Politics, the Media and 9/11 | The Nation


Politics, the Media and 9/11

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It was Sunday, August 1, 2004, and Senator John Kerry's presidential prospects appeared healthy. Just days earlier Kerry had accepted his party's nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and now Kerry was making the rounds on the morning talk shows, aggressively issuing his call for change.

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Eric Boehlert
Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for...

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Pro-Lieberman Beltway pundits who whined about progressive bloggers and sounded noisy alarms about the disastrous impact of a Lamont win will have a lot of explaining to do come November.

Although it happened in early July after ethically challenged Congressman Gary Condit finally admitted to police that he'd had an adulterous affair with 24-year-old Chandra Levy, it's hard to say precisely when the media's obsession with the missing person case slipped into predictable absurdity.

Was it the night CNBC's Geraldo Rivera dialed up one of Condit's old motorcycle buddies to discuss on the air whether Condit had had a vasectomy? (That, of course, to answer the stitched-together what-if, "What if Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance?") The buddy said yes. Geraldo then quoted a "trusted" former FBI agent who insisted he had information that Levy had menstruated in late April, so she couldn't have been pregnant.

Was it the night when Fox News Channel's Paula Zahn, conducting her approximately seventy-eighth Levy-related interview in prime time, asked spiritual teacher Sylvia Browne where Levy's body was? Unlike everyone else in America, Browne knew the answer; Levy's body was located near "some trees down in a marshy area...but this girl is not alive."

Zahn: How do you know that, Sylvia?

Browne: Because I'm a psychic.

Was it when San Francisco Chronicle writer Dave Ford wrote "Condit's private life wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't lied about being involved with a young woman who remains missing" (emphasis added)? Because, naturally, if Condit had held a press conference the day Levy was declared missing and announced he'd had an extramarital affair with the intern and talked to her right up to the time of her disappearance, his private life would have been of no interest to reporters.

But that's what happens when the national press decides to tell a scandal story they like; preferred narrative trumps fact every time. The press doesn't have a clue about whether Condit played any role in Levy's disappearance, but that's not really the point. Journalism today, particularly the bold brand perfected in Washington over the past decade, has become such an odd, arrogant animal it no longer plays by any recognizable rules. In the wake of Katharine Graham's passing, her beloved Washington Post suffered an unwelcome reminder of just how badly its game has slipped since the paper's heady Watergate days. The Post was forced to run a lengthy recantation when a Modesto, California, minister admitted to the FBI that he had fabricated the story about his daughter having an affair with Condit seven years ago. The Post ran that irrelevant gossip as a page-one exclusive, even though it never confirmed the story with the daughter or the Congressman. Remember when Woodward and Bernstein had to three-source their stories?

Convinced, like the Post, that Condit's love life was in and of itself news, the Fresno Bee ran a story about a 31-year-old Congressional aide who said that five years ago Condit gave her his phone number! And not just any number--oh, no--a "mysterious" phone number. As the excitable aide explained, "When you call, you just hear music playing and then a beep. That is when you are supposed to leave a message."

It's called a pager.

And Dan Rather's CBS Evening News was chastised for not running this stuff?

The pundits got some things right, like taking Condit's spokeswoman to task for the slimy suggestion that Levy may have invited danger with a string of one-night stands. But then they went one step further, insisting that Levy's private life was irrelevant to the investigation. "This shouldn't even be an issue," argued Fox News Channel's Alan Colmes. So, for those keeping score at home, detailing the sordid details of a nonsuspect's sexual history is paramount for the press but discussing possible intimate relationships the missing woman may have had--other than, of course, with the nonsuspect Congressman--is completely out of bounds. How on earth does the press keep track of these arbitrary boundaries?

During a press feeding frenzy it's always easier if the good guys and bad guys are clearly identified. And from the press's perspective, clearly nobody associated with the Levy family--not their lawyers, private investigators or public relations experts--was open to question. What else would explain the silence surrounding this flip-flop?

On July 15 the Levys' Washington attorney, Billy Martin, was asked on Meet the Press whether Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance.

Martin: We do not yet have a final answer on that.

Here's what he said five days earlier on CBS's Early Show, when asked the exact same pregnancy question by Jane Clayson:

Martin: I don't think we want to answer that, but we do know the answer.

