Flagging the Problem  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 2002

Flagging the Problem   

Contrary to the thoughts of MSNBC, incorporating the American flag in a newscast is wrong.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     


What's wrong with this picture? A local TV news director tells his staff that its job is to deliver the news "as free from outside influences as possible" and promptly gets lambasted. Months later, a national network wraps itself in the American flag while proclaiming its independence, and nobody bats an eye.

Odd, isn't it? But of course, there's more to the story.

It all started in the aftermath of September 11, when News Director Stacey Woelfel at KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri, banned the wearing of red-white-and-blue ribbons and flag pins on the air. He knew his decision would be unpopular, but he was clear about why he made it. "Our news broadcasts are not the place for personal statements of support for any cause," he wrote in a memo to the staff, "no matter how deserving the cause seems to be." Within days, the memo got out and the criticism poured in.

Woelfel wasn't the only one to take a stand against overt displays of patriotism on newscasts last fall. ABC News and NBC News adopted similar policies. So did News 12 Long Island in New York, where Senior Vice President of News Pat Dolan banned flags not only on the air, but in the station "in any area visible to guests or non-staff members." After his memo was leaked to a local newspaper, the station received hundreds of angry calls and some 12,000 e-mails opposing Dolan's position.

Obviously, emotions were running high at the time, especially in New York. The anger has since faded. But bygones still aren't bygones in Missouri.

Admittedly, KOMU is a unique property. It's a top-rated NBC station that happens to be owned by the University of Missouri and is staffed largely by faculty and students. So the state Legislature had to get into the act, condemning what one member called a "stupid policy." In April, the Missouri House of Representatives voted to cut the university system's budget by $500,000 to punish the station. A committee later reduced the penalty for the station and another perceived university offense to $100,000.

"I don't care about journalistic integrity or academic freedom," Republican state Rep. Martin (Bubs) Hohulin was quoted as saying in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "It was either this or going over to punch [Woelfel] in the face, and this seemed a whole lot more diplomatic."

Anyone who does care about journalistic integrity should be able to see that it's problematic for a news outlet to wrap itself in patriotic colors. It sends a signal that the journalists who work there owe allegiance to the flag first, and the truth second. So what, pray, are we to think of the folks in charge at MSNBC?

The cable news network has rebranded itself as "America's News Channel," complete with flag-bedecked NBC peacock, in an effort to convince viewers that MSNBC is "uniquely American and fiercely independent." Network President Erik Sorenson said in a memo that MSNBC "is not partisan and has no agenda, other than to serve the American people." But let's not kid ourselves. MSNBC certainly does have an agenda: to draw more viewers. Mired in third place, dismissed as "irrelevant" and "laughable" by its cable news competitors, the network apparently decided a little flag-waving couldn't hurt.

But it can. It taints the product. The flag logo establishes an atmosphere in which anchors feel free to refer to the United States and its military forces as "we" and "our." MSNBC is hardly alone in this thicket. Fox News Channel doesn't even pretend to be impartial, slapping a large animated flag over every live report.

How can any news organization with such an apparently clear allegiance be expected to serve as an objective, unbiased source of information? As News 12's Dolan put it in his memo banning the display of American flags, "We have to avoid giving a false impression that we 'lean' one way or another on any issue.... If we sacrifice that principle, then the terrorists have won an important victory against the Flag and everything it stands for."

As for the fallout in Missouri, Woelfel says he's not worried. The station depends mainly on advertising revenue, not state support, so the funding cut won't really hurt KOMU. But the principle involved should worry everyone who believes in a free press. As Missouri journalism professor George Kennedy wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "The job of journalism is making democracy work. That's real patriotism."

And to do that job, journalists must be independent, in tone, in appearance and in fact.

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