My three favorite media stories in recent weeks were how Bill "Politically Incorrect" Maher kept his job at ABC-TV, how Ann Coulter got herself fired from National Review and how all the networks simultaneously agreed to the Bush Administration's request that they suppress any future Osama bin Laden tapes.
I also got a kick out of the Dan Rather interview on a cable channel in which he answered questions about whether it's OK for a network in the interests of objectivity to ban anchors from wearing American flags on their lapels, while a simulated American flag flew in the logo on the lower left-hand corner of the screen. (Rather himself prefers not to wear a flag but said nothing about appearing with a flag logo in the lower left-hand corner.)
Bill Maher got into trouble on Politically Incorrect when he correctly observed in the aftermath of September 11 that it's wrong to call the suicide bombers "cowards" and impolitically added, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away: That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
Two advertisers, Sears and Federal Express, pulled their ads, seventeen stations canceled his program and Maher apologized for being, well, politically incorrect. Or rather for being misinterpreted ("I offer my apologies for anyone who took it wrong," he said), although why he should apologize to people who misinterpreted him he never explained. The defecting advertisers claimed patriotism, but in fact they were the cowards for withdrawing ads from fear of the controversy Maher's remarks might spark.
So what do we learn from this first profile in cowardice? Maher demonstrated that at best he is only incorrect within permissible limits. The advertisers should come back, the seventeen stations should reinstall the show (if they haven't already) and Maher should resign, not for what he said but for flying under false colors. You can't have a show called Politically Incorrect and then abjectly apologize for not being PC.
Next case. Ann Coulter, rudely dismissed by the Boston Globe's Alex Beam as "a right-wing telebimbo" for her colorful but intemperate attacks on the Clintons, was fired by National Review after she wrote in National Review Online that "we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." My question is, In which order?
Technically, they didn't give her the boot until she wrote a follow-up about requiring passports from "suspicious-looking swarthy males." Now there are two possibilities here: One is that National Review fired her because they didn't like what she said. The other is that National Review fired her because by saying what too many National Review readers believe, she embarrassed the home team. Solution: After Maher apologizes for apologizing and resigns, Politically Incorrect should hire the truly politically incorrect Coulter.
Finally, on the networks, I don't understand why Condoleezza Rice didn't include Al Jazeera in the request to suppress the bin Laden tapes. It's true that Washington doesn't control the Qatar network, but it doesn't control the major US networks either, and surely Al Jazeera has a higher quotient of terrorist viewers. Originally, I thought the Administration's request had to do with not showing enemy propaganda, and I wondered whether this meant that the networks' much-vaunted claims of political neutrality--giving equal time to both sides in a dispute--stopped at the water's edge. But the Administration said the issue had to do less with propaganda than with national security, claiming that bin Laden might be using the occasion to send a message by secret code.
Since potential terrorists can still get bin Laden's message via Al Jazeera and via the Internet, I am baffled as to the networks' true motives, unless, like Maher, his advertisers and National Review, they are also in the controversy-avoidance business.
What this incident does show is that you don't need media concentration to have homogenization of the news. The simultaneous capitulation of all the major TV networks proves that concentration or no concentration, they are perfectly capable of marching in lockstep on their own.
As we survey the cultural landscape after the atrocities of September 11, we ought to note the special danger posed to free expression by media concentration.
Patriotism requires no apologies. Like anti-Communism and anti-Fascism, it is an admirable and thoroughly sensible a priori assumption from which to begin making more nuanced judgments. Nor does patriotism need to be exclusionary. I am an American patriot, a Jewish patriot and a New York chauvinist pig. My patriotism is not about governments and armies; it's about unions, civil rights marches and the '69 Mets. It's not Kate Smith singing "God Bless America"; it's Bruce Springsteen singing "This Land Is Your Land."
