Friday, May 07, 2004

The flaming tire of patriotism

In 1999, while at the National Press Club speaking about the US-led intervention in Kosovo, Dan Rather was questioned by an Arab-American journalist on his use of the word "we" when speaking of American soldiers.

Question [Sam Husseini]: Thank you. I was struck by your comments just now about when you say "we" took out the lights. ... And it troubles me when you say "we" when your talking about the U.S. government when you're, presumably, a journalist and an independent journalist.

Rather responded:

Dan Rather: Fair question. ... I understand what you're saying, and I may be wrong about this. I've asked myself any number of times. But, you know I'd like to think I didn't just tumble off the turnip truck. I've been around the world a few times. I've been in a few places. I've had to think through this business of "we." I think, if I may guess from the nature of the way you asked the question, you have a different view, and I respect it. But I'm an American reporter. Yes I'm a reporter and I want to be accurate. I want to be fair. But I'm an American. I consider the U.S. government my government. So yes I do?when U.S. pilots in U.S. aircrafts turn off the lights, for me, it's "we." And about that I have no apology. I think you and I are maybe on different sides of the street about that and it doesn't do any good for me to try and kid you. I'm an American, and I'm an American reporter. And yes, when there's combat involving Americans, you can criticize me if you must, damn me if you must, but I'm always pulling for us to win.

Figuring out the appropriate way to balance love for your country and the desire to report facts objectively must be tough; I don't envy Rather his job. But I think his answer was admirable. He loves his country. He's an American. He's a patriot. Good!

Not only do I like it because I also love America, I like this answer because I think the best way to deal with the problem of biases interfering with objectivity is to simply be explicit about your own biases and let other people judge how these biases might skew you towards the subjective.

Three years later, Rather was interviewed by the BBC and had a few different things to say about patriotism:

"It's an obscene comparison but there was a time in South Africa when people would put flaming tyres around people's necks if they dissented. In some ways, the fear is that you will be neck-laced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck. It's that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions and to continue to bore-in on the tough questions so often. Again, I'm humbled to say I do not except myself from this criticism. "

He's right. It is an obscene comparison. But let's look carefully at the argument. If I understand him correctly, Rather is worried that reporters might refrain from saying something critical of US policy because it might reflect badly on the country. In other words, faced with a choice between being a good journalist and being a good American, Rather fears that many journalists will choose patriotism. (Rather's quote makes it sound like they would do in order to look like good Americans, to avoid being blackballed, rather than for love of country, but I think the argument works the same either way.)

Well, let's examine that proposition. It's hard to say if he's right, because he predicts media silence, which makes it difficult to point to cases where he is right. ("Did you hear what he didn't say? Did you see what they didn't write?") But we can certainly point to instances of the media saying things that made things more difficult for American efforts abroad to succeed.

A notable recent example is the American coverage of the Abu Ghraib prisoner mistreatment scandal. In particular, let's look at CBS, Dan Rather's network. As Chuck Allen points out in an email printed on Instapundit:

It was the DoD that started investigating this before anyone else knew about it. CBS didn't break this story, the DoD did, and they started conducting a proper investigation that could lead to criminal charges under the UCMJ, which is exactly what was called for.

Glenn Reynolds agrees:

CBS wants you to think that they broke this story, but actually they came around pretty late.

This is confirmed by the timeline up at the Mudville Gazette. And reading the story at the CBS website, it certainly seems to me that they want me to think that the investigation happened because of the news story, instead of the other way around.

How does this fit into Rather's flaming-tire-of-patriotism hypothesis? Well, CBS could have presented this story in two ways. Option one: Defense Department is prosecuting bad prison guards. Option two: CBS has learned of bad prison guards. The former makes America look good, the latter makes CBS look good. They chose the latter. I guess Dan Rather, even though he is " always pulling for us to win," managed to convince his colleagues to imply a falsehood that is damaging to American efforts to rebuild Iraq. Way to go, Dan.

I don't think this is exceptional, though. The more I watch the news, the less worried I am that reporters are held back by their patriotism. In fact, most reporters seem pretty eager to prove what objective guys they are by sticking it to America.

Why is this? Is it a generational thing? It makes sense that reporters whose defining moment is Watergate would strike a different balance than the old World War II correspondents did. But I can't think that's all the story. I think George W. Bush, and in particular his prosecution of the war in Iraq, has changed things. After all, the reason Dan Rather was being asked what he meant by "we" was that his questioner thought Dan was refusing to report on American war crimes committed in Kosovo.

There are people in this country who would accept American defeat as an acceptable price to see George W. Bush defeated. Are mainstream journalists among them? I sure hope not.


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