In what country could a journalist be fired for criticizing political leaders? Where in the world would the national spokesman tell the people to watch what they say?
Certainly not in America – right?
That would have been the prevailing notion before Sept. 11, 2001. Now, however, these actions seem appropriate to most people.
The game has changed in the news business. A nation based on free speech is suddenly seeing the ground rules redefined.
Two newspaper columnists-one in Oregon and one in Texas-are out of work today because they criticized President Bush’s actions in the wake of the terrorist attacks last month. Prior to Sept. 11, a reader would have been hard pressed to pick up any daily newspaper that didn’t contain at least some criticism of the president. Heck, many newspapers were still busy being critical of the former president. It’s long been one of the pillars of our freedom-the ability to second guess or even make fun of our most powerful leader, no matter who’s in office, while at the same time remaining confident in our government’s stability.
Not anymore. While Bush was derided for his lack of leadership during his first nine months of his presidency, that line of criticism earned two journalists a pink slip after Sept. 11. And it earned late night TV’s Bill Maher, host of “Politically Incorrect,” a sharp warning from White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to “watch what you say.”
I’m all for national unity during this time of crisis. I applauded the decision by major league baseball, the NFL and college football to stay off the national stage in the days following the attacks. I know the world we live in has changed. But I don’t like the idea of censoring voices of dissent during a national crisis. We may strongly disagree with these voices, but this is the land of free speech and all voices should be heard.
Another significant change in the news game has come in the immediate interest in world events. It seems like a no-brainer today that national news organizations would focus on international coverage, but prior to Sept. 11 CNN was the only major news TV station or magazine providing consistent coverage of world events. The rest of the networks and newsweeklies had scaled back their foreign bureaus to concentrate more on health, technology, celebrities and other comparatively fluffy issues. In defense of the news executives who made these decisions, they were simply giving their readers and viewers what they wanted. Which, do you think, would sell more copies prior to Sept. 11, a Newsweek issue with the continuing struggle between Palestinians and Israelis on the cover, or an issue with Gary Condit or Britney Spears or Michael Jordan?
Now, of course, everyone is interested in world events. Enrollment in college courses regarding the Middle East or Arabic culture has swelled around the country. People are digging up that old world map to get the lay of the land, only to find out that old world map is terribly out of date. And on the Internet, like I mentioned last week, interest in world events and terrorism pushed the term “sex” off the list of the top 10 most popular searches.
Speaking of the Internet, it too has changed the news game during this time of crisis. The power of the Internet to spread rumors and urban legends has been fully apparent since Sept. 11, and at least one news organization has been fighting to undo some misinformation spread to millions of people. On Sept. 11, mixed with images of airliners exploding into the twin towers, CNN showed scenes of celebration in the Arab world. A rumor quickly spread through email that the footage was actually from 1991 during the Gulf War. CNN has vehemently denied the charge, and the presence of news photographs that mirrored the scenes in the video supports the company’s assertion.
Time will only tell whether the new climate for journalism will remain or simply fade away. Unless there is a quick resolution in the pursuit of those who perpetrated the mass murder on Sept. 11, and that doesn’t’ seem likely, the game will likely stay the same. Although I’m sad to see any censorship of news in this country, the newfound interest in global events is refreshing, as is the perspective in which we now view celebrities, sports and other nonessential coverage. We all need to be more aware of the world we live in-an unfortunate conclusion made obvious on Sept. 11.