Monday, November 9, 2009

Patriotism in the Media: Not Always a Bad Thing

This week's readings were for me some of the most dynamic and thought-provoking of the semester, especially given their relevance to the conference on cultural diplomacy many of us attended last Thursday. Kai Hafez's piece, "International Reporting," was especially stimulating for me. He argues that the world is still a long way from seeing widespread transnational media sources despite the forces of globalization--the media has yet to "catch up" in his view, as evidenced by his point that the vast majority of most of it is still national or local in nature. CNN and its ilk are the exceptions. I agreed with Hafez's views for most of the article, but I had to take issue with his treatment of US media in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

He states that "following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, many observers expressed disappointment at what they saw as the strong tendency towards patriotism in US media coverage." First I had to ask, "Who are these observers?" He doesn't name them or state their nationalities or institutions with which they are affiliated, which would have made the statement more credible. Further, September 11, 2001 was a day fraught with sadness, fear, anger, and other very strong emotions, not just for Americans but for many other nations around the world that lost citizens in the attacks and/or that felt solidarity with Americans' grief. A "more cautious...balanced" media response was not what Americans needed that day and in the days immediately following the attacks. They--oh, okay, we, which I feel self-conscious about typing, thanks to Hafez's observation that the use of "we" and "our" dominated in this patriotic-themed media response--we were hurting and wanted to feel united with our fellow citizens. The media, as we've noted earlier this semester, is a key way to do so. I feel that in this case, a patriotic media response, as imperfect as it may be objectively, was not the faux-pas that Hafez suggests.

At age 15 on 9/11, I was still quite young but more than old enough to comprehend the magnitude of the attacks, especially since I was in the DC area at the time. Watching TV that afternoon, evening, and all through the next day (school was cancelled) made me feel less isolated, less numb about the attacks, and when the Big Three newscasters (Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings) suggested that viewers should rally behind the president unconditionally, I believed it. So did my parents and everyone else I knew. We were in a time of great national crisis and grief--giving the president full support is what we should do, regardless of political persuasion, and the media, through its more patriotic coverage, helped us to do so. Hafez seems to suggest that there is something wrong with this, that the American media should have been more diverse in its coverage: "Every stirring, no matter how small, of a social dialogue on fundamental issues of war and peace was nipped in the bud." I didn't appreciate this. Maybe there was a time for those dialogues, but it was not in the immediate months following the attacks. People did not want dialogues about war and peace. They wanted to cry and yell and try to believe that there was some good left in the world despite immediate evidence to the contrary. The patriotic media coverage was how they did it.

To talk about dialogues and disappointment at patriotic media coverage is to me unrealistic, and fails to recognize the unique American context. The United States is known worldwide as a country that demonstrates its patriotism, so I don't understand why he expected a radical departure from that in the media after such a horrific chain of events. Further, Hafez doesn't account for the fact that reporters' own emotions might have come into play in 9/11 coverage more so than in other coverage, given the extraordinary magnitude of the attacks. They were American too. Being totally balanced in their reporting was simply not possible in my view.

Hafez's examination of US media coverage on and after 9/11 illustrates the continued relevance of the nation-state in media and communication. American culture and national values definitely set the tone for the more patriotic 9/11 coverage in the United States. I'd venture that 9/11 media coverage in the UK, for example, was a bit more reserved and measured, but showed solidarity toward America, which reflects Britain's own national culture and values. How is this a bad thing? After reading Hafez's take on it, I felt like I had to apologize. Of course there are times and places for us to apologize when we've done something wrong. Doing so for patriotic media coverage in the wake of the worst attack on American soil in history is not one of them.


  1. As I was reading "International Reporting", I had very similar thoughts. I was shocked at Hafez's observations of the United States media on 9/11 and the weeks after. The US is a unique country, and not one divided (usually) by segments fighting each other or by political turmoil as many nations are. Part of what makes the United States the United States is, as he also references, our ability to "rally around the flag" in times of national crisis. This is displayed in many ways; the lowering of flags to half mass, candlelight vigils, moments of silence, etc. On that day and the days that followed, I would have been disgraced if the media had attempted to be critical of what just happened to us. At a time of national emergency, it is acceptable, if not encouraged, for the media to be a uniting force. After 9/11, we needed that force to unite us and the rest of the world. As many media outlets stated, "Today, we are all Americans".

  2. I don't think the feelings of patriotism we experienced in the US after 9/11 are necessarily unique to our country. I'm sure Spain and the UK had similar reactions after the terrorist attacks there (although the ones there were on much smaller scales). While I do think it is basically impossible for news media in a country to be impartial after an attack like that, there is (or should be) a difference between news coverage and what the nation needs for catharsis. I also think there is a danger in those times to doing just what you say the news casters suggested in unconditionally supporting the president. Yes, it was important for us to unify after such a tragedy, but if we've seen what can happen if we just blindly follow what our leaders tell us in a time of crisis, in the name of unity and patriotism. Although it's very very hard I think we still need to keep a critical eye on the government even if they are a rallying point when terrible things happen.