The Media Fall In Line
by Susan Douglas
The Progressive magazine, November 2001
Watching the news media cover the catastrophe of September
11 and its aftermath has ~ ~ been like watching a fugitive seeking
his way in uncharted territory, trying on different guises, testing
out different routes, and toying with the merits of staying on
the dark side or coming into the light. These shifts are hardly
surprising, given that our news media rely so heavily on official
sources, and that the man acting as President switched, in short
order, from looking like a deer caught in the headlights to sounding
Retired generals were everywhere, with hardly a peace activist,
academic expert on the region, or left-liberal journalist in sight.
An extraterrestrial watching the proceedings would assume
that, with the exception of Condoleezza Rice, there were no women
in the country capable of analyzing Middle Eastern politics, or
of discussing war and peace. Female faces, with the exception
of those of a few reporters, were wiped off the screen.
The repeated use of pictures of Osama bin Laden to personify
all terrorists has contributed to warmongering, massive oversimplification,
self-delusions about American purity and innocence, and a mythologizing
of one man instead of a discussion of the broader trends and global
conditions that got us to this dreadful point.
Evidence that some journalists were prepared, two days after
the attacks, to submit to the most transparent news management
was their willingness to buy the wholly unsubstantiated claim
that George W. Bush had stayed away from the capital because Air
Force One was a target. Some, like Peter Jennings, made it clear
that they found this claim from Ari Fleischer hard to swallow
(why would the terrorists call to warn about Air Force One, but
not any other targets?), but by Friday CNN and others were in
line. CNN's Kelly Wallace, in covering Bush's visit to New York
after he had been faulted for seeming to hide in the closet for
several days, reassured viewers that he was there "not in
response to the criticism, of course," but rather that "we're
just seeing the President out more."
Maureen Dowd of The New York Times wrote that Karl Rove was
peddling the "White House was a target" line wherever
he could, and that it has been "widely discredited."
But you didn't hear that on TV. Instead, accepting Rove's explanation
was a crucial turning point in getting much of the press to fall
in line. By the time he appeared on David Letterman, Dan Rather
said of George Bush, "Wherever he wants me to line up, just
tell me where."
In the days before Bush's counterattack began, the media (with
some notable exceptions on CNN and one article in Time) had still
done little to help Americans understand why others might hate
us so thoroughly. And I'm sorry, explanations like "because
they are the enemies of civilization" (George Will) or "hate
what freedom represents" (Sean Hannity) are both answers.
Nor did the media puncture the bubble of collective amnesia about
U.S. conduct abroad over the last ten years. They did not identify
which lethal policies-the ongoing sanctions in Iraq spring immediately
to mind, as does the use of U.S-made weapons to attack Palestinians-might
have brought us to this pass. These are the wages of shutting
down bureaus abroad while saturating the air waves with stories
about shark attacks and wayward Congressmen.
Most critics I've spoken to thought the television news media,
especially Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Judy Woodruff, did
an impressive job in the immediate aftermath of the crashes, remaining
calm while expressing the nation's collective shock, warning viewers
about the lack of information and about jumping to conclusions,
asking reporters to corroborate information, and retracting stories
and information they discovered were wrong.
Still, there were irresponsible, even inflammatory gaffes,
as CNN's man in Kabul, Nic Robertson, seeing a sudden, fiery light
in the distance, speculated that the United States had launched
a missile attack, a conjecture CNN had to douse almost immediately.
Allowing the rightwing Orrin Hatch to go on the air only hours
after the attack, as CNN did, and insist he had inside evidence
that bin Laden was to blame showed terrible journalistic judgment,
as did CNN's decision to let former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Barak get in front of a camera and suggest we had to regard Iran,
Iraq, and Libya, as well as Afghanistan, as potential enemies
in a future war. Probably one of the most embarrassing moments
came when Aaron Brown of CNN brought on televangelist Robert Schuller
and asked him, in all seriousness, "How does a loving God
let this happen?"
Was every Middle East expert suddenly sick with the flu?
As I talked to my students the day after the attacks, they
were especially offended by the decision to air two sets of images:
the footage of Palestinians "dancing in the street"
in celebration, and the shots of people jumping to their deaths
from the World Trade towers. (Fox, not surprisingly, was shameless
in its repeated airing of the latter scenes.)
