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 like Rambo.

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 warned,

"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 now.

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 hopelessly naive?


Susan Douglas teaches Communications Studies at the University of Michigan.

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