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.
STILL, the big question about journalism is whether September 11 marks a turning point--indeed, whether the press is permanently chastened, changed, different. For a generation now, the type of reporting practiced first in Washington and then nationwide has been adversarial, cynical, and highly negative. Reporters themselves have been so ideological that liberal bias became a dominant trait of journalism, as Bernard Goldberg engagingly points out in the about-to-be-released "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News." Since it was the experience of covering the civil-rights movement, Vietnam, and Watergate that helped create this sort of reporting, might the trauma of September 11 propel the press toward a more positive, dispassionate, and ideologically impartial style, one less confrontational toward American institutions? Robert Lichter thinks so. "There's been a seismic shift in journalism since September 11," he told me. "The idea of the journalist as critical outsider has been blown to smithereens."
I'm not so sure that we've seen the end of the "journalist as critical outsider." But, in the short run, remarkable things have occurred. Famous journalists have been transformed in ways that should thrill conservatives who complain about liberal bias. The most striking changes involve CBS anchor Dan Rather, liberal television journalist Geraldo Rivera, CNN chief Walter Isaacson, and columnist Tom Friedman of the New York Times.
Rather's appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman" a week after the terrorist attacks was quite touching. A mention of the firefighters at the World Trade Center reduced him to tears. He broke up again while reciting a stanza of "America the Beautiful" and declared: "You know, it's just one American, wherever [the president] wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he'll make the call." But what Rather said later, after the bombing started, was more significant. Following two days of bombing, he ended the "CBS Evening News" with a patriotic peroration. "Our thoughts and our love are with our warrior men and women," he said. "We know that some may come back in flag-draped caskets, but we reluctantly and sadly accept that as a reality of a war forced upon us." How often have we heard anything like that on network news? Practically never, and by this time the emotion of September 11 had begun to wear off. Two days later, Rather, his voice cracking with emotion, ended his broadcast: "With America's fighting men and women in peril far from home tonight, we know we must steel ourselves for many long months." Five days later, he zinged Saudi Arabia as ingrates for criticizing the bombing. A few days after that, he pointed out that the American military had been gutted in the 1990s.
Like Dan Rather, Geraldo Rivera is a liberal media icon, a last-ditch defender of Clinton during impeachment. Yet he took a whopping pay cut, quit his nightly show on CNBC, and signed on with Fox News Channel to cover Afghanistan. "I am changed," he explained. "How can you be a dove when someone has committed mass murder in your neighborhood, killed friends of yours?" He zinged the Taliban for being, among other things, anti-American. "I want to see a reinforced United States rifle company take a hill," he said. "I want to see us rout these bastards. I want to see our GIs make them pay back for what they did to us." Remember now, that wasn't Rush Limbaugh talking. It was Geraldo.
And then there's Walter Isaacson. Freshly installed as the head of CNN, Isaacson faced various problems. It wasn't just dealing with CNN's reputation as the "Clinton News Network," though that has caused ratings trouble. The bigger problem was the source of that reputation: the content of CNN's programs. One CNN official admitted the cable network had "underserved" conservatives, which is putting it mildly. But faced with a war to cover, Isaacson took an extraordinary step that Ted Turner, were he still in charge, surely would not have. He sent a memo to correspondents, instructing them to remind viewers of the attacks that prompted America to go to war in the first place. The message between the lines was "Don't sound anti-American." Despite lapses, CNN's coverage has improved. Even Christiane Amanpour dismissed anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan as unrepresentative of popular sentiment in that country.
Tom Friedman is a special case because his take on the war is at odds with his paper's. The bestselling author of "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," he's criticized American foreign policy for years--but especially since Bush took office. And yet, in nearly all his columns since September 11, he has recognized the stakes ("this is World War III") and advocated a decisive military victory ("to not retaliate ferociously...is only to invite a worse attack"). He's criticized Arab-Muslim regimes that hypocritically side with the United States while allowing radical Islam to fester. And his solution is democracy--for, without it, "religion and the mosque become the vehicle of angry protest. . . . And when [authoritarian] leaders are seen as being propped up by America, America also becomes the target of Muslim rage."
The roots of Friedman's new outlook are both obvious and intellectually respectable: The world changed, and he has changed in response. In a more emotional way, this is also true of Rather and Rivera. The effect of September 11 was traumatic and mind-altering. But there are other reasons, too, for the change in journalism. The nature of the story--a war with many facets, foreign and domestic--requires more fact-based reporting and less commentary. Then, too, for television, ratings matter. This no doubt has played a role in CNN's coverage.
ONE SIGNIFICANT FACTOR gets little notice: the scrutiny the national press now gets from media critics, watchdog groups, press websites, and astute journalistic observers like Andrew Sullivan of the New Republic and Brit Hume of Fox News Channel. Many of these are conservative, and they're constantly on alert for liberal or leftist excesses. When they find them, they let the whole world, or at least elite opinion-makers, know. The result is a makeshift kind of accountability that didn't exist until recently. Large media organizations once haughtily ignored conservative criticism. Now they have to take it into account and react.
