From Tiger to Pussycat: America's Press Defanged
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Tiger to Pussycat: America's Press Defanged
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
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,
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
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,
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
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
"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?
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