Give Dissent a Chance

It wasn't Dan Rather's tears on Letterman that bothered me. I probably would have cried, too, after what he'd been through. It'd be unnatural not to. It was the network anchor's unabashed jingoism that got me. Why did the terrorists attack the US? Letterman asked. "Well, because they're evil," Rather answered, adding that they're also "jealous" of the United States. I looked at my partner with shock. This from one of the stalwarts of journalism? "I never thought I'd say this, but I miss 'objective' journalism," I told him. At least you usually get two, albeit often superficial, sides. No longer.

I'm sure no fan of US corporate journalism, the type that that is so blinded by Ivy-League geography that it misses a major cultural divide in the country. The type that ignores poor and minority concerns because their readers have higher incomes. The type that doesn't bother to leave the horserace long enough to research the well-established meaning of "compassionate conservatism." The type that packages every tragedy with neat little gross banners like "America's New War." It's so often painful to watch journalists -- myself included -- try to evenly box a complex issue into "he said that, and she responded," while hiding their personal biases and holding back needed analysis in the name of fairness. I heartily agree with Molly Ivins, as she once told the Twin Citian: "I've seen truth murdered too many times in the name of objectivity."

But in the week since the hijacking tragedies, amid my mourning for a city I love and victims I didn't know, I increasingly fear that we're not going to be there for you. As a group, I fear we're going to be there for the state, which in our collective grief and flag-buying sprees we've all temporarily decided is one and the same as the people. But it's not -- and the US, now more than ever, desperately needs the press to monitor and expose military excesses, to protect our civil liberties, to relay pleas for the sanctity of innocent life, American or not. Perhaps because the media elite capital was ground zero of the tragedy, many press outlets and journalists seem to have already chosen sides (and bought that you must totally be with the state or with the terrorists, as Bush says), plastering American flags all over their marketing banners, ignoring the growing peace movement and berating any attempts at dissent. Our corporate media, predictably perhaps, is quickly becoming our state media, stoking blind patriotism in a country that doesn't need help right now channeling anger toward the Middle East.

I've been shocked at responses from some journalists I've heard in the past week. As a graduate of Columbia J-school, I've been privy to angry comments on our class e-mail discussion list, censorious carping I thought I'd never hear from fellow reporters. Tellingly, the salvos came over the basic question of whether we -- journalists and Americans in general -- should try to understand why extremist Muslims would attack the US (beyond Rather's evil and jealous distillation, that is). Over the weekend, one graduate sent around a mordant opinion piece from London's The Guardian, saying in the accompanying e-mail simply, "Perhaps this will provide some insight and a different perspective." In the piece, Seumas Milne wrote that "Americans simply don't get it." If we cannot face our own history and treatment of people in other countries that might have led to the tragedy, he warned we will face more such terrorism, with perhaps worse consequences.

Agree with Milne's specifics or not, it is rather obvious right now that Americans hold revisionist illusions about much of our own history and are scant willing to admit, much less repent for, our own crimes. (Witness our shameful exit from the Durban racism conference and that Confederate flag still flying over my home state). As journalists, we all should hold ourselves responsible for our past (and perhaps present) willingness to de-emphasize our own international education and reporting and focusing on what will sell to the American public. I've sure done it, writing way too many glowing words about the high-tech boom in order to make a living. But too many journalists (or their bosses) don't seem to want to even hear an alternative point of view. They want no dissent in the wake of this tragedy. And, most terrifying, some are willing to skewer the messenger of any challenge to the patriotic status quo.

One grad fired back to the journalist who forwarded the piece: "What sort of 'insight' do you think you are providing? ... That knowledge doesn't temper the urge to put our collective foot in the responsible group's ass." He/she finishes, "[K]eep your schmucky agenda to yourself." Another: "When I'm gassed in the streets during the next attack, I'll take comfort in knowing that the evils of global capitalism, European colonialism and Richard Nixon are to blame." Still another, filled with expletives: "F**k that, f**k Milne, and f**k anyone who would pay such pointless navel-gazing any mind right now."

This media jingoism wasn't limited to my fellow J-school grads. Over on Jim Romanesko's media site (, where the navel-gazing can reach obscene proportions, New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser drew cheers and boos when she toed the same line as Rather, dismissing the notion that US citizens should understand why much of the world hates us. "Like hell. We know why we are hated only too well. We are hated by those who are jealous and resentful of our freedom and prosperity. They hate us because we rightly support the state of Israel. They hate us because we are everything they are not," she wrote.

Of course, New York journalists are going to have extreme reactions to what they're seeing: They're human, and this act was horrifying. As Americans, they want justice. I do, too. But this xenophobia can quickly turn into reporting that won't question anything Bush, Ashcroft and new terrorism czar Tom Ridge do -- both abroad and to our own civil liberties at home -- toward the noble goal of ending all evil. The networks and many newspapers have blatantly lined up behind the idea of an all-out "war" against a still-unknown enemy beyond bin Laden, a war that we may lose (guess we shouldn't pay much mind to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, either). In general, the media are helping perpetuate the callow notion that Americans will crusade into bad Arab states on Wild West horseback, guns firing, take out the evil guys, and we'll all feel better once we've snuffed out as many eyes as they did. That scenario is as naïve as the idea that terrorism was never going to find its way to our arrogant shores in the first place. How can any of us rest if we kill starving, innocent Afghans in the process?

On this treacherous road we're traveling, the media an the whole seem to accept that anything must go in the American quest for revenge; there are no other roads to justice. In these days of conglomerates and watered-down journalism, it's certainly hard to fathom a hearty fight by media outlets to, say, publish the 21st-century version of the Pentagon Papers. Mighty muckraker I. F. Stone liked to say, "All journalism is investigative." At the rate we're going now, no journalism will be investigative. Dissent will be a relic of the past.

Donna Ladd is a writer in Jackson, Miss. E-mail her at

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