News and Features
With the news media playing such a pivotal--and questionable--role during the current crisis, we have asked Michael Massing, a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, to comment on the coverage in the coming weeks.
A few minutes into ABC's World News Tonight on September 21--the night after George W. Bush's speech to Congress--Peter Jennings somberly noted that it was "time for all Americans to begin learning more about Afghanistan." I immediately perked up. Since the calamitous events of September 11, the networks had focused heavily on the human and physical toll of the attacks and on the nation's fitful efforts to come to terms with them. And they performed admirably in those initial days, consoling and comforting the public even as they were informing it. But as the days passed, and as the government prepared to strike at Osama bin Laden and his Afghan hosts, the need for some sharp political analysis became urgent, and here, on cue, was Jennings, promising a mini-tutorial.
Leaning forward, I looked expectantly at my TV screen--only to find it filled with the pale, bespectacled face of Tony Cordesman. Cordesman, of course, was a ubiquitous talking head during the Gulf War, and now he was back, holding forth in the same nasal monotone. He dutifully recited some basic facts about Afghanistan--the small size of the Taliban army, the limited number of tanks and aircraft at its disposal, the scarcity of bombing targets on the ground. "The job is extraordinarily difficult if not impossible if you set deadlines and demand instant success," Cordesman burbled. Then he was gone, and the program was back to its ongoing coverage of victims, heroes and terrorists. We learned nothing about the level of support for the Taliban, about the strength of the opposition, about America's long history of involvement in the region.
The segment was typical. As the nation prepares to go to war, the coverage on TV--the primary source of news for most Americans--has been appallingly superficial. Constantly clicking my remote in search of insight, I was stunned at the narrowness of the views offered, at the Soviet-style reliance on official and semiofficial sources. On Meet the Press, for instance, Tim Russert's guests were Colin Powell and (as he proudly announced) the "four leaders of the United States Congress"--Dennis Hastert, Richard Gephardt, Trent Lott and Tom Daschle. "How did the events of September 11 change you?" the normally feisty Russert tremulously asked each. Seeking wisdom on the question of Why They Hate Us, Barbara Walters turned to former Bush communications director, now senior White House counselor, Karen Hughes. "They hate the fact that we elect our leaders," Hughes vacuously replied. On NBC, Brian Williams leaned heavily on failed-drug-czar-turned-TV-consultant Barry McCaffrey ("Americans are natural fighters," McCaffrey fatuously informed us), while on The Capital Gang Mark Shields asked former Middle East diplomat Edward Walker, "Can the antiterrorism coalition really count this time on Saudi Arabia?"
To a degree, such deference reflects TV's customary rallying around the flag in times of national crisis. Such a stance is understandable; in light of the enormity of the attack, even atheists are singing "God Bless America." But the jingoistic displays on TV over the past two weeks--the repeated references to "we" and "us," the ostentatious sprouting of lapel flags, Dan Rather's startling declaration that "George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where"--have violated every canon of good journalism. They have also snuffed out any whiff of debate and dissent; the discussion taking place within the Bush Administration is no doubt more vigorous than that presented on TV.
But there's more than simple patriotism at work here. The thinness of the coverage and the shallowness of the analysis seem a direct outgrowth of the networks' steady disengagement from the world in recent years. Since the end of the cold war, overseas bureaus have been closed, foreign correspondents recalled and the time allocated to international news sharply pared. Having thus plucked out their eyes, the networks--suddenly faced with a global crisis--are lunging about in the dark, trying desperately to find their footing.
No outlet has seemed more blinkered than CNN. The network that once emulated the BBC has instead become another MSNBC, and while it can still count on Christiane Amanpour to parachute into the world's hot zones, and on the game efforts of such on-the-ground assets as Nic Robertson in Kabul, the network has seemed thoroughly flummoxed by the complex political forces set in motion by the events of September 11. Consider, for instance, that famous brief clip showing a clutch of Palestinians celebrating the attack on the World Trade Center. Within days, word began circulating on the Internet that the footage had actually been shot during the Gulf War. The furor became so great that CNN eventually had to issue a statement describing where it got the tape (from a Reuters cameraman in East Jerusalem who insisted that he had not encouraged the celebration, as some claimed).
