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Censorship, Patriotism and the American Media
An Essay by NPR's Daniel Schorr

audio Listen to Schorr's essay.

Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr

Nov. 4, 2001 -- On D-Day 1944, CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood landed on a Normandy beachhead to describe the scene in a radio broadcast. Live on the air, he walked up to a man in Navy uniform and said, “Commander, I'm Charles Collingwood of CBS News. Do you have any word on the costs of the invasion?”

“Beats me,” the man replied. “I'm the NBC correspondent.”

The point of the story is that both reporters were in uniform -- Collingwood in Army uniform. That was the war in which reporters willingly cooperated with censorship, the war in which no Secretary of State had to ask, “Whose side are you on?”

Now a few wars later, after the attempted news management in the Vietnam War and the attempted exclusion of the press from the battlefield in the Gulf War, we face again the tension of wartime relations between the American military and the American media. The White House has suggested that carrying video of Osama bin Laden unedited is somehow unpatriotic, and the television networks have agreed to exercise restraint.

"After the attempted news management in the Vietnam War and the attempted exclusion of the press from the battlefield in the Gulf War, we face again the tension of wartime relations between the American military and the American media."

Daniel Schorr

Funny, I don't recall the networks being asked to censor Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War or, indeed, Adolf Hitler in the 1940s. It is perhaps the brutality of the Sept.11 hijack bombings that makes many Americans so impatient with professions of journalistic neutrality.

The Reuters news agency has taken a beating for declining to use the word “terrorist” for the bombers. CNN has been ordered by its chairman, Walter Isaacson, to balance scenes of devastation by American bombings in Afghan cities with reminders of the ruins of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Isaacson said in a memo “It seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.” It's apparently not enough for TV reporters to show these civilian targets bombed with a reminder that they're only showing what the Taliban will let them show.

ABC News president David Westin got into trouble for saying at a Columbia University forum that his policy was to avoid opinions, that it was not for him as a newsman to say whether the bombing of the Pentagon was right or wrong. I can imagine what kind of public reaction Westin got.

He issued an apology saying he was sorry for saying journalists should offer no opinion. He said the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification.

So you want to know my opinion? I'd have to be out of my mind.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for NPR.