
Abu Gheith aired on Al Jazeera on October 13, U.S. networks handled
it much differently from previous statements. Fox News Channel
and MSNBC did not air any of the footage, while the other networks
opted to show only portions of the tape, or paraphrase the content
Powell was not the only government official who seemed to
think that a national emergency gave them license to attempt to
interfere with news outlets. On September 21, the federally funded
Voice of America radio service temporarily held a news story that
featured comments from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar after
the State Department complained to Voice of America's board of
governors (Washington Post, 9/23/01). When the station played
the segment anyway, State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher
(press conference, 9/24/01 ) criticized Voice of America for "asking
the U.S. taxpayer to pay for broadcasting this guy's voice back
into Afghanistan." Some media heavyweights shared that view:
The New York Times' William Safire (10/1/01) was clearly upset
that the "seat-warmer at the Voice of America could not restrain
its news directors from broadcasting the incendiary diatribes
of Taliban leaders."
At KOMU-TV in St. Louis, run by faculty and students at the
University of Missouri, on-air news personnel were prohibited
from wearing anything that might indicate support for a particular
cause, including flags or patriotic ribbons. This prompted state
Rep. Matt Bartle to send an email to the station's news director
that threatened KOMU's state funding: "If this is what you
are teaching the next generation of journalists, I question whether
the taxpayers of this state will support it" (Ft. Worth Star-Telegram,
It appears that journalistic neutrality is a dangerous message
to send these days. When Cablevision's News 12 station in Long
Island, N.Y. adopted a no-flag policy for its on-air personnel,
it wasn't government officials who were upset by the supposed
lack of patriotism-it was the station's advertisers. One station
official told the New York Times (10/7/01) that "a number
of clients are talking about running their ads somewhere else."
In such an environment, it shouldn't be surprising that news
that might portray the military in an unflattering light would
also be censored. An Associated Press photo taken aboard the U.S.S.
Enterprise showed a bomb with "high jack this fags"
scrawled on it, apparently the work of a U.S. sailor. AP withdrew
the photo, instructing news outlets not to run it in their papers
(PlanetOut.com, 10/12/01). Mainstream media have shown little
interest in reporting on the incident-suggesting that self-censorship
is itself a phenomenon that might be too hot to cover.
Control, Propaganda, and Democracy