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?”
To a degree, such deference reflects TV’s customary rallying around the flag in times of national crisis. Such a stance is understandable; in light of the enormity of the attack, even atheists are singing “God Bless America.” But the jingoistic displays on TV over the past two weeks–the repeated references to “we” and “us,” the ostentatious sprouting of lapel flags, Dan Rather’s startling declaration that “George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where”–have violated every canon of good journalism. They have also snuffed out any whiff of debate and dissent; the discussion taking place within the Bush Administration is no doubt more vigorous than that presented on TV.
But there’s more than simple patriotism at work here. The thinness of the coverage and the shallowness of the analysis seem a direct outgrowth of the networks’ steady disengagement from the world in recent years. Since the end of the cold war, overseas bureaus have been closed, foreign correspondents recalled and the time allocated to international news sharply pared. Having thus plucked out their eyes, the networks–suddenly faced with a global crisis–are lunging about in the dark, trying desperately to find their footing.
No outlet has seemed more blinkered than CNN. The network that once emulated the BBC has instead become another MSNBC, and while it can still count on Christiane Amanpour to parachute into the world’s hot zones, and on the game efforts of such on-the-ground assets as Nic Robertson in Kabul, the network has seemed thoroughly flummoxed by the complex political forces set in motion by the events of September 11. Consider, for instance, that famous brief clip showing a clutch of Palestinians celebrating the attack on the World Trade Center. Within days, word began circulating on the Internet that the footage had actually been shot during the Gulf War. The furor became so great that CNN eventually had to issue a statement describing where it got the tape (from a Reuters cameraman in East Jerusalem who insisted that he had not encouraged the celebration, as some claimed).
The real scandal, though, is that CNN repeatedly showed the clip without commentary, without attempting to place it in the broader context of reactions from the Islamic world. What were people in Gaza and the West Bank actually saying? Where were the interviews with clerics in Cairo, editorial writers in Amman, shopkeepers in Jakarta and schoolteachers in Kuala Lumpur? It was certainly not hard to obtain such views–witness Ian Fisher’s sparkling dispatch from Gaza in the New York Times (“In the Gaza Strip, Anger at the U.S. Still Smolders”) and Peter Waldman and Hugh Pope’s excellent front-page roundup in the Wall Street Journal: “Some Muslims Fear War on Terrorism Is Really a War on Them; West Undercuts Islam, They Say, by Backing Israel, Autocratic Mideast Rule.”
Not all was bland on CNN. Jeff Greenfield, for one, made some genuine efforts to probe the Islamic world’s complex love-hate relationship with the United States. On September 20, for instance, he had a spirited discussion with Afghanistan hands Barnett Rubin of New York University and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, along with Farid Esack, a Muslim scholar at Auburn Theological Seminary. Far more representative,though, was “What Do We Know About Islam?” an exceedingly brief Sunday segment in which a Christian minister and a Muslim cleric offered very vague observations about relations between Christianity and Islam. It was followed by an interview with a Muslim-American who assured us that “Islam means peace.” Shot in Boston and New York, the segment drove home how CNN has lost that precious journalistic ability to work the streets of the world and discover what’s really taking place there. Given CNN’s critical part in keeping the world informed, one can only hope that it will soon regain its bearings.