Roundtable: Reporters Pressured to Be Patriotic? When the United States debated whether to go to war in Iraq, did some journalists hold their fire? A series of reporters are saying they didn't feel comfortable criticizing the White House right before the war. Our panel of reporters discusses that, plus maverick New York Governor David Paterson.
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Roundtable: Reporters Pressured to Be Patriotic?

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Roundtable: Reporters Pressured to Be Patriotic?

Roundtable: Reporters Pressured to Be Patriotic?

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From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. Did some big-time journalists hold their tongues about the buildup to war? A new book by former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has got some top journalists talking. Meanwhile, soldier suicides are the highest in nearly two decades, and the first black governor of New York makes his mark. For more, we have Corey Dade, Atlanta correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Also, radio show host Cynthia Hardy of "On Point with Cynthia Hardy," and Ernie Suggs, urban affairs reporter at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Hi, folks.

Mr. ERNIE SUGGS (Urban Affairs Reporter, Atlanta Journal Constitution): Hey, how are you doing?

Mr. COREY DADE (Atlanta Correspondent, Wall Street Journal): Hi.

Ms. CYNTHIA HARDY (Host, "On Point with Cynthia Hardy"): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So there is so much to talk about this week. You know, this Scott McClellan memoir tell-all is just all over the place. Let me start with you, Corey. What do you make of how he assesses whether the White House was willing to tell the truth, willing to participate in a dialogue, I guess, with the journalist and with the American public?

Mr. DADE: I think this is just the latest confirmation of what journalists have talked about for the last few years, which is the lack of disclosure, the infringement upon the public's right to know in general, and especially, the infringement on freedom of the press, but I think about the coverage issues, as it relates to the war in Iraq. And I was in Boston at the Boston Globe when America went to war. And we did a lot of coverage on 9/11 in particular, because many - because the planes originated from Boston, and many Bostonians or Massachusetts residents died in those fires at the twin towers.

And so, for us, we had a difficult job. We had to absorb the feelings of - and the opinions of the public, and articulate them to - you know, in print. But in the same time, we had stay removed. So I think, all journalists had a difficult job there. And I think this really deals with the elite journalists who cover the White House and the Pentagon and the pressures that they did face, because it is clear that they did face pressures to make sure that they didn't go too far in criticizing this administration.

CHIDEYA: Cynthia, do you think the pressure just came from the White House, or from the federal government, or did it come from people who just said, I don't want to hear America criticized at the time like this? I mean, what were you hearing, as you went about your work as a talk-show host?

Ms. HARDY: Well, I think that journalists, you know, by and large, want to be fair and want to be objective. But I think we have to remember that, during the post-9/11 time, that people in general felt vulnerable, they felt exposed. There was a lot patriotic feelings in the air. Having said that, though, our news media is supposed to be an objecting - an objective sounding board of sorts, a filter that we can kind of count on to let the general public know the real deal.

And most commercial-media outlets, however, generally reflect some kind of a slant. Not that the media is intentionally dishonest, but let's face it, we are selective about what we cover, and what we deem news to be. So, I just think that it isn't necessarily the media's role to wage a campaign for or against an action, but rather to provide some kind of objective information for readers, for viewers, for listeners to be able to discern for themselves. And to a large extent, I just don't know that the public had the appetite to hear anything other than something that was going to make us feel whole again, after feeling that we had been violated at 9/11.

CHIDEYA: Ernie, if there had been more aggressive coverage right on time, with the buildup to war, do you think people would have been mad at it?

Mr. SUGGS: I don't think they would have been mad at it, but I think that - I think that, as Corey said, you are dealing with the elite media here. And you are dealing - if you look at it on a micro level or a mini level - micro level or maxi level, any kind of administration's going to try to dictate what the coverage is. It's going to be a matter of those publications, and those news outlets, to try to manage that dictation that the White House, or the mayor's house, or the governor's house is trying to dictate on the media.

I don't think that necessarily, the elite media, as Corey has said, did as aggressive a job as they could have perhaps done. But I do think, on the other hand, that some of the questions were asked. We were just dealing with the White House that, as McClellan has stated in this, as we have known for the last eight years, that is very, very - knows how to work with the media, knows how to, I guess, get their point across through the media. And that, in a way, has impacted how we cover it. It has impacted how the news has filtered out to our readers and our listeners.

CHIDEYA: Corey, before we move on, there are a few people who were talking about this right now. CNN congressional correspondent, Jessica Yellin, was working at MSNBC right before the war, and she says she felt producers ran broadcasts that were consistent with what she calls, quote, "patriotic fever," in the country during the time. And then Katie Couric of CBS News said there was a pressure. Do you feel that pressure at all now, in any way, to shape your coverage?

Mr. DADE: On the print side, I think, we have the luxury, as it were, to not be so tightly adhered to ratings for every segment or our reporting. And then, I think on the TV side, you know, when you look at public sentiment, it is very much correlated to ratings in the minds of TV executives. And so, that kind of drives what they'd like to put on air.