Of course, not everyone on the left concurs. While many nonpatriots share an idealistic belief in a kind of cosmopolitan, humanist internationalism, some--like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the right--really do hate this country. These leftists find nothing to admire in its magnificent Constitution; its fitful history of struggle toward greater freedom for women, minorities and other historically oppressed groups; and its values, however imperfectly or hypocritically manifested in everyday life. This became obvious in a few of the immediate reactions we heard in the wake of September 11. How could anyone say with certainty why we were attacked when we couldn't be sure who attacked us? All they could know, really, is why they thought we deserved it.
This "Hate America" left must be rejected for reasons of honor and pragmatism. It is difficult enough to "talk sense to the American people" in wartime without having to defend positions for which we have no intellectual or emotional sympathy. Many on the right are hoping to exploit a pregnant political moment to advance a host of antidemocratic policies. Principled dissent is never more necessary than when it is least welcome. American history is replete with examples of red scares, racist hysteria, political censorship and the indefensible curtailment of civil liberties that derive, in part, from excessive and abusive forms of superpatriotism. We are already seeing the beginnings of a concerted attack on civil liberties, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Given the importance most Americans place on patriotism as a bedrock personal value, it is folly to try to enjoin them in a battle that fails to embrace their most basic beliefs.
Moreover, the refusal to draw this line invites the kind of McCarthyite thuggishness we see on display in the writings of pundits like Andrew Sullivan and Michael Kelly, and in the pages of (predictably) National Review and (sadly) The New Republic, tarring anyone with a wartime question or criticism as a pro-terrorist "Fifth Column" (Sullivan's term). Casting as wide a net as possible for their poisonous attacks, they choose examples so tiny as to be virtually nonexistent. In defense of his slander of the people of New York as well as virtually everyone else who voted against George Bush in the "red" areas of the nation, Sullivan pointed to an obscure website based in Denmark run by something called United Peoples. To smear opponents of unfettered free trade and globalization, TNR editor Peter Beinart seized on a bunch of anonymous postings to another, no less obscure, website whose name I cannot even remember. Kelly has now devoted two Washington Post columns to attacking all pacifists as "evil," "objectively pro-terrorist" and "Liars. Frauds. Hypocrites." But in neither column could he find the space--or the courage--to name a single one.
Because none of these writers have yet developed the reputation for malevolent hysteria enjoyed by, say, Marty Peretz on Israel or David Horowitz and Ann Coulter on everything, there is a serious chance that the larger mass media, never good at making distinctions on the left in the best of times, will swallow and repeat their reprehensible assertions. The net result will be the exclusion of all progressives, America-hating or no, from the spectrum of "responsible" debate where decisions are made and the nation's future is determined.
The potential for politically motivated official censorship--beyond that which is genuinely necessary to protect the safety and security of our troops--is never far away in wartime. Politicians and generals quite understandably find the temptation to abuse this power irresistible. We saw countless such examples during the Gulf War, and we can discern hints of future threats from the lips of presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer, who endorsed the attempts of a few Madison Avenue mullahs to withdraw advertising from ABC's moronic talk show Politically Incorrect when host Bill Maher used the word "cowards" regarding the US military's use of cruise missiles. "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is." (Speaking of cowardice, the White House edited Fleischer's remarks in its official transcript of the exchange.)
Yet another wartime peril to democracy derives from hyper-caution and self-censorship on the part of the media themselves. Why are newspapers like Newsday and the Daily News censoring comics who raise even the gentlest questions about George Bush? Exactly whom does the communications conglomerate Clear Channel imagine it is defending when it instructs its deejays not to play "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "Ticket to Ride" on the radio? Why do newspaper publishers in Grants Pass, Oregon, and Galveston County, Texas, feel the need to fire writers and editors who wondered why the President "skedaddled" into a "Nebraska hole" on the day of the attack? Most disturbing of all, why has the consortium of national news organizations decided to postpone, apparently indefinitely, the news of who really won the Florida election last winter? The estimated publication date for the collective effort, overseen by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center and costing more than $1 million, had been September 17. But New York Times political reporter Richard Berke wrote that the now "utterly irrelevant" report "might have stoked the partisan tensions."
