US media cowed by patriotic fever, says CBS star

Network news veteran admits national mood caused him to shrink from tough questions on war in Afghanistan

Matthew Engel in Washington
Friday May 17, 2002

The Guardian

Dan Rather, the star news anchor for the US television network CBS, said last night that "patriotism run amok" was in danger of trampling the freedom of American journalists to ask tough questions. And he admitted that he had shrunk from taking on the Bush administration over the war on terrorism.

In the weeks after September 11 Rather wore a Stars and Stripes pin in his lapel during his evening news show in an apparent display of total solidarity with the American cause. However, in an interview with BBC's Newsnight, he graphically described the pressures to conform that built up after the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

"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 tyres around people's necks if they dissented. And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck," he said. "Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions."

Rather did not exempt himself from the criticism, and said the problem was self-censorship. "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 it.'"

Such a confession is astonishing, bearing in mind its source. Rather is almost as famous in the US as the president, though he is more secure in his tenure, far better paid and probably more pampered.

Rather, 70, has held what used to be regarded as the top job in American journalism for two decades, since he was chosen to succeed the revered and avuncular Walter Cronkite as CBS News's anchorman. Traditionally, CBS was the country's No 1 news channel but has lost its status and ratings after years of budget cutbacks.

The White House was to blame for its failure to provide adequate information about the war, Rather said. "There has never been an American war, small or large, in which access has been so limited as this one.

"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. And I am sorry to say that, up to and including the moment of this interview, that overwhelmingly it has been accepted by the American people. And the current administration revels in that, they relish that, and they take refuge in that."

He said his view of the patriotism differed from that of the administration. "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."