Media attacked for doing their job

November 06, 2001|By Larry Atkins

PHILADELPHIA - Since Sept. 11, the American media have aired a lot of controversial opinions:

Give peace a chance.

President Bush is mishandling the war.

Let's start deporting Arabs and drop nuclear bombs on Afghanistan.

The United States should stop its unilateral support of Israel.

These might be unpopular opinions to many, but should columnists and journalists be excoriated if they express them in their articles? Free speech by journalists is essential in our society, but in the aftermath of Sept. 11 it has been open season on those in the media who have attempted to assert their free speech rights.

Last month, columnists in Oregon and Texas were fired after they criticized President Bush.

According to the Association of Alternative Newspapers, advertisers in many alternative weekly newspapers have either canceled ads or threatened to after the appearance of columns criticizing Mr. Bush.

Aaron McGruder, the creator of the comic strip The Boondocks, mocked American patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks; in response, The Boondocks was pulled from at least three newspapers - New York's Daily News and Newsday and the Dallas Morning News. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer may have been prophetic when he warned Americans that "they need to watch what they say, watch what they do."

Is it unpatriotic to criticize the president during a war? A columnist's job is to offer his or her opinion, and a muzzled or self-censored columnist is as useful as an opera singer with laryngitis. If the government and our political leaders are doing things wrong or acting inappropriately, the public needs to know about it.

Dissent is healthy, not anti-American. In fact, both the urge and the opportunity to disagree with authorities, guaranteed by the First Amendment, represent the most core American values of them all.

If it hadn't been for free speech, media coverage and dissent, the Vietnam War might have dragged on for many more years. The press had great access in covering that war, and the brutality of Vietnam was brought into America's living rooms each night.

Without free speech and the efforts of journalists, the Watergate scandal might never have been exposed.

Yet, with President Bush, everyone, especially those in the media, has been expected to be a team player and to agree with everything our government does.

But it is legitimate for journalists to ask questions and foster vigorous debate about wartime events, now and in the future. They shouldn't be castigated if they choose to raise questions such as whether the federal government's response to the anthrax attacks was adequate since it led to the deaths of two Washington post office workers.

Will Americans still wholeheartedly support the war if our troops get bogged down in a Vietnam-like quagmire in Afghanistan? If the war spreads and more troops are needed, will people be willing to accept a draft?

Some believe that dissenters are unpatriotic and a disgrace to the country. It's terrific that Americans have bonded together after the Sept. 11 attack and that patriotism is at a fever pitch. But the United States isn't the former Soviet Union, and the last thing Americans would want is that our press become the equivalent of the Soviet news agency Tass. President Bush's statement to other countries that "you're either with us or against us" doesn't apply to the media.

The war against terrorism could last years, if not decades. We need a free press to cover it.

Larry Atkins is a lawyer and writer. He is a member of the First Amendment Committee of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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