Ochenski: Patriotism and a free press 

Defending your country means knowing the truth

Now that America is “at war,” it seems the citizens of this country no longer deserve the right to either ask questions or receive accurate information about what’s going on with our own government. In a broad-spectrum effort, federal and even state government officials are now simply refusing to answer questions on a growing variety of issues. Sadly, we are letting them get away with it. Instead of real news and real answers, we get a lukewarm pablum of propaganda, intended to make us feel secure and calm, assuring us that everything is under control. Our president encourages us to be “patriotic” by dumping our concerns and going to Disneyland where, ostensibly, we will spend money like mad and indulge ourselves in fantasyland creations. But thanks to the increasing spin cycle of the media, we don’t have to go to Disneyland to get fantasy—it comes over the tube and on the front pages of the paper every morning. Disneyland fantasies may have their place in the world, but not as a substitute for a free press.

Two recent examples of blatant manipulation come to mind. In bold headlines, the lead story of a local paper declared, “Montana ready for biological threats” while a couple of pages later, another headline declared, “Nation ready for biological threats.” If you only read the headlines, you might just go off feeling that things were going to be OK. But if you took the time to read the story, what the experts quoted in the articles really said was that the state and the nation were NOT well prepared, but doing the best they could with the situation at hand. Only days later, and making a mockery of the headlines, the U.S. House of Representatives shut down for the first time in the history of our country because of widespread anthrax contamination. This kind of misrepresentation is being repeated hundreds, if not thousands, of times daily as elected officials, government bureaucrats, reporters, editors, and publishers avoid telling the often-frightening truth. The cumulative impact of such practices leaves the citizens of this nation with unrealistic expectations and a dangerous inability to weigh the pros and cons of our state and nation’s course.

Even those who receive their input from broader sources of information, such as the Internet, are now faced with endless examples of radically conflicting reportage. As an example, U.S. sources proclaimed “China backs U.S. actions,” but stories from other nations said, “China wary of continued bombing.” The perhaps unsolvable dilemma for citizens then becomes, “Who is telling the truth?” Our nation, founded in a bloody revolution against a ruling monarchy, has always and with good reason defended the freedoms of speech, press, religion, and association. But now, our press seems less “free” with every passing day, replaced by a scripted morality play that focuses on what the president calls “the great evil” of a single man living in the caves of one of the poorest nations on earth.

Closer to home, Governor Martz seems to have found “the war” a handy excuse for prevarication, too. The citizens of Libby and their city and county commissioners recently pleaded with Martz to use the state’s “silver bullet” option to fast-track a Superfund cleanup of the deadly asbestos plaguing their community. Martz, who has long resisted Superfund designation for Libby, weaseled out by telling them that, because of the potential for terrorist attacks in Montana, she would be reserving the “silver bullet” option for some unknown future catastrophe. Simply put, Governor Judy’s lame excuse to the people of Libby was pure malarkey. First, it makes no sense to ignore an already deadly threat to Montana’s citizens in favor of a threat that may or may not happen. Second, although the EPA has just been called upon to clean up the anthrax contamination of the Florida newspaper offices, there has been no indication from anyone that such use would negate the state’s “silver bullet” cleanup option for existing sites. Governor Martz is simply using “the war” as an excuse for her version of the EPA—Environmental Procrastination Attempts. Tragically, especially for those in Libby, instead of asking the Governor to provide some source of her “silver bullet” contentions, the mainstream press let her slide.

As “the war” goes forward, plans for how much Americans will get to know about what’s happening are headed in the wrong direction—at least as far as an informed citizenry is concerned. Throughout most of this country’s history, men and women of the press went into combat and reported to our citizens from the front lines. They risked, and often lost, their lives to bring us news of foreign engagements in their own words, their own pictures—and we owe those brave combat reporters and photographers a great debt of gratitude for that knowledge. But then came the Gulf War, when Pentagon decision-makers herded journalists around like sheep, feeding them compressed pellets of carefully sanitized “news,” which then got recycled to us with the same phrases and images bleated across the nation.

In the end, true patriots are not simply those that fly the flag and parade mindlessly after their so-called “leaders.” True patriots take hard measure of what is good for their country, its people, and the future and then, popular or not, stand by their informed convictions. But how can any of us take hard measure, or make hard decisions, or weigh the pros and cons of our nation’s state of being if we only have Pentagon sound bites and sanitized reportage on which to base our decisions? Obviously, we can’t. Now, in this time of great danger and uncertainty, Americans need and deserve the fully informed and free press guaranteed in our Constitution. Without it, as the drafters of the Constitution knew so well, the principles on which this great nation was founded will disappear and freedom will surely vanish—not conquered by a foreign power, but eroded from within.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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