Journalists tread fine line between patriotism and partisanship

In wake of last week's tragedy, news anchors don red, white, and blue

With American flags draping buildings, cars, and baseball fields right now, few people probably think twice about seeing red, white, and blue in their local and national TV news coverage.

Anchors wearing ribbons or reporting the news with flag-filled TV monitors behind them are just a few of the expressions of patriotism that are being beamed from sea to shining sea.

These displays of support, while in keeping with much of the country's mood, raise questions about a practice that is usually kept separate from the workplace of those charged with asking tough questions of government.

Journalists already face uphill battles during times of conflict, when access to information from the govenment can be limited. Already, issues of accessiblity have arisen with regard to the actions of the Bush government.

Legendary newsman Walter Cronkite is calling for a board to monitor government censorship in response to Attorney General John Ashcroft's statement that the news media would be kept in the dark about the details of the war.

Some critics say that's why it's so important for journalists to maintain their independence. They have already detected a softer touch when it comes to members of the press interviewing federal officials. And in some cases, efforts to be patriotic have blurred the lines more heavily than a tri-colored ribbon -with statements being read on air that offer support for the president's decision to wage a war against terrorism.

To those who monitor journalism ethics, those practices are more troubling than mere decoration. Wearing a ribbon - as NBC's Tim Russert did when he interviewed Vice President Dick Cheney on "Meet the Press" -may not be the worst violation of objectivity.

They are more concerned that journalists may back away from the tough questions - and in extreme cases, could end up looking like a mouthpiece for the government.

Viewers might wonder, "How can you be patriotic if you are aggressively questioning the president? How can you be patriotic if you are putting antiwar demonstrators in your newscast?" says Bob Steele, director of ethics at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

That's a question people watching local stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, based in Baltimore, might be asking. Since last Thursday, the group's 62 stations across the US have been running promotions for a website the company created where people could voice their opinions on the recent attacks.

Stations were asked to include in the promo language essentially like this aired on WBFF in Baltimore: "The management of WBFF FOX 45 stands behind the president and our nation's leaders in the vow that terrorism must be stopped. If you agree, make your voice heard."

At Sinclair headquarters, Mark Hyman, vice president for corporate relations and one of the people who came up with the idea for the site, doesn't see what has journalists -including those at least one station where anchors were asked to star in the promos -worried about objectivity.

"I personally don't get it. I personally don't see this as any kind of partisan statement." What they are guilty of, he says, is "being patriotic during a time of tragedy."

Others think it's a very big deal. "Asking your on-air talent to utter words of support for the president is a mistake," says Tom Rosenstiel at the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.

This - and promotional practices such as fundraising for a specific charity - has an effect on credibility, he says. "The more journalists manipulate their audiences, the more untrustworthy [viewers] think they are."

As to the appropriateness of fundraising, some local stations say they have a responsibility as a community leader.

"It has nothing to do with journalism, and everything to do with public service," says Paul LaCamera, general manager of WCVB-TV, Channel 5 in Boston, whose news program "Chronicle" ran a telethon for the American Red Cross.

Ethicists like Mr. Steele are less concerned about anchors wearing pins or clothing that show their solidarity -like the red, white, and blue ribbon FOXNews anchor Laurie Dhue has been wearing each night on the network's "FOX News Edge." So far, these symbols do not represent specific support of the government's policies, as they came to signify in historic conflicts like Vietnam.

The most important thing, these observers say, is preserving independence.

If journalists show patriotism -or even shed tears, as CBS anchor Dan Rather did on David Letterman's talk show this week, or Mr. Cronkite did when President Kennedy was assassinated -these signs of personal involvement aren't necessarily a compromise.

"I'd be more concerned if the journalists are jingoistic in their patriotism or if they are ... offering point-of-view commentary," says Steele.

In fact, it might seem inappropriate if journalists appeared too detached from the tragedy. "You don't leave your humanity at the door," says Rosenstiel. "I don't see anything wrong with wearing a symbol of sympathy, as long as it doesn't mean anything specific."

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