BROOKE GLADSTONE: With the emphasis on national unity, the usual critical function of the press is under some strain. Our case in point is Howard Rosenberg, the TV critic of the Los Angeles Times. The day after the towers fell his editors requested a column assessing the performance of the president on television. He said the commander in chief looked stiff and boyish. The response was instant, enraged and overwhelming. The verdict: Rosenberg is a bad American. As one reader wrote: he is a pathetic little man and I honestly question his patriotism and his allegiance to the U.S. The Times should get rid of Rosenberg before his stench infiltrates the whole organization. Howard Rosenberg joins us now. So were most of the responses along those lines?
HOWARD ROSENBERG:Yeah. As a matter of fact that was probably one of the more moderate ones. I, I got--approximately 900 e-mails, 99.5 percent of which were harshly critical, calling me, you know, "Osama bin Rosenberg," equating me with the-- the terrorists, ordering me out of the country, ordering me not to write again, ordering me to die. That was the tone. I got lots of criticism, and even though I respect my criticism and I, and a lot of, lot of times I learn from it-- it just sort of, you know, falls off. This time it didn't, because on some level I, I worried that perhaps they were right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But while you were writing it did you think oh, my God I'm going to get hammered for this?
HOWARD ROSENBERG:No, I knew I'd be criticized. In no way did I ever expect this level of criticism and this many e-mails. You know I didn't, I didn't really attack the president. I wrote about what I thought was his great capacity for feeling the pain of others. I thought in many ways his tears were very admirable. On the other hand I thought there were times when those tears were inappropriate, and that's the part that people really got mad about. I, you know I never really attacked -- it's not my place as someone who writes about television to attack anyone for his or her policies or on a personal level. It was purely a, an examination of the president as he appeared on television. And-- I, I thought it was rather measured. So that's why I was, I was really surprised at the level of criticism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The headline writers titled your piece Bush's Image Fails to Fill the Screen, and you note that at one point when he was walking from his helicopter he seemed to be slinking guiltily. But that's just image, right? Aren't his pronouncements and his policies m-- vastly more important in the scope of things?
BOB GARFIELD:It's a good point, but I think in-- in the year 2001 it's very important for every president, every leader on any level to be able to communicate through - to the people through television. In some ways that can equal the importance of, of policy decisions! Because you know we look to our leaders, especially the president, for our cues. What he's feeling, we may be feeling. If he appears strong, I think it'll really embolden us. So I think it's more than just a matter of wanting your president to be a TV star. I mean that indeed would be very shallow and really s-- rather insipid. But I think it's importance to judge him on how he communicates to the people, and primarily today the president communicates through television!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was it important to you to say these things?
HOWARD ROSENBERG:Yeah, I think it is. I -- you know in, in retrospect -- I will be quite honest with you - I don't regret writing anything I wrote. I think I should have waited another day. I think it was a bad judgment on my part and for which I take full responsibility. I mean I could have said you know-- it's a good idea but let me wait another day. He's going to New York. He's going to be around the town.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:If you were writing your column, say, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and you thought that JFK had struck a false note, would it be right to say it then?
HOWARD ROSENBERG:Oh, I think so. I, I really do. Those of us in journalism always walk this very fine line. We really have to watch our step. There are times when we should be sensitive to what the country is going through -- many times, as a matter of fact. And there are times when you want to rally round the flag. But also I think you can carry it to an extreme, and I think you know as the impact of what happened at - in New York really sort of softens a little bit and as time moves on, I think there'll be more and more second-guessing of the president and at least a-- at least pieces giving very close scrutiny to what he does.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
HOWARD ROSENBERG: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Howard Rosenberg is the TV critic for the Los Angeles Times.