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.