Network of Insiders
TV news relied mainly on officials to discuss
by Seth Ackerman
Extra! magazine (FAIR), December 2001
The crisis of September 11 touched on issues from Middle Eastern
politics to skyscraper architecture, Islamic theology to the threat
of unconventional weapons. It was a story, in other words, that
most ordinary viewers could not easily interpret without help.
FAIR conducted a study to find out which experts the three major
television news outlets-NBC, ABC and CBS- sought out to help explain
these and other issues in the days following the September 11
A total of 189 expert guests were invited by the networks
to appear in on-camera interview segments during the period from
September 12 to September 17. (People-on-thestreet interviews
and discussions with eyewitnesses, which made up a significant
portion of the guests in the early days of the crisis, were not
counted.) FAIR divided these 189 guests into several categories,
by far the largest of which was public officials. Current and
former federal, local and military officials together accounted
for 50 percent of all interview guests. If foreign and international
officials are added, the figure rises to 56 percent.
In a disaster situation, public officials often play a helpful
role, appearing on television to urge calm and inform the public
about relief efforts and safety precautions. But when the discussion
turns to interpreting events and offering advice about what should
be done, these of ficials present a very narrow range of opinions.
The of ficials, current and former, who spoke about policy issues
were well-known members of the foreign-policy establishment-people
like Richard Holbrooke, Brent Scowcroft, Joseph Biden and Lawrence
Eagleburger. Their comments were quite similar on the whole.
"What I do want to underscore,"Holbrooke said on
ABC (9/12/01), "is the key sentence in President Bush's speech
last night that the United States will make no difference between
those who perpetrated this act and those who condoned it or sheltered
the people." The same day, Scowcroft told ABC that "these
are suicidal people. They're fanatics. We have to go to the people
who are giving them aid, shelter and so on, and say, 'If you're
not on our side, you're against us,' and try to mobilize the world
against this menace."
Biden's main message concerned Pakistan and other allies:
"They've got to choose sides. There is no question, you're
either our friend or you're our enemy here. And I am confident
that . . . they will be cooperative in every way" (CBS, 9/16/01).
Eagleburger, meanwhile, said the U.S. could punish Afghanistan
"by destroying that government or by destroying the in*astructure
of that government" (ABC, 9/12/01).
Unfortunately, the nongovernmental specialists brought on
to comment -academics, professionals and the like-did not do much
to balance the government officials. They made up more than a
quarter of all the guests who spoke. But very few of them-only
X percent of the total-were invited to speak about political subjects
like the Middle East, Afghanistan or terrorism. Instead, the majority
were experts on subjects like aviation, skyscrapers and emotional
trauma. These people had useful things to say, but they could
not offer alternative perspectives to those of the foreign-policy
In fact, even the Middle East and terrorism specialists were
largely drawn from the same small circle of Washington insiders.
Among them were two employees of the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, a reporter for the New York Times, a "terrorism
expert" from the militaryassociated Rand Corporation, and
Johns Hopkins' Fouad Ajami, CBS News' longtime interpreter of
the "Arab mind." None of these commentators tried to
challenge the prevailing ideas about the "war against terrorism";
they tended to agree with the government officials.
Alternative perspectives might have been provided by spokespeople
from activist and advocacy groups. But there were very few of
these-only six (2 percent). Of these, three were advocates for
airline pilots or firefighters. The other three were spokespeople
for Arab-American organizations, but these were forced to spend
most of their time simply urging tolerance and explaining that
the majority of Arab-Americans do not support terrorism.
Some categories of experts were noticeable for their absence.
No experts on international law appeared, even though a lively
debate among international jurists has been brewing since September
11 over how the United States could respond legally to the attacks.
Very few university-based experts on the Middle East appeared.
(The main exception was Ajami.) This absence contributed to the
networks' striking lack of explanation of what U.S. policies in
the Middle East have been in recent years.
One bright spot in the guest list was the presence of religious
leaders. There were 10 of these, about 5 percent of the total,
providing a note of introspection and an ethical context to the
discussion that was almost totally missing from other interviews.
There were seven Christian clergy and three Muslims. In recent
years, some networks, such as ABC News, have focused more of their
religion coverage on the Christian right. But in the wake of the
September 11 attacks, which Jerry Falwell blamed on homosexuals,
feminists and the ACLU, the clergy invited to speak were notably
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