by Ruth Coniff
The Progressive magazine, January 2002
Since September 11, I've been asked a couple of times about
my patriotism and that of my fellow lefties and journalists. At
a recent TV-produced town meeting I wrestled with my answer. Despite
the sign at the end of my block urging me and my neighbors to
fly our flags, I knew my family wouldn't put out the stars and
stripes. It's not something I'd had to explain to myself. But
thinking about explaining it to a larger audience took me aback.
Some lefties I know-especially Democratic politicians-instantly
know their answer to the patriotism question. It is, after all,
a question about loyalty, and you can't be a successful politician
if you can't pass the loyalty test. So they say yes, absolutely.
And then they go on to define patriotism in their own way-defending
the Bill of Rights, democracy, and the American tradition of dissent.
It's a sensible public stance. But I think a lot of us, if we
admit the truth, are put off by the word "patriotism."
It brings to mind the people in my hometown who pulled up lawn
chairs to watch the military parade at the .end of the Gulf War,
applauding and eating hot dogs as helicopters zoomed overhead.
Patriotism has got to be, as my dad says, more than hanging out
a flag and then sitting on your ass watching jets bomb Afghanistan.
But that is, sadly, the position we're in. Instead of tapping
Americans' desire to do something civic-minded in the wake of
the World Trade Center disaster, our leaders insisted that we
go back to our regular business, even as they warned us of imminent
further attacks. It's especially sad that a lot of journalists
have little to do but wear flag lapel pins and read Pentagon press
releases about the war and the progress of military tribunals.
Just as the Bush Administration is announcing that "defending
our way of life" means supporting these star chamber court
proceedings, curtailing civil liberties, and letting law enforcement
listen in on conversations between lawyers and their clients,
journalists seem to have given up their critical stance and decided
that being a P.R. wing of government is their proper war-time
Walter Isaacson issued an edict to his staff at CNN, telling
them not to overemphasize civilian casualties in Afghanistan and
to "balance" the reports with reminders of the World
Trade Center death toll. All the major networks agreed not to
run Osama bin Laden's videotaped messages, not just because they
might include coded communications with terrorist cells but because
the Administration deemed them "inflammatory." Dan Rather
announced that he was ready to go wherever the President wanted
to send him in this war (whatever that meant). The Washington
Post and The New York Times both agreed to withhold information
the CIA deemed dangerous.
At a Yale forum on journalism, I was part of a panel backing
up headliner James Fallows, veteran reporter, editor, and media
critic. I was surprised to hear Fallows declare that the terrorist
threat has had a salutary effect on the media, creating a stronger
sense of "us" (as in "we're all in this together"),
and a greater connection between the media and the public. Fallows
is a proponent of public journalism: the idea that journalists
should consider their civic responsibilities and not just sales
when they make decisions about the news. A good example of public
journalism, he said, was the series of tiny obituaries The New
York Times has been running on victims of the World Trade Center
attack. These served no real news purpose, and they were not really
obituaries, he said, but they filled a need for public mourning
But for all the moving press accounts of individual loss and
tragedy in the wake of September 11, there have been just as many
examples of a kind of phony and even dangerous home-team boosterism.
The stylized flag logos, the glib titles ("America's New
War"), and the drum-and-horn theme songs constitute an effort
to create a false feeling of "us" between news companies
and consumers who are more like a passive audience waiting to
be entertained than concerned citizens thinking hard about issues
like patriotism and the proper response to terrorism.
Much of the media flag-waving is, in fact, motivated by cynicism
and fear. There is the fear, specifically, of being deemed unpatriotic
by self-appointed conservative watchdogs including Rush Limbaugh,
the New York Post, the Drudge Report, and the Fox News Channel's
Bill O'Reilly, all of whom are armed with lists of the unpatriotic
compiled by the rightwing Media Research Center. With this pack
nipping at their heels, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and ABC News
president David Westin have all had to publicly defend themselves
against charges of un-American reporting and commentary.
Then there is the cynicism of these same media types, who
must market themselves to the ass-sitting, flag-buying American
public. TV, in particular, seems to have lost all contact with
journalism's noble ideals-as Fallows pointed out in his book Breaking
the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (Pantheon
1996)-and generally treats the public as a big bunch of drooling
boobs. Witness the early celebrity-journalist reporting from the
World Trade Center. ABC sent George Stephanopolous to the scene,
where he was joined by Chris Cuomo, who did a phony man-on-the-street
interview with one of the actors from The Sopranos.
While the public watched this circus, the Defense Department
was buying all of the rights to high-resolution pictures of Afghanistan
taken by commercial satellite. That means that news media will
never be able to get satellite pictures of the bombing in Afghanistan,
except as they are released by the military. As The New York Times
reported, the Bush Administration could have blocked the news
media's access to the satellite pictures on national security
grounds, which might have provoked a legal battle. Instead, by
paying $1.9 million a month to Space Imaging, Inc., they have
disposed of the problem and any inconvenient debate using our
Now more than ever we need a critical press and an alert citizenry.
The kind of patriotism that's advertised by the Bush Administration
and on television-don't worry, just keep shopping-carries us in
the opposite direction.
If you're uncomfortable with the word "patriotism,"
maybe it's a sign of unease with this prescription for conformity.
Or maybe you feel, like I do, alarmed by the specter of this country's
massive military machine gearing up, in our name, for missions
we know next to nothing about. In any case, more nationalism seems
like a bad remedy for the problems facing our world. At the Yale
panel, a student posed a question about civilian casualties in
Afghanistan: Why is it impossible that The New York Times would
write moving obituaries for dead Afghanis? There was a lot of
eye-rolling and groaning from the panel and the audience. But
leaving aside the obvious practical obstacles to the student's
idea, she raised a worthwhile philosophical question. While there
seems to be a unanimous, almost cellular feeling among journalists
and other Americans that we need to pull together and take care
of our own, there are dangers in this wagon-circling.
Patriotism almost requires that we regard deaths and disasters
that happen in other countries as less unfortunate than our own.
In this way, patriotism seems to militate against seeing the other
guy's point of view- a particularly dangerous approach for Americans
blindsided by the hatred and resentment our country now confronts
Still, I'd like to believe the national crisis could pull
us out of our torpor and spark in us some sense of citizenship.
I may not hang out a flag with my neighbors, but I am glad to
get together and talk with them about what they mean by patriotism.
As the Vietnam vet sitting next to me at the town meeting said,
"I had to come to some understanding of patriotism the hard
way. It's not about symbols and flags and the anthem-those things
are the death of critical thinking. It's about our responsibility
to do something to make our country better."
Ruth Conniff is Political Editor of The Progressive.
Democracy in America