Vocal Heroes

For a second there, newsies were almost flirting with heroism. When some of our tribe got anthrax, we were briefly spoken of in the same breath as the firefighters, cops, mail carriers, and other government workers extolled for their sacrifices.

It's been a long time since anyone even remotely suggested that media people might possess the heroic traits—valor, selflessness, humility—and it felt kind of nice, even if we knew it was a crock. Next time you're in a room full of journalists, see how often the word "humility" comes to mind.

Sooner or later, the illusion was destined to die, as it did this week when the media club finally started turning against the Administration and its handling of the crisis. Howard Kurtz and Rush Limbaugh made the announcement simultaneously, like two official spokesmen just arrived from the dark back room where the club makes its secret decisions.

While Kurtz was reporting in The Washington Post that "after six weeks of generally sympathetic coverage, the anthrax-obsessed press is turning on the Bush Administration," Limbaugh was on the air similarly declaring that the media had fallen off the national bandwagon. Limbaugh went a step further, positing that journalists might want the United States to lose the war, just so Democrats can take back the White House.

From virtual heroes to treasonous swine, in seven short weeks! It's such a fabulous story, you can almost hear someone pitching it to the Hollywood types who are suddenly so desperate for patriotic content: "It's sort of a Manchurian Candidate for the new millennium, except the villains who brainwash the journalist aren't Communists—they're the Taliban and Al Gore!"

But it's just another wartime urban legend. There's no question a lot of journalists have turned skeptical about the Administration's handling of the war. But the reason has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with the mechanics of modern news.

It used to be that journalists covering war got a privileged close-up view of the civilian leadership in action. In World War II, the average citizen may have heard FDR speaking on the radio fairly regularly, but beyond this, had no direct knowledge of the people and ideas behind the war. Most public information about the leadership-—heir performance and strategy in running the war—was filtered through the reporters who observed that leadership for themselves.

When a reporter filed a story on some new pronouncement from the Secretary of State, he knew few in his audience had heard the Secretary for themselves. The public had no independent means of comparison, so the journalist didn't have to worry much about being widely second-guessed by readers or listeners. Whether they liked his story or not, the unwashed were not in a position to say: "I take issue with what you wrote here. It doesn't capture what I saw happen at the Secretary's news conference." Back then, it was easy to go easy on the leadership—to be a bit of a patriot by being a bit of a stenographer. The nation wasn't looking over your shoulder.

Today, with the President and his top lieutenants on television all the time, reporters find themselves in a very different situation. Turn on the tube at almost any hour, and you're likely to find a news conference or interview, either live or taped, with a major figure in the war effort. In addition to the President himself, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin L. Powell, Tommy G. Thompson, Condoleezza Rice, and Tom Ridge have become extremely familiar to the public. None has been in office a year, yet it's as if we know them better than folks down the street.

In a sense, we do. Television is an intimate medium, and crisis television is intimacy squared. What we're seeing every day now is public figures on the spot as few have ever been on the spot before, answering tough questions about life and death, in real time, before tens of millions of scared viewers. In this war, the public has a direct, unfiltered experience of the war leadership, and this means a fundamental change in the journalist's role.

It's no longer enough to tell one's audience what Secretary Z said today. The audience heard the Secretary for itself and has its own impressions. Today, the journalist's job is to take what the Secretary said and scrutinize it more closely than the average viewer has the time or the inclination to do. When the Health and Human Services Secretary seems out of his depth in handling the anthrax crisis, as he has on numerous occasions in recent weeks, it's the journalist's job to look into that and find out if it's just an impression, or an indicator of real problems the public ought to know about.

The polls suggest most citizens strongly back the war effort. The country has been attacked as never before, and people are pulling for their elected leaders to prevail against the enemy. But there's a difference between the desire for success and success itself. Watching the leadership from their privileged seats at home, viewers have mixed reactions, little voices that say this decision seemed wise, but another one was awfully foolish; this Cabinet Secretary inspires confidence, but that one makes us worry.

While most of the public is feeling patriotic, listening mainly to the positive voices, it's the journalist's job to do the opposite—to home in on the negative voices, the ones full of doubt, misgiving, and the most-pessimistic worries.

It's not easy work, not in times like these. But it's crucial. And once in a while, when it's done really well, it becomes a kind of heroism.