The real scandal, though, is that CNN repeatedly showed the clip without commentary, without attempting to place it in the broader context of reactions from the Islamic world. What were people in Gaza and the West Bank actually saying? Where were the interviews with clerics in Cairo, editorial writers in Amman, shopkeepers in Jakarta and schoolteachers in Kuala Lumpur? It was certainly not hard to obtain such views--witness Ian Fisher's sparkling dispatch from Gaza in the New York Times ("In the Gaza Strip, Anger at the U.S. Still Smolders") and Peter Waldman and Hugh Pope's excellent front-page roundup in the Wall Street Journal: "Some Muslims Fear War on Terrorism Is Really a War on Them; West Undercuts Islam, They Say, by Backing Israel, Autocratic Mideast Rule."
Not all was bland on CNN. Jeff Greenfield, for one, made some genuine efforts to probe the Islamic world's complex love-hate relationship with the United States. On September 20, for instance, he had a spirited discussion with Afghanistan hands Barnett Rubin of New York University and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, along with Farid Esack, a Muslim scholar at Auburn Theological Seminary. Far more representative,though, was "What Do We Know About Islam?" an exceedingly brief Sunday segment in which a Christian minister and a Muslim cleric offered very vague observations about relations between Christianity and Islam. It was followed by an interview with a Muslim-American who assured us that "Islam means peace." Shot in Boston and New York, the segment drove home how CNN has lost that precious journalistic ability to work the streets of the world and discover what's really taking place there. Given CNN's critical part in keeping the world informed, one can only hope that it will soon regain its bearings.
CNN, regularly derided as 'liberal' by conservative commentators, is only liberal if that word stands for 'somewhat sane.'
It's a slippery slope that these two lawgivers would have us tread.
Whether in his home district or in Washington, DC, Congressman Gary Condit is a discredit to his profession.
It's time to consider what would really improve our unequal society.
Not all readers liked my attack on the liberal/left tendency to "rationalize" the aggression of September 11, or my use of the term "fascism with an Islamic face," and I'll select a representat
Last night I had the
All of America's wealthy,
conservative and safely belligerent pundits had been delivered by a
just and beneficent Almighty Power to a Palestinian refugee camp,
following the bulldozing of their homes--including vacation
homes--and the expropriation of all their possessions. Instead of
pontificating between beach walks and vodka tonics in Vineyard Haven,
these armchair bombardiers were treated to rivers of open sewage and
hopeless lives of beggary. Those who resisted were arrested, tortured
and selectively assassinated. Meanwhile, editorial pages across
America cheered the "restraint" of their tormentors.
extremely lengthy articles, the New York Times and The New
York Review of Books recently demonstrated beyond any doubt that
the Israelis (and the Americans) shared in the blame for the
breakdown of peace negotiations and ensuing cycle of violence that
now tragically appears to be engulfing the region. To the
punditocracy, however, these dispassionately argued, extensively
reported stories amounted to an existential insult of near biblical
proportions. Marty Peretz's New Republic published a vicious
attack on the articles by Robert Satloff, executive director of a
pro-Israel think tank. William Safire got so excited, he denounced
his own newspaper in a hysterical fit of ad hominemism: "Do not
swallow this speculative rewriting of recent events," he warned
readers. "The overriding reason for the war against Israel today is
that Yasir Arafat decided that war was the way to carry out the
often-avowed Palestinian plan. Its first stage is to create a West
Bank state from the Jordan River to the sea with Jerusalem as its
capital. Then, by flooding Israel with 'returning' Palestinians, the
plan in its promised final phase would drive the hated Jews from the
Mortimer Zuckerman, in his capacity as
chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American
Organizations, insisted, "This is just revisionist history.... There
is one truth, period: The Palestinians caused the breakdown at Camp
David and then rejected Clinton's plan in January." The baldest
comment came from the Zionist Organization of America's president,
Morton Klein: "Whether their account is accurate or not is
irrelevant.... I reject any discussion of what
In the wake of the suicide bombings, three
different Washington Post pundits demanded war three days in a
row. Michael Kelly, recently seen complaining about too many fatsoes
at the beach, advised the Israelis to unleash "an overwhelming
force...to destroy, kill, capture and expel the armed Palestinian
forces." The more moderate George Will called only for a "short war."
(Charles Krauthammer did not specify a length.) To read these
would-be warriors, you would think the Palestinians were summering in
Edgartown. A reader would never guess that a regional superpower is
carrying out a brutal military occupation, coupled with a settlement
policy that directly contravenes Article 49 of the Geneva Convention.
No one with any sense would argue that Arafat and his
corrupt cronies do not bear considerable responsibility for the
collapse of any hope of peace in the Middle East in the near future.
