The Op-Ed Echo Chamber
Little or no space for dissent from the military
by Steve Rendall
Extra! magazine (FAIR), December 2001
Whether the mainstream daily op-ed page was ever a true forum
for debate or for "non traditional voices" is questionable.
But during the weeks following September's terrorist attacks,
two leading dailies mostly used these pages as an echo chamber
for the government's official policy of military response, while
mostly ignoring dissenters and policy critics.
A FAIR survey of the New York Tunes and the Washington Post
op-ed pages for the three weeks following the attacks found that
columns calling for or assuming a military response to the attacks
were given a great deal of space, while opinions urging diplomatic
and international law approaches as an alternative to military
action were nearly non-existent.
We counted a total of 44 columns in the Times and Post that
clearly stressed a military response, against only two columns
stressing nonmilitary solutions. (Though virtually every op-ed
in both papers dealt in some way with September 11, most did not
deal specifically with how to respond to the attacks, with many
focusing on economics, rebuilding, New York's Rudolph Giuliani,
etc. During the period surveyed, the Post ran a total of 105 op-ed
columns and the Times ran 79.)
Overall, the Post was more militaristic, running at least
32 columns favoring military action, compared to 12 in the Times.
But the Post also provided the only two columns we could find
in the first three weeks after September 11 that argued for nonmilitary
responses; the Times had no such columns. Both dissenting columns
were written by guest writers.
The Times' and Post's in-house columnists provided the bulk
of the prowar commentary. Two-thirds of the Times columns favoring
military action were written in-house, as were more than half
of the Post's pro-war columns. This may say something about which
journalists are singled out for promotion to the prestigious position
New York Times columnist William Safire, whose seven columns
during this period included four that explicitly endorsed a military
strategy, wasted little time in calling for war. With next to
no information available the day after the attacks, Safire (9/12/01)
was already urging readers not to be overly concerned about evidence
or civilian deaths: "Lashing out on the basis of inadequate
information is wrong, but in terror-wartime, waiting for absolute
proof is dangerous. When we reasonably determine our attackers'
bases and camps, we must pulverize them-minimizing but accepting
the risk of collateral damage-and act overtly or covertly to destabilize
terror's national hosts."
Generally, however, Tunes columnists tended to be more reserved
in their pro-war advice. For example, in "Talk Later"
(9/28/01), Thomas Friedman wrote, "The big question is how
we fight this war to deliver to Americans what they want-which
is not revenge, but justice and security."
Meanwhile, several columnists at the Post expressed their
pro-war opinions in bloodier terms. In a column titled "Battle
Hymn" (9/23/01), George Will eschewed the notion of international
law in favor of death and destruction: "The Bush administration
is telling the country that there is some dying to be done....
The goal is not to 'bring terrorists to justice,' which suggests
bringing them into sedate judicial settings- lawyers, courtrooms,
due process, all preceded by punctilious readings of Miranda rights.
Rather, the goal is destruction of enemies." In "The
War: A Road Map" (9/28/01), columnist Charles Krauthammer
urged that military action be threatened against Iraq, Iran and
Syria as well as Afghanistan.
Would a column by a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
associate lend balance to the virtually uniform saber rattling
of the Post's oped page? Not necessarily. Just one day after the
attacks (9/12/01), Carnegie scholar and Post columnist Robert
Kagan declared what he saw as the only option: "Go to war
with those who have launched this awful war against us."
In his column headlined 'We Must Fight This War," Kagan waxed
nostalgic about "the Greatest Generation," and wondered
"whether this generation of Americans is made of the same
In "Pacifist Claptrap" (9/26/01), guest columnist
Michael Kelly used what he imagined to be Aristotelian logic to
prove that the pacifist position is "evil":
Organized terrorist groups have attacked America. These groups
wish the Americans to not fight. The American pacifists wish the
Americans to not fight. If the Americans do not fight, the terrorists
will attack America again. And now we know such attacks can kill
many thousands of Americans. The American pacifists, therefore,
are on the side of future mass murders of Americans. They are
(Journalist Robert Fisk, who has interviewed Osama bin Laden
several times, believes that the September 11 attacks were designed
to draw the U.S. into a war that would destabilize pro-Western
Islamic governments-The Independent, 9/16/01. If so, then by Kelly's
logic, it would be he and other pro-war pundits who are "objectively
Found among many other calls for war in the Washington Post
were the only two pieces in either paper during the period studied
that explicitly argued against a violent response. In contrast
to the overheated tone of many of the Post's pro-war pieces, these
columns employed more sober rhetoric.
Guest columnist Anne Brodsky (9/24/01), a professor of psychology
and women's studies at the University of Maryland, warned of the
ravages of war: "At this time we have more in common with
the Afghan people and many others around the world who are victims
of terrorism, fear and human rights abuses on a daily basis. I
am hoping that this will give us empathy and bring us together
against a common enemy, rather than tearing us farther apart.
Hatred, fear and blame are the calling cards of terrorists. If
we give in to this, they have won."
And guest columnist Kevin Danaher (Washington Post, 9/29/01)
of Global Exchange evoked the sentiment of demonstrations taking
place in cities and campuses across the country: "Justice,
Not War." Calling for an approach relying on international
law, Danaher wrote: "The perpetrators of the recent attacks
can be apprehended and brought to justice without killing innocent
civilians if we have the support of the world's governments. If
America were to engage the world in setting up an effective international
criminal court system, the support from other nations would be
so strong it would be impossible for any country to shelter the
perpetrators of mass violence."
When media critics argue that U.S. news media have a duty
to provide a broad debate on war, a common response is to ask:
When there seems to be such an overwhelming political and popular
consensus in favor of war, why should the media be obligated to
provide meaningful space for dissent?
In truth, the consensus for war in this time period was overstated.
In polls that offered a choice between a military response and
nothing, it's true that overwhelming majorities chose war. But
given the choice between a military assault and pressing for the
extradition and trial of those responsible (Christian Science
Monitor, 9/27/01), a substantial minority either chose extradition
(30 percent) or were undecided (16 percent). These people had
next to no representation in the op-ed debate; in fact, it's likely
that many people asked to choose whether or not to go to war had
never seen an alternative to war articulated in a mainstream outlet.
But even accepting the idea that there was an overwhelming
public sentiment for war, the task of journalism is to remain
independent, to ask tough questions of policy makers no matter
how popular their policies. After all, American history includes
many official policies that were popular in their times, policies
which today are viewed as disasters. Wouldn't the country have
been better off if journalism had provided a stronger, more abiding
challenge to the consensus that supported the Vietnam War, say,
or the internment of Japanese-Americans?
More than any other newspapers, the New York Times and the
Washington Post-with their unmatched influence in the nation's
capital and in U.S. newsrooms-have a duty to provide readers with
a wide range of views on how to deal with terrorism, its causes
and solutions. If the purpose of the op-ed page is to provide
a vigorous debate including critical opinions, both papers failed
their readers at a crucial time.
Control, Propaganda, and Democracy