FLAGGING THE PROBLEM
Incorporating the American flag in a newscast is wrong
by Deborah Potter
What's wrong with this picture? A local TV news director tells
his staff that their job is to deliver the news "as free from
outside influences as possible," and promptly gets lambasted.
Months later, a national network wraps itself in the American flag
while proclaiming its independence, and nobody bats an eye.
Odd, isn't it? But of course, there's more to the story.
It all started in the aftermath of September 11, when news director
Stacey Woelfel at KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri, banned the wearing
of red-white-and-blue ribbons and flag pins on the air. He knew
his decision would be unpopular, but he was clear about why he made
it. "Our news broadcasts are not the place for personal statements
of support for any cause," he wrote in a memo to the staff,
"no matter how deserving the cause seems to be." Within
days, the memo got out and the criticism poured in.
Woelfel wasn't the only one to take a stand against overt displays
of patriotism on television newscasts last fall. ABC News and NBC
News adopted similar policies. So did News 12 Long Island in New
York, where senior vice president of news Pat Dolan banned flags
not only on the air but in the station, "in any area visible
to guests or non-staff members." After his memo was leaked
to a local newspaper, the station received hundreds of angry calls
and some 12,000 emails opposing Dolan's position.
Obviously, emotions were running high at the time, especially in
New York. The anger has since faded. But bygones still aren't bygones
Admittedly, KOMU is a unique property. It's a top-rated NBC station
that happens to be owned by the University of Missouri and is staffed
largely by faculty and students. So the state legislature had to
get into the act, condemning what one member called a "stupid
policy." In April, the Missouri House of Representatives voted
to cut the university system's budget by $500,000 to punish the
station. A committee later reduced the penalty for the station and
another perceived university offense to $100,000.
"I don't care about journalistic integrity or academic freedom,"
Republican state representative Martin (Bubs) Hohulin was quoted
as saying in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "It was either
this or going over to punch [Mr. Woelfel] in the face, and this
seemed a whole lot more diplomatic."
Anyone who does care about journalistic integrity should be able
to see that it's problematic for a news organization to wrap itself
in patriotic colors. It sends a signal that the journalists who
work there owe allegiance to the flag first, and the truth second.
So what, pray, are we to think of the folks in charge at MSNBC?
The cable news network has re-branded itself as "America's
News Channel," complete with flag-bedecked NBC peacock, in
an effort to persuade viewers that MSNBC is "uniquely American
and fiercely independent." Network president Erik Sorenson
said in a memo that MSNBC "is not partisan and has no agenda,
other than to serve the American people." But let's not kid
ourselves. MSNBC certainly does have an agenda: to draw more viewers.
Mired in third place, dismissed as "irrelevant" and "laughable"
by its cable news competitors, the network apparently decided a
little flag waving couldn't hurt.
But it can. It taints the product. The flag logo establishes an
atmosphere in which anchors feel free to refer to the United States
and its military forces as "we" and "our." MSNBC
is hardly alone in this thicket. Fox News Channel doesn't even pretend
to be impartial, slapping a large animated flag over every live
How can any news organization with such an apparently clear allegiance
be expected to serve as an objective, unbiased source of information?
As News 12's Dolan put it in his memo banning the display of American
flags, "We have to avoid giving a false impression that we
'lean' one way or another on any issue…If we sacrifice that
principle, then the terrorists have won an important victory against
the Flag and everything it stands for."
As for the fallout in Missouri, Woelfel says he's not worried.
The station depends mainly on advertising revenue, not state support,
so the funding cut won't really hurt KOMU. But the principle involved
should worry everyone who believes in a free press. As Missouri
journalism professor George Kennedy wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
"The job of journalism is making democracy work. That's real
And to do that job, journalists must be independent, in tone, appearance,
and in fact.
This article was originally published
by American Journalism Review, June 2002.