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Columnists fired for criticism: Opinion writers roasted for expressing... opinions. (Symposium Terrorism and civil liberties).

Dan Rather cried on Letterman while talking about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Fox News Channel reporters sported American flag pins on the air. Anchors for a Baltimore TV station were ordered to read statements supporting President George W. Bush.

Following a tragedy whose proportions still boggle the imagination, it seems the only journalists catching flak for expressing opinions are... opinion writers. And the heaviest fire was reserved for any writer who dared buck the flag-waving party line.

At least two columnists were fired for leveling harsh criticism at the president within a few weeks of the attacks. Dan Guthrie, columnist for the Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Ore., was fired by publisher Dennis Mack after saying Bush "skedaddled" in Air Force One the day of the attacks.

The clear implication was that the president was being less than brave. Obviously, Guthrie can't be the only one who thought this. Why else were administration officials eager to proclaim they had "credible" evidence" - which has since evaporated -- that Air Force One had been targeted?

The piece, headlined "Bush has failed to lead U.S.A.," wasn't nice. Starting with the speech ("vague, trite"), Gutting went on to blast Bush's brain power and bravery ("... there was W., flying around the country like a scared child seeking refuge in his mother's bed.... What we are stuck with is a crippled president who continues to be controlled by his advisors.")

Even worse was the treatment of Tom Gutting, the city editor of the 6,000-circulation Texas City Sun. Gutting was fired after running a column Sept. 22, two days after Bush's address to the nation.

Les Daughtry Jr., the editor and publisher of the Sun, went ballistic. He promptly fired Gutting and published both a front-page apology and a cringing editorial begging readers' forgiveness for the column. ("... in fact, [I] still feel ill from its effects as I write this.")

Daughtry hunkered down to some serious boot-licking, saying any suggestion that Bush was showing poor judgment insulted "all our leaders" and suggesting that Gutting's failure to "protect the chain of command" was incorrect and irresponsible.

Was Gutting's commentary in poor taste? Over the top? Maybe. As opinion writers, we all struggled to some extent with conflicting emotions. Papers that stepped away from the flag-waving parade route were quickly scalded by a flood of irate calls and letters.

Many editorial boards chose to dilute strong doubts about Bush's actions in the weeks following the attacks -- partly out of respect for the victims and a sense of patriotism, partly because we knew we'd alienate many of the people we needed to persuade.

The sagas of the fired columnists represent the extreme. But they also illustrate a general trend in the way editorial pages dealt with the attacks and their aftermath. Even papers that are philosophically out of tune with the Bush administration showed a general reluctance to level pointed criticism. There were exceptions. But not many.

That's disturbing. Since when is it not okay to criticize leaders? To question whether American tax dollars should be spent, whether American blood should be spilled? Since when is this not our job?

In the wake of a heartbreaking tragedy, editorial boards mourned with our fellow Americans and celebrated our mutual patriotism. Those are important roles for editorial writers. But in times of national crisis, when readers are particularly vulnerable to local, state, and federal leaders' hasty decision-making, it's also vital to wake them up and shake them up -- even if it ticks them off.

NCEW member Krys Fluker is an editorial writer with the Daytona Beach News-Journal.


America is often at its best when things are at their worst. In recent years, amid peace and prosperity, the country has too much become a cacophony of small and self-concerned interests. But whatever the authors of yesterday's horrors imagined, their weapons did not fell some abstract titan of capitalism. The murder victims included canteen operators and sales clerks, secretaries and janitors, parking-lot attendants and rescue workers, CEOs and soldiers. They were black and white and brown and Christian and Jewish and, surely, Muslim. American blood flowed and mingled without regard to income oraddiess or who had a key to the corporate gym. Death was a democratizer. Life should be, too. We Americans ought to be family today, with a family's sorrow, a family's care, a family's passion for righteous justice. Somehow, the word united comes to mind.

The Free-Lance once Star, Fredericksburg, Va., Sept. 12
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Author:Fluker, Krys
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Previous Article:Thinking first as a citizen: In an unending struggle against terrorism, giving up rights during wartime means giving them up forever. (Symposium...
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