ABC hosted a fascinating "Nightline" a few weeks ago on the subject of patriotism and the press in times of war. They should have called it "A Night on the Defensive."
Near the end, the panel discussion turned to Fox's Tony Snow, who mischievously wore a flag pin on his lapel. That decision saddened Ted Koppel, who said it leaves people with the unfortunate impression that those who refuse to wear the pin are somehow less patriotic. His boss, ABC News President David Westin went much further than that. He banned flag pins on ABC reporters. Why? Because "I think our patriotic duty as journalists in the United States is to try to be independent and objective and present the facts to the American people and let them decide all the important things."
What, exactly, is his point? If Mr. Westin is saying that it is unpatriotic not to be objective, he's managed to slam his own network pretty thoroughly. There's been precious little objectivity on ABC. Its Iraq coverage is leaving the unfortunate, but unmissable impression that it thinks the United States is led by a bumbling, blustering cowboy, with no sense of history or the Arab world, no real understanding of the demands of mushy multilateralism, and perhaps even too much lust for the oil beneath Saddam Hussein's boots.
It's the kind of programming that would be considered "objective"...in France.
While CBS and NBC at least have the decency to acknowledge the developing news without raised eyebrows and pouty protests - that the American public and even the Democrats are more convinced every day of the need for war - ABC is raging against the wind, suggesting that war is unjustified, and helpfully touting every silly Team Saddam P.R. move as a bold step for peace and humanity.
Diane Sawyer asks UN chief inspector Hans Blix to step out of his role and say war is unjustified. White House reporter Terry Moran encourages Helen Thomas's banshee wailings about a nefarious plot for oil as "Helen's very interesting line of questioning." Reporter Martha Raddatz thinks it's important to hear Colin Powell's damning presentation of Iraqi deceit through the equivocating ears of the French. In Baghdad, reporter Dan Harris follows up the State of the Union address by immediately guessing what sleeping Iraqi propaganda ministers would claim if they were awake.
At the center of it all this buzzing anti-Bush activity one finds our friend, the Canadian import Peter Jennings, who looked like one of those "Mallard Fillmore" comic-strip satires in Baghdad a few weeks ago. The lowlight was Peter publicizing a throng of Iraqi artists and writers "walking through the streets of Baghdad to say 'thank you' to Saddam Hussein. He had just increased their monthly financial support." President Bush preparing for war on a patron of the arts? He's a warmonger and a philistine!
The other night Jennings ended "World News Tonight" with one of his classic sneers. UN inspectors would be returning to Baghdad to see if the Iraqis are improving any on the cooperation front. "We'll see if the Iraqis do any better," he said, and then this jab: "and if that means anything to the Bush administration." It seems that it's not the Iraqis who get an F for cooperation when Jennings is doing the grading.
The ABC anchor's unwillingness to concede Colin Powell proved America's point about Iraq has led even the usually press-smoochy Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer to poke fun at this network. When Terry Moran asked him if Saddam would empty his chemical arsenal if America attacked, Fleischer quipped, "Does this mean that ABC News is acknowledging that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction?" With ABC making Hans Blix look like a right-winger, Peter's Platoon is getting the kind of image that might (and should) cause more than a few Americans to flip their remote controls to something that sounds more like TV news instead of the New York Times editorial page.
Objectivity and patriotism can go hand in hand: having enough faith in the American people to give them the straight scoop and let them decide. But ABC is in fact fighting the American people tooth and nail, working day and night to convince them that they're wrong, wrong, wrong when they favor American action. Instead of being objective - applying a rigorous, skeptical analysis to all sides - ABC is putting the screws to American leaders and acting completely credulous toward the Iraqis, not to mention the French and the Germans. It's a good thing ABC banned the flag pins. Peter Jennings would look positively goofy.