After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, many Americans were eager and proud to visibly affirm their support for their country by adorning themselves, their homes, their workplaces, and their cars with various patriotic symbols: U.S. flags; red, white, and blue ribbons; flag lapel pins; flag posters; and the like.
This outbreak of patriotic fervor created a dilemma for the news departments of television networks, however. It had been a long-standing practice among all the networks (going back decades before the 9/11 attacks) that on-air journalistic personnel should not visibly wear or otherwise display lapel pins, ribbons, buttons bearing national flags or national colors, or any other form of patriotic adornments or insignia. After the 9/11 attacks, some on-air personnel in network news departments expressed interest in bending that rule, a circumstance that led to a contentious public debate about the appropriateness of such displays, with one side claiming that journalists should be allowed to exhibit symbols of their patriotism just as much as any other Americans, the other holding that journalists should refrain from wearing such items in order to maintain an image of impartial neutrality and lessen the chances that they (especially reporters working overseas) could be harmed by those who might view them as an arm of the American government.
ABC’s continued observation of a long-standing policy was quickly spun into the false claim that ABC had just banned journalists from engaging in a practice previously allowed to them:
Yesterday, the brass at ABC News issued orders forbidding reporters to wear lapel pin American flags or other patriotic insignia. Their reasoning was that ABC should remain neutral about “causes”. Since when is support for preventing our death & destruction some sort of a cause? Since when is patriotism to be discouraged. I urge you to boycott ABC and its sponsors and affiliates.
Please forward this to as many as you can.
Goodbye to ABC.
ABC News Joins Obama and Bans American Flag Lapel Pins!
ABC NEWS BANS FLAG LAPEL PINS
This is what we get from the present attitudes in Washington.
Barbara Walters said that this was going to hurt ABC bad. And she works
YESTERDAY THE BRASS AT ABC NEWS ISSUED ORDERS FORBIDDING REPORTERS TO WEAR
LAPEL PIN AMERICAN FLAGS OR OTHER PATRIOTIC INSIGNIA.
THEIR REASONING WAS THAT ABC SHOULD REMAIN NEUTRAL ABOUT ‘CAUSES’.
SINCE WHEN IS PATRIOTISM TO BE DISCOURAGED?
I URGE YOU TO BOYCOTT ABC AND ITS SPONSORS AND AFFILIATES.
WE ARE SLOWLY LOSING EVERYTHING OUR COUNTRY STANDS FOR AND EVERYTHING OUR
MEN AND WOMEN FOUGHT AND DIED TO PRESERVE!
PLEASE FORWARD THIS TO AS MANY AS YOU CAN.
THIS ONE NEEDS TO BE CIRCULATED…QUICKLY
The ABC network was singled out for especially heavy criticism in this regard, due in large part to articles such as the following:
Many Americans have drawn strength from a display of flags and other patriotic symbols. But what about news anchors and reporters? Should traditionally detached, questioning journalists wear American flag pins and ribbons on the air?”Why would it ever be inappropriate?” wondered Brit Hume, Fox News Channel’s managing editor in Washington. “It doesn’t stand for the Bush administration or for a certain party or even the government. It stands for the country. Why is wearing a symbol of the country of which you’re a citizen a problem?”
Hume has worn flag pins on the air. CBS, NBC and CNN have no set policy.
But ABC has become the first major news network to ask its journalists not to wear American flag pins in their lapels, or even red, white and blue ribbons, in an effort to protect their credibility as objective sources.
“What if Peter’s wearing one, but Ted’s not?” asked ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, referring to Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel. “Does that mean one journalist is more patriotic than the other? It’s best not to place such an unfair burden on the reporters.
“We cannot signal through outward symbols how we feel, even if the cause is justified. Overseas, it could be perceived that we’re just mouthpieces for the U.S. government, and that can place our journalists in danger.”
Some people argue that the events of the past few weeks have been so extraordinary that journalists should be allowed to deviate from traditional rules, at least for now. Few viewers have complained about networks plastering flags on sets and screens.
But as ABC News senior vice president Jeffrey Schneider told us, it had been standard journalistic practice at that network for on-air news personnel to refrain from wearing such symbolic items long before 11 September 2001; it was not a new practice instituted after the 9/11 attacks. Former ABC News president David Westin also confirmed in a 2012 interview that the policy had been in place long before 9/11:
It came up while I was in the control room. As you’ll recall, we were on the air for about four and a half days straight: 24 hours, seven days a week with no commercial interruption or anything else. There was constant reporting coming in during that time and we were having to make decisions about what to do and what not to do. They came to us and said, ‘We are being asked why we’re not wearing lapel pins,’ because a number of other outlets, particularly cable news, were. Fox News in particular had integrated the American flag into the backdrop and bumpers and teasers and everything else. And we’d long had a policy at ABC News that we wouldn’t let people wear any lapel pins of any sort. The theory being that when you’re reporting the news, you should be reporting the news, not taking a position. I said quickly, ‘We’re going to stick with our policy and stand by that.’ I believe to this day that was the right decision.
Many newspeople at various networks and affiliate stations did begin donning U.S. flag lapel pins and other patriotic insignia after 9/11, although one of the most prominent news anchors of that period, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, surprisingly did not. O’Reilly explained his decision by stating that “I’m just a regular guy. Watch me and you’ll know what I think without [my] wearing a pin.”
Reaction to the “no flags” issue ranged from disagreement voiced by newspeople at local television stations:
Another anchor who has been wearing red, white and blue iconography is Estha Trouw, co-anchor of the 10 p.m. weekday news report on (Fox6 News) XETV/Channel 6.”I don’t see a contradiction at all between being a patriotic American and being a solid journalist,” Trouw said. “Displaying the flag is not a symbol of the government. It’s a show of support for fellow Americans.”
… to outrage expressed by conservative pundits:
These TV news directors and newspaper editors act like they’re lethally allergic to red, white and blue. Do they plan on boycotting the Fourth of July, too? Wouldn’t want to give the appearance of endorsing either side of that little armed struggle between Mother England and the rebel colonies, right?Seriously, the hypocrisy is nauseating. “Ethical” news editors wave the high-minded banner of objectivity in wartime. But in peacetime, they don’t think twice about allowing — even encouraging — their reporters to participate in such highly politicized activities as AIDS fund-raisers, race-based affirmative action lobbying efforts, anti-gun proselytizing, pro-abortion rallies and environmental propaganda.
Nonetheless, the claim that ABC has “banned” their on-air personnel from wearing U.S. flag pins wasn’t true in 2001, and it isn’t true seventeen years on (despite commonly being reported in e-mail forwards as if it were a recent occurrence). And ABC News couldn’t have “joined” President Obama in this endeavor (as asserted in the second example above), as the latter never instituted any ban on U.S. flag pins either. (Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, announced in October 2007 that he had stopped wearing a flag pin himself, but he resumed the practice several months later.)
Cruz, Gilbert. “A Brief History of the Flag Lapel Pin.”
Time. 3 July 2008.
Emling, Shelley. “Should TV Journalists Be Flying the Flag?”
The Atlanta Constitution. 25 September 2001 (p. D1).
Malkin, Michelle. “Media’s Blind Eye Missing a Parade of Red-White-Blue.”
Reuters. 7 October 2001 (p. V5).
Turegano, Preston. “Too Much Red, White and Blue on TV News for Objectivity?”
The San Diego Union-Tribune. 2 October 2001 (p. E1).