IOWA VIEW - Get a grip on ourselves, and a flag-waving media

Sunday, November 18, 2001

Forget about anthrax! The United States faces a more dire threat - flag-waving by the nation's newspapers and broadcast stations.

That threat will be compounded in a month or two when the news media will wring their hands over the decline of a patriotism that may not have existed in the first place - certainly not in the way reported by the media today.

It's routine procedure for journalists, but this time the stakes are a bit higher.

Through the hype and stereotypes the news media often portray people and events in exaggerated fashion - good or evil, breakthroughs or roadblocks, worker or shirker. When the illusion wears off or proves to be phony, journalists seldom acknowledge the error of their ways. We just jump on a new bandwagon and

chronicle how the mighty have fallen or how the downtrodden have made a miraculous


That process explains why we always had a "new Nixon" as news media savants tried to turn Richard Nixon into a cardboard caricature. The process was illustrated, too, when the news media pinned the label "wimp" on George Bush the elder and then reported either how he was still a 90-pound weakling or had become a force to be reckoned with.

In a harmless way, the process marks the start of every football season. Sports reporters depict the pre-season Cyclones and Hawkeyes as world beaters and then spend the rest of the season explaining what went wrong with the teams - never admitting that the prognostications may have been wrong to begin with.

Although the stakes are higher now, the news media still are intent on flag-waving. For example, consider this post-election "news" story, which - given a choice - painted city and county elections all red, white and blue. The story began:

"On Election Day 2001, trash removal trumped terrorism. Sure, voters are feeling more patriotic than ever before. Yes, they appreciate their voting rights more than they did before September 11."

Well hooray for us!

The story quotes the secretary of state as attributing higher voter registration to a surge of patriotism, and officials around the state say voter turnouts appear to be higher because of hot local issues and, of course, newfound patriotism.

(Sometimes, I get the feeling that I am the only person in the nation who loved the country before September 11!)

In the post-election story, however, the reader also is told that the voter turnout in Des Moines was only 16 percent, the lowest in 10 years! So, based on that, a lead might have been: "Despite the supposed patriotism that is sweeping the land, Des Moines voters still spurned one of their most important rights yesterday as the voter turnout was the lowest in 10 years."

Such a lead, however, would be contrary to the script being written by the news media for what is happening in the country. Given a choice, we wave the flag. We need to get a grip on ourselves. We need to be wary of the cycle of news coverage that begins with false hopes or mis-reporting and that ends with still more mis-reporting because the rest of us did not follow the course of events scripted by the news media. News stories of the decline of patriotism in the nation are coming, as sure as the snow is. Only the snow will be real, and the "Decline of patriotism" will only be a woeful news media script.

Herb Strentz, a professor of journalism at Drake University, is the former executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information council, an organization interested in openness in government. He writes an occasional column for distribution by the Iowa Newspaper Association.