Press Watch

Press Watch

For three months now, I've been closely following the coverage of September 11 and its aftermath; how well have the media done?


This is the last of my regular Press Watch contributions, and although I hope to weigh in occasionally in the future, I am relishing my new freedom. No more Sunday mornings having to watch Cokie, Sam and George Will. No more afternoons having to switch back and forth between CNN and MSNBC. No more weeks having to sit in judgment on my colleagues.

Except this one last time. For three months now, I've been closely following the coverage of September 11 and its aftermath; how well have the media done?

It depends on which part of the media you're talking about. Over the weeks, I've detected a stark difference in the quality of the news delivered to the elite and to the masses. If you pick up the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal on any given day, you're likely to find a tangy smorgasbord of interesting items–about the fighting in Afghanistan, US relations with the Arab world, the hunt for Al Qaeda collaborators. On NPR, hardly a day goes by without its featuring at least one story that you haven't heard elsewhere. And, night after night, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer has served up an array of knowledgeable experts able to parse events in far-off lands.

Yet tune in to the network newscasts, or to the cable news channels, or to the radio talk shows, and you can't help being appalled at the thinness of the reports, the absence of creative news judgment, the shameless jingoism, the weepy self-absorption. From Hardball, The Capital Gang, Meet the Press and Today, to Geraldo, Imus, Dan and Peter, commercial TV and radio seem to be conspiring to close the American mind. While some media monitors have taken heart from the large swatches of time the networks have devoted to international affairs, seeing in it a sign that Americans indeed have an appetite for world news, I remain pessimistic on this score. Already, in fact, the networks seem to be returning to the status quo ante, stressing news about consumer goods, health and the weather. As the Bush Administration contemplates extending the war on terrorism into new theaters, the lack of a broadly informed public could prove very costly.

In other respects, developments since September have been more positive. In the initial phase of the war in Afghanistan, US reporters seemed stymied by the Pentagon's tight grip on information; in that regard, the conflict seemed on its way to reprising the Gulf War. In the end, though, it was the Taliban that proved the main obstacle to newsgathering, and as it collapsed, journalists were able to fan out throughout Afghanistan and have filed many sparkling reports. From a press standpoint, this conflict seems less like the Gulf War than Vietnam, with reporters able to move about at will and show their enterprise. To date, their reporting on the US campaign has been very positive; whether it remains that way, of course, depends on the direction of the war.

On the home front, meanwhile, the early concern about the lack of dissent and diversity in the media has given way to a growing taste for debate on a range of issues–the stimulus package in Congress, the government's response to the anthrax threat, the use of preventive detention and of military tribunals. There are limits, of course. People who think the United States should have turned the other cheek in responding to September 11 (a numerically marginal group) still have a hard time getting a hearing. But the type of furious reaction that greeted Susan Sontag's angry comments in The New Yorker in the days immediately after the attack could not, I think, happen today.

The main problem with the commentary about September 11 is not the range of voices but the quality of the analysis. The level of triumphalism and belligerence churned out by our columnists has been embarrassing to behold. The willingness of TV producers and Op-Ed page editors to give a podium to, for instance, former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey, whose views seem oblivious to the laws of evidence, mystifies me. Even more dismaying has been the acclaim accorded Thomas Friedman. Of all his many pandering pronouncements since September 11, one has stayed with me. Speaking with Tim Russert on Meet the Press, Friedman quoted a Kuwaiti friend as saying, "We Arabs are very good at never forgetting what happened 1,000 years ago, but we can't remember what happened ten years ago." Such patronizing helps explain why many Arabs have concluded that the US media are hopelessly biased against them.

In writing "Press Watch," I constantly wrestled with what I think is the greatest challenge facing anyone analyzing the attacks of September 11: finding a way to raise questions about US actions in the world without seeming to apologize for terrorism. On the one hand, there's the pitfall of the "blowback" school, with its insistence that the United States, by virtue of its invidious interventions around the world, somehow had it coming. This is blame-America-first-ism of the worst kind. On the other, there's the fear of inciting the bash-the-left camp, which holds that any discussion of US actions constitutes giving in to Osama bin Laden. In light of what's happened to us, how can we not take a hard look at our policies and figure out how to do better? Finding an intellectual framework that can accommodate both a tough stand on terrorism and a reassessment of America's role in the world seems the greatest task facing intellectuals, policy-makers and, yes, journalists.

And, in that regard, I think there is one major dimension of the September 11 story the press has consistently botched: Islam. In the early weeks after the attacks, commentators seemed to go out of their way to provide a sanitized, anodyne version of the faith. More recently, as the United States has prosecuted its campaign in Afghanistan and as the perfidy of the Taliban has become glaringly apparent, the press seems to be harping on Islam's extremist tendencies. Both versions are, I think, caricatures. The newsmedia in this country (whose staffs, incidentally, include very few Muslims), seem ill equipped to explain this complex, confounding and diverse creed to which a billion people subscribe. I hope they'll find a way to do better.

Now, does saying that make me soft on terrorism?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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