by Stephen Gowans
Historian Howard Zinn once said,
"In times of war, the most patriotic act is to ask questions."
CBS news anchor Dan Rather agrees.
Not that you would know it from
Ratherís generally fawning attitude toward the White House, State
Department and Pentagon, post Sept. 11.
Rather says he has censored himself,
but should have been asking tougher questions about Americaís war on
And he adds the White House is
cynically exploiting Americaís practice of not questioning "the Commander
The anchor, who in the weeks after
Sept. 11 wore a Stars and Stripes pin on his label during newscasts, told
the BBC that he had been cowed by the hyper- patriotism that followed the
attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre.
"It is an obscene comparison - you know
I am not sure I like it - but you know there was a time in South Africa
that people would put flaming tires around peoplesí necks if they
dissented," commented Rather.
"And in some ways the fear is that you
will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism
put around your neck."
Rather confessed that his own sense of
patriotism has held him back from asking tough questions.
"Now it is that fear that keeps
journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions. It starts
with a feeling of patriotism within oneself. It carries through with a
certain knowledge that the country as a whole - and for all the right
reasons - felt and continues to feel this surge of patriotism within
themselves. And one finds oneself saying: 'I know the right question, but
you know what? This is not exactly the right time to ask ití."
Challenging the view that in times of
crisis Americans should blindly fall into line behind their government,
Rather suggested that Americans reassess their view of what it means to be
"It's unpatriotic not to stand up, look
them in the eye, and ask the questions they don't want to hear - they
being those who have the responsibility, the ultimate responsibility - of
sending our sons and daughters, our husbands, wives, our blood, to face
death," Rather said.
But Americans, and their media, have
been asking few questions. The administration has been given a free ride.
And on top of that, the Pentagon has
kept a tight lid on information, a dangerous -- and unacceptable --
practice, Rather says.
"Limiting access, limiting information
to cover the backsides of those who are in charge of the war, is extremely
dangerous and cannot and should not be accepted."
Rather, who succeeded news anchor
Walter Cronkite two decades ago, stepping into what once was considered
the top job in US journalism, chided the White House for taking advantage
of Americansí tendency to uncritically accept the Presidentís word in
times of crisis.
"The current administration revels in
that, they relish that, and they take refuge in that," the veteran newsman
Critics have long argued that Americans
owe it to themselves to be more sceptical of their government, and to ask
questions. Political commentator and author Michael Parenti points out
that Americans know their politicians lie all the time about domestic
affairs, but suspend their scepticism in matters of foreign affairs.
"Many Americans recognize that
politicians lie," Parenti says, but "when it comes to foreign policy many
of us retreat from that judgement. Suddenly we find it hard to believe
that American leaders would lie to us about their intentions in the
Others, like historian Zinn, point to
the reasons various US governments have become involved in wars being
later revealed to have been pretexts -- false justifications to plunge the
nation into an armed conflict.
The attack by Vietnamese gunboats in
the Tonkin Gulf, which served as justification for starting the Vietnam
War, was later revealed to have been an invention.
A story about Iraqi soldiers tossing
Kuwaiti babies from incubators -- used to firm up support for war against
Iraq -- was later shown to have been fabricated by a US public relations
And the authenticity of the Racak
massacre -- the alleged killing by Serb police of dozens of ethnic
Albanian civilians in the Kosovar village of Racak -- has been challenged
by the forensic pathologists who investigated the incident on behalf of
the European Union. They say US officials bent over backwards to declare
dozens of corpses to be those of civilians, when the evidence pointed to
the dead being KLA guerillas who had been caught in a fire fight with Serb
police. As late as 1998, the KLA was listed by the US State Department as
a terrorist organization with links to Osama bin Laden. The Racak incident
was cited by NATO as a reason for launching a 78-day air war against
Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999.
Michel Collon, a Belgian journalist,
worries that tough questions are asked only when itís too late -- long
after wars have begun.
Ratherís conversion to sceptical,
question-asking patriot, follows a typical pattern, critics say. Wars are
fought, and only after the wars have ended or go awry, are tough questions
asked. When it emerges that governments lied, journalists acknowledge,
"the first casualty of war is the truth." But the acknowledgement -- made
after every war -- is never learned from. Instead, journalists allow
themselves to be lied to in the next war.
That may be because journalists who go
against the tide and ask tough questions at the height of war hysteria,
are soon replaced. Had Rather asked tough questions in the immediate
aftermath of Sept. 11, itís doubtful he would have retained his job. The
veteran journalist, now 70, would probably have been forced into
retirement. Journalists with aspirations to a long career learn when to
ask tough-questions, and when not to.
That serves governments well that want
to hide their reasons for going to war. But itís a disaster for the
Collon asks, "Are we doomed to always
learn too late?"
With a press corps that only recovers
its courage - and patriotism -- long after wars have begun, the answer is
a bleak and depressing, yes.
Which is something, to use Ratherís
words, "The current administration revel...(and)...take refuge in."
Mr. Steve Gowans is a
writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.