Journalism or Nationalism?

16 September 2019

Country: US, Global

by: Jean-Paul Marthoz

JPMarticlegraphicWhen I wrote Objectif Bastogne (Objectif Bastogne. Sur les traces des reporters de guerre américains, GRIP, Brussels, 2015), a history of US war correspondents in the Battle of the Bulge (December-January 1944) I had no doubt about what side my journalistic heroes, from Walter Cronkite to Martha Gellhorn, were on. It was a total war, a clash of civilizations between totalitarianism and liberal democracy—even if said Allies were imperfect democracies and included Joseph Stalin.

At the time of the so-called “Good War,” there was almost no tension between journalism and patriotism. Journalists grumbled when censors were incompetent or adjusted their prose but accepted the “blue lines” when a general would tell them that their right to report was curtailed so that the “boys” would not be endangered and the enemy would not be comforted.

In fact, in times of total war, patriotism and journalism tended to be good fellow travelers. Back in the day, most journalists rallied around the flag and took the utmost precautions not to expose their army or weaken their country. If they did criticize the army, it was because they thought that decisions had been made that compromised the security of the “boys” or the success of a military offensive.

But they did not touch subjects like troop corruption, or alleged war crimes. Any topic that could muddy the reputation of “their side” was strictly off limits, throughout World War II and following wars in Korea and Vietnam. It was not really until Seymour Hersh exposed the My Lai Massacre in 1968, that investigating one’s own army for the public interest turned into a historic example of war journalism.

Shortly thereafter, The New York Times and the Washington Post followed his example, publishing the Pentagon Papers—the cache of secret documents leaked by Daniel Ellsberg that exposed how the Vietnam War was based on “false premises and false promises.”

After stories like the My Lai Massacre and the Pentagon Papers exposé, US government officials immediately accused the journalists and publications of betrayal. However, as this was not a “total war,” and the revelations became a contentious issue within society, accusations of patriotic disloyalty did not matter as much. For liberals and Constitution-abiding conservatives alike, these “traitors” were guilty of no more than assuming their watchdog role as journalists, confronting a government who was hiding inconvenient truths or blatant abuses from their own citizens under the guise of “national security.”

Since these emblematic examples, national security journalism has been faced regularly with the issue of “patriotic loyalty”. As a rule, democratic governments criticize journalists who publish leaked secrets which could benefit adversaries and potential enemies. However, this legitimate concern is frequently undermined by the governments’s tendency, as First World War Daily Telegraph correspondent Philip Gibbs famously wrote, “…to conceal the truth not from the enemy but from the nation.”

This is where the definition of patriotism is tested. A media outlet that publishes confidential information that should have been part of the public’s knowledge in the first place is not betraying its country. When a democratic state acts illegally or violates human rights, its citizens have a right to know. What is more, the media has a right to reveal such information, as long as it does not compromise lives or actual security. Philip Gibbs puts it bluntly: “A man with a pen in hand must use it to tell the truth about the monstrous horror, to tear down the veils by which the leaders of the peoples try to conceal its obscenities.”

WikiLeaks’ dissemination and “dump” of confidential government documents have revived and exacerbated these debates. An absolutist defense of transparency makes no sense in a journalistic context, as journalism is limited by ethics and the definition of what is and is not in the public interest. But, for instance, Wikileaks’ release of the infamous helicopter video in Baghdad (Collateral Murder, 2007), showing how flawed US military rules of engagement led to the death of two Reuters journalists and other civilians, was “necessary in a democratic society.” Its release did not breach any state secrets nor imperil US forces. Rather, it showed how such rules of engagement nullified the US military’s solemn commitment to act proportionately and responsibly in trying to avoid “collateral damage.” In other words, civilian casualties.

While hotly, but healthily debated in democratic societies, this tension between patriotism and journalism takes a particularly acute form in countries with histories of ethnic or religious-based violence—“murderous identities,” as Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf called them. From the Balkans to the Middle East, local journalists have been challenged to stand at attention and salute their respective sides—but following these instructions can mean blindly adhering to a nation or a community whose moral and political characters have been defined by extremists and demagogues. If journalists accept, they become mouthpieces and propaganda. They are forced to abandon all values which define journalistic ethics: the search for the truth, independence and the sense of humanity.

Ultranationalism is antithetical to both journalism and the integrity of the nation that it claims to defend. The dignity and pride of nations and communities often depends on the courage of those, very often in the minority, who dare to confront ethnic or religious extremists who claim to represent “the people.” Such “dissidents” preserve the humanist and universal values which enhance and dignify the sense of “belonging” and pride in our very nations.

As Democratic Senator William Fulbright said at the height of the Vietnam war:

“To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing. Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation.”

As journalists, we would all do well to heed this definition of patriotism.