BOB GARFIELD: Critics of the media -- this show more than most -- have long dined out on the embarrassing excesses and the appalling deficits of TV news. We never tire of ridiculing its superficiality, its sensationalism, its obsession with horse race politics over substantive policy, dead bodies over legislative ones, profit over probity. Then came September 11th. America, amid the horror, saw a breathtaking display of journalistic virtuosity on broadcast and cable alike. Exhaustive, expansive, responsible, restrained, inquisitive, sensitive and even oddly comforting -- the television networks cleared the decks, sacrificed at least 400 million dollars in advertising revenue and performed in a fashion verging on the heroic. Monica Lewinsky. Gary Condit. Who the hell are Monica Lewinsky and Gary Condit? It was a revelation to see that when real news happens, news of life and death consequence for the entire world, television still knows what to do in matters not only of substance but of tone. In the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, TV hit every note.
Now the United States is headed into a war. What sort of war we can scarcely guess. But a war nonetheless. For the foreseeable future amid death and destruction, the nation will be relying on television. This is not time to backslide. But in the past few days there have been some discordant notes.
DAN RATHER ON DAVID LETTERMAN:But I couldn't feel stronger, David, that this is a time for us -- and I'm not preaching about it -- George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions, and-- you know as just one American-- wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.
BOB GARFIELD: On David Letterman's program, CBS News anchor
DAN RATHER declaring something like unconditional fealty to the president. As someone once said, this will not stand. Crisis or no crisis, it is not a news anchor's job to uncritically accept the leadership of any politician. Rather the opposite. It's his job to question everything. In Baltimore, WBFF-TV required its anchor teams to pledge on air their full support for the government's actions. WJLA in Washington has a new slogan: God Bless America. And each of the networks has incorporated into its graphic elaborate, ostentatious displays of the American flag.
This isn't hard to understand. In times of war and tragedy, choked for the right words, so many of us turn reflexively to the flag. In our ineloquence we rely on it to express our patriotism, determination and solidarity. Symbols are powerful, of course, and satisfying. But what they offer in simplicity they lack in depth. Lapel pins and God Bless America may reflect something of how we feel but do nothing to parse the complexities of what we think. Not to put too fine a point on it, serving the public and service democracy involves more than rallying around the flag. Didn't we learn a lesson in the Gulf War? Reporters in televised briefings were roundly despised by the public for badgering the military with questions, but the resulting reporting tended to take the government at its word. Only later did we discover that the Pentagon lied about bomb damage assessments and the efficacy of Patriot Missiles time and again. This isn't about mindless contrarianism or arrogance or cold disrespect. The issue is objectivity and credibility.
If TV news wants to be genuinely patriotic, it must continue to be the skeptical voice envisioned by the country's founders. Journalism's job is to unravel, not to unfurl. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers; engineered by Scott Strickland, and edited by Brooke. Our web master is Amy Pearl. Special thanks to NPR's New York Bureau and especially to New York's Public Television Station Channel 13.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large; Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from National Public Radio and WNYC in beautiful New York City. I'm Brooke Gladstone.