by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
September 19, 2001
THE PRESS HAS FAILED US
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- A couple of days after the horror in New York and Washington, I got an e-mail from Carl Jensen, founder of the press analysis project called Project Censored.
He called my attention to a column written by Arianna Huffington that, in Carl's words, was "exactly what Project Censored has been saying for 25 years now." Huffington was writing about the failure of the press to adequately inform us about many important issues - including one issue that became very important after 9 a.m. EDT on Sept. 11, 2001.
"The phrase 'massive failure of intelligence' became one of this week's numbing cliches," Huffington wrote. "But no one is talking about another, equally serious, intelligence failure. It is the failure of the media to properly estimate the intelligence of the American people by catering to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of ratings, and of course, money.
"As shocking as the four-pronged attack was, it shouldn't have beenso surprising. Only seven months ago, a congressionally mandated commission released a prophetic report predicting this kind of terrorist assault on U.S. soil, concluding that the question was not if a terrorist attack could happen but when.
"Don't feel bad if you didn't hear about this report. Despite its far-reaching implications, very few people read it. Indeed, few reporters read it.
Or, if they did, very few of them reported that they read it. At the time the report came out, the media was too busy ferreting out the latest inform on the supposed defacing of the White House by Gore loyalists and later, on Gary 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 fail 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 Defense Department-chartered commission headed by former U.S. Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. It was put together by then-President Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1998 to make recommendations on preventing acts of domestic terrorism.
The final report the commission produced in January 2001 found that "a direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century." It also recommended that the current jumble of federal 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 to multiple news sources, I can say I can't remember reading or hearing anything about it.
The Bush administration also ignored it. According to Jake Tapper, political reporter for the online magazine Salon, they told Hart and Rudman that they preferred to do their own study, and in May, they announced that Vice President Dick Cheney would study the problem of domestic terrorism and assign primary responsibility for dealing with it to the Federal Emergency Management 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 the 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 its report on Jan. 31 to lobby for its recommendations, and before the Bush administration decided to go its own way, Hart and Rudman had briefed Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and urged them to spend more time on dealing 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 - that'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 his hair out." But he and the rest of the commission would rather not waste time saying that "we told you so." Instead, Hart said, "Our focus needs to be: What do we do now?"
But as frustrated as Hart and Rudman feel now over the Bush administration's inaction, they are even more frustrated over the lack of press 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 a well-known publication that "this isn't important, none of this is ever going 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 said. Hart is correct. The mainstream American news media have increasingly abandoned serious news coverage of complex issues. International news coverage 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 more about Chandra Levy's sex life, Mariah Carey's nervous breakdown, Danny Almonte's fake birth certificate and every shark attack on the Eastern Seaboard than we did about Osama bin Laden.
"Democracy needs facts," the late muckraking journalist George Seldes once said. We haven't gotten them, and we'll probably get even fewer facts as the news media picks up its pompoms to lead the cheers for what could become World War III.
This nation is revving up to fight a war that will likely cost us substantial amounts of our blood and treasure - a war that could have been blunted 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).