Viewers Will Deliver News Verdict

I will try the case briefly. I have only a few paragraphs. When they are finished, the gavel will sound.

Here is Exhibit A, a note from a Fox News Channel executive to his staff. Date: November 28, 2001:

Let’s not get sidetracked worrying about the plight of Afghans this winter, or how many children are undernourished. We can help that country as soon as they cough up the guys who killed 5,000 Americans. When in doubt, take a look at the WTC collapsing.

Exhibit B is the reaction of an interviewer from to the preceding:

It shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s hard not to be a little shocked when you actually hear something like that. And do you think networks will follow this lead?

Finally, Exhibit C, from the interviewee, media critic Todd Gitlin, who somehow obtained a copy of the Fox News note. In his answer to the question about networks following Fox's lead, Gitlin refers to the prospect that, as a result of attitudes like the one expressed in the note, Fox News will corral the yahoos.

Let’s take them one at a time. First, Exhibit A. The Fox News executive who wrote the note does not remember the exact wording; he says that, if he really did use a phrase like the one about "undernourished children," he was a bit intemperate. But the Gitlin version is accurate, he says, in substance.

It is also an expression of common sense and journalistic integrity.

Read the note carefully. It does not say that the plight of Afghan civilians should be ignored. It says that the plight of Afghan civilians should not be the main focus of stories. To make it the main focus, according to Exhibit A, would be to run the train of coverage down a side track. The main track, says the executive, leads to two exploding skyscrapers and thousands of lives, neither of which will ever be replaced.

Exhibit A implies that American journalists should be Americans no less than journalists, and it asks for nothing more than context in reporting. Further, it suggests that coverage of any innocent casualties on the other side must be tempered by awareness that all of the casualties in the World Trade Center were innocent.

I must hurry. Exhibit B. How can the interviewer be shocked that a news executive would tell the reporters and producers who work for him not to lose sight of the most important side of a story? How can he be shocked by a request that journalistic justice accompany our nation’s search for military justice? How can he be shocked by the insistence that the victims of Sept. 11 retain their primacy in future coverage of the event’s aftermath? How can he be shocked by a note stating that a nation which harbors terrorists is not to be confused with a nation committed to eradicating them?

And how can he be shocked at the message between the lines of the note, that revenge is the just and decent desire of an unfairly besieged people?

Which brings us to Exhibit C. So, Mr. Gitlin, the people who watch the kind of coverage outlined in the note are "yahoos," are they? They are not just people with whom you disagree, but people at whom you aim a demeaning term, have I got that right? They are people whom you dismiss as beneath you in their ability to perceive the truth of events?

And these quick, final questions. Are you dismayed that your sentiments seem to represent but a minority of Americans today? Do you see yourself as a voice in the wilderness? Can you bring yourself to admit that the wilderness is self-created?


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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