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From Tiger to Pussycat: America's Press Defanged
Published on Sunday, September 8, 2002 in the Toronto Star
From Tiger to Pussycat: America's Press Defanged
by Lynda Hurst

No one could have predicted the when, where and how of the terrorist attacks on the United States last September. But those in the know were aware that the risk, however nebulous, was real. If nothing else, the bombing of the very same World Trade Center in 1993 told them that.

Yet Americans were profoundly unprepared for another and more lethal strike on their own home turf. Nobody had warned them. Nobody had explained who was likely to launch it, much less why.

Where was the press?

"Like the rest of America, we were fat, happy and arrogant," is how Mike Wallace, the celebrated co-host of 60 Minutes, glumly put it this spring when asked why the media, his own much-lauded program included, had failed to track the situation that led to Sept. 11.

"Arab extremists in some godforsaken country raving on about loathing America?" That's what it would have looked like, and any U.S. journalist pushing the story didn't stand a chance in the 1990s against the hypnotic enticements of O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey and Monica Lewinsky.

Those were the stories that brought in the viewers, the readers and, more to the point, the ad revenue. When each petered out or the public reached satiation, another step forward Gary Condit was waiting to take its place.

CNN may have started the drift to tabloid news, but by the end of the 1990s, the major networks and mainstream press were equally, albeit reluctantly, caught up in it. For the first time, news divisions had become highly competitive profit centers that were expected to make money.

Many journalists deplored the trend to the insular, but were assured that the public didn't want complicated dispatches from complicated places they'd have trouble finding on a map. There were studies to prove it, sort of. Foreign coverage was expensive and time-consuming. Leave the serious stuff to the New York Times.

And why not? With the fall of Communism and the end of the "Evil Empire," America no longer felt threatened by anyone anywhere on the face of the earth. It could be, and was, a world unto itself. And it found itself fascinating.

Wallace made his mea culpa remark at one of a series of panels put on this year by Harvard University and the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, to examine the role of the media before and after Sept. 11. What lesson, if any, would be learned?

In the lead-up to the first anniversary, a lot of American journalists are considering the same issue.

"Whether the press will revert to the way it was before is the question," says Anthony Collings, a former CNN and Newsweek foreign correspondent now teaching communications at the University of Michigan.

"My general sense is that the media is slightly more serious than before, but `serious' won't be a continuous state. It will go up and down."

The attacks were undoubtedly a "wake-up call for the press," says Roy Peter Clarke, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. "But some of them have gone back to sleep."

At the first of the forums last October, a who's-who of American journalism from broadcasters Ted Koppel and Peter Arnett to veteran newsman Daniel Schorr had lit into the profession, condemning networks and newspapers for curtailing international coverage, closing bureaus at the end of the Cold War because of costs and the alleged (though much debated) lack of interest from readers and viewers.

Information, though not always palatable, is essential in a democracy, they argued. The media should give people what they need, not just what they want.

"If there had been more of a sense of duty," said Schorr, "to remain au courant with what's happening in the world, what was happening in Afghanistan not today but five years ago, what was happening in Pakistan not today but five years ago, had we followed these changes as they were happening gradually, I don't think we'd be in the fix we are today, trying to understand it all."

But it's not likely to change, says Stephen Hess, the ex-presidential adviser and Brookings senior fellow who co-hosted the forums. Every organization running its own bureau is a red herring, he contends, because all have access to foreign material on the wires.

"They choose not to run it," he says flatly. "Aside from the major organizations, and the New York Times is the gold standard in my view, they've gone back to their bad habits, `news you can use.' It's very sad."

No one disputes that the U.S. media sobered up fast in the shock of 9/11.

TV and newspapers scrambled to cover the event on multiple fronts, from the sacrifice of the dead to the heroism of the doomed rescuers, from tracking how the attacks were carried out to how Washington planned to exact vengeance; with unprecedented space and resources, there was more in-depth reporting than had been seen in years, say observers.

But little of it looked at how the rest of the world, or even coalition allies, were reacting, or made more than a tentative foray into the unfathomable question of "Why do they hate us?"

"In the first few days, they performed a Herculean task and did an epochal job," says Vince Carlin, the American-born former head of CBC Newsworld, now chair of Ryerson University journalism school.

But they didn't follow through, he says. Within weeks, any attempts to analyze the multi-layered backdrop to the attacks in effect, the "other" side of the story were subsumed by the demands of President George W. Bush's with-us-or-against-us war on terrorism.

"Evil is evil," says Carlin. "When something is demonized, there's no need to analyze it. In that, Bush reflects a fairly broad spectrum of the population."

