Media marching timidly into the past

By Leonard Pitts Jr.

Have you heard the news? There’s good rockin’ tonight.
We’re talking girls in poodle skirts and guys with DA’s. Moondoggy’s got his old man’s Buick, so maybe later we can cruise down to the soda shop for a burger and a malted.
Question authority? We don’t do that anymore, Daddy-O. Haven’t you heard? The ’60s have been repealed. The ’50s are back.
Or at least, that seemed to be the consensus of a group of Florida newspaper editors at a recent convention near Jacksonville. For some reason yours truly was invited — along with Kathleen Parker of the Orlando Sentinel — to address a workshop on homeland security and media coverage thereof.
I wound up learning a lot more from the audience than vice versa. And what I learned was not comforting.
The central question was this: In the aftermath of Sept. 11, have news media abdicated their role as watchdog of government? Have we, in the name of patriotism, failed in our function as skeptical observers?
Yes, it’s a question with no definitive answer. After all, you could say the media outlet that refuses to cooperate with government in a time of crisis sacrifices national security on an altar of journalistic principle.
The flip side of that argument, though, is that the editor or producer who too readily surrenders journalistic prerogatives fails in his or her primary mission: to inform the public without fear or favor. Some of the journalists wondered aloud if that’s not precisely what has begun to happen.
That wondering was triggered by a recounting of the government’s famous request for television news networks to refrain from airing in their entirety videotapes of Osama bin Laden threatening Americans. This, because it was thought the tapes might contain coded instructions to his followers. The networks agreed to the restriction but some newspapers, when asked to promise not to publish transcripts of the tapes, refused.
So which response do you agree with? And what about the town where media were asked not to publicize a terrorism drill beforehand because authorities did not want citizens to immediately realize the “disaster” was fake. Should that request have been honored? Have media been energetic enough in informing Americans of any curtailment of civil liberties that might lurk beneath the skin of the Patriot Act? Did we look the other way as government detained hundreds of Muslims without giving them access to legal representation or even releasing their names?
More to the point, have we spearheaded a return to the 1950s? Meaning an era in which the nation, faced with a real threat — communism — lapsed into a reactionary paranoia that made skepticism a threat to your livelihood and nonconformity a charge against your patriotism. Will the names “Patriot Act” and “Department of Homeland Security” someday ring in the ear as “House Un-American Activities Committee” does now — same echo of star-spangled panic and God-bless-America fear?
Then, as now, we lost the willingness to question authority. The government’s word was the last word. Which is fine, I guess, as long as the government is acting in the nation’s interest and not in the interest of its own backside.
No, I am not accusing the Bush administration of some act of hidden malfeasance. I am saying that government secrecy is an invitation to government abuse and that the institution that cannot be questioned is the institution that may ultimately threaten the people it exists to serve.
It is the lesson of Watergate, but it is a lesson easily forgotten in moments of crisis, moments when the only thing any of us want — journalists included — is to feel safe again by any means necessary. Suddenly, everything else is just details.
So it’s troubling to think that yeah, maybe we haven’t done our jobs. But what’s worse is, I’m not sure anyone even wants us to.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: