What a difference a year makes. Immediately after September 11, US news organizations were seized by a narrow-minded nationalism that made dissent and even debate all but impossible. Susan Sontag became a national whipping girl for suggesting that the terrorists had shown courage, while Bill Maher lost advertisers for suggesting that those launching US cruise missiles were cowards. At Pentagon briefings, reporters were cowed into submission by the pugnacious Donald Rumsfeld, while at CNN Walter Isaacson declared that “there may be no more partisan issues to talk about for the next year.”
Today, there’s hardly an aspect of the war on terrorism that has not come in for intense scrutiny. The issue of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, for instance, which last fall and winter was completely off-limits, has since become a front-page staple. The FBI, which for months enjoyed the type of hushed respect it had had under J. Edgar Hoover, has been opened for vivisection. The New York Times‘s Tom Friedman, who last fall trumpeted his love for America and cast doubt on the loyalty of anyone who questioned its actions abroad, has been skewering the White House for its rudderless policy in the Middle East and its failure to address America’s dependence on foreign oil.
Last September, Newsweek placed on its cover a photo of three firemen hoisting a flag amid the rubble of the World Trade Center. “God Bless America,” the cover declared. This past August, by contrast, it was “The War Crimes of Afghanistan.” “In November,” the cover blared, “America’s Afghan Allies Suffocated Hundreds of Surrendering Taliban Prisoners in Sealed Cargo Containers. Where Were U.S. Forces?” The eleven-page “special report” described how hundreds of Taliban soldiers had baked to death after being packed into airless shipping containers by forces commanded by warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. According to Newsweek, the “close involvement” of American soldiers with General Dostum made the issue “all the more sensitive.” An investigator from Physicians for Human Rights who helped uncover the killings was quoted as saying, “US forces were in the area at the time. What did the U.S. know, and when and where–and what did they do about it?”
The report did a convincing job of establishing that a war crime had taken place. It was less convincing in establishing US culpability. As the article itself stated, “Nothing that Newsweek learned suggests that American forces had advance knowledge of the killings, witnessed the prisoners being stuffed into the unventilated trucks or were in a position to prevent that.” The small group of Special Forces soldiers in the area “were more focused at the time on prison security, and preventing an uprising such as the bloody outbreak that had happened days earlier in the prison fort at Qala Jangi.” The magazine noted, however, that Pentagon spokesmen “have obfuscated when faced with questions on the subject” and that officials “across the administration did not respond to repeated requests by Newsweek” for a detailed accounting of US activities in the area. In short, the Administration seems to have been guilty mainly of not responding adequately to Newsweek‘s questions–not exactly a war crime.
Certainly the new skepticism is preferable to the old servility. Among other things, it shows how poorly served Americans were by the enforced conformity after September 11. Even in times of national emergency, it’s the press’s job to ask discomfiting questions. Now, journalists–belatedly recognizing this–seem to be overcompensating on some matters. Thus, Newsweek, embarrassed by its earlier obsequiousness, tries to demonstrate its mettle by implicating the United States in a war crime, even when the evidence for it is scant. And, after the long blackout on civilian casualties, the press now seems intent on chronicling every single incident.
The shift in coverage is especially apparent on Iraq. Last October and November, hawks like James Woolsey, William Safire and Richard Butler went unchallenged in contending that Saddam Hussein was so dire a threat to the United States that he had to be overthrown. Earlier this year, long articles about Saddam in The New Yorker (by Jeffrey Goldberg) and The Atlantic Monthly (by Mark Bowden) read like briefs for an invasion. In recent weeks, however, news organizations have rushed to report the views of dissident officials, tote up the possible costs of an attack, even describe invasion routes. In the past, divulging actual battle plans was considered the ultimate taboo in US journalism, yet in early July the New York Times ran a front-page story revealing an invasion blueprint in lush detail.
What has changed, of course, is public opinion. Amid the shock and rage that prevailed after the attacks, it took great nerve for reporters to stray from the norm, and few did. Now, with George Bush acting like a cowboy and the rest of the world reacting with horror, it’s safe to criticize him, and the press is piling on. Reporters like to show courage, but only when they know they’ll be praised for it. On Iraq, for example, it took the rising opposition in Congress, and the cascade of leaks from officials, to embolden reporters. Even now, journalists seem reluctant to strike out on their own and investigate the White House’s claims about the extent of Saddam’s arsenal and the likelihood that he will use it. What we’re seeing, in short, is the old press pack in action, with genuine signs of independence as rare as ever.
The pack mentality is evident daily in the routine coverage of world affairs. After September 11, it was widely believed that the media–like America as a whole–could no longer afford to keep its head in the sand. What happened abroad, it was clear, could have life-or-death consequences at home. Yet that conviction has steadily faded with time. Remember Vicente Fox’s efforts to rescue Mexico from the morass of corruption and repression? He’s a forgotten man. Turkey is collapsing under foreign debt, the Congo is trying to emerge from a brutal civil war and Iran is chafing under the rule of hard-line clerics, but these countries have fallen off the media map. Reporters have also shrunk from exploring such key domestic issues as America’s ongoing addiction to cheap oil, and the corporate interests it serves. When’s the last time you saw a story about the auto industry’s influence in Washington and its ability to frustrate efforts at greater fuel efficiency? And, as Howard Kurtz recently pointed out in the Washington Post, newsweekly covers on subjects like war crimes in Afghanistan are far outnumbered by those on Spiderman, Tom Cruise and Dr. Phil.
As before September 11, I continue, when home, to tune in to ABC’s World News Tonight. In the weeks after the attacks, I watched the broadcast straight through. Over time, though, the inherent superficiality of network news has reasserted itself, and now, after a few minutes of updates on the fight against terrorism, Peter Jennings offers up the old flaccid breed of story–the positive effect pets can have on kids, the high-tech gadgets available to US students, electronic devices that can translate a dog’s barks. And so, gradually, I’ve returned to my old habit of switching, halfway through, to reruns of Roseanne, which seems to have more to offer about the realities of the world than does the evening news.