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Journalism's Dangerous Patriotism

18 February 2002

Some American journalists covering the war on terrorism have abandoned themselves to the patriotic passions of the times so enthusiastically and so uncritically that they apparently have forgotten their role as the Fourth Estate.

Those who criticize this flagrantly unprofessional behavior have been ignored, ridiculed or condemned for lack of patriotism. And in many places, specifically the Fox News Channel (which has distinguished itself by dispatching the cartoonish Geraldo Rivera to Afghanistan), some newsreaders and journalists sport American flag lapel pins. A virtual Old Glory can be spotted waving in a corner of the video frame.

These public patriots fail to ask this crucial question: How can one claim to be an impartial chronicler of events in a conflict while loudly proclaiming allegiance to one of the parties? These news shops may consider it good business to showcase their patriotism and, after all, profit is their most important product.

But, aside from the fact that jingoistic journalism is supposed to be an oxymoron, the corporate media's patriotic displays also are endangering the lives of their colleagues.

This open willingness to abandon journalistic ethics is a new phenomenon within the U.S. news media. It's certainly understandable for journalists to feel attached to their home nations. But in their professional work, those personal links should be de-emphasized.

In a war zone, that detachment is even more necessary. A journalist's overt identification with one of the combatants in a conflict easily leads to charges of spying.

Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's abductors have charged he was a CIA or Israeli intelligence (Mossad) agent, all of which has been strongly denied by his employer. A 1976 investigation by a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) found that more than 50 American journalists had worked as CIA agents during the Cold War era. The committee's final report firmly denounced this practice and urged the intelligence community to "permit American journalists and news organizations to pursue their work without jeopardizing their credibility in the eyes of the world through covert use of them."

What's more, journalist groups consistently have urged Congress to prohibit the use of journalists as spies. But Congress hasn't listened and never has restricted the practice.

The issue was raised anew in a 1996 hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Former CIA director John Deutch argued to continue the practice of using journalists as spies. Most journalist groups agreed with CNN's then-president Tom Johnson, who said during the hearing "under no conditions should journalists be used as a cover for spying."

Terry Anderson, the former Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press who was abducted in Lebanon in 1985 and held for nearly seven years, also testified at the hearing. Anderson said "we need an absolute and public blanket ban on recruiting and use of journalists and clergy by any intelligence agencies, and also the use of journalistic cover."

The Justice Department's announcement that the Wall Street Journal had shared intelligence with the U.S. government by turning over the hard drive files of a computer formerly owned by Al Qaeda throws doubt on the fairness of some American journalists.

Those files reportedly chronicled the travels of someone whose itinerary closely resembled that of alleged shoe-bomber Richard C. Reid and, coincidentally, the subject of Daniel Pearl's research. That discovery was followed by Reid's indictment and, a few days later, Pearl's abduction in Pakistan.

For those reasons and more, journalists should keep their tribal colors concealed beneath their professional garb.

Salim Muwakkil (Senior Editor, In These Times)
Published in the Chicago Tribune © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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