And suicide bombers against civilian targets in Israel are as
counterproductive as they are immoral (though those who settle in
occupied territory are knowingly putting themselves in harm's way and
hence share some responsibility when their families are forced to pay
for this fanaticism with their lives). Nevertheless, a conflict where
"our team" engages in terrorism, assassination and the apparently
routine torture of teenagers to defend a cruel and illegal occupation
is one in which neither side holds a monopoly on virtue.
Since a majority of Israelis supports a freeze in the
provocative practice of settlement-building, the mindless hysteria of
the American punditocracy must have other sources than mere logic.
It's dangerous to draw firm conclusions without any special knowledge
about the psyches of those involved, but much of the materially
comfortable American Jewish community has had an unhappy history of
defending the principle of Jewish sovereignty over captured
Palestinian lands right down to the death of the last Israeli.
Because of the sacrifices they demand of others, many American Jews
feel they must be holier than the Pope when defending Israeli human
rights abuses. The New Republic's Peretz is a particularly
interesting specimen. He reflexively defends everything Israel does
and routinely slanders its critics. Peretz, who owes his prominence
to money, in this case his (non-Jewish) wife's fortune--which allowed
him to purchase his magazine--has never published a single book or
written a significant piece of scholarship, reportage or criticism.
It's not hard to imagine that his self-appointed role as Israel's
American Torquemada--seen in his obsession with smearing the
world-renowned Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said--is
inspired as much by guilt and envy as by more rational motivations.
(I say this as a supporter of the peace process who has respectfully
disagreed with almost all Said has said about the conflict in recent
Whatever the reason, the net result is the same.
For a brief moment in recent history, when Israel had a government
that was dedicated to finding a way to make peace, the warrior
pundits were placed on the defensive and the Palestinians received a
reasonably fair shake from the nation's elite media. More recently, a
review of leading editorial pages by the ADL found that "the major
newspapers across the country are viewing the situation in the Middle
East in a realistic and objective manner." The authors of the study
helpfully defined their terms. To the ADL "realistic and objective"
means "critical of and hostile to Arafat...directly blaming him for
the continuing violence and creating a climate of hatred" along with
the dismissal of all Palestinian peace overtures as "calculated tools
for his goal of gaining further concessions from
In a rational world, the ADL report would at least
complicate efforts by Safire, TNR and others to charge the
media with "pro-Arab" and "anti-Israel" bias. Alas, I'm betting
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Pacifica Radio
executive director Bessie Wash said that the Pacifica management's
goal "is to increase listenership." In the name of that worthy
ambition, however, Wash has continued to further alienate many
longtime supporters and staff and to weaken the core programming that
should be the foundation on which that listenership is built. In the
latest development, Pacifica is no longer originating and
distributing its most popular (and much-honored) news program,
Democracy Now!, following disputes with host Amy Goodman. (The
program is being produced elsewhere and aired on some stations, while
Pacifica sends out reruns of earlier shows.) Meanwhile, in order to
fight lawsuits brought by former employees and listeners, and the
accompanying bad publicity, Pacifica is using scarce listener-donated
dollars to hire a white-shoe law firm and a high-priced PR outfit.
And dissidents are pushing an economic boycott that will reduce those
dollars even further.
At the rate things are going, there will soon be no Pacifica worth
fighting over (apart from its valuable real estate on the dial). It
is time for both sides to pull back from the brink. We continue to
believe that Democracy Now! and Goodman exemplify Pacifica's
fifty-year tradition of tough, radical reporting and that they
represent an asset of immense worth. We also believe that the only
way out of the current downward spiral at Pacifica is for dissidents
as well as management to focus on positive steps to move the
enterprise forward. For the dissidents, it means an end to the
boycott, which is incompatible with a devotion to the spirit of
community radio, and a willingness to be open to change. For the
Pacifica management and board, set to hold a key meeting on September
12, it means a commitment to respecting its employees and a
restructuring of the organization to grant more legal power to the
staff and listeners, who have made Pacifica what it is today.
As we've said before, Pacifica is one of the bastions of the precept,
enshrined in the Federal Communications Act, that the airwaves are a
public trust. It deserves the care and concern of all who believe in
The problem of punditocracy ignorance does not usually constitute a national security threat. If most Americans walk around misinformed about Gary Condit's sexual escapades or Elián González's emotional state, the Republic will probably survive. But on an issue like missile defense--where so many generals and admirals consider it part of their patriotic duty to mislead the public--its ramifications become considerably more worrisome.
When a Pentagon spokesperson recently announced that it had carried out a "successful test in all respects" over Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, some pundits swallowed this line faster than you can say "student deferment."
