So far this potential for confrontation has been muted, to an almost astonishing degree, by the tide of patriotism and national unity. Dan Rather's statement seems to make this clear. "George Bush is the president," he said. "He wants me to line up, just tell me where." This may have been an oratorical excess, or perhaps an attempt to deflect criticism from conservatives who have demonized Rather for years. Whatever it was, the statement was out of line. It is not the job of journalists to "line up" for war behind the president. The primary allegiance of reporters is never to government, but to the people, who are entitled to know many things that even the best of our authorities won't reveal or don't know.
According to the government, a U.S. Commando raid into Afghanistan on Oct. 20 went smoothly and met only light Taliban resistance. But Seymour Hersh reports in The New Yorker that there was ferocious fighting with 12 Americans wounded, three of them seriously. Which is it, and aren't we entitled to know what happened?
One sign that the news media feel cowed is the lack of resistance to Condoleeza Rice's suggestions on how TV should be covering Osama bin Laden. Ms. Rice, the national security adviser, wants the networks to abridge any future videotapes supplied by bin Laden and to remove his inflammatory language. But why? News executives are entitled to present an entire rant from the world's most famous mass murderer if they think it is news. And where is the harm? Arab-speakers are going to see the whole diatribe on Al Jazeera anyway, and Americans are unlikely to defect to al-Qaida because they see an unabridged version of hate from the cave. The fact that bin Laden is trying to use our media against us is galling, but it doesn't justify the government's calling in network executives for "suggestions" on how to report the war.
The timid response of the news business suggests that reporters and editors are not sure how to act. They know they will lose much of their audience if they seem to be resisting pressure from Washington or dealing neutrally with terrorists. "We will do our patriotic duty," said News Corp. executive Rupert Murdoch. CNN said it "will consider guidance from appropriate authorities." There is something overly submissive here. Respect for the grave responsibilities of the administration is admirable. So is some sense of solidarity with Washington at a time of crisis. But the news business hasn't found a way to say clearly that it expresses its patriotism by aggressively defending the public's right to know what's going on. That's the job of a free press, even in wartime.
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