Journalism Vs. Jingoism  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April 2003

Journalism Vs. Jingoism   

Was Dan Rather's controversial interview with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein propaganda for an enemy or a patriotic act?

By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."     


When a Tucson country-western radio station invited listeners to comment on the interview that CBS newsman Dan Rather conducted with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in February, the response was intense. People criticized Rather for interviewing a U.S. enemy and lambasted CBS for not allowing a White House spokesperson to appear when the interview was broadcast on "60 Minutes II."

The interview, conducted February 24, was the first between a U.S. journalist and Hussein in more than a decade. The Iraqi leader provided translators and three cameramen, and then, the day after the interview, gave a tape to CBS. CBS verified that the tape had not been censored and checked the accuracy of the translation.

CBS aired segments on morning and evening newscasts, as well as on the newsmagazine. In the interview, the Iraqi leader offered to debate President George W. Bush, denied that Iraq had missiles that violated United Nations restrictions, said he had no connection with al Qaeda and expressed hopes for peace.

The interview led to spirited discussion around the nation about patriotism, propaganda and the role of the press in a democracy preparing for war. The discussion played out on newspaper op-ed pages, Web sites, and television and radio news and talk shows. CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius says the network got "a big response," with viewers expressing a wide range of opinions about the interview. The CBS News Web site received more than 800 messages about the interview and the prospect of a U.S. war with Iraq.

Reader Patricia H. Peltier expressed widely held sentiments in a letter to the Houston Chronicle, stating it was "absolutely disgusting" that CBS had given "credence to a man like Saddam Hussein."

The views of CBS defenders were reflected in a letter from Salvador R. Santana to the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California. "The people of the United States have the right to listen to both sides of the story and make their own conclusion of who is telling the truth," he wrote.

Journalists and media commentators had several criticisms of the interview. One involved the ground rules. Buffalo News media columnist Anthony Violanti wrote that Iraqi control of the cameras, translators and tape meant that "Saddam may have controlled the message."

But Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says CBS "took all the precautions" to ensure that "the ground rules applied to the technology and not to the content."

Others deemed the interview unpatriotic. Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media writer and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," heard Rather referred to as a "traitor." Rather told Kurtz that he had approached the assignment "journalistically, not jingoistically," and asked questions that he thought "were on the minds of the public."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, calls the interview with Hussein "an act of patriotism." The journalist's role is to "get as much information as possible in front of the public," so that "we who hold the power in a democratic society can decide for ourselves what the policies of this country should be," Rosenstiel says.

Criticism that the interview was propagandistic involved complex issues. The Media Research Center, which says it tracks liberal media bias, wrote on its Web site that CBS provided Hussein with "a conduit to the American people for his propaganda."

But University of Missouri professor Lee Wilkins, who teaches journalism and public policy, says the news media have a duty "to provide a forum for all points of view," including the views of leaders labeled as enemies of the United States. "Countries make few decisions that are as immediately consequential as sending our sons and our daughters to war," she says. Journalists must foster "as open a debate about those sorts of issues as we can."

Bob Steele, director of the Poynter Institute ethics program, agrees the interview should have been shown, even though it contained propaganda. "There is still considerable value in being able to see him [Hussein], to be able to hear him, to be able to hear what he had to say," Steele says.

Rather told a caller on CNN's "Larry King Live" that he was confident Americans could "sort out the propaganda." His goal was to "put the man in front of you so you can see, hear him, look in at his body language and make your own assessment," and can "understand what it is that's being poured into every Arab radio and television set."

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, says critics overlooked the fact that the interview provided a "treasure trove" of information for U.S. leaders and the intelligence community.

But the Bush administration was so concerned about the interview that the White House asked CBS to allow a spokesman to appear on "60 Minutes II" to rebut what Press Secretary Ari Fleischer called Hussein's "propaganda and deception." CBS said it would put the president, vice president or secretary of state on the air, but the White House didn't accept that offer. CBS spokeswoman Genelius says the network's position was justified because the broadcast included context about Hussein's record and U.S. policy, and news programs provide daily coverage of the Bush administration.

Fleischer--who said at a February 28 press briefing that Rather's interview was "solid journalism"--warned that it was an "early indication" of the propaganda the news media would be offered in the coming weeks. Journalists must ask about their "responsibility to accuracy" when they know Iraqi officials who are trying to get on the air are "propagandists and deceivers," Fleischer told reporters.

Americans who responded to informal surveys about the CBS interview with Hussein expressed similar concerns. Although these surveys were not scientific, they indicate that some segments of the public have serious questions about the role and credibility of the press. An online survey by Baltimore news/talk-radio station WCBM, which carries mostly conservative programming, showed that 95 percent of 834 respondents thought the interview was propaganda. In a Netscape survey, only 15 percent of respondents thought the interview was "good journalism."

These attitudes worry some journalists. RTNDA's Cochran, who was CBS Washington bureau chief during the 1991 gulf war, says she understands why people were willing to "put freedom of the press as a secondary issue to security" after September 11, 2001. But she is concerned about the ongoing hostility toward journalists who are trying to inform the public about ideas that differ from those of the U.S. government. Providing the public with "all kinds of information and all kinds of points of view, especially when considering something as serious as a decision to go to war," is "absolutely the essential role that journalists have to play."

McMasters of the First Amendment Center says reaction to Rather's interview is the latest indication that there is a "basic misunderstanding" of this role, "not only by ordinary citizens, but by our elected leaders and indeed by some journalists themselves."

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