Media avoids complex questions

Illustration By Dack Thompson

On the weekend following the World Trade Center attacks, Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, moderated a weekend special called “Answering Kids Questions: An ABC News Special.”

In the opening, amid a group of children and adults, Jennings billed the show as a way for adults to answer as many of the kids’ questions as they could. He also told the group that kids were smart and that the adults may very well learn something too.

But the broadcast was fairly typical television fare. ABC trotted out familiar kinds of authority figures to respond to the kids’ inquiries: a doctor from Yale, a U.S. Army major, a Baptist pastor and a Muslim religious leader. Eventually, Jennings threw the kids a bone and included MTV V-jay Carson Daly in the discussion. Daly, of course, had nothing to say.

But one of the kids, a young woman named Nora, did. Toward the end of the show, Jennings asked her for a comment. She wanted to know why the attacks happened: “I mean, are we only getting a taste of our own medicine?” she asked. “Are … we’re doing this to the rest of the world, too.”

Then, after saying the terrorists were “horrible and awful” for the attack, Nora asked, “But then again, were any of their families killed in any of these things? Because it takes a lot for a person to commit suicide, to commit suicide and take 10,000 people with them. That’s a lot.”

It was eerie. In a single moment, a child had asked a question—why?—that seemed like forbidden territory on the nightly broadcasts. And after handing the mike around to several other kids (Jennings apparently decided that the question was far too complex for any of the adults to answer), Nora got the microphone back and asked Jennings another question: “Well, are we getting the whole story from the media?”

On a show billed as a forum to address the questions of America’s youth, Nora’s questions went unanswered. Instead, Jennings brought out former all-pro NFL center Bart Oates to discuss his thoughts on the disaster. Minutes later, the show ended.

But Nora’s question stands. Are we getting the whole story from the media? Since the attacks, the media has almost been universally lauded for providing excellent around-the-clock coverage of this national tragedy. And certainly, in covering the unfolding heroism of the rescuers in New York and Washington, D.C., they’ve done a good job.

Yet if there’s any time when consumers of news should be asking themselves if they’ve been well-served by the American media’s coverage of foreign affairs and the causes of terrorism, it’s right now.

Many have chastised the government—and in some instances, rightly so—for being asleep at the switch. But perhaps a bigger scandal is that the major media, by and large, has not held government responsible for not addressing the issue seriously. What happened September 11 was not only the result of intelligence and security failures, it was a media failure as well.

Information or entertainment
In January of this year, a commission on terrorism headed by former senators Gary Hart, a Democrat, and Warren Rudman, a Republican, released a report that warned of an upcoming crisis in domestic terrorism. And the panel didn’t just call for the usual band-aid fixes to the problem.

It recommended, among other measures, an overhaul of the Defense and State departments and a new agency called the “National Homeland Security Agency.” The report said that international terrorism and the proliferation of unconventional weapons would make the United States vulnerable to attacks over the next 25 years.

The release of the report had all the makings of a big news story: ex-senators chairing the panel, sweeping changes to existing government departments and an indictment of government’s inaction in countering domestic terrorism—a risk the report said could lead to “not only death and destruction but also a demoralization that could undermine global leadership.”

But when the report hit the streets on January 31, the press reacted with a yawn.

There were stories on the Associated Press wire, in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, but the newspaper that some say sets the agenda for the rest of the nation’s press—the New York Times—was nowhere to be found. This is not to say, of course, that if the Times hadn’t slept then the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks wouldn’t have happened. But the media hesitation to cover the story does speak to a larger issue—the responsibility of the press.

In a column by Arianna Huffington a few days after the attacks that addressed that very issue, Hart took the press to task: “I’d be amazed if there was a single discussion on the board of any newspaper asking: Did we do our job? There seems to be no self-reflection, no understanding by the American media that they have a job under the direction of the Constitution to inform, not just entertain, the American people.”

Or titillate them. Even though the New York Times failed to produce one story about the commission’s report, according to a Nexis search, the paper did manage to do 85 stories that mention Gary Condit and Chandra Levy from May 17, when it ran an AP wire story, until September 10, the day before the attacks. That’s 85 mentions in 117 days.

People should be asking: Will these tragic events change what we expect from the press and will publishers and broadcasters feel any increased responsibility to inform rather than to entertain and titillate? And it’s not just nationally respected news outlets that should come under scrutiny.

Most local television news is an open joke—even in their own newsrooms. Some local papers are better than others, but they too often favor the sensational instead of the merely important. According to a Sacramento Bee archive search, Osama Bin Laden was mentioned 21 times in Bee stories in the year leading up to the attacks. Pop music group N-Sync was mentioned 37 times over the same period of time.

How can any of us look at the frivolous in our national and local news the same way after seeing the nightmare that unfolded in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11? Especially when many government officials say it’s likely that more attacks are on the way. The truth is we can’t. We have to expect more.

Simplifying the complex
But will we get more?

The big television news on September 18, one week after the bombings, was that CBS news anchor Dan Rather cried … twice.

The night before, on a particularly somber episode of Late Show with David Letterman, Rather broke down while discussing the tragic events of September 11. It was an understandable and emotional scene. Rather, who had worked a number of 16-hour workdays reporting the facts, was obviously tired and as deeply affected by the attacks as the rest of the nation.

When Letterman asked Rather why anyone would want to do what the attackers did to so many innocent people, Rather essentially told Letterman that these people were evil and the reason they attacked us is because they hate us and “they’re jealous.” Rather, who in his storied career has covered everything from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to Watergate to violence in the Middle East, told Letterman that the people who did this were society’s losers, people who resented America’s success.

His answer was chilling. There was no detailed analysis of possible theories, no discussion of why some Arabs resent America’s military and cultural presence in their countries, no discussion of the festering bubble of hate in that region that finally burst onto our shores. There wasn’t even a, “Well, that’s too complex of a question to be answered in a couple of minutes.” That night “they’re jealous” was the only analysis viewers would get from one of the country’s most watched newsmen.

But that shouldn’t be good enough. The seriousness of the attacks demands a more comprehensive analysis of why this tragedy happened. We don’t want someone like Dan Rather to explain away the hurt or to lessen its impact by trying to answer that question. He’s a journalist, which in some ways is a job that carries with it as much responsibility as any job in the United States. Ordinary citizens don’t have the proximity to power that some journalists do, so it’s the duty of reporters to act as the people’s representatives. Anything less is utter failure.

If we don’t get what we need from traditional outlets like our local newspaper, local television or cable channels, we should tune them out and look for sources of information that provide the most precious commodity of all: Truth, in context. It’s only then that voting Americans can make sophisticated political decisions. And it’s only then when the deaths at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and aboard the four hijacked planes won’t be in vain.