William Westmoreland sued CBS over a question of fact -- the alleged falsification of statistics. William Tavoulareas, the former president of Mobil Oil, sued The Washington Post over a question of fact -- whether he "set up" his son in business. But the debate over media coverage of the TWA hostage crisis is not about facts at all. It is about patriotism. It is alleged the media ain't got any.
This is something new under the sun. Until recently, critics of the press have questioned its accuracy, its taste, sometimes its sanity, but almost never its allegiance. If anything, the press has been accused of being jingoistic, of fanning chauvinism just to boost circulation.
Now, though, the press is faulted for being insufficiently nationalistic. Its critics point out that it interviews hostages and their captors with nary the suggestion that there is a moral difference between them and that, worse, it allows itself to be used by terrorists who supposedly want nothing more than publicity.
The latter argument, in fact, was recently made by Margaret Thatcher. The British prime minister told the American Bar Association that the press ought to agree among themselves to a "voluntary code of conduct under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists' morale or their cause." These remarks were applauded by the assembled lawyers, who, apparently, have delegated the chore of thinking to lower- paid associates. She didn't explain how an editor in Washington could judge the "morale" of a freaked- out terrorist in, say, Beirut.
Let us dispose of some matters right off. First, while it is true that terrorists use the press, it is true that everyone uses the press -- Thatcher and the ABA included. Second, no one -- including the all-knowing Henry Kissinger -- knows what he'd do if terrorists produced a blindfolded hostage, put a gun to his head and demanded immediate network coverage. What then, Mrs. Thatcher?
It is a lot harder, however, to dispose of the suggestion that what ails the media is a lack of patriotism. The problem with this accusation is that it touches on values. It suggests that the one the press holds dearest -- pursuit of the news -- conflicts with other, even more important values: respect for life, the primacy of U.S. interests. But the accusation goes further than that. It suggests that the press does not even recognize this clash of values, that its primary and only allegiance is to something called "the story."
Of course, as with anything, exceptions abound. During the TWA crisis, for instance, the press withheld the military identification of some hostages, hoping to keep them out of greater danger. And there is no doubt that if the government had made a compelling case that national security was at stake, the press would have tailored its coverage.
But the government made no such case. Instead, critics afterward faulted the press for doing its job, for complicating things for everyone and, in the end, for allowing the terrorists to have a propaganda field day -- although it's not clear that any minds were changed. Starting with Kissinger attempting an imitation of the Incredible Hulk and ending (maybe) with Thatcher's call for self-censorship, a whole lot of people joined an anti-press picket line to echo the words of an old union song: Which side are you on?
But the question is a cheap shot. It presupposes that journalistic and American values are in conflict, that the former are not part of the latter and that there is something un-American about providing information. Worse yet, the criticism shows contempt for your average American sitting in your average easy chair, watching the news on television. It's as if the critics believe forced statements of some hostages will destroy public support for U.S. policy.
A hostage situation may or may not be a national crisis (after all, seven Americans remain captive). Terrorism may or may not be a new kind of warfare. But if the press has to prove its patriotism by either censoring itself or colluding with the government, then any fanatic can wield awesome power. With only a gun a free press can be taken hostage.