Historian Howard Zinn once said, “In times of war, the most patriotic act is to ask questions.”
CBS news anchor Dan Rather agrees.
Not that you would know it from Rather’s generally fawning attitude toward the White House, State Department and Pentagon, post Sept. 11.
Rather says he has censored himself, but should have been asking tougher questions about America’s war on terrorism.
And he adds the White House is cynically exploiting America’s practice of not questioning “the Commander in Chief.”
The anchor, who in the weeks after Sept. 11 wore a Stars and Stripes pin on his label during newscasts, told the BBC that he had been cowed by the hyper- patriotism that followed the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre.
“It is an obscene comparison – you know I am not sure I like it – but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tires around peoples’ necks if they dissented,” commented Rather.
“And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck.”
Rather confessed that his own sense of patriotism has held him back from asking tough questions.
“Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions. It starts with a feeling of patriotism within oneself. It carries through with a certain knowledge that the country as a whole – and for all the right reasons – felt and continues to feel this surge of patriotism within themselves. And one finds oneself saying: ‘I know the right question, but you know what? This is not exactly the right time to ask it’.”
Challenging the view that in times of crisis Americans should blindly fall into line behind their government, Rather suggested that Americans reassess their view of what it means to be patriotic.
“It’s unpatriotic not to stand up, look them in the eye, and ask the questions they don’t want to hear – they being those who have the responsibility, the ultimate responsibility – of sending our sons and daughters, our husbands, wives, our blood, to face death,” Rather said.
But Americans, and their media, have been asking few questions. The administration has been given a free ride.
And on top of that, the Pentagon has kept a tight lid on information, a dangerous — and unacceptable — practice, Rather says.
“Limiting access, limiting information to cover the backsides of those who are in charge of the war, is extremely dangerous and cannot and should not be accepted.”
Rather, who succeeded news anchor Walter Cronkite two decades ago, stepping into what once was considered the top job in US journalism, chided the White House for taking advantage of Americans’ tendency to uncritically accept the President’s word in times of crisis.
“The current administration revels in that, they relish that, and they take refuge in that,” the veteran newsman said.
Critics have long argued that Americans owe it to themselves to be more sceptical of their government, and to ask questions. Political commentator and author Michael Parenti points out that Americans know their politicians lie all the time about domestic affairs, but suspend their scepticism in matters of foreign affairs.
“Many Americans recognize that politicians lie,” Parenti says, but “when it comes to foreign policy many of us retreat from that judgement. Suddenly we find it hard to believe that American leaders would lie to us about their intentions in the world.”
Others, like historian Zinn, point to the reasons various US governments have become involved in wars being later revealed to have been pretexts — false justifications to plunge the nation into an armed conflict.
The attack by Vietnamese gunboats in the Tonkin Gulf, which served as justification for starting the Vietnam War, was later revealed to have been an invention.
A story about Iraqi soldiers tossing Kuwaiti babies from incubators — used to firm up support for war against Iraq — was later shown to have been fabricated by a US public relations firm.
And the authenticity of the Racak massacre — the alleged killing by Serb police of dozens of ethnic Albanian civilians in the Kosovar village of Racak — has been challenged by the forensic pathologists who investigated the incident on behalf of the European Union. They say US officials bent over backwards to declare dozens of corpses to be those of civilians, when the evidence pointed to the dead being KLA guerillas who had been caught in a fire fight with Serb police. As late as 1998, the KLA was listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organization with links to Osama bin Laden. The Racak incident was cited by NATO as a reason for launching a 78-day air war against Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999.
Michel Collon, a Belgian journalist, worries that tough questions are asked only when it’s too late — long after wars have begun.
Rather’s conversion to sceptical, question-asking patriot, follows a typical pattern, critics say. Wars are fought, and only after the wars have ended or go awry, are tough questions asked. When it emerges that governments lied, journalists acknowledge, “the first casualty of war is the truth.” But the acknowledgement — made after every war — is never learned from. Instead, journalists allow themselves to be lied to in the next war.
That may be because journalists who go against the tide and ask tough questions at the height of war hysteria, are soon replaced. Had Rather asked tough questions in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, it’s doubtful he would have retained his job. The veteran journalist, now 70, would probably have been forced into retirement. Journalists with aspirations to a long career learn when to ask tough-questions, and when not to.
That serves governments well that want to hide their reasons for going to war. But it’s a disaster for the public.
Collon asks, “Are we doomed to always learn too late?”
With a press corps that only recovers its courage – and patriotism — long after wars have begun, the answer is a bleak and depressing, yes.
Which is something, to use Rather’s words, “The current administration revel…(and)…take refuge in.”
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.