Politics, the Media and 9/11
After he left Homeland Security in 2005, Ridge himself became more candid in discussing how terror threats had been handled: "More often than not, we were the least inclined to raise it. Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on alert.... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, For that?"
Yet during the crucial early stages of reporting on the August 1 terror scare, the press dutifully--even eagerly--followed Ridge's lead, as the following examples demonstrate [emphasis added in each]:
§ "New intelligence indicates al Qaeda has been planning to strike financial firms and major corporations in Manhattan, possibly with suicide attacks." Don Dahler, ABC News.
§ "This new information that the US government has received presumably in the last few days," Wolf Blitzer, CNN.
§ "He [Bush] was being told that there was very new information regarding these potential threats," Suzanne Malveaux, CNN.
Or consider Time's "exclusive" cover story (Headline: Target: America). Despite the fact that the article came out seven days after the warning was posted, Time made little effort to uncover a nonofficial version of the story. Here is a list of the sources Time used:
§ "a senior US intelligence official"
§ "a US law-enforcement official"
§ "a law-enforcement official"
§ "a senior intelligence official"
§ "a US military official"
§ "a top Homeland Security official"
§ "an American official"
§ "a Pakistani law-enforcement official"
§ "Pakistani investigators"
§ "a Pakistani intelligence official"
§ "a Pakistani official"
§ "an official"
§ "a senior law-enforcement official"
§ "an FBI official."
Not surprisingly, few of the sources raised serious questions or doubts about Ridge's handling of the terror scare. As for the revelation that the startling intelligence was actually four years old--a fact that came out days after the warning, thanks to reports in the Washington Post and New York Times, Time dutifully quoted "an FBI official" who dismissed the time stamp as "immaterial."
Time's competitor Newsweek, busy touting its own terror scare "exclusive" cover story (same headline: Target: America), dispensed with anonymous sources altogether and simply stated as fact that "there can be little doubt that Al Qaeda is trying to strike the American homeland before Nov. 2." And better yet for the Bush Administration came Newsweek's flat assertion, "The decision to raise the threat level to Code Orange ("high") last week was not, as partisans and conspiracists suggested, a Republican political stunt intended to slow John Kerry as he came out of the Democratic convention."
Despite the obvious boon the terror scare represented for Bush as it knocked Kerry off stride, reporters often played naïve in the extreme, suggesting the Administration was showing political courage by posting a terror warning. "This is an Administration, is a president, that is willing to take that political risk," CNN's White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux announced gravely in the wake of the Ridge press conference. Time typed up the same talking points: "The government feels it has little choice but to brace the public for another big attack. Bomb-sniffing dogs and explosives-detection teams reappeared in subways and outside public landmarks. In Washington, police set up barricades and checkpoints around the Capitol that could remain in place through Inauguration Day in January." [Emphasis added.] Bush's entire re-election campaign was built around the sales pitch of protecting Americans from another terrorist attack, yet Time pretended there was nothing the tough-luck Administration could do but send out bomb-sniffing dogs and set up police barricades around tourist destinations in the months leading up to election day.
Now, as the mid-term elections loom larger and polls indicate Republicans are continuing their popularity plunge, if and when new terror announcements are made it's imperative that journalists acknowledge the political landscape and recognize that their job is not simply to repeat terror-scare chatter. In other words, journalists must be unafraid of the facts and the consequences of reporting them.