Washington Dan Rather has never been shy about standing up to presidents. He made his name challenging Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate, and was widely criticized for overstepping the bounds of anchor politeness with his grilling of Vice President Bush about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Yet Rather confessed in an extraordinary interview with a British television station that he has been guilty of self-censorship since Sept. 11. He explained that love of country can "sometimes prevent American journalists from asking tough questions about the war on terror."
More than love of country muzzled the media after Sept. 11. Questioning an administration while the country is at war risks condemnation for being unpatriotic. Rather likened it to being "necklaced," a particularly gruesome form of punishment used for a time in South Africa where a flaming tire was placed around the necks of political dissidents.
When media inquiries are curbed, the public pays the price. History reveals the lesson time and again. The Alien and Sedition Acts, signed by President John Adams in 1798, sent a score of newspaper editors to jail under the guise of national security in what was really an attempt to blunt political opposition. The result was the decline of Adams' Federalist Party and the election of Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican. The McCarthy era, a century-and-a-half later, had the press paralyzed over "the Red menace" within its own ranks and unable to properly investigate rampant charges of Communism in American institutions, from the political class to Hollywood.
This in no way equates post-Sept. 11 reluctance with either historical episode except to say that whether through intimidation or self-suppression, the country suffers when the media is not vigilant.
Instead of playing their customary role of critic and skeptic, reporters after Sept. 11 behaved more like cheerleaders, relaying the administration's progress reports on the war while applying little independent judgment. Yet the country remains vulnerable to another attack. The administration publicizes the threats on an almost daily basis and warns critics that dwelling on past mistakes distracts from its ability to ward off future attacks.
Learning what led to this country's biggest intelligence failure could help avoid a potentially more devastating assault. The answers that have been emerging however grudgingly from the administration and the intelligence community are not comforting. None of the problems identified by the media have been fixed. The CIA and the FBI are still not communicating; there have been few arrests in connection with the Sept. 11 plot; Osama bin Laden is presumed at large; and top al-Qaida operatives have regrouped and are preparing to strike again.
Bush's post-Sept. 11 honeymoon is over. While nobody believes he had specific advance knowledge of last year's attacks, there is also a growing realization that his administration did not pay sufficient attention to the looming threat posed by the al-Qaida terrorist network. More critical reporting will emerge as the press sheds its reluctance to do its job.
With elections in the fall that could consolidate Bush's power, the voting public has a right to know what goes on behind the scenes. Patriotism shouldn't be about donning a flag pin, but asking the tough questions, and taking the criticism that comes with pointing out that not everything is going according to the White House script.
Political Correspondent Eleanor Clift contributed to this column.