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, dropped their sponsorship, and several ABC affiliate stations dropped Maher’s show from their lineups (Washington Post, 9/28/01).
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 (Associated Press, 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 right-wing 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 there."
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 WNUV in Baltimore, news anchors and other on-air journalists read the statements (Baltimore Sun, 10/4/01).
"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 station 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 that 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 air strikes 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 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'' (Associated Press, 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 than 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 (Associated Press, 10/31/01).
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 the 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, 9/30/01).
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 that 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 an American soldier. The 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.
"No Spin Zone?"
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly often boasts of his penchant for straight talk and his intolerance for spin. So how does O’Reilly explain his attempts to dodge responsibility for his comments on Afghanistan? On the September 17 O’Reilly Factor, he laid out a detailed plan for what to do if the Taliban did not hand over Osama bin Laden:
He went on to say that in Iraq, "their infrastructure must be destroyed and the population made to endure yet another round of intense pain." And he called for destroying Libya’s airports and mining its harbors: "Let them eat sand."
But on his September 25 show, when guest Phil Donahue called him on this bloodthirsty plan, O’Reilly denied that he had ever threatened civilians: "I never said bomb a civilian. I would bomb military targets. I would bomb military targets.... I'm not talking about civilians."
FAIR activists sent hundreds of letters to O’Reilly after his September 17 program, urging him to consider the ramifications of his rhetoric--and the fact that bombing civilian targets and using starvation as a weapon are war crimes. Could that activism have led O’Reilly to spin away from his earlier bloodthirsty scheme?