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The end of decadence (continued)


IN AN increasingly fragmented culture, television can still be a unifying force in times of crisis. Around 11 p.m., ABCís Peter Jennings, wiped out and semi-coherent, called television " the national campfire. " He was right, even if stress and overwork were taking their toll.

Overall, the media did a solid, respectable job under incredibly difficult circumstances. After the initial attacks, very little information was getting out, leaving commentators to speculate ó always a dangerous proposition. Yet even though international terrorist Osama bin Ladenís organization emerged early as a logical suspect, the talking heads were careful to note that there was no way of knowing for sure.

No doubt they had learned from Oklahoma City, when the early coverage focused almost exclusively on the possibility that the attack had been carried out by Middle Eastern terrorists. A particularly ironic moment on Tuesday occurred on the Fox News Channel, when an unusually subdued Bill OíReilly asked terrorism expert Steven Emerson whether he suspected bin Laden. " Iím not convinced. Itís too premature, " responded Emerson, who ó as OíReilly undoubtedly knew ó had been especially vehement six years ago in blaming Oklahoma City on a Middle Eastern group. Of course, it turned out that the attack was actually carried out by domestic terrorists.

MSNBC has rightly been sneered at for its emphasis on young, attractive personalities and elaborate sets ó epitomized by Ashleigh Banfield, the smiling blonde with the famous titanium glasses, who rose to prominence during the Florida recount. But Banfield proved on Tuesday that she can be more than just another pretty face. She set up shop on a sidewalk in Lower Manhattan early in the day and stuck around well into the night, even after the late-afternoon implosion of a third tower threatened to sweep her away. She was back on duty early Wednesday morning, looking only slightly less disheveled and sooty than she had the night before.

And the always-odd Dan Rather was oddly reassuring, cautioning his CBS viewers, " Nobody knows whoís responsible for this. " When his colleague Bob Schiefer began talking about the " rage " being expressed on the streets of Washington, Rather retorted, " Itís one thing to have that rage. Itís another to know where to direct that rage. "

If anything, the most inflammatory comments were delivered not by anyone in the media but by veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who popped up on several outlets virtually daring the White House to go after Afghanistan, whose Taliban government harbors bin Laden. Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a veteran Republican strategist, appearing on PBSís The NewsHour, urged Bush to consider a declaration of war, even though Kristol inconveniently did not appear to have a particular target in mind.

It was actually the bombastic Chris Matthews, on MSNBC, who sounded a welcome note of caution, reminding anchor Brian Williams that we are no more likely to be successful fighting terrorism than Israel has been. " The problem with retaliation is that you play into your enemyís hands. You radicalize your enemies, " Matthews said. " Retaliation is part of the terrorism. "

TEN YEARS ago, the fall of communism was preceded by another major news event: the Gulf War, which put CNN on the map and which, arguably, set off the 24/7 culture that the news media have become.

The war was something of a triumph for the media, but it also marked a big step on its journey from attack dog to lapdog. News executives, with few complaints, went along with onerous logistical restrictions, allowing US forces to carry out the ground campaign virtually unobserved. Yet it was the military, not the media, that won the approval of the public. A memorable Saturday Night Live skit even mocked news organizations by depicting clueless reporters asking officers to tell them exactly where American troops were located, thus opening them up to Iraqi attack.

The danger now, as the media shift their focus from the silly to the serious, is that the public wonít get the tough scrutiny of government that it needs and deserves. This is, after all, an emotional moment: weíve been attacked by foreign forces, and we want our leaders to do something about it. Who needs pesky reporters getting in the way?

" You canít be too dispassionate about this, at least as far as Iím concerned, " says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvardís Kennedy School. " This is a moment of war, and Iíve got a feeling thatís where weíre headed. " Still, Jones believes itís essential for the media to counter the " hysteria " thatís bound to break out in the coming weeks, and not to get caught up in antidemocratic rhetoric to justify measures that erode privacy and free-speech rights.

Adds Bob Steele, a media-ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, via e-mail: " News organizations must honor the principle of independence during these difficult times. We should not be swept up in the patriotism nor the criticism. We should be professional and dispassionate in our reporting even when we have strong personal feelings. "

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, is worried that the battle against terrorism will be used as an excuse to erode the mediaís constitutional protections.

" There no doubt will be some serious discussion about limiting civil liberties, including speech and press, " he said in an e-mail. " Already, weíre hearing some rumblings about leaks and aggressive/sloppy coverage of national-defense issues by the press as aiding and abetting terrorists. " (McMasters, by the way, came close to getting killed on Tuesday: he was sitting in the Pentagon parking lot, listening to a radio account of the World Trade Center attacks, when the Pentagon itself was wiped out.)

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Issue Date: September 13 - 20, 2001

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