In the case of print, you know, no, I don't feel - I personally don't feel, and most of my colleagues do not feel, any overt, or even low-key or subliminal pressure to play up any sentiments from the public in our coverage that reflects patriotism. I think, at this point, there is sort of a reflexive overcorrection among the media to actually be far more scrutinizing of this administration.

CHIDEYA: Cynthia, let me go to something that's related, which is just how the war is playing out, and there is a case where Army suicides are up. A new report says that there is a 13 percent increase over the past year in soldier suicides. Forty percent of the suicides happened stateside after the soldiers have come home. Cynthia, what do you think folks in journalism should be covering about this story?

Ms. HARDY: I think we all should recognize the fact that there is a lot going on in the heads of these guys that we're not talking about. And I think, part of it, when you look at the number of folks that commit suicide, once it gets stateside, I think that we have to recognize that fact that they, too, you know, are conflicted about what it is that they have done, and the reasons for which they've done it. I think it must be terribly troubling mentally, particularly when we look at the talk that we are having now, about it not being a war of necessity, but being a war of choice.

And to think of what they've been through, and what they've seen, and what they've given, it must leave them questioning, and I think that we have to factor all of that in. I think, along with our conversations about the fact that we are seeing the suicides, as much as we can do on this side to try to help with posttraumatic stress, and recognize that we're not doing all that we can for our veterans when they come back, and any lobbying, you know, they can be done, should be done.

CHIDEYA: Ernie, you're an urban-affairs reporter, and there's a large population of both soldiers and veterans who come from America's urban communities and America's black communities. What are you hearing about how people are thinking about the war, and or how veterans are being treated?

Mr. SUGGS: In terms of veterans, you know, you can look at it every day here at Atlanta, seeing homeless men, you know, Atlanta has a huge homeless population. I do not know how many of those are from the recent - most recent gulf war. But I think that shows a trend that could be a national trend of how returning veterans from World War II, or Vietnam, or Korea, wherever, are coming home, and are not getting the services that they should be entitled to as defenders of our country.

So you have a lot to talk about, you know, what is the government doing, you know? You had a report a couple days ago about a woman who said that she had to rely on charities to get help. You know that shouldn't be the case, and I think that a lot of people in urban areas are seeing the effects, have seen these soldiers come home without benefits, without jobs, without education, and are suffering for it.

You know, when I was in college, 1985 to 1990, a lot of my classmates, you know, were in the Army just to get - or not just to get, but as a benefit, to get an education, and they were gone on weekends, and you know, they weren't at step practice or whatever and they were - we knew what their obligations were. And now, with this war going on, it's a whole different dynamic that I don't even know if - I don't think that we are looking at service the way we used to. And subsequently, when these people are coming home, they're not being treated as they should be treated.

CHIDEYA: All right. We're entering a speed round. This is going to have to be short. New York Governor David Paterson has taken a stand on gay marriages and they can't be performed in New York, per se. But he's saying state agencies should recognize gay marriages that are performed where they are legal, in places like Massachusetts and California. You know, Paterson came in and kind of swept up after the sex scandal in New York State. And now, some people are saying this is a bold but risky move, given that he's got a whole bunch of things on his plate. Corey, do you think that this will help shape policy or will it help undermine his governorship.

Mr. DADE: I don't think he risks much political capital here. New York state politics, certainly in the city, but even in the state, are somewhat left of center on the issue of same-sex marriage, despite having years of Republican rule both in city hall and in Albany. And so, I think the legal provisions here give a blueprint for gay rights activists in other states and in New York to fight harder for civil unions, for marriages in general, and beyond that, for the governor.

The gay rights community in New York is very powerful, and they're large in number, and so for him, this allows him to establish a broader base politically, because he comes in being sort of a political insider, a long-time state legislator, and so this gives him another constituency that he can use for his reelection. So I think, for him, he doesn't risk much at this point at all

CHIDEYA: Cynthia, if you had to give his gubernatorial run so far a grade - you know, he's worked on everything from pardoning Slick Rick to the gay marriage issue to working on whether or not nooses should be illegal - how do you think he's doing so far?

Ms. HARDY: I think he's kind of bold. I'd give him a B. I really would, especially, you know, given the fact that he did the Slick Rick thing, I mean, a number of - when you look at the Second Chance Act that Congressman Clyburn helped to sponsor in Congress, and you know, what it's supposed to do. I like the fact that he's bold enough to do what he thinks needs to be done. He's been very open about his own life, you know, so that to get some of that political baggage at least put to the sides so that he can deal with issues. I kind of liked the boldness about what he's doing, so I'd give him a B.

CHIDEYA: All right. You're a tough grader, girl. All right, guys. Thank you so much.

Ms. HARDY: Thank you.

Mr. DADE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Cynthia Pryor Hardy. She's the host of the radio program, "On Point with Cynthia Hardy," which airs in Columbia, South Carolina. Ernie Suggs is the urban affairs reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Corey Dade is the Atlanta correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and he joined us from member station WABE in Atlanta.

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