In other words, the threat of "partisan tensions" arising from a potentially stolen election is more dangerous than continuing to live the lie. How wise of our media minders to decide that America needs to be protected--not from terrorists, but from truth.
The press conference that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held shortly after the United States began bombing Afghanistan on October 7 was painful to behold. The questions posed by reporters tended to be either trivial--Did the B-2s involved in the mission depart from the United States?--or thoughtless. Since September 11 Rumsfeld had repeatedly said that he would not divulge any information that might endanger ongoing operations, but that did not stop reporters from trying to elicit it. CNN's Jamie McIntyre, for instance, kept demanding to know whether the United States planned to send ground troops into Afghanistan. Rumsfeld did his best to ignore him, but, as McIntyre persisted, the Secretary finally fixed him with an icy stare and said, "We don't discuss operational details."
The briefing reminded me of the famous Saturday Night Live sketch aired during the Persian Gulf War, in which reporters--despite being warned not to ask about matters that could aid the enemy--posed questions like, "What date are we going to start the ground attack?" and "Where are our forces most vulnerable to attack?" The sketch captured the public's disdain for the media's mindless aggressiveness and reinforced the first Bush Administration's inclination to restrict the flow of information about the war.
Now, with a new conflict upon us, the second Bush Administration seems intent on imposing similar controls. "Although the administration says it is not engaged in censorship," Elisabeth Bumiller reported in the New York Times, "officials throughout the government readily say they have been ordered to be circumspect about their remarks." This is certainly troubling. Without access to battle sites and timely information, the press--whatever its faults--will have a hard time assessing the success of US actions. Accordingly, US news organizations have been pushing the Pentagon to be more open.
That seems unlikely to happen, however. As during the Gulf War, the public seems to support the Administration's approach. Rather than sit around and grumble, though, reporters and editors should rededicate themselves to the real task at hand, which is providing the fullest possible coverage of the complicated new era we have entered. That, in turn, requires journalists to show such qualities as independence, enterprise and, yes, courage. Regardless of how much information the government provides, the press must pose uncomfortable questions, challenge broadly held assumptions and solicit opinion from a wide range of sources.
There are some hopeful signs. During the Gulf War, the press uncritically accepted Pentagon assertions about the accuracy of its missiles. Postwar studies showed those claims to be vastly exaggerated, and many journalists felt burned. A month into the current conflict, some journalists have shown their determination to avoid a repeat. Thus, after the Rumsfeld briefing, Richard Hawley, a former US general turned ABC news consultant, told Peter Jennings that in bombing Afghanistan, the United States was using precision-guided weapons so as to avoid "collateral damage." Jennings immediately pounced. During the Gulf War, he observed, generals "repeatedly talked about precision-guided weapons, and they turned out to be anything but precise. How much better is it now?" Hawley said that US missiles now have GPS-aided navigational devices that make for "far fewer stray rounds." Whether that's so remains to be seen, of course, but the exchange shows how some journalists, at least, have learned from that past conflict.
The current one, however, offers a host of new challenges, especially in covering the political dimensions of the conflict. And here the press could do much better. To cite one example, the Pentagon revealed on October 7 that in addition to dropping bombs on Afghanistan, it was dropping humanitarian food packages. In all, it said, it was delivering about 37,000 packages. Most news organizations accepted at face value the Pentagon's explanation that this showed America's concern for the well-being of the Afghan people. In all, though, millions of Afghans face starvation, and the next day NPR reported that Doctors Without Borders had condemned the US food drop as "propaganda" and, further, that the bombing had caused the UN World Food Program in Pakistan to suspend its daily shipments of 700 tons of food into Afghanistan. In reporting this, NPR did not rely on handouts from the Pentagon; rather, it went into the field and developed its own sources of information. (In fairness, Washington says it plans to increase greatly the size of its food drops once it is safe to do so.)
