A patriotic press is a vigilant one

Sunday, September 23, 2001

We’re about to find out what freedom of the press really means.

It’s a constitutional guarantee that Americans recognize but don’t always appreciate. In fact a First Amendment Center survey taken last spring suggested that 46% of Americans believed that the nation’s news media had too much freedom.

That was an understandable backlash to often shallow, often cynical saturation coverage of stories with only minimal impact on our lives. This summer it was Gary Condit around the clock, punctuated by shark sightings.

And then the world changed.

Saturation coverage has never looked so good in the wake of the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Suddenly 24-hour coverage of a single story was welcome.

I first learned of the terrorist attacks shortly after checking into a Johannesburg hotel. My only access to U.S. news media was CNN. While I certainly wasn’t comforted by the coverage, I knew that I was getting as much information as possible, as quickly as it became available.

When we all have access to information — unfiltered by the government — we’re better able to cope, even under the most extraordinary circumstances.

The pleasant surprise is that now that the nation’s news media have a story that is so massive in scope and so great in importance that they truly can’t overplay it, we’re seeing remarkable restraint and professionalism.

Although there were far too many replays of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, most of the television coverage has, in fact, been sensitive and measured, focusing on facts rather than speculation.

Consider this remarkable memo from NBC News executive Bill Wheatley, as reported in USA TODAY: “It’s now time to be extremely cautious about what we report. Please take great care to make sure that our broadcasts don’t pass along information that could prove helpful to those who would do harm to our citizens, our officials and our military. Let’s be careful about reporting specifics of presidential travel, of security arrangements, of secret military plans, troop movements and the like.”

Newspapers also have done a remarkable job, expanding news content to provide in-depth coverage of the story of a lifetime.

Yet the greatest challenges for the nation’s news media lie ahead. The real test of press freedom in this nation will not be reporting what happens, but how and why. Can the nation’s press — already sporting red, white and blue logos — live up to its obligation as a true watchdog of government?

It was one thing for the press to challenge an unpopular war like Vietnam. It’s quite another to question government decisions when the enemy is in our midst and our citizens are casualties.

As Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., observed, “The most dangerous time for any democracy is at times of crisis. … Asking even the most innocent and basic questions is seen as being nonsupportive.”

There’s already been a backlash against some reporters. As columnist Mary McGrory reported, “Ask any journalist who raised questions about (the president’s) early handling of the crisis: They have been inundated with furious calls calling them a disgrace to their profession and even traitors.”

Maintaining a check on government extends well beyond monitoring this war on terrorism. The Founding Fathers saw freedom of the press as the vehicle with which to protect our other freedoms.

We’ve already heard from many in government that some civil liberties may have to be sacrificed if we are to win this war on terrorism.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., warned, “We’re in a new world where we have to rebalance freedom and security. … We’re not going to have all the openness and freedom that we had.”

The goal is to bolster security without violating the Constitution, but clearly this is a time for vigilance.

As Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has cautioned, “If the Constitution gets shredded, the terrorists win.”

Journalists do their jobs by exercising our most fundamental freedoms. They have an obligation to speak out when those rights are denied to others. As President Bush told the nation on Thursday night, Sept. 20, “We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.”

A free press can serve as an invaluable watchdog on government actions, without undercutting our national interests. Reporters can ask tough questions while wearing flag lapel pins. Professionalism and patriotism can — and must — coexist. The American people are counting on it.

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