Clayson: You do know the answer?

Martin: We do know the answer.

The press politely looked the other way, never uttering a peep.

Incredibly, media bigfoots have actually toasted the press's performance. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, when not soliciting worthless opinions from true-crime authors on what had happened, insisted that the Levy story is "the stuff of great...journalism through the ages." Fox News Channel's Juan Williams suggested with a straight face that the press has been "restrained" in its coverage. (Will Williams ever challenge his employer on the air?) And the editor of the Beltway bible, The Hotline, was nearly moved to tears by the press's admirable job. Not only had the press "come through with flying colors" but the Levy story reminded us all that journalism "can be a dirty, ugly and even dangerous business. Those who aren't willing to take on those aspects of the profession might want to think about a new line of work."

Apparently, setting up a tripod for another day of tedious media stakeouts in front of Condit's district office is not for the faint of heart.

At noon Kerry, sitting dead-even in the polls with the incumbent, wartime President, began his fourth and final Sunday morning television interview, appearing on CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. The show opened with a report from Iraq about that day's multiple bomb attacks against Christian churches: "Absolute mayhem on the streets of Baghdad," announced the CNN reporter. The dispatch reinforced Kerry's campaign pitch that President George W. Bush had misled America into a disastrous war.

By 12:30 pm, however, everything had changed, including Kerry's chances for victory in November. "It was like we were charging down court to score and suddenly a foul was called," recalls Kerry's spokesman, David Wade.

Because less than ten minutes after thanking Kerry for appearing on his show, Blitzer pivoted and announced, "We're getting some breaking news information. CNN has now learned that the Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, is about to announce that the nation will go to a higher level of security..."

Two points that afternoon became glaringly obvious: The "war on terror," Bush's strong suit politically, had returned to the forefront, thanks to the warnings the President himself had signed into action; and the media, particularly cable television outlets, were going to hype the "chilling" terror scare with endless, excited saturation coverage, and do it at Kerry's expense.

The sudden turn of events set in motion the disastrous media month of August for Kerry, during which Iraq was pushed aside in favor of terror and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth overtook all other political stories. (The impact of the first Swift Boat ad began to be felt just days after the August 1 terror scare.) In both instances, the Bush re-election team used the free news media--literally--to alter the course of the campaign. And in both cases the press was only too willing to steer the news in Bush's favor.

Now, two years later, a key question is whether history is about to repeat itself when it comes to the "war on terror." Surveying the political landscape, veteran prognosticator Charlie Cook recently noted, "Unless something very dramatic happens" in the coming weeks, Democrats will reclaim control of the House of Representatives this November as part of an electoral "rout." It's that caveat about something "dramatic" that has Democrats worrying--not because they necessarily fear a terrorist attack on American soil but because they fear another signature terror scare from the Bush Administration.

They also need to worry about the role the media will play if that occurs. Because if one of the enduring legacies of 9/11 has been this Administration's politicization of terror threats inside the United States, the media's lapdog hyping of the threats--its tendency to act as a megaphone instead of a filter, even in the wake of the Administration's clear record of distortion--is another. Too often anxious for access and too nervous about allegations of liberal bias (and, to be fair, somewhat constrained by the fact that the Administration often controls key information and decides how to disseminate it), news organizations remain much more willing to cheerlead terror warnings than seriously question them or put them in proper political context.

For instance, in the wake of Connecticut antiwar candidate Ned Lamont's August primary win over Senator Joe Lieberman, Republican leaders immediately began attacking Democrats and Lamont as being soft not on Iraq but on the "war on terror," with Vice President Dick Cheney even suggesting that "Al Qaeda types" would take comfort in Lamont's win. The following day British and American officials announced sweeping international arrests in connection with an alleged trans-Atlantic terrorist plot. The fact that key Bush Administration officials such as Cheney knew about the unfolding terror investigation as they launched their attacks on Lamont, or that the Administration urged the British to quicken the pace of the arrests, drew comparatively little attention.

To be sure, in the wake of terror warnings there have often been follow-up news reports that detailed just how overblown the terror scares were, and journalists responsible for those clear-eyed reports deserve credit for solid work. But those accurate updates were inevitably buried beneath the initial avalanche of fear-driven coverage. Just ask John Kerry.

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