Another, more serious example of the press's credulity has been its coverage of the US intelligence services. In light of the failures to predict the September 11 attacks, the press has almost unanimously concluded that the United States needs to beef up its spying abroad and to "unleash" the CIA to fight terrorism. In a piece for The New Yorker, for instance, Seymour Hersh, relying heavily on sources within the US intelligence community, lambasted the CIA for turning away from the rough-and-tumble methods it used during the cold war. "Look," one agent told Hersh, "we recruited assholes. I handled bad guys. But we don't recruit people from the Little Sisters of the Poor--they don't know anything." A piece in the New York Times's Week in Review section echoed Hersh. "The CIA's spies are ill-equipped to fight a dirty war in the world's back alleys," lamented Tim Weiner, who went on to cite the need for American intelligence to rebuild its capacity for "old-fashioned espionage" and satisfy the "urge for covert action to combat an invisible foe."
These articles offered no independent assessments as to how much impact such a buildup could actually have in combating terrorism. Even more troubling, they showed no awareness of the serious costs of past US covert operations, from the Congo to Cambodia to Latin America. This omission seemed especially dismaying in the case of Hersh, who over the years has broken so many stories about clandestine mischief abroad.
Clearly, the United States needs to improve its ability to confront invidious groups like Al Qaeda. We are indeed fighting a new kind of war, and it requires new types of responses. Yet the unthinking acceptance of premises like the need to "unleash" the CIA does not advance the discussion. More than ever, US journalists must avoid the temptation to engage in groupthink and--without seeming reflexively adversarial--must ask sharp questions. In the end, the danger they face is not just censorship, but self-censorship.
Just once more, and
then we'll really have to get on with more pressing business. I could
subscribe myself at any time to any of the following statements:
§ An Arab child born in Nablus should have no fewer
rights in his or her homeland than a Jewish child born in
§ The United States of America has been the
patron of predatory regimes on five continents.
United States of America exports violence by means of arms sales and
You can probably fill in a few extras for
yourself. However, none of the above statements means the same thing
if prefaced with the words: "As Osama bin Laden and his devout
followers have recently reminded us..." They wouldn't mean the same
thing politically, that is to say, and they wouldn't mean the same
thing morally. It's disgraceful that so many people on the periphery
of this magazine should need what Noam Chomsky would otherwise term
instruction in the elementary.
Here are two brief thought
experiments that I hope and trust will put this degrading argument to
rest. Both of them, as it happens, involve the date September
I have long kept September 11 as a day of mourning,
because it was on that date in 1973 that Salvador Allende was
murdered and Chilean democracy assassinated along with him. We know
all the details now, from the way the giant corporations subsidized
subversion to the way that US politicians commissioned "hit jobs" and
sabotage. It took the Chilean opposition many years of patient
struggle to regain their country and their democracy, and the small
help I was able to offer them is one of the few things in my life of
which I can be proud. There was one spirited attempt to kill Augusto
Pinochet himself during this period, with which I had some sneaking
sympathy, but on the whole the weaponry of terror (death squads, car
bombs, the training of special killers) was in the department of
horror employed by Chilean and US officials working for, or with, the
dictatorship. And now Chilean dignity has been restored, and Pinochet
himself is a discredited and indicted figure, spared the rigor of law
only for humanitarian reasons. We may even live to see justice done
to some of his backers in Washington, though the holding of breath
would be inadvisable.
I don't know any Chilean participant
in this great historic struggle who would not rather have
died--you'll have to excuse the expression--than commit an outrage
against humanity that was even remotely comparable to the atrocities
in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. And I think I'll leave it
at that, since those who don't see my point by now are never going to
There are others who mourn September 11 because it
was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam
were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The
date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making
itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim
civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West,
went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I
think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain
antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And
if I am right, then it's not even facile or superficial to connect
the recent aggression against American civil society with any current
"human rights issue."
Why not pay attention to what the
cassettes and incantations of Al Qaeda actually demand: a holy war in
which there are no civilians on the other side, only infidels, and a
society of total aridity in which any concept of culture or the
future has been eradicated?
One ought to be clear about
this: The Ottomans who besieged Vienna were not of that primeval
mentality. But the Wahabbi fanatics of the present century are.
