My America: Celeste Headlee and The Patriotism of Journalism

Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - 02:09 PM

Through our series, "My America," we've been asking a lot of people whether they consider themselves patriots. I'd like to answer that question for myself. I love my country and I love my countrymen. If the measure of patriotism is a willingness to defend your country (not your government), then I am a patriot. 

But I'm a journalist, and that means it's not "my country, right or wrong." It's "my country, and I will try to make her right by pointing out when she's wrong." However, for some people, the drive to question the government, to publish national secrets, to write about incidents and events that seem to tarnish the reputation of nation seems…anti-American. In his essay “Bradlee Dean Speaks Out For Himself,” Bradlee Dean, Michele Bachmann’s preacher, writes:

Just because you were born here does not make you an “American.” To be an American is to line up with who we are as a people and as a nation. A true American’s job is to uphold, preserve, and defend the Constitutional Republic that our forefathers gave us … As we ponder the awful price of freedom, let me ask you, America, why do you allow these supposed reporters to encourage disarray and an anarchy attitude? The state-run media is being used to promulgate propaganda - the new immoral way instead of the old righteous way (Jeremiah 6:16).

The anti-American, unpatriotic journalist is a familiar figure at this point. Remember the uproar when ABC announced it was forbidding its reporters from wearing flag lapel pins after 9/11? A viral email was forwarded all over the country asking, "Since when is patriotism to be discouraged?" and demanding that Americans boycott the network. Media reporter Howard Kurtz weighed in on the controversy, announcing on CNN that he supported the ban: "Journalists are patriots who love their country, and are horrified by these attacks, but many believe it's simply inappropriate for them to engage in flag-waving on the air."

But for many average Americans, refusing to wear the nation's flag is a troubling sign. Why would reporters disapprove of the flag?  Do they also disapprove of the country? It would be great if questions about national loyalty were confined to issues as trivial as lapel pins, but they’re not.  

The idea that journalists are not skeptical, but unpatriotic, has deep roots in the US. It may have really begun in the 1970's. That's when Congress investigated a series of damning allegations against the CIA, and the then-CIA director George H.W. Bush successfully lobbied to block the release of the congressional report on that investigation.

That's when that traitor Daniel Schorr (my hero) stepped in. Schorr got his hands on the report and decided the public had a right to see it. He leaked the congressional report to the Village Voice and, because of that, lost his job at CBS. Look at some of the news reports of the time, and you'll see that "unpatriotic" was among the least offensive words used to describe Dan Schorr.  

Schorr took an incredible risk by leaking that report, and he paid for it with his livelihood. But he did it in the interest of the public good, not the government good. And that's a line that reporters draw. Nation is not equal to government. I love my nation and foster a healthy distrust of its leaders, regardless of party.

The Iraq War debacle is a black mark on the history of American journalism, in my opinion. An understandable feeling of patriotism swept all of us, coast to coast. And unfortunately, grief over 9/11 made many reporters forget that distinction, to blur the line that divides country from government. Many of us failed our country because we didn't dig harder to discover discrepancies. We weren't skeptical enough, or perhaps brave enough, to risk our jobs the way Daniel Schorr did. For me, supporting the government line in the lead-up to the Iraq War looked like patriotism, but tasted like something else.  

Some were better patriots than others. Phil Donahue was hosting a new show on MSNBC at the time. It was the network's number one rated show, beating out Chris Matthew's "Hardball." Donahue was a vocal critic of the Iraq War and brought a number of war opponents on his show. MSNBC says the show was cancelled for low ratings, but a leaked internal memo stated that Donahue needed to be fired because he was a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war."

Looking back in shame at what happened in the news media after 9/11, I have been forced to reevaluate where my loyalty lies, with whom, and what it means to love my country.

I've been covering politics for more than a decade and the experience has changed me. I don't trust politicians or their political rhetoric, no matter what party they belong to. It's my job to question, think critically, and view press releases with skepticism. To fail in that duty is to fail my country. Questioning my leaders is how I express my patriotism and making their mistakes public is how I protect my country.

Am I a patriot?  Yes, I am.  This is my America, all of it, fabulous and flawed. My America is beautiful, beloved, and fallible. And that doesn't make her any less great.

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Comments [1]

Martin Damskov from 76133

I am no journalist but Daniel Schorr needs to be taught to all American's, it just goes to show you how the Right has squeezed the curriculum down so that a class that I took as a kid is NO WHERE on the radar and that class was called Civics. That class and what it taught (wrought if your a Republican) is forever erased from the collective memory, but it would be nice for an enterprising political scroll to highlight the need to re-introduce Civics back into the curriculum because this experiment ramrodded by Conservative's to dumb down the electorate may have fit nicely within their agenda over the past 40 years of making sure their kid's receive a full broad based education while everyone else remains in the fog has run it's course. We have to use our numbers and refuse to accept their bullying and dirty tricks blocking us on critical issues that negatively affect our children, healthcare, civil rights, education, elderly care, and host of other issues. As for civics it opens the eyes of our children to learn about their country by raising their overall awareness to many issues. Thank you, Celeste I agree you are the right kind of Patriot!

Nov. 07 2012 09:43 AM

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