The case of David Westin, the president of ABC News, is a good example. On October 23, Westin spoke to a class at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Asked if the Pentagon were a legitimate target for attack by America's enemies, he said, "I actually don't have an opinion on that . . . as a journalist I feel strongly that's something I should not be taking a position on." The comment drew no criticism from the students, which may tell you something about them.
But four days later, the Westin speech was shown on C-SPAN, where Brent Baker of the Media Research Center caught it at 2 A.M. Baker put excerpts in the daily "CyberAlert" he writes for MRC's website. Rummaging through the Internet, Brit Hume spotted the item and mentioned it on "Special Report" that evening on Fox. Two days later, the New York Post picked it up and the next day so did the Drudge Report. That alerted Rush Limbaugh, who devoted an hour or more to it on his radio show. With Limbaugh's show still in progress, Baker got a call from ABC. A reply would be e-mailed to him soon for posting on the MRC website. It was a total capitulation. "I was wrong," Westin wrote. "Under any interpretation, the attack on the Pentagon was criminal and entirely without justification."
The impact this may have on ABC's coverage is uncertain. It hasn't affected what's become a hardy perennial at the network: obsessive emphasis on collateral damage caused by American bombing. Despite relatively few civilian deaths in Afghanistan, ABC has concentrated on the subject far more than NBC or CBS. But then it did the same thing during the Gulf War a decade ago.
At the New York Times, R.W. Apple, too, is grinding an old ax. Back in 1991, he wrote, "For all of President Bush's passionate insistence to the contrary, the war in the Persian Gulf has more than a few similarities to the war in Vietnam, in the sort of problems that it poses if not in the probable outcome." Trying to make a new situation fit an old story, he was wrong about the Gulf War--and he's wrong again about the war in Afghanistan, for precisely the same reason.
I'VE GIVEN little space to the two books under review, but not because they're unworthy. "It Ain't Necessarily So" is an impressive piece of media criticism, more serious-minded and rigorous than sloppy and alarmist reporting on science deserves, and surprisingly readable. The sins of the press are basic: ignorance, sloth, hype, ideology. Reporters frequently don't understand important scientific distinctions such as that between correlation and causation. They're inclined to report on a study based on a sensationalized press release, not the study itself. They turn ambiguous findings into "possible links" between, say, bug spray and Parkinson's disease. They let a preconceived idea, or template, determine the story. "If the template is that infectious diseases, sexual assaults, and mortgage discrimination each pose severe (and possibly worsening) problems, evidence to the contrary will often be ignored or rejected," the authors write.
"It Ain't Necessarily So" recounts dozens of examples of atrocious science reporting, but one stands out. That was the New York Times piece in 1995 on "whether the planned underground dump for the nation's high-level atomic wastes in Nevada might erupt in a nuclear explosion, scattering radioactivity to the winds or into ground water or both." The story got front-page treatment, though it was merely the theory of two scientists and any explosion would be thousands of years in the future. Their theory hadn't been peer-reviewed, but when it was, it was dismissed. The two studies that rejected the theory got no coverage in the Times. The more you read about the state of science reporting in "It Ain't Necessarily So," you're not surprised that the press hyped and mangled the anthrax story.
But you'd never have guessed from "Bias" (written months before September11) that Dan Rather would emerge as the war on terrorism's leading media supporter. Nonetheless, Goldberg tells an engrossing story about his twenty-eight years at CBS, his clash with Rather over liberal bias, and his take on liberal news coverage in general. He was a top-flight correspondent and Rather favorite until February 1996, when he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about liberal bias, particularly at CBS. "You can talk freely about many things when you work for the big network news operations, but liberal bias is not one of them," Goldberg notes. After the article, his career at CBS was stymied and he left the network in 2000. Goldberg tells plenty of CBS tales out of school (Rather's down-home quips are scripted, he observes, and CBS News boss Andrew Heyward privately agreed about liberal bias). In the end, he's pessimistic about erasing bias. "They continue to slant the news and then deny they're doing it," Goldberg says. "They just don't understand."
Even so, Dan Rather's metamorphosis seems real, if perhaps temporary. The scourge of liberal bias, Brent Baker of the Media Research Center, is persuaded. "He's not the Rather of the past," he says. In fact, Baker has kind words for most of CBS's war coverage and NBC's too. "There's not much to complain about thematically from a conservative point of view," Baker says. "Certainly the tone of coverage has changed. They're eliminating the spin. They're not trying to impute political motives to everything Bush does or says." All that, just since September 11. If it lasts, people may learn to like the press as much as they like, well, Donald Rumsfeld.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
December 3, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 12