NEW YORK – After an executive at a New York area cable TV company ordered journalists not to display the American flag, his boss — also his brother — said he was giving out 24,000 flags to the company's employees.
The familial battle at the News 12 Networks illustrates a wider debate within television over use of the potent political symbol.
Journalists are weighing whether wearing the flag during an intense period of patriotism and grief conflicts with their impulse to avoid any appearance of not being objective on a story.
CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC have all been displaying flag graphics on their screens during their coverage of the aftermath of last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
NBC's Tim Russert wore a red, white and blue ribbon Sunday on Meet the Press. Yet at ABC News, as Barbara Walters explained on The View Thursday, wearing the flag is discouraged because it may confuse the audience.
Pat Dolan, news director of News 12, ordered the flag ban in a memo to his staff earlier this week. News 12 airs newscasts on Long Island, Westchester County, southern Connecticut, New Jersey and the Bronx.
When Newsday reported his decision, the phones lit up at News 12. It also prompted Dolan to go on the air, apologize twice for any concerns, and assert that News 12 employees "are proud to be Americans."
"We are patriots at News 12, but we don't want anyone to get the false impression that our patriotic emotions cloud our reporting of the truth," Dolan said. "We need people to be absolutely sure we'll be there to tell them what's happening. Whether it's good news or bad news, America must know the truth."
Dolan's brother, James — who's the president of News 12 parent company Cablevision —said he disagreed but wouldn't override the decision.
"For our own part, Cablevision supports the use of the flag both by the company and its employees to show support for everyone affected by last week's tragedy," James Dolan said, "and we are distributing flags to each of our 24,000 employees."
Although News 12 won't let its journalists wear the flag, the newscasts — just like the national cable news networks — use the flag in onscreen graphics.
News 12 wouldn't comment on whether the controversy has affected its advertising.
Pat Dolan's memo flabbergasted Fox News Channel anchorman Brit Hume.
"This is not the flag of the Bush administration or the Democratic Party, this is the flag of the country itself," Hume said in an interview Thursday. "If you're an American and choose to display the flag, it's difficult for me to see when that would ever be inappropriate.
"We're talking about a news director banning a display anywhere a viewer can see it of an American flag on an American news channel by American personnel," Hume said. "Does this news director believe he is representing Switzerland?"
Hume doesn't believe that flag-waving would leave journalists reluctant to ask difficult questions of American leaders.
The liberal advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, however, says the flag displays amount to taking sides.
"At a time when many see the media as beating the drums for war, imposing the U.S. flag over what should be balanced reporting doesn't help," said FAIR senior analyst Steve Rendall. "It reinforces the view that the media are not independent."
Walters said ABC News discourages display of the flag because viewers might wonder whether an employee who doesn't wear it is less patriotic than one who does.
NBC has no policy, a spokeswoman said. CBS spokeswoman Sandra Genelius said that "as a rule, our people do not wear their hearts or their politics on their sleeves."
If someone objects, they can talk to CBS News President Andrew Heyward, she said.