Books by Forrest Carr

Unpatriotic Moments
By Forrest Carr
As published May 7, 2003 in the Chicago Tribune

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a television newsroom knows that viewer feedback is a major fact of life for broadcast journalists. Most of us have come to accept, even appreciate, the constant coverage criticism, but recently a new and truly disturbing pattern has emerged. Viewers are growing intolerant of dissent. Memo to the thousands of viewers who turned out to protest the war in Iraq: Huge numbers of your fellow citizens don't want to see you on the news. Ever. If that doesn't frighten you, consider this: It's becoming bad business for us to put you there.

Recent e-mails from Florida viewers illustrate the problem. Terry McDonald wrote to say, "I am thoroughly disgusted that you are continuously broadcasting clips of protesters. If you do not show them on TV they would not protest." Daimara Morrill's letter was even more blunt. "I believe they should get as little coverage as legally possible."

Such feedback has become a nationwide phenomenon. News managers are listening. Recently I wondered aloud to a colleague what Fox News Channel might say when viewers complain of a pro-war bias. The answer came during a recent peace demonstration at Fox's New York headquarters. Fox flashed this message on its electronic ticker: "The cleverest sign wins a week's free vacation ... to Baghdad."

Very cute. War protesters have been hearing this a lot. Here's the problem. America is a country, not a political party. Exiling those who don't toe the perceived party line is not our way. History shows what happens when country and party become synonymous. Nazi Germany, Communist Cuba and Saddam Hussein's Iraq happen. Journalists like to talk about "balance," but it's the wrong word. "Inclusiveness" is better. There are almost always more than two sides to every story, and it's a reporter's duty to seek out those voices. The resulting free flow of news, information and opinion makes democracy work. Those trying to suppress anti-war viewpoints dishonor the very soldiers they would protect. They are, in fact, committing an unpatriotic act.

The current intolerance for dissent already is doing real damage. According to trade reports, cable executives are paying close attention to the Fox ratings juggernaut and wondering if they must go down the same right-leaning road to survive. A powerful TV consulting company just warned client stations that viewers don't want to hear about protests, and suggested that placement and air time devoted to such stories is "an issue."

Oh yeah. It's an issue. If covering all sides of a story becomes an economic death sentence for journalists, what will we be left with? Information ministries, perhaps.

I choose to believe that most of those criticizing anti-war coverage simply haven't considered the consequences. Lesley Odell's letter was an example of that. She asked how we can defend protest coverage to a soldier about to go into combat. I would say this to the soldier: The ability to express dissent makes this country a shining beacon of hope for the rest of this tired planet. It's a right you're laying your life on the line to defend. Have faith in the American peopleand our way of life.

I ask news readers, viewers and online users to keep the same faith.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune