Terror & The Press
WHEN JOURNALISTS REPORT FOR DUTY
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- In Time magazine's special issue about the events of=
Sept. 11, chilling photos evoke the horrific slaughter in Manhattan. All o= f the pages are deadly serious. And on the last page, under the headline "T= he Case for Rage and Retribution," an essay by Time regular Lance Morrow de= clares: "A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let's= have rage."
Exhorting our country to relearn the lost virtues of "self-confident rel= entlessness" and "hatred," the article calls for "a policy of focused bruta= lity." It's an apt conclusion to an edition of the nation's biggest newsmag= azine that embodies the human strengths and ominous defects of American med= ia during the current crisis.
Much of the initial news coverage was poign= ant, grief-stricken and utterly appropriate. But many news analysts and pun= dits lost no time conveying -- sometimes with great enthusiasm -- their eag= erness to see the United States use its military might in anger. Such impul= ses are extremely dangerous.
For instance, night after night on cable television, Bill O'Reilly has b= een banging his loud drum for indiscriminate reprisals. Unless the Taliban = quickly handed over Osama bin Laden, he proclaimed on Fox News Channel, "th= e U.S. should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble -- the airport, the = power plants, their water facilities and the roads." And what about the civ= ilian population of Afghanistan?
"We should not target civilians," O'Reilly said, "but if they don't ris= e up against this criminal government, they starve, period." For good measu= re, O'Reilly urged that the U.S. extensively bomb Iraq and Libya.
A forme= r New York Times executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal, was able to top O= 'Reilly in the armchair militarism derby.
Rosenthal added Iran, Syria and Sudan to O'Reilly's expendable-nation l= ist, writing in the Washington Times that the U.S. government should be rea= dy and willing to deliver a 72-hour ultimatum to six governments -- quickly= followed by massive bombing if Washington is not satisfied.
In a similar spirit, New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy deman= ded oceans of innocent blood: "As for cities or countries that host these w= orms, bomb them into basketball courts." The editor of National Review, a y= oung fellow named Rich Lowry, was similarly glib about recommending large-s= cale crimes against humanity: "If we flatten part of Damascus or Tehran or = whatever it takes, that is part of the solution."\
More insidious than th= e numerous hothead pundits are the far more numerous reporters who can't st= op providing stenographic services to official sources under the guise of j= ournalism.
We've heard that it's important for journalists to be independent of the= government. Sometimes that independence has been more apparent than real, = but sometimes it has been an appreciable reality and a deserved source of p= rofessional pride. But today, judging from the content of the reporting by = major national media outlets, such pride has crumbled with the World Trade = Center towers.
More than ever, as journalists report for duty, the news profession is m= orphing into PR flackery for Uncle Sam. In effect, a lot of reporters are s= aluting the commander-in-chief and awaiting orders.
Consider some recent = words from Dan Rather. During his Sept. 17 appearance on David Letterman's = show, the CBS news anchor laid it on the line. "George Bush is the presiden= t," Rather said, "he makes the decisions." Speaking as "one American," the = newsman added: "Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he= 'll make the call."
Media coverage of U.S. military actions has often involved a duplicitous= two-step, with news outlets heavily engaged in self-censorship and then gr= ousing -- usually after the fact -- that the government imposed too many re= strictions on the press.
Two months after the Gulf War ended a decade ago= , the Washington editors for 15 major American news organizations sent a le= tter of complaint to then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. They charged th= at the Pentagon had exerted "virtually total control" over coverage of the = war.
Now, as CNN has reported in passing, the Defense Department intends to i= mpose "heavy press restrictions." For example, "the Pentagon currently has = no plans to allow reporters to deploy with troops or report from warships, = practices routinely carried out in the 1991 Persian Gulf War."
Here's a riddle: If the U.S. government's restrictions on media amounted= to "virtually total control" of coverage during the Gulf War, and the rest= rictions will now be even tighter, what can we expect from news media in th= e weeks and months ahead?
Restrictive government edicts, clamping down on access to information an= d on-the-scene reports, would be bad enough if mainstream news organization= s were striving to function independently. American journalism is sometimes= known as the Fourth Estate -- but Dan Rather is far from the only high-pro= file journalist who now appears eager to turn his profession into a fourth = branch of government.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." = His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.