How a free press censors itself

Ignored, threatened with the sack, attacked in print, American journalists who dissent from the war

"Americans ought to know [why the attacks of 11 September occurred] . . . The fact is, if I wrote this story now, thousands of people would write in to the Washington Post and say, 'Fire the guy'. My editors are right: we're not ready for this." - T R Reid, Washington Post bureau chief, 22 September.

In America, this is not "censorship".

Nor is the way that Bill Maher nearly lost his national late-night talk show, Politically Incorrect, because he said: "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." (Although Maher held on to his post, two advertisers, Sears and Federal Express, immediately withdrew from sponsoring the show.)

The charge against staff and students at City University of New York who held a teach-in on "Threats of war, challenges of peace" was that it was "a hard-core America-bashing festival". As a university trustee made clear: "I would consider that behaviour seditious at this time."

This, however, is not "censorship".

Ralph Nader protested against the war at a "Democracy Rising Rally" in San Francisco on 11 October; the only mention of the event, even in the San Francisco Chronicle, was a snide comment about Nader's address to "a large group of his fellow malcontents".

This, however, is not "censorship". And when Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on 12 October for a pause in the bombing, to allow more aid into Afghanistan, she received no mention in the US media. This is not censorship, either.

Most Americans are proud of their "free" media. No journalist or academic has gone to prison since 11 September, unless he or she is one of the 1,182 people detained for the official investigations. There are no legal restrictions on what the press can report. True, the Bush administration called in media representatives, before the first bombs dropped on Afghanistan, to agree national guidelines on reporting - but this can be placed under the protective umbrella of "national security".

More ham-fisted have been the government's attempts to suppress the press releases from the bad guys, notably with the ludicrous claim that Osama Bin Laden's videos might contain coded messages to his terrorist network. Broadcasters, summoned by the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, kowtowed by summarising Bin Laden's statements rather than broadcasting them.

Still, the pretence can be maintained that journalists have safeguarded objectivity, and the sheer volume of coverage in the US can overwhelm doubts. Donald Rumsfeld and the military hold their daily press conferences; there are as many correspondents as Northern Alliance fighters on the purported "front line"; and acceptable experts offer round-the-clock advice on anthrax.

It is not a question of censorship because, to be censored, there has to be an attempt to report the news or to air an opinion in the first place. And while there might be fussing and fidgeting about the government's response to the threat within America, any voice questioning the march to war has sounded like a whisper amid the shouts of grief, vengeance and pride. Dissent over the bombing of Afghanistan carried the inbuilt stigma of being unpatriotic. (No one, it must be said, mentions Dr Johnson and scoun-drels these days.)

American culture is not renowned for having a sense of irony or of geography, and neither has been claimed in this crisis. A famous NBC commentator, poring over a map of the region with "experts", considered the reaction of "Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and, uh, all these other 'stans". Cheerleading correspondents proclaimed in the first week of bombing that the Northern Alliance was 5km from taking over the strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif; three weeks later, they celebrated "imminent" victory because the Alliance had occupied a village 50km from Mazar-e-Sharif.

In contrast to this rah-rah mentality, even the most disturbing details of the war go by the board. Leave aside the absurd notion that hundreds of civilians have been killed, and the suspicion that Reuters photographs of dead Afghan children have been suppressed. When Rumsfeld told CNN bluntly that he did not rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons, no one blinked. In October, the Washington Post reported in a matter-of-fact way that the FBI was now considering new torture techniques for interrogation.

Knowledge has been replaced in the US media with "feeling". Dan Rather, the veteran anchor of CBS News, made headlines when he cried on a talk show. Tom Brokaw, Rather's counterpart at NBC and the publicist of America's "greatest generation", stands beside billboard-style captions such as "The Plot Against America" and declares: "We'll be back tomorrow night. Stronger than ever."

No space can remain for criticising Fortress America; any intruders are quickly evicted. Writing in the Washington Post, the columnist Michael Kelly spoke for the consensus when he carpet-bombed all sites of dissidence: "The American pacifists . . . are on the side of future mass murders of Americans. They are objectively pro-terrorist . . . That is the pacifists' position, and it is evil."

Even more striking, however, has been the internal purge by the "left" of inappropriate thoughts. Christopher Hitchens has carried out his own search-and-destroy mission against supposed defenders of "Islamic fascism", railing against "liberal twits" such as Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy and "masochistic" dissenters such as Noam Chomsky.

The internet is providing an outlet for "alternative" opinion, through sites such as Z-Net and access to otherwise unreported stories from central Asian media. The net, however, is not providing a vehicle for "mass" communication. So most Americans never knew that, hours before the first bombs fell, 10,000 people gathered in New York to protest the forth- coming military action.

Beyond economics, beyond politics, there is an "Americanism" that almost all mainstream media, out of belief as well as calculation, must promote. For more than 50 years, American culture has rested upon the perpetual battle of its "good" versus the "evil" of others. In 1950, NSC-68, the government's global blueprint for defeating Soviet communism, declared that there must be a "recognition by this government, the American people, and all free peoples, that the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake". Apart from a couple of blips, such as their questioning of the Vietnam war after 1967, the media have been on-side in this effort. Now, with the US involved in a new cold war against an even more insidious evil, dissent must again be put in its proper, derided place.

This is not censorship. This is self- surveillance to protect and project George W Bush's "with us or against us" vision. This is a fundamental Americanism.

Scott Lucas is professor of American studies at the University of Birmingham