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?”