“Are You an American First, or Are You a Journalist?”

By Robert Jensen

Published in Media Ethics · September, 2002

Fall 2002, Vol. 14, No. 1

Unfortunately that question–posed to the profession by Bill Kovach at the annual meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen in April 2002–is pertinent, even necessary, after Sept. 11, as the few who dared criticize or challenge the rush to war were attacked for being insufficiently patriotic. Too many journalists responded to the post-9/11 hyper-nationalism by waiving the flag, literally and figuratively.

Even Dan Rather, perhaps the most vocal journalistic patriot after the tragedy, has had second thoughts, confiding to the BBC in May 2002 that “patriotism run amok” has led to self-censorship by journalists, himself included.

Kovach’s challenge and Rather’s confession are compelling, but unfortunately formulated in a way that diverts journalists and citizens from a more crucial question: ARE YOU AN AMERICAN FIRST, OR ARE YOU A HUMAN BEING? That’s the question for EVERYONE after Sept. 11.

The answer depends on the meaning of patriotism; two definitions competed after the terrorist attacks. One was the patriotism of President Bush: “you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” meaning “get on board with plans for war, or…” Or what? The implication was that real Americans rally around their government and only traitors raise critical questions.

This poses an obvious problem for journalists, who get paid to raise questions. But for anyone–journalist or not–to adopt such a crude patriotism is to abandon moral responsibility. What if a war violates international law or is prosecuted using immoral tactics? Nations–including ours–are not benevolent institutions, and the history of this country is replete with barbaric acts. IF PATRIOTISM REQUIRES WE SUPPORT SUCH ACTS, THEN PATRIOTISM BECOMES BARBARISM.

An alternative, kinder-and-gentler, patriotism is offered by others, especially war opponents: patriotism not as reflexive support for a policy or leader, but as allegiance to American ideals of freedom and democracy.

Freedom and democracy certainly deserve our allegiance. But what makes them UNIQUELY American? Is there something about the United States that make us better able to achieve freedom and democracy than, say, Canadians or Indians or Brazilians? Are not people around the world–including those who live in countries that do not guarantee freedom–capable of
UNDERSTANDING and ACTING on those ideals?

If the justification of this notion of patriotism is that these values are realized to their fullest extent in the United States, then we will have to answer questions from the people of Guatemala and Iran, Nicaragua and Vietnam, East Timor and Panama. Victims of U.S. aggression–direct and indirect–might wonder why our political culture, supposedly the highest expression of the ideals of freedom and democracy, routinely overthrows democratically elected governments, supports brutal dictators, funds and trains proxy terrorist armies, and unleashes brutal attacks on civilians in war.

Before claiming America is the fulfillment of history, the ultimate expression of liberty and justice, we might think a bit about our history. We might start at Wounded Knee. We might ponder the firebombing of Japanese cities and the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that followed, with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed. We might recall the secret bombing of Cambodia.

In all these cases the United States targeted civilians to achieve a political goal, which is a common definition of terrorism. In this sense, the United States is no different from other great powers in history that have ignored basic moral considerations. Apologists in this country do their best to explain that our terrorism is necessary to achieve peace and freedom, but the ugly fact is that these kinds of attacks are motivated by a desire to extend power.

So, at its worst, patriotism can lead people to support brutal policies. At its best, it is self-indulgently arrogant in its assumptions about our uniqueness. But rejecting patriotism isn’t moral relativism. We should not be afraid to judge systems and societies, using principles we can articulate and defend–so long as they truly are PRINCIPLES, applied honestly and uniformly, including to ourselves.

And we should maintain a bit of humility. Instead of claiming that America is the greatest nation on earth, we might say, “I live in the United States and have deep emotional ties to its people, land and ideals, and I want to highlight its many positive things while working to change what is wrong.”

We can say that without suggesting other people are less capable of understanding democracy or defending freedom. We can believe that while encouraging spirited debate about policy. We can act on that and be not just Americans, but responsible citizens of the world.

In such a world, Kovach’s question would be irrelevant; there would be no conflict between being an American and a journalist. Journalists would simply pursue professionally–with the extra time, training and resources they have–what everyone would pursue privately: rigorously questioning those in power and honestly challenging ourselves.

Everyone, including journalists, needs to ask: Can we move beyond being American?

Given the destructive capacity of the United States–and our history of using it in the interests of power, not people–never before has our answer been more important.