Glance again at the trite statements I made at the beginning of this
column. Could Osama bin Laden actually utter any of them? Certainly
not. He doesn't only oppose the entire Jewish presence in Palestine;
he opposes the Jewish presence in America. He is the
spoiled-brat son of one of our preferred despotisms and the proud
beneficiary of the export of violence. Why, then, do so many fools
consider him as the interpreter of their "concerns," let alone seek
to appoint their ignorant selves as the medium for his?
Thanks to all those who demand that I tell them what is to
be done. As the situation develops, they may even ask themselves this
question as if it really demanded a serious answer. We certainly owe
a duty to Afghanistan's people, whose lives were rendered impossible
by the Taliban long before we felt any pain. We might even remember
that the only part of Iraq where people are neither starving nor
repressed is in the Kurdish area, now under international protection
as a result of public pressure on Bush Senior's vaunted "coalition."
(See especially David Hirst's two engrossing reports from northern
Iraq in the London Guardian of August 1 and 2: Hirst himself
is probably the most consistently anti-imperialist journalist in the
region.) But wait! That might mean that one could actually
do something. Surely we are too guilt-stained for
Thanks also to all those who thought it was original
to attack me for writing from an "armchair." (Why is it always an
armchair?) As it happens, I work in a swivel chair, in an apartment
on the top floor of one of Washington's tallest buildings. In the
fall of 1993 the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism
urgently advised me to change this address because of "credible"
threats received after my wife and daughter and I had sheltered
Salman Rushdie as a guest, and had arranged for him to be received at
the cowering Clinton White House. I thought, then as now, that the
government was doing no more than covering its own behind by giving
half-alarmist and half-reassuring advice. In other words, I have a
quarrel with theocratic fascism even when the Administration does
not, and I hope at least some of my friendly correspondents are
prepared to say the same.
all the programs I've seen on Afghanistan, not one was more chilling
than Beneath the Veil, an hourlong documentary that has
appeared frequently on CNN. Its narrator, Saira Shah, a British woman
of Afghan descent, spent five days in the country to see what life
there was really like. Shah managed to penetrate places few
Westerners get to see, including a secret classroom for girls and a
village that suffered Taliban atrocities. She also visited a Kabul
soccer stadium that, she said, had served as a public execution
ground. To back up her point, the documentary featured a clip of a
man putting a rifle to the head of a woman clad in a burqa and
blowing her brains out. In an interview with the Taliban foreign
minister, Shah asked what he thought the international donors who
gave money for the stadium would say if they knew it was being used
for executions rather than for sports. Well, the minister said, if
they didn't like it, they should give money to build a separate arena
Shah's report captures just how horrendous
life in Afghanistan has become. The Taliban's police-state tactics,
together with its harboring of terrorists, has fed a groundswell of
support for its ouster. That, in turn, has focused new attention on
the Taliban's main opponents, the United Front, or, as it's more
familiarly known, the Northern Alliance. Eager to report on it, US
journalists have swarmed into the sliver of territory the alliance
controls in northeastern Afghanistan, where they're cordially taken
on tours by rebel commanders.
"We're with the troops of the
Northern Alliance," MSNBC's TomAspell reported on September 27. The
alliance, he said, was eager to act as a guide for American forces
entering Afghanistan. CNN's Chris Burns, gesturing toward a mountain
ridge, said, "Thirty miles beyond that, is where Kabul is. And they
say if they had help from the Americans, they could take that city."
Meanwhile, a procession of alliance spokesmen have appeared on TV to
plead for US assistance.
