November 5, 2013

Us vs. U.S.

One of my goals with this blog has been to use the television lens to trace changes in American culture, and one of the most significant, if subtle, examples of this can be found in the nomenclature of television news anchormen when referring to the U.S. Government.

I suppose if you're of a certain age, you wouldn't even notice that there had been a change, an evolution in the way the news reporter thinks of himself.  And perhaps this change isn't universal; it's been so long since I've had the stomach to watch network news that I may be completely off-base here.  But what I'm talking about here is the idea that reporters once viewed themselves - and identified themselves - as Americans.  You watch and in their words there's almost a pride of ownership when Walter Cronkite refers to Adlai Stevenson as "our Ambassador to the United Nations," or when Bob Young, giving Vietnam casualty reports, says that "1,842 enemy troops" were killed.   Who can tell who the enemy is nowadays?

Today, I think it more likely that Stevenson would be called "the United States Ambassador to the U.N.," and that the troop casualty figures would be reported with more of a grammatical dispassion.  That's not entirely bad, mind you; I think objectiveness is generally a good thing when it comes to news reporting.  I'm not going to get into any suggestions of political bias here, because I try to keep this a partisan-free zone, but let's face it - there have been accusations of a liberal bias for decades, and Fox News can often sound like a shill for the GOP.

And yet there's something almost touching about those old days.  It's as if reporters understood that while their very occupation set them apart from others, they were still part of a larger collective - they were part of the media, yes, but they were also part of America.  When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, it wasn't only a news event, but a personal one as well.  Kennedy was a world leader, but he was also their president, and they reacted not as journalists, but as Americans.*

*Many of them were also personal friends of JFK, but there's something more at work here.  Jay Watson, news director of WFAA in Dallas, had seen Kennedy in the motorcade just moments before the assassination.  He applauded Kennedy, not out of a partisan sense but because he was showing the respect due the office.

I suppose this all changed during the Vietnam/ Watergate era, when the media become more political, more adversarial.  I first became cognizant of this dynamic during one of those media roundtable discussions that Fred Friendly used to conduct on PBS.  A question arose, and I'm going by memory here so I may be off on the details, but the gist of it was that in reporting battle action, a correspondent comes upon information of a pending attack upon American troops.  Does the correspondent let them know?  The panel, which as I recall included Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace, agreed to varying degrees that their jobs made them journalists first, Americans second.*

*Yes, I know Jennings was Canadian.  But you get the point - the assumption was that he would have been on "our" side.

Wait - Here it is!  Amazing what you can find out on the Internet.  The scenario posed was thus:

In 1989, ABC's Peter Jennings and CBS's Mike Wallace were asked, "In a future war involving U.S. soldiers, what would a TV reporter do if he learned the enemy troops with which he was traveling were about to launch a surprise attack on an American unit?" Wallace responded that, ideally, journalists would "regard it simply as another story that they are there to cover." Jennings initially indicated that his first move would be to "do what I could to warn the Americans." But after hearing Wallace's comments, he changed his response, admitting, "I think [Wallace is] right . . . I chickened out."

I don't know how the journalists of the 50s and 60s felt, but something suggests to me that they would have viewed an attack on American troops as an attack on them.  If I had the time (and maybe I will sometime), I'd go back and look at the differences (if any) between coverage of Pearl Harbor and 9/11.  Would there be differences?  What do you think?*

*An interesting comment from the site I linked to above, from Philip Meyer, who at the time of this comment held the Knight Chair in Journalism at UNC: "Paraphrasing George Washington, 'When we assumed the journalist, we did not lay aside the citizen.' Journalists in World War II followed that maxim. The postmodern drift toward rejection of all authority has weakened it, but, when there's a real war, we remember who we really are."  The question thus becomes: has today's journalist laid aside the citizen?

At any rate, whether journalists have become more professional, whether they belong to what Jeanne Kirkpatrick referred to as the "Blame America First" crowd, or whether they're simply a product of our cynical times, I think this does suggest a difference in how reporters view the relationship between themselves and their country.  And in that sense, it seems a perfect mirror of how the feelings of our own society have changed.

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