Politics, the Media and 9/11 | The Nation


Politics, the Media and 9/11

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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?"

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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.

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.

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