The patriotic press
By Robert Jensen
Published in Hindustan Times · September, 2005
[This article appeared in the Hindustan Times (India), September 3, 2005, p. 10.]
In the United States it can seem as if any event — no matter how tragic — creates a public-relations opportunity for the self-proclaimed guardians of patriotism.
And there seems to be no patriotic public-relations gambit that the U.S. news media won’t swallow.
So, there’s nothing unusual about either the Pentagon’s plans to pump up support for a failed war in Iraq by holding a Sept. 11 “Freedom Walk” in Washington, DC, or the Washington Post’s initial decision to be a sponsor of the event.
But the Post’s eventual withdrawal of that sponsorship highlights the fundamental problem with U.S. journalism’s intellectually incoherent claim to neutrality.
First, more about the event, the full title of which is the “America Supports You Freedom Walk.” Technically the “you” is U.S. soldiers and sailors. Americans are asked to honor military personnel and veterans, remember those who died in the 9/11 attacks, and understand how all this is linked to our freedom.
Just how are they linked? Well, they (the terrorists) hate us for our freedoms, which we love. That’s why they (again, the terrorists) attacked us on 9/11. There are terrorists (maybe not the terrorists, but terrorists all the same) in Iraq. Fighting those terrorists in Iraq are U.S. troops — our brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors — and we obviously support them in whatever they are doing. So, we should all want to flock to the nation’s capital to express our support — no matter how transparent the political motivations.
If some of the factual assertions and all of the logic in that seem a little off, well, just go to www.asyfreedomwalk.com for answers. Then click on “Register” and remember to include your t-shirt size so that you can be a walking billboard for years to come.
It’s not that freedom isn’t worth celebrating, or that people killed in terrorist attacks don’t deserve to be remembered, or that we shouldn’t care about people in the armed forces. But this whole charade is motivated by a simple fact: Polls show a majority of people in the United States believe not only that the war is going badly at the moment but that it was a mistake. This shabby attempt at emotional-political manipulation would barely rise to the level of a bad joke if it weren’t being taken seriously by people outside Pentagon propaganda office.
That included Washington Post executives who signed up as a sponsor. When journalists and antiwar activists suggested there might be a problem with a news media company being identified with such an event, the newspaper dropped out. According to a company spokesman, “it appears that this event could become politicized” and “it is The Post’s practice to avoid activities that might lead readers to question the objectivity of The Post’s news coverage.”
Could become politicized? Is there any way a literate adult could look at the Freedom Walk and not realize it’s a political PR stunt? But the real problem lies deeper. The implication of the Post’s response is that a generic patriotic event — one not so clearly constructed to build support for disastrous policy decisions — would be politically neutral and acceptable.
This indicates just how narrow and naïve is mainstream corporate journalism’s political worldview.
In that mainstream, journalists make a promise: The public can trust us, because we’re neutral on political questions; we’ll be objective. Putting aside the fact that much of the public doesn’t believe such claims, the assertion is absurd. Nowhere is it more painfully obvious than in the discussion of patriotism.
Many people believe that patriotism — defined as love of, or loyalty to, a nation-state — is a moral virtue. Others argue for adherence to universal principles applied without loyalty to any particular political entity. A few folks even take the Christian Bible seriously, believing ultimate loyalty belongs to God and patriotism is idolatry.
Whatever we believe, the position we take is — in the deepest sense of the term — a political position. No matter how common patriotic declarations are, endorsing patriotism is not neutral.
So, no amount of rhetorical gymnastics could render the Freedom Walk an apolitical patriotic event. Patriotic events are, by definition, politicized.
Yet U.S. journalists constantly assert that one can be patriotic and neutral. After 9/11, journalists fell over themselves to proclaim their patriotism. When attacked by administration pit-bulls for raising even tepid questions about government policy in the run-up to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, journalists explained that being a skeptical journalist was the highest form of patriotism.
So, U.S. journalists are neutral on all political questions except the political questions on which they aren’t neutral. Beyond the question of patriotism, the core issues on which most U.S. journalists are not neutral are (1) the naturalness of capitalism as the only possible economic system; (2) the inherent benevolence of U.S. foreign policy; and (3) the acceptance of the Republican and Democratic parties as the definers of relevant political positions.
U.S. journalists don’t openly endorse these political positions, but these ideas form the common sense on which mainstream reporting, even when critical, is based. If capitalism produces grotesque inequality and suffering, it’s just a matter of tinkering with the rules to improve things. Policies that cause hundreds of thousands deaths abroad are the result of good-faith efforts of U.S. policymakers, who sometimes make mistakes as they strive to improve the world. If social movements present political proposals that the main parties reject, such dissident positions are not “practical” and hence irrelevant.
Journalists can strive for independence, especially from concentrated centers of power such as the state or the corporation. Journalists can try to be open-minded about political positions they find distasteful and skeptical of those in which they believe.
But one thing journalists cannot be is neutral, because there is no neutral ground on which to stand — for journalists or anyone else in this world.
The U.S. public would be better served if the illusory neutrality and objectivity on which the corporate commercial news media claim to rest were abandoned for an honest accounting of the political positions in which they are rooted. Such an accounting would help expose corporate media’s systematic subordination to state and corporate power, one important step toward creating meaningful democracy in the United States.