Towards a Journalism of Reality

One might assume that any reporter who consistently stood out during the pressure cooker of the election campaign would continue to do so in the aftermath.

In fact, it doesn’t always work that way. But in the case of the New York Times’s Frank Rich, it certainly does. Rich, who covers the intersection of politics, culture and the arts, began his Sunday column in the newspaper’s Arts & Leisure section this way:

“As American soldiers were dying in Fallujah, some Americans back home spent Veteran’s Day mocking the very ideal our armed forces are fighting for — freedom. Ludicrous as it sounds, 66 ABC affiliates revolted against their own network and refused to broadcast ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ The reason: fear. Not fear of terrorism or fear of low ratings but fear that their own government would punish them for exercising freedom of speech.”

Rich notes that the American Family Association mobilized the war against “Private Ryan” not only on grounds that soldiers in the movie use the f-word 21 times, but also because said soldiers resorted to “graphic violence” in combat scenes. Stations that did not want to truck in the idea that World War II involved “graphic violence” were not just in places like Baton Rouge or Biloxi, but also in Boston, Detroit, Cleveland and Baltimore.

“For anyone who doubts that we are in a new era,” Rich reminds us, “Saving Private Ryan” was nationally broadcast by ABC on Veteran’s Day in both 2001 and 2002, without incident. “What has changed between now and then?” he asks. “A government with the zeal to control both information and culture has received what it calls a mandate. … Merely the threat that the FCC might punish a TV station or network is all that’s needed to push them onto the slippery slope of self-censorship before anyone in Washington even bothers to act. This,” Rich writes, “is McCarthyism, ‘moral values’ style.”

And why is this grist for CJR Daily’s mill? Let’s let Rich explain: “That some of the companies whose stations refused to broadcast ‘Saving Private Ryan’ also own major newspapers in cities as various as Providence [Belo Corp.] and Atlanta [Cox Communications] leaves you wondering what other kind of self-censorship will be practiced next.” If media outlets are afraid to show a graphic and acclaimed re-enactment of a 60-year-old war, Rich wonders, “might they defensively soften their news divisions’ efforts to present the graphic truth of an ongoing war?”

Now, to be fair, the editors of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Providence Journal have no control over the executive decisions of their sister TV stations, so it’s a bit of a stretch to speculate darkly that next they might tailor their news coverage to please the government, just because their corporate colleagues tailor their entertainment offerings to do the same.

But, Rich says, consider the context. After a gullible start, once the press got “its act together” and exercised a belated skepticism about the rationale for, and the course of, the war in Iraq, “it came under siege. Newspapers that report facts challenging the administration’s version of events risk being called traitors.” And while the aim of the movie censors is “to bleach out any ugliness or violence,” the aim of media censors is to scrub reports on the Iraq war of “any bad news that might undermine its support among the administration’s base.” Now that President Bush has won re-election, Rich writes, “administration apparatchiks have declared his victory a repudiation not just of Hollywood’s dream factory but of the news industry’s reality factory.”

As Rich sees it, in a country that increasingly prefers a diet of opinion (the blogosphere, AM radio and the Internet) over fact, “there’s no need for actual reporters who gather facts firsthand by leaving their laptops and broadcast booths behind and risking their lives to bear witness to what is actually happening on the ground in places like Fallujah and Baghdad.” And he recalls a memorable passage in a pre-election article in the Times’ Sunday magazine in which a senior White House adviser tells reporter Ron Suskind that there is no further need for the “reality-based community….That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” The official explained, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”


But permit CJR Daily, still in its infancy, to plant its flag. For our part, we are, and will continue to be, on the side of those increasingly unheralded journalists on the ground who deal in the currency of hard-won facts — the coin of the realm of the shrinking “reality-based community.”

Count on it.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.