Rallying ’round the flag

The press as U.S. propagandists

Journalists should cut all the flag-waving and pro-war rhetoric and get back to their traditional role of observing and questioning.

By Deni Elliott

P.S./Elliott is written by consulting editor Deni Elliott. Elliott is director of the Ethics Institute, Dartmouth College.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 3 (March 1991), pp. 2-3.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


On-camera reporters sport yellow ribbons, newspapers print full-color, full-page American flags. Journalists mouth military lingo and repeat upbeat U.S. government assessments as though they are objective fact.

More than once, President Bush has remarked that this war “is no Vietnam.” The reporting is different, that’s for sure. Today’s press seems as interested in supporting this war as journalists were interested in questioning the wisdom of military involvement in Vietnam 20 years ago. The media message is clear: real Americans support the war.

And so newspapers across the country show that they’re real Americans too and donate a page to Old Glory. 

The Detroit News did it because of what editor and publisher Bob Giles described as “a broad feeling of support in the community.” 

The San Diego Union did it, according to editor Gerald Warren, because “the country is solidly behind this war,” and because it’s a local story for readers who have friends and relatives fighting.

Virginian Pilot/Ledger-Star assistant managing editor David Addis said that the decision to publish the flag was made “somewhere between news and promotions.”

Every newsroom seems to want to be seen as part of the hometown team. The CBS eye glows almost subliminally behind a graphic of an American soldier. Local news shows wrap their promos in ribbons and flags.

Scott Armstrong, head of the Center for International Journalism at American University, said that news organizations are concerned that they’ll be seen as insensitive to the safety of Americans in the Gulf if they question U.S. policy. “They don’t separate ‘we support our boys’ from ‘we support our President,’” he said.

But, it’s not news media’s place to coddle the community through its crisis. This is not a natural disaster reducible to “let’s help everyone through the bad time.”

It can’t be simplified into rooting for the hometown team. It’s an extremely complex political, economic, and cultural situation that only gets more complicated by being ignored. U.S. news organizations can best show their patriotism by fulfilling rather than abandoning their traditional role of questioning official action.

At least one newspaper publisher, NBC news president Mike Gartner, likens news organizations’ show of military support to marching in an abortion rally. The editorial page is the only appropriate place for journalists to express their point of view.

No one’s saying it’s easy, but most of the news media could be doing a better job of remaining a voice independent from the U.S. government. And, the news media could be doing a better job of remaining independent of public opinion.

First, eliminate the euphemisms.

It’s appropriate for a military source to talk about the theater of operations, collateral damage and incontinent ordinances. Journalists, on the other hand, should keep people in touch with reality by talking instead about homes and communities, the deaths of civilians and bombs that miss their targets.

Then, take a critical look at the nationalistic perspective news media are offering.

Journalists repeat U.S. reports that Iraq’s missiles aimed at Israeli cities have no military significance. And, we’re left with the understanding that Saddam is clearly evil.

News media repeat Iraqi reports that the U.S. missiles aimed at some Iraqi cities have no military significance. And, we’re left to understand that Saddam is lying.

How do the journalists, who are being kept backstage in this theater of operations, know anything for sure? Did the U.S. and its allies bomb a baby milk factory or a germ warfare plant? Did we incinerate innocent people in a civilian bomb shelter or was that a military command and control center in disguise?

Time magazine puts “Iraq’s Weird War” on the cover. Why is Iraq’s style “weird” and ours is “strategic”? Why is Israel applauded for showing “restraint” and Iraq’s lack of retaliation is called “confused”?

This is cheerleading, not news coverage. It’s natural to want to believe “the good guys” and Washington gives plausible explanations for why Saddam would lie. But who’s helping the public understand that Washington might lie as well? The press in this country has been the victim of political “disinformation” in the past; it ought not to come as a surprise in wartime.

Since the war began, media critics have come out of the woodwork to scoff at the coverage and news organizations have been right, in part, with their defensive “Don’t blame me” reaction.

Journalists can’t be blamed for the censorship. Never before has a war had so many different countries with so many different agendas attempting so many different spins on the truth.

Nor can journalists be blamed for being outmaneuvered by the U.S. government. During the Reagan years, the Pentagon and White House installed a public relations system that rivaled the weaponry system for sophistication. The government’s information officers know what sells: bloodless action, high technology, attractive heroes, hometown melodramas and dying ducks.

The San Diego Union‘s Warren said that this war, in contrast to World War II and Korea, is propaganda-free. He sees the lack of “loose lips sink ships” statements from the government as evidence that this war doesn’t have the “propaganda mill that there was 46 years ago.”

Instead, I see it as frightening evidence that there’s practically no seam between government propaganda and news media coverage. Why should the U.S. government make up slogans when the networks do it for them, giving us bumpers such as “Showdown in the Gulf” and “Line in the Sand.”

Information givers have always sought to fill a vacuum. Old-time mapmakers hid their ignorance by filling up the white space with elaborate  illustrations and warnings that “there be serpents here.” Today, news organizations hide theirs with fancy graphics, features on the local heroes, and speculations from retired (U.S.) military leaders.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The traditional duty of journalists to ferret out the truth hasn’t changed, but a new opportunity is at hand. In the past, generals and government leaders were too engrossed in fighting the war to talk to journalists about it. Now, talking to journalists is an important part of fighting the war. And journalists can talk back; they can ask important questions of people on both sides rather than help the U.S. show that Saddam really is as bad as Hitler. “That,” according to Armstrong, “has little to do with why Iraq is in Kuwait and less to do with how to get them out.”

The hours reporters spend circling around the families of soldiers should be spent in the library or on the phone with non-military experts so that the audience is constantly provided context for events, a check of facts provided by sources, and an understanding of why even our own government’s representatives may choose to lie.

As Hiram Johnson said to the U.S. Senate in 1917, “The first casualty when war comes is the truth.” An independent press need not be the second.