One Nation, Unquestionable: The News Media Responds to September 11
By Patrick Wehner
Vol. 23, No. 3-4, 2001 pp. 4-7
Amid the pulse of satellite uplinks, videophones, webcasts, and tickertape displays, the taglines manufactured by the news media in the wake of September 11 have become such permanent fixtures on our television and computer screens that one almost expects to see their images burnt-in even after the power is switched off. The unfolding storylines range from “A Nation Challenged,” the struggle against adversity reported daily by both the print and online editions of The New York Times, to “America Strikes Back,” the big-budget Hollywood revenge fantasy that, in an unprecedented display of cooperation, is being heavily promoted by no fewer than three competing television networks. A recent report on National Public Radio likened these taglines to branded products, suggesting that in a competitive news environment where the available facts are essentially the same, subtle differences in style or image-say, “Attack on America” versus “Terror Hits Home”-can provide an edge in promoting audience loyalty.
The comparison highlights some uncomfortable truths. Much of the official news has been the same, especially when it comes to the military action in Afghanistan. The news editor coordinating the post-September 11 coverage for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bert Roughton, Jr., recently told an audience of journalism students at Emory University that despite the obstacles faced by correspondents filing from the war zone, the “biggest problem we have with information is not there, it’s in Washington.” The enduring lesson that Donald Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs learned from the Gulf War was that while the press corps may grumble, they will continue to cover military briefings that are little more than public relations events largely out of a need to have something to report each day. Comparing the major media outlets to commercial brands also admits the distasteful reality that the news business remains a business even in a time of crisis. While not all differences in coverage are the result of calculated attempts to improve market share, the marketing experts have successfully convinced many news executives that ratings and circulation are all about “selling a relationship.”
The problem with the brand analogy is that the goal of differentiating a media “product” is simply inconsistent with all the obvious repetition. Overworked phrases like “The War on Terror” or “America’s New War” accomplish little in distinguishing one news organization from another when everyone else is using them. So while the idea of branding the news surely captures the spirit of our market-driven society, it must also be said that sometimes a cliché is just a cliché even if it achieves that status in record time.
Despite their apparent emptiness, clichés have consequences. Swaggering taglines like “America Fights Back,” for example, seem to be encouraging viewers to put their feet up, adjust the surround sound, and enjoy the special effects. But it is the more innocuous slogans, the wildly popular “America Unites” among them, that may have the most lasting effects. The sentiment is undeniably heartfelt: stories of people drawing together in the aftermath of the attacks bolster a belief that we as a nation will survive the present crisis and perhaps locate new sources of communal strength. There is also some factual, or at least statistical, justification for this continual refrain. We have all heard the polling figures-overwhelming support for a military response, high approval ratings for a President whose election was bitterly contested a year ago. Grief and confusion create a longing for certainty, community, and institutions deserving of our trust, and journalists, being human, share in those desires. Dan Rather’s post-September 11 appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” provided one dramatic example. The CBS news anchor’s pledge to “line up” wherever President Bush asked horrified many of his fellow journalists because it revealed how close to a vanishing point objectivity was being pushed.
Ironically, in helping to harden collective longings into something-an accepted truth, an article of faith, a reassuring cliché that is no longer open to discussion, the major media have contributed to a climate where journalists are condemned for living up to their professional principles. Unpopular with the public even before September 11, reporters who have asked difficult questions about the reasons behind the attacks or the wisdom of U.S. foreign policy have encountered outrage on an entirely different scale. Roughton, for example, acknowledged intense pressure from Journal-Constitution readers to be unconditionally supportive of the war. Speaking of journalists’ professional mandate to uncover the truth, however embarrassing or inconvenient it may be to those in power, he admitted, “I think right now, the American
public isn’t very sympathetic to our cause.” Nor have the charges of treason and accusations about a lack of moral character been limited to rank-and-file reporters. Talk-show personality Bill Maher, bestselling novelist Barbara Kingsolver, and even media tycoon Ted Turner have been met with a chorus of angry responses for having dared to disrupt the consensus.
Lost in the controversy surrounding Turner’s speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. on October 10, 2001-in which he proposed, with no apparent sense of personal irony, that U.S. leaders could be more “humble” in their dealings with the rest of the world-was the CNN founder’s pointed criticism of both the broadcast and print media. Turner accused news executives of having contributed to American audiences’ lack of knowledge about international affairs by closing many of their overseas bureaus in the 1990s. “Americans are woefully uninformed at the current time about international news in general, and I’ve always said we were doing that at our peril,” the Cox News Service quoted Turner as saying. While the media billionaire has seldom allowed facts to get in the way of his opinions, his observations about the decline of international news parallel the findings of A number of surveys and reports by media research institutes. Citing studies conducted by Harvard, UC-San Diego, and a broad range of professional groups, media critic David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times estimates that newspaper and television coverage of international events has declined by as much as 80 percent since the mid-eighties. News organizations often claim to have cut back on their foreign staff for budgetary reasons, but Shaw argues a far more significant factor in the decline was that after the Soviet Union dissolved, “most news executives decided that Americans weren’t interested in international news.” Scandals, celebrity gossip, and “soft” lifestyle features replaced coverage of overseas events.
