Something is happening to the relationship between the people and the press in this country.
Something that never happened before, may never happen again, may determine the nature of the relationship for years, if not decades, to come.
The people are demanding that their journalists be patriots — that they be overt patriots. They are demanding that journalists stop hiding behind claims of objectivity, masks of impartiality, disguises of neutrality. The people do not want the news in black and white anymore. They want it in red, white and blue.
More specifically: People do not want the Reuters news service refusing to call the deeds of Sept. 11 "terrorism." They do not want the president of ABC News refusing to take a stand on whether or not the Pentagon was a legitimate target on the 11th. They do not want reporters asking belligerent or defeatist questions at news conferences. They do not want anchors to show up on the air without flags in their lapels or anthems in their hearts. They do not want commentators to praise the United States, and then say, "On the other hand ..."
And the people are powerful in their not wanting. I have read thousands of e-mails in recent weeks addressed to me personally because of my FOXNews.com columns or, more generally, to the Fox News Watch television program because of something said by one of the panelists. People are confused and getting more confused, impatient and getting more impatient, angry and getting angrier.
They are saying things they would never have said before, pleading for ignorance (when it comes to the strategies of the military), and for subjectivity (when it comes to the perceived failures of those strategies).
It is an extraordinary time for the relationship between the people and the press.
And it is going to get even more extraordinary as the days and weeks and months go by. Will the government ask for patience and will the media be impulsive? Will the military ask for secrecy and will the media be inquisitive? Will the people ask for unity and will the media be divisive? Will there be even more columns and editorials and background pieces making utterly preposterous comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam, even though the countries are different, the eras are different, the purposes are different, the technology is different, and the sense of national resolve is different?
Less than three weeks into the fighting, some reporters were asking Pentagon officials whether the U.S. had a chance to win this war. Other reporters were quoting the Taliban on civilian casualties among Afghans without seeming to question the source. Still others were examining what America had done to provoke the terrorists in the first place.
The people are not happy with the press. And just as so much else these days is new in America, so is the nature of the unhappiness. This is not the kind of unhappiness they showed when we spent too much time reporting on Gary Condit's relationship with Chandra Levy, and the people thought we were trivial. This is not the kind of unhappiness they showed when we spent too much time reporting on the murder of Robert Blake's wife, and the people thought we were irrelevant. This is not the kind of unhappiness they showed when we spent too much time reporting on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and the people thought we were biased, one way or the other.
This is a unique unhappiness. This is the unhappiness of people who think the media are un-American and that suggests yet another difference between the present struggle and the war a few decades ago in Southeast Asia. In the latter, our government tried to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. In the former, it is the media who have to win the hearts and minds of the people.
So far, the media seem to be losing.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .
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