The word “patriotism” conjures images of Old Glory, the Liberty Bell, soldiers landing on the beaches at Normandy and the Founding Fathers – at least in the hearts of most Americans. But on the broadcast networks, “patriotism” has become little more than a marketing term. ABC, CBS and NBC gave more emphasis to the “patriotic” trappings of holidays – like patriotic potato salad and red, white and blue fashion – than either “patriotic” ideals or the men and women who defend them.
Several times each year, Americans are called to celebrate their patriotism. The Culture and Media Institute analyzed five years of network coverage surrounding five such holidays – Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Veterans' Day. As 2005 and 2009 saw new presidential terms, researchers also included Inauguration Day 2005 and 2009 in this study.
Analysts examined 139 transcripts from ABC, CBS, and NBC for the week leading up to each holiday in which the words “patriotism” and “patriotic” appeared. Their conclusions show the broadcast networks focused on the trivial side of patriotism, treating these days as they would Halloween or any other secular holiday. Other findings included:
American Ideals Forgotten: Networks only discussed patriotic ideals – such as the pursuit of happiness, self-reliance, ambition, courage, unalienable rights, entrepreneurship, economic liberty, and the freedoms of speech, press and religion – just three times during the study. NBC even used “unalienable rights” as a segue to plead for immigration reform.
Networks Pay Little Attention to the Military: The three networks labeled food “patriotic” nearly twice as often as members of the armed services (20 to 11). ABC's July 4, 2008, broadcast of “Good Morning America” featured “patriotic” [potato] salad,” “patriotic” cobbler and “patriotic” chicken wings. Viewers didn't see “patriotic” soldiers, Marines, sailors or airmen in the broadcast.
Patriotic Potato Salad: Of the 118 “patriotic” labels, 31 percent (37 out of 118) used in network broadcasts applied to food, fashion, music and decorations. Especially around Independence Day, networks were more concerned about helping viewers create “patriotic” picnics than anything else.
Media Deflect Obama's Patriotism Problem
Twenty-five references to Obama's patriotism aired around Independence Day 2008 and focused largely on the candidate's new-found willingness to wear an American flag pin on his lapel. Networks helped convince viewers he was the victim of petty criticism from his conservative rivals. Larger questions regarding Obama's patriotism were ignored. Those included his association with anti-Americans such as William Ayers, a terrorist who bombed the Pentagon, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a preacher who damned America
– neither of whom was mentioned during the study time period.
To improve network coverage of patriotism, CMI recommends:
Focusing on the meaning of holidays such as Memorial Day and July 4: Networks can highlight the different ways people remember the troops and discuss what makes America worth celebrating. This puts the holidays in proper perspective and reminds viewers that they're not simply a day off of work.
Label military service patriotic: There are disagreements as to the missions in which the U.S. military participates but that should not detract from the fact that members of the military serve America at great sacrifice to themselves.
Showcase different expressions of patriotism: For some, wearing red, white and blue or eating cakes decorated like flags is window dressing, not a valid expression of love of America. Find out what average Americans consider patriotic. Ask tough questions such as is dissent ever patriotic?
Celebrate the great things about America: There are hundreds of days to examine what is broken in America. Use the few days in which the focus is truly on the nation to praise its best attributes and what sets it apart from other nations – like the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech. Two of the holidays studied, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, are dedicated to people who served and sacrificed for the nation. News coverage should reflect the America that inspired them.
Don't trivialize charges of un-patriotic behavior: Investigate why people make such charges. To focus solely on a symbolic gesture ignores very real concerns and questions.
The full report is available here.