I'm in Ann Arbor, a half-hour away from the largest Arab American
community in the country. Within twelve hours of the attacks,
students of Arab descent were being spit on and verbally harassed.
So my students, who deplored this backlash, saw firsthand how
the "dancing in the street" footage recklessly inflamed
the immediate environment where they live.
There is simply no equivalence, in terms of clear semiotic
power, between footage of Bush visiting a mosque and urging tolerance,
and footage of laughing, taunting, or screaming people glorying
in your misery.
By Friday, September 14, the tone of television coverage had
moved from shock to fury, legitimizing, even advocating, total
vengeance, no matter what the consequences. This was especially
evident in one of the worst journalistic innovations of the past
twenty years, the use of the sensationalizing banner headline
designed to collapse a whole host of events into one, highly simplified
frame of meaning. First, it was "AMERICA UNDER ATTACK."
By Friday, on CNN, it was "AMERICA AT WAR," complemented
by other slogans and banners like "The Longest Week"
to resonate with the war film The Longest Day. By early the following
week, CNN's banner was "AMERICA'S NEW WAR."
Without saying explicitly that the United States had to declare
war against all Islamic nations and peoples, on-air experts from
former CIA Director James Woolsey to retired NATO Commander George
Joulwan evoked the specter of wars at home and abroad. As Joulwan
"Fighting may take place right in our own country. This
is not a one-time event; it needs to be worldwide."
Or, as former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger put
it the night of the attack, "There is only one way to begin
to deal with people like this, and that is you have to kill some
of them even if they are not immediately directly involved in
this thing." Bill O'Reilly's fulminations on Fox to "bomb
the Afghan infrastructure to rubble" should be infamous by
The first Sunday after the attacks, ABC's This Week aired
an entire show without one Arab face, or one Middle East specialist.
But we did get to hear George Stephanopoulos advocate assassination
because "maybe in this case that might be the most effective
response, not only, perhaps, for Saddam Hussein but for some of
the other terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden." Then the
show let the CEOs of Delta and Continental have air time to plead
for their massive bailout. George Will, who praised the use of
surveillance cameras in Britain, had no idea what the fuss was
about over the possible curtailment of civil liberties.
Tim Russert of NBC was no better. His lapel bedecked with
a red, white, and blue boutonniere the size of Delaware, he insisted
that Americans prepare themselves for the long haul, and he hectored
us to accept a "disproportionate response" from Washington.
TV was not alone in its call for war. "A day cannot live
in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let's have rage,"
wrote Lance Morrow of Time. "Let America explore the rich
reciprocal possibilities of the fatwa. A policy of focused brutality
does not come easily to a self-conscious, self-indulgent, contradictory,
diverse, humane nation with a short attention span. America needs
to relearn a lost discipline, self-confident relentlessness- and
to relearn why human nature has equipped us all with a weapon
(abhorred in decent peacetime societies) called hatred."
Many on the left have bemoaned the absence of alternative
voices, especially those that might be opposed to the indiscriminate
bombing of civilian populations. The National Day of Action that
saw anti-war demonstrations and vigils at more than 130 campuses
got virtually no coverage. My e-mail in-box was filled with anti-war
petitions, pleas from relatives of the dead victims not to strike
out in vengeance, powerful arguments against killing civilians-especially
the benighted women and children in Afghanistan-but I saw none
of this on TV. We feel ourselves moving between parallel universes,
one in which exhortations for moderation, diplomacy, and peace
are constant, another in which they are not permitted.
About a week after the crashes, we started to see a move away
from the "bomb them back to the Stone Age" theme to
one that seemed, on its surface, to incorporate some of the voices
arguing for moderation and against the indiscriminate bombing
of civilians. But the new version was not much better after all.
It was basically: "This will be a war, we will take our time,
the government will need to keep much of it secret, and the military
knows best how to handle this catastrophe."
But television did feature voices opposed to a retaliatory
war and concerned about the rise of militarism. Who were these
experts? Children. ABC aired two such shows, one called "Answering
Children's Questions" and the other a segment of Prime Time.
Adults praised the children's thoughtfulness about the immorality
of killing innocent people, the perpetuation of the cycle of violence
that indiscriminate air strikes would bring, and their concerns
about racial discrimination. But why is it only children who voice
such concerns on television? Does letting Americans hear such
words only out of the mouths of children cast such worries as
Susan Douglas teaches Communications Studies at the University
and Media Control