The print media have been no less
accommodating. "Front-line Taliban Foes Eager to Help U.S.," the
New York Times declared on its front page. Reporter David
Rohde described how a Northern Alliance general "swaggered across the
top floor" of a demolished airfield control tower and pointed
southward. "'On the other side of those mountains,' he said, his
voice filled with yearning, 'is Kabul.'" While the alliance did not
pose an immediate military threat to the city, Rohde noted, it did
have "encyclopedic knowledge of the Taliban and its bombing targets,
units and tactics." The Washington Post has run a series of
glowing reports about the alliance and its grit, savvy and
"discipline." That discipline, correspondent Peter Baker noted in one
dispatch, has survived the September 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah
Massoud, the guerrilla leader who "by sheer force of personality had
managed to hold together this eclectic group of
In death, Massoud has been lionized by the US
press--literally. "The legendary 'Lion of the Panjshir,'" the Los
Angeles Times called him. "A Lion's Death," the New Yorker
declared in a headline atop a one-page eulogy by Jon Lee Anderson. In
1992, Anderson reported, Massoud's "moderately conservative group"
defeated the brutish regime backed by the Soviets, and he served as
defense minister and vice president until 1996, when the Taliban
gained control of most of the country.
Anderson nor the rest of the press has reported is that during their
time in power, Massoud and his fellow warlords ruthlessly fought one
another, reducing much of Kabul to rubble and killing tens of
thousands of people, most of them civilians. According to a
meticulously documented report by Human Rights Watch (Afghanistan:
Crisis of Impunity, available at www.hrw.org), the front "amassed
a deplorable record of attacks on civilians" between 1992 and 1996.
It was the lawlessness and brutality that prevailed under these
warlords that paved the way for the Taliban. Since then, Human Rights
Watch reports, both the Taliban and the United Front "have repeatedly
committed serious violations of international humanitarian law,
including killings of detainees, aerial bombardment and shelling,
direct attacks on civilians, rape, torture, persecution on the basis
of religion, and the use of antipersonnel landmines."
one of the few departures from the pack, Patricia Gossman noted in a
Washington Post Op-Ed that Afghans have been fleeing Kabul
"not only out of fear of US airstrikes but out of panic that the
[Northern Alliance] might take power there again." Gossman, a writer
whose research has been funded by the US Institute of Peace, wrote
that when she was in Kabul last year, "I was told time and again that
the only thing people there feared more than the Taliban was that the
warlords of the Northern Alliance might return to
Michael Sullivan, in a fine piece for NPR, pointed
out that the Northern Alliance is made up of Afghanistan's ethnic
Tajik and Uzbek minorities, "with only token representation from the
country's ethnic Pashtun majority, who've dominated Afghanistan's
political landscape for most of the country's history." Without
involving the Pashtuns, a Pakistani security analyst told him, having
a stable government in Afghanistan "would be simply impossible." (The
Taliban is made up mostly of Pashtuns.)
What accounts for
the media blackout on the United Front's true colors? As Ken
Silverstein observed in an astute piece for Salon, the front's
many abuses "can't be a surprise" to reporters. Since September 11,
he notes, several thousand people, "presumably many of them
journalists," have requested the Human Rights Watch report on
Afghanistan, but "most reporters and pundits seem to be patriotically
turning a blind eye to our new partner's shortcomings."
The press may at last be opening its eyes. Time, in
its October 8 edition, offered a balanced piece on the United Front,
referring to its "fractious makeup" and "disappointingly thin"
intelligence. And David Rohde, in another front-page piece in the
Times on the Northern Alliance, used the w-word--warlords--and
described their recruitment of fighters as young as
According to the Times, the Bush Administration
has decided to provide covert aid to several groups opposed to the
Taliban, the United Front included. In light of the urgent need to
root out war criminals like Osama bin Laden, it can be argued that
Washington needs every bit of help it can get. But at the very least,
the American public needs to know whom we are embracing. After all,
it was just a few years ago that the CIA--eager to confront the
Soviets--backed the mujahedeen, including many of the same Taliban
fighters we are now seeking to overthrow.
Labels like "Islam" and "the West" serve only to confuse us about a disorderly reality.
The two related questions before the house are these. Can the attacks
of September 11 be compared to an earlier outrage committed by
Americans? And should they be so compared?
Several individuals have attributed to me certain statements on the issue of the situation known as the "Pacifica Crisis." As I am quite capable of speaking for myself without easy-chai
I have been asked to respond to recent Nation articles by Christopher Hitchens (website, September 24; magazine, Oct.