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The Press in Time of War

How things have changed since September 11.

Dec 3, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 12 • By FRED BARNES
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STILL, the big question about journalism is whether September 11 marks a turning point--indeed, whether the press is permanently chastened, changed, different. For a generation now, the type of reporting practiced first in Washington and then nationwide has been adversarial, cynical, and highly negative. Reporters themselves have been so ideological that liberal bias became a dominant trait of journalism, as Bernard Goldberg engagingly points out in the about-to-be-released "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News." Since it was the experience of covering the civil-rights movement, Vietnam, and Watergate that helped create this sort of reporting, might the trauma of September 11 propel the press toward a more positive, dispassionate, and ideologically impartial style, one less confrontational toward American institutions? Robert Lichter thinks so. "There's been a seismic shift in journalism since September 11," he told me. "The idea of the journalist as critical outsider has been blown to smithereens."

I'm not so sure that we've seen the end of the "journalist as critical outsider." But, in the short run, remarkable things have occurred. Famous journalists have been transformed in ways that should thrill conservatives who complain about liberal bias. The most striking changes involve CBS anchor Dan Rather, liberal television journalist Geraldo Rivera, CNN chief Walter Isaacson, and columnist Tom Friedman of the New York Times.

Rather's appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman" a week after the terrorist attacks was quite touching. A mention of the firefighters at the World Trade Center reduced him to tears. He broke up again while reciting a stanza of "America the Beautiful" and declared: "You know, it's just one American, wherever [the president] wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call." But what Rather said later, after the bombing started, was more significant. Following two days of bombing, he ended the "CBS Evening News" with a patriotic peroration. "Our thoughts and our love are with our warrior men and women," he said. "We know that some may come back in flag-draped caskets, but we reluctantly and sadly accept that as a reality of a war forced upon us." How often have we heard anything like that on network news? Practically never, and by this time the emotion of September 11 had begun to wear off. Two days later, Rather, his voice cracking with emotion, ended his broadcast: "With America's fighting men and women in peril far from home tonight, we know we must steel ourselves for many long months." Five days later, he zinged Saudi Arabia as ingrates for criticizing the bombing. A few days after that, he pointed out that the American military had been gutted in the 1990s.

Like Dan Rather, Geraldo Rivera is a liberal media icon, a last-ditch defender of Clinton during impeachment. Yet he took a whopping pay cut, quit his nightly show on CNBC, and signed on with Fox News Channel to cover Afghanistan. "I am changed," he explained. "How can you be a dove when someone has committed mass murder in your neighborhood, killed friends of yours?" He zinged the Taliban for being, among other things, anti-American. "I want to see a reinforced United States rifle company take a hill," he said. "I want to see us rout these bastards. I want to see our GIs make them pay back for what they did to us." Remember now, that wasn't Rush Limbaugh talking. It was Geraldo.

And then there's Walter Isaacson. Freshly installed as the head of CNN, Isaacson faced various problems. It wasn't just dealing with CNN's reputation as the "Clinton News Network," though that has caused ratings trouble. The bigger problem was the source of that reputation: the content of CNN's programs. One CNN official admitted the cable network had "underserved" conservatives, which is putting it mildly. But faced with a war to cover, Isaacson took an extraordinary step that Ted Turner, were he still in charge, surely would not have. He sent a memo to correspondents, instructing them to remind viewers of the attacks that prompted America to go to war in the first place. The message between the lines was "Don't sound anti-American." Despite lapses, CNN's coverage has improved. Even Christiane Amanpour dismissed anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan as unrepresentative of popular sentiment in that country.