Only recently, he says, have major organizations the New York Times, primarily started to run hard-nosed analyses of U.S. foreign policy, and only after their columnists had done it first.

But in general, "Americans were not noted for their interest in the rest of the world before 9/11 and they're not interested after. There are all sorts of places in the world they should be looking at, but they're not."

How, then, are the media rated for what they have been covering?

Commentators on both sides of the border say serious journalists who sought a less myopic perspective on the war were handicapped from the start by the emergence of patriotism into the picture that's never entirely been excised.

The constraints started quickly.

Last October, when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called the U.S. networks asking them not to run certain tapes of chief evil-doer Osama bin Laden because they were full of propaganda and possibly coded messages, they readily agreed.

However, the same request by 10 Downing Street in Britain was met with a flat refusal: "Government interference will be resisted," said the BBC.

In Canada, no calls were made by Ottawa and TV news executives exercised their own judgment on running unedited footage.

At the same time, when the White House tried to prevent Voice of America radio from airing an interview with Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, staff threatened mass resignation. They ran an edited version and a government spokesperson ominously responded that the "defiance" would be looked into.

When director Myrna Whitworth was replaced, she left a memo warning reporters "not to fall under the spell of self-censorship. Continue to interview, anyone, anywhere."

In November, CNN initiated a rule that any reporter doing a "negative" story on the war the bombing of civilians, say, or of a Red Cross installation must balance it with the reminder that terrorists had killed 3,000 Americans.

CNN chairman Walter Isaacson said it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardships in Afghanistan." Insiders say the real reason was pressure from viewers.

Either way, notes former employee Collings, "the Pentagon must surely have been pleased to learn that whenever its planes killed the wrong Afghans, CNN would quickly provide PR damage control."

More recently, a senior intelligence officer with the state department accused the media of "treason" because warning stories had been run on vulnerable future terrorist targets: chemical plants, the trucking industry and the food supply.

"This type of reporting must be stopped or censored," he wrote in the Washington Post. (As several columnists pointed out, warnings work both ways: If anybody had written about the possibility of terrorists taking flying lessons, that alone might have put a wrench into 9/11.)

While the public may be unaware of it, there has been less access to information in this war than all others before, say American journalists. As Koppel noted early on, government officials now choose to sit down for the soft lobs of CNN's Larry King rather than face harder interrogation from ABC's Nightline, or anywhere else.

Collings, whose recent book, Words of Fire, deals with press independence globally, says the end result has been coverage that is rife with a "cramped and jingoistic bias."

Canadian journalist and educator Peter Desbarats says the media had a "real opportunity to do what journalism is supposed to do provide comprehensive coverage and it hasn't been taken advantage of."

Reporters continue to stay off hot-button topics such as the fate of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay or the rights violations of hundreds of detained Muslims, many of them U.S. citizens.

"They've been very quiet about that," he says. "They find it difficult because it wouldn't be welcomed by the public."

Hess at Brookings is surprised anyone would even ask about the public's influence on reporting.

"There's no question there has been public pressure on the press," he says. "Americans were feeling threatened and protective and they made their voices heard loud and clear. They expect the news to reflect their own point of view."

Indeed, American conservatives who've long viewed the media as riddled with liberal bias have pounced on any reports that stray from the official White House line. After flag banners were dropped from the screen during newscasts and local anchors removed the Stars-and-Stripes lapel pins they'd sprouted on Sept. 11, viewers were quick to question their allegiance.

Carlin says ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, Canadian-born and therefore suspect in many American minds, "tried to bring a more sophisticated approach to the broadcast, but (his producers) were warned off and went back to cheerleading."

Not all Americans settled for information confined to a U.S. point of view. Many were watching CBC news, says Carlin, "to get a broader spectrum of opinion. Canadians are more outward-looking, they want information, and the CBC made a valiant effort to give the other side of the story."

And in the first three months after Sept. 11, 36 U.S. public television stations added BBC World News to their line-ups.

The jingoism finally got to long-time CBS news anchor Dan Rather, who'd sported a flag pin in the immediate aftermath. In an interview in London in June, he said "patriotism run amok" was now trampling press freedom in the United States.

"The fear of being accused of lacking patriotism keeps journalists from asking the toughest of tough questions." He didn't exempt himself.

"One finds oneself saying: `I know the right question, but ... this is not exactly the right time to ask it.' "

But if not now, as America's war on terrorism hovers on the brink of extending into Iraq, then when?

Copyright 1996-2002. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited


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