The Press in Time of War
How things have changed since September 11.
Dec 3, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 12 • By FRED BARNES
It Ain't Necessarily So
PETER JENNINGS, the ABC News anchor, ventured outside New York last week to discover the mood of the country. In Dallas, a man told him bluntly: "Nobody likes you." The man added that the press's reporting is unpatriotic and isn't helping the nation recover from the attacks of September 11.
The press is in bad odor around the country. At a time when President Bush, Congress, the postal service, the Centers for Disease Control, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, homeland security chief Tom Ridge, and Attorney General John Ashcroft are wildly popular, a majority of Americans disapprove of the news media.
This is peculiar, almost shocking. The press has been more in sync with the American people since September 11 than at any time in decades. And its coverage, from a professional standpoint, has rarely been better. In the two or three weeks immediately after the terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, both print and broadcast coverage was dazzling. The stories were fact-filled, fair, balanced, poignant, comprehensive, and politically neutral. There were even murmurs of patriotism, not exactly a staple of the liberal media. Once the American bombing in Afghanistan began on October 7, the coverage grew more critical--but for the most part that wasn't because the war on terrorism was being fought too brutally, but because it wasn't being pursued vigorously enough. In short, what we've seen at times over the past nine weeks is the American press transformed.
Who would have thought a press corps filled with liberals would make Rumsfeld, the hardest of hard-liners, into the rock star of the war against terrorism? Not Rumsfeld, I'll bet. The usually liberal Parade magazine ran a puff piece on him. Reporters have credited him with giving candid and often witty briefings. "Saturday Night Live" lampooned his facial contortions, body language, and curt treatment of questions. But it did so in a you-got-to-love-him fashion.
There are, of course, exceptions to a changed press, dinosaurs bent on covering the war as antagonistically as possible. One is the New York Times. Its war coverage has been grimly defeatist and its chief Washington correspondent, R.W. Apple Jr., has fixated on supposed similarities between American interventions in Afghanistan and Vietnam. On the day anti-Taliban forces made their first big breakthrough in Mazar-i-Sharif, the Times focused on a tiny incident in which Taliban soldiers tricked Northern Alliance troops into thinking they'd surrendered, then opened fire. Another offender is ABC. Its obsession was Taliban claims about civilian deaths from American bombing. ABC accepted them as credible and played them up. Predictably the claims turned out to be false. ABC even frowned on the president's effort to have American kids send a dollar to Afghan children.
There have also been episodes of klutzy and hysterical reporting. Gloria Borger's questioning of Vice President Dick Cheney on "60 Minutes," for example, drifted into the ridiculous when she asked him to discuss the secret site where he goes when the president is in the White House. "What do they do when they take you away?" she asked. "Do they come in and get you . . . [and] where do you go?" Cheney answered gently that such information "needs to be classified."
This was a harmless instance. But the anthrax threat isn't, and, in general, the coverage of anthrax has been uninformed, speculative, and overwrought. The thesis of "It Ain't Necessarily So: How Media Make and Unmake the Scientific Picture of Reality," a recent study by David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and the media critic Robert Lichter, is that the press can't cover scientific and medical issues without going off the deep end. The way the anthrax threat was explained to the American public looks like definitive proof of that thesis.