Terror & The Press
THE PRESS HAS FAILED U.S.
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- A couple of days after the horror in New York and Was= hington, I got an e-mail from Carl Jensen, founder of the pressanalysis pro= ject called Project Censored.
He called my attention to a column written by Arianna Huffingtonthat, in= Carl's words, was "exactly what Project Censored has been sayingfor 25 yea= rs now." Huffington was writing about the failure of the press toadequately= inform us about many important issues -- including one issue thatbecame ve= ry important after 9 a.m. EDT on Sept. 11, 2001.
"The phrase 'massive failure of intelligence' became one of thisweek's n= umbing cliches," Huffington wrote. "But no one is talking aboutanother, equ= ally serious, intelligence failure. It is the failure of themedia to proper= ly estimate the intelligence of the American people bycatering to the lowes= t common denominator in pursuit of ratings, and ofcourse, money.
"As shocking as the four-pronged attack was, it shouldn't have beenso su= rprising. Only seven months ago, a congressionally mandated commissionrelea= sed a prophetic report predicting this kind of terrorist assault onU.S. soi= l, concluding that the question was not if a terrorist attack couldhappen b= ut when.
"Don't feel bad if you didn't hear about this report. Despite itsfar-rea= ching implications, very few people read it. Indeed, few reportersread it. = Or, if they did, very few of them reported that they read it. Atthe time th= e report came out, the media was too busy ferreting out thelatest inform on= the supposed defacing of the White House by Gore loyalistsand later, on Ga= ry Condit, overage Little Leaguers and shark attacks.
"But the First Amendment wasn't intended as a license to make billions. = It's there to guarantee that the people are informed. And when the media fa= il at this job, we all suffer."
The report that Huffington was referring = to was from the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, a Defens= e Department-chartered commission headed by former U.S. Senators Gary Hart = and Warren Rudman. It was put together by then-President Clinton and then-H= ouse Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1998 to make recommendations on preventing ac= ts of domestic terrorism.
The final report the commission produced in January 2001 found that "a d= irect attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the = next quarter century." It also recommended that the current jumble of feder= al agencies that presently deal with terrorism be replaced by one agency --= the National Homeland Security Agency -- whose sole task would be dealing = with domestic terrorism.
The report was ignored by the press. As a newspaper editor with access t= o multiple news sources, I can say I can't remember reading or hearing anyt= hing about it.
The Bush administration also ignored it. According to Jake Tapper, polit= ical reporter for the online magazine Salon, they told Hart and Rudman that= they preferred to do its own study, and in May, they announced that Vice P= resident Dick Cheney would study the problem of domestic terrorism and assi= gn primary responsibility for dealing with it to the Federal Emergency Mana= gement Agency (FEMA).
It's customary for an incoming presidential administration to ignore the= recommendations of reports commissioned by an outgoing administration. But= Congress apparently was taking the Hart-Rudman report seriously, before th= e Bush White House decided to shove it aside andprepare its own response to= the issue.
The commission was granted an additional six months after it released it= s report on Jan. 31 to lobby for its recommendations, and before the Bush a= dministration decided to go its own way, Hart and Rudman had briefed Secret= ary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and D= efense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and urged them to spend more time on deali= ng with terrorism. Not much happened, and the report was seemingly ignored.
"We predicted it," Hart told Salon about the Sept. 11 attacks. "We said = Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers - tha= t's a quote (from the commission's Phase One report) from the fall of 1999.= "
Watching the coverage of the attacks, Hart said he "sat tearing hishair = out." But he and the rest of the commission would rather not wastetime sayi= ng that "we told you so." Instead, Hart said, "Our focus needs tobe: What d= o we do now?"
But as frustrated as Hart and Rudman feel now over the Bush administrati= on's inaction, they are even more frustrated over the lack ofpress coverage= the issue received before Sept. 11.
"The national media didn't pay attention," Hart told Salon, saying that = one member of his commission was told by a senior reporter of awell-known p= ublication that "this isn't important, none of this is evergoing to happen.= "
Not even The New York Times chose to report on the commission's findings until Sept. 12, after the attacks.
"We're in an age where we don't want to deal with serious issues,"Hart s= aid.
Hart is correct. The mainstream American news media haveincreasingly= abandoned serious news coverage of complex issues. International news cove= rage is skimpy, and we have to turn to the BBC and the world press to find = out what's going on beyond America. We heard moreabout Chandra Levy's sex l= ife, Mariah Carey's nervous breakdown, DannyAlmonte's fake birth certificat= e and every shark attack on the EasternSeaboard than we did about Osama bin= Laden.
"Democracy needs facts," the late muckraking journalist George Seldes on= ce said. We haven't gotten them, and we'll probably get even fewerfacts as = the news media picks up its pompoms to lead the cheers for whatcould become= World War III.
This nation is revving up to fight a war that will likely cost ussubstan= tial amounts of our blood and treasure -- a war that could have beenblunte= d had we gotten the information we needed in a timely fashion.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for morethan 20 = years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).