It's a question floated by political pundits on television talk shows, by discriminating newspaper readers at their breakfast tables, by newsroom editors struggling to understand the media's role in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Saturday afternoon, Eugene Patterson, editor emeritus of the St. Petersburg Times, posed it to three top journalists at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading.
"What comes first," Patterson asked, "patriotism or journalism?"
The reporters countered that journalism can be patriotic without being propaganda.
"The highest form of patriotism for a reporter is to hold to the sunlight of truth a genuine, honest, skeptical attitude toward government statements," said Marvin Kalb, former diplomatic reporter for CBS News and NBC News and former moderator of NBC's Meet the Press. "You can also entertain the possibility that the government is telling you the truth."
Said Sydney P. Freedberg, a Pultizer Prize-winning reporter for the Times: "I just see my job as sort of being a watchdog. . . . I don't think it's unpatriotic to do that."
The forum, which also included National Public Radio commentator Andrei Codrescu, focused on media performance since Sept. 11.
Freedberg said she is disenchanted with stories that seem to keep score on which side is winning what will likely be a long war on terrorism.
"I do think the press is a little quick to leap," Freedberg said. "That kind of reporting really bothers me because it just seems so judgmental, and to make some of these conclusions so quickly really bothers me."
The forum took an emotional turn when the audience began asking questions. Some people wanted to know why journalists don't understand that some information is better left unprinted.
One man suggested that the terrorists were only responsible for killing the people who died when the hijacked airplanes struck the buildings, not for those who died when the building fell down upon them. He didn't get to ask his question of the panel because the audience walked out of the forum in an uproar over his comments.
Elsewhere at the Times Festival of Reading on Saturday, the ninth year for the event at Eckerd College, children and adults discussed the popular Harry Potter series, authors hosted discussions about books and writing, and local bookstores and literacy organizations operated booths.
The festival continues today with appearances by such authors as New York Times reporter Rick Bragg, satirists S.V. Date and Tim Dorsey, and David McCullough, author of the bestselling biography John Adams.
But in these times, even fiction writers can't escape current events. A dozen of them discussed their work at the festival Saturday, and the subject of Sept. 11 came up repeatedly. Crime novelist and Eckerd College alumnus Dennis Lehane said Sept. 11 changed every writer he knows. In Lehane's case, he's taking a different approach to a satirical novel he had been writing; the subjects he had been mocking don't seem worth satirizing anymore.
_ Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.