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No Flags Please, We're American

Claim:   After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ABC forbade on-air reporters from wearing American flag lapel pins or red, white, and blue ribbons.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, October 2001]

Dear friend,

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.

Origins:   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, etc.

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.

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.

ABC's asking their journalists to continue observing a long-standing policy was quickly spun into the false claim that ABC had banned journalists from engaging in a practice previously allowed to them. But as ABC News senior vice president Jeffrey Schneider told us, it had been standard journalistic practice for on-air news personnel to refrain from wearing symbolic items long before 11 September 2001; it was neither a new practice instituted after the 9/11 attacks, nor was it unique to ABC. That network also did not "order" its personnel not to wear flag label pins; ABC simply asked on-air reporters who wanted to bend the established practice regarding patriotic displays to continue observing it.

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.
Last updated:   31 January 2013

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    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).