In a column titled "The 'Smart People' Were Wrong," the Washington Post's Michael Kelly beat his chest and snarled: "In the blink of a video screen going blinding white on July 14, it became impossible to offhandedly disdain a missile defense system as 'weapons that don't work.' It does work. No one can any longer assert that missile defense is unattainable." Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal crowed about the "resounding success--putting the lie to the it-can't-be-done crowd."
I don't know Kirkpatrick, but the gullible Mr. Kelly covered the Gulf War and should know better. It was back then that the Pentagon sold the pundits on a remarkably successful "kill ratio" for US Patriot missiles attempting to destroy Iraqi Scuds over Israel. This too was said to be proof that Star Wars worked. Kelly's conservative comrades like Fred Barnes insisted that the Patriot's alleged success proved that "we need SDI." Patrick Buchanan declared: "The debate is over." Then-President Bush "ought to insist on the restoration of full funding for SDI and entertain no counterargument." Wall Street Journal editors concurred, adding, "The epic debates over ABM and SDI, after all, were over whether to give American civilians the kind of protection Israeli civilians have just received."
In fact, according to a GAO study released in 1992, Patriots had a success rate of only 9 percent during the war. Israelis were actually safer without them, suffering more damage in fewer attacks when "protected." In the event of a genuine attack on the United States, a missile defense system like the Patriot would have left Barnes, Buchanan and the Journal editors a heap of radioactive ash.
Pundits seem to lose not only their skepticism when writing about Star Wars but much of their intelligence. William Safire is no dummy, but swearing fealty to Star Wars last year, he committed perhaps the single silliest sentence his newspaper published since A.M. Rosenthal accused a man of killing Abe's sister with his penis. Admitting that the technology for missile defense was nowhere to be found on earth, the former PR man countered, "But many who insist it will never work were doubtful our technology could ever put a man on the moon." Aside from the obvious illogic involved here, are there actually any mortals on the planet who fit Safire's description? Repeated entreaties to Safire and his editors have failed to turn up any such evidence.
Any journalist with even a hint of historical memory would know better than to accept at face value what Pentagon officials claim for Star Wars technology. A year ago William Broad of the Times quoted a top Star Wars official admitting that "none of the tests address the reasonable range of countermeasures." It found a retired scientist who had worked on the program at Lockheed who explained, "The only way to make it work is to dumb it down. There's no other way to do it.... It's always been a wicked game."
In 1984, in an instance of fraud that remained a secret for a full nine years, a test of Lockheed's Homing Overlay Experiment turned out to have been rigged by the placement of a beacon in the target missile so that it could easily signal its location to the interceptor missile. In 1996, Nira Schwartz, a computer software expert who worked for TRW, sued her employer because, she said, she was being forced to misreport her data on the crucial matter of whether the interceptor missile could discern the difference between a real warhead and a decoy. Denials ensued, of course, but she was backed up by other witnesses. After reviewing the classified data on these and other tests, MIT missile expert Theodore Postol concluded that Pentagon officials "are systematically lying about the performance of a weapon system that is supposed to defend the people of the United States from nuclear attack."
Even the July 14 "successful" test that sent Kirkpatrick, Kelly and others into such rapture hardly stood up to a single day's scrutiny. In a story reported by the Los Angeles Times, but followed up by few others, the program's spokespeople were forced to admit in the test's aftermath that its radar system proved unable to tell ground controllers whether a kill vehicle had destroyed its target, falsely reporting that the interceptor had missed the dummy warhead. In the event of a genuine attack, this failure would cause a system to waste missiles on targets already destroyed, making it even easier to overwhelm. No surprise there, I'm afraid. In May, after fighting ferociously to keep it secret, the Pentagon reluctantly released its own internal study reporting that despite an investment of more than $70 billion, Star Wars technology remains so elementary that "a rigorous assessment of potential system performance cannot be made."
The public is not clamoring for this silly science fiction project and, should they ever notice, will not appreciate throwing another $300 billion down this sinkhole. Yet the Bush Administration continues to push it in the apparent hopes of abrogating the ABM treaty, undercutting NATO, sparking a new cold war with Russia and China and inspiring a rash of nuclear proliferation on the Asian subcontinent. Meanwhile, "smart" pundits like Michael Kelly and William Safire cheer this insanity like drunken frat boys at a college football game. It's almost enough to make one despair of the value of the First Amendment, to say nothing of the alleged benefits of higher education.
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.
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