Nathan McCall, an author, former Washington Post reporter, and visiting professor of journalism at Emory, sees a historic parallel for recent events in the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, issued in 1968 and more widely known as the “Kerner Report.” Among the Report’s most significant findings, notes McCall, was that “there was a lot of racial hostility beneath the surface in the nation’s African-American communities, and the media was partly to blame for that bubbling up.” The Commission described at least two ways in which the media bore some measure of responsibility for the violence occurring in neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Newark, and other American cities during the 1960s. “One, the media had compounded the frustrations in African-American communities where people’s grievances weren’t being heard. Two, it undermined the consciousness of the rest of the country who didn’t even recognize the problem or the injustices that were occurring.” In a similar fashion, reductions in the amount of resources expended on the gathering and reporting of international news have left many American audiences unaware of the deep resentments that U.S. foreign policies have inspired. “Here we are forty years later,” says McCall, “and it’s just that it’s happening on an international scale.”
As it happens, the media’s response to September 11 demonstrates more than one form of historical amnesia. Part of the irony behind all the present assertions of unity is that for the past three decades, media decision-makers have been conducting business according to a decidedly opposite set of principles. Since the 1970s, the prevailing wisdom among advertising and media executives has been that American society is increasingly fragmented into separate interest groups and lifestyle enclaves. The magazines, cable channels, radio stations, and websites that have thrived have been those able to deliver a detailed portrait of a niche audience to their potential advertisers. Even newspapers, once the medium promoted as offering “something for everyone,” have focused increasingly on upscale suburbanites with “zoned” editions edited for specific neighborhoods and a greater emphasis on local news, lifestyle, and personal finance. Those who work the business side of newspaper publishing readily admit that these kinds of features help attract advertisers with images of affluent readers. Whether the media, in their sudden passion for our shared connections, will reaffirm an obligation to serve all segments of American society by making substantive changes in their coverage remains to be seen. Already, the worst excesses of “America United” resemble the idealized world that journalist Naomi Klein calls “Representation Nation”-the ethnically-balanced visions of harmony that are featured in Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger ads.
Not coincidentally, media institutions that have historically expressed the double consciousness of their audiences-as both American citizens and members of distinct and often oppressed social groups-have proven to be among the most willing to question the limits of unity. The African-American press and ethnic newspapers have focused on local angles to the September 11 events, have covered benefit events and prayer services, and have attempted to alleviate the anxieties of readers for whom English is a second language. But black newspapers like the Atlanta Daily World and the Baltimore Afro-American have also featured a steady procession of columnists reaffirming a commitment to civil liberties, objecting to racial profiling practices, and questioning the wisdom of U.S. foreign policy. In a commentary pub-
lished in the October 11 issue of the Atlanta Daily World, for example, columnist Hazel Trice Edney expressed concern that U.S. government actions often seemed uncaring and arrogant to people in the developing world, citing the U.S. walkout on the U. N. Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa as one of the more recent instances. In the Spanish-language press, syndicated columnist James E. Garcia reminded his readers of the mass deportations of Mexican-American citizens during the Great Depression of the 1930s, calling upon them to speak out against acts of violence and discrimination directed at Arab Americans. These examples demonstrate that while many people may feel the need to draw together in a crisis, they are not willing to overlook the ways in which America has failed to live up to its promises, or to ignore the manner in which “unity” can become exclusionary.
Peace demonstrations, marches, and rallies visibly complicate this theme, and press coverage of groups organizing to oppose the war in Afghanistan has been accordingly sporadic. “In the immediate aftermath of the attacks in D.C. and New York, there was a kind of united front and a real frenzy that we saw in the media,” says Lance Newman, a member of the steering committee for the Georgia Coalition for Peace, an Atlanta-based activist group composed largely of veterans of the street protests against institutions like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. When the media have reported on the activities organized by local peace groups, the tone of the coverage has been “fairly patronizing and sarcastic,” Newman observes. The eagerness with which many news executives have aligned their organizations with the cause of unity has made it difficult for peace groups to have their messages heard. “I think there’s a lot of people out there who oppose the war but don’t feel confident enough to put themselves on the line right now because they see what’s going on,” says Newman. “They see the crackdown on civil liberties, they see the way dissent is treated in the media, and they expect that’s how they are liable to be treated.”
When dealing with groups who oppose the war, the media seem to have little awareness of past mistakes. In late September, for example, more than a dozen black churches in the Cascade Heights area of southwest Atlanta organized a march for peace. Although other vigils and demonstrations had been held in downtown Atlanta parks and at the King Center, the march down Cascade Road was noteworthy for the number of participants (eight hundred, by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s estimate), for the range of ages that was represented, and for the fact that the marchers identified themselves by faith rather than membership in an anti-war group. “We gather to pray
and speak a word of peace” read the statement issued by the march organizers, “first to the hearts and minds of those most directly affected by these horrific and haunting events, but also to the nations of the world, who have begun to position themselves for international conflict.”
All three of Atlanta’s leading television stations reported on the march, but only one emphasized the congregants’ clear message that one might pray for the country while still opposing retaliatory violence. Of the other two, one focused almost exclusively on the presence of famous leaders like the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Georgia Governor Roy Barnes. (While the presence of these leaders was a significant show of support for the marchers, the fact that this station only highlighted Jackson and Barnes ignored the important message of the march.) The final station’s 45-second piece featured a white man as the subject of its single on-screen interview, the reporter apparently having concluded that the real story of the march was the presence of people who admitted membership in a socialist group. Such racism and red-baiting seemed straight out of an era of Civil Defense drills and automotive tailfins, and the reporter went on to emphasize the “controversial” nature of the march. Overlooked was the more compelling reality that many of the marchers were acting on their own definitions of citizenship and solidarity, offering them as an alternative to President Bush’s “either you’re with us or against us” rhetoric.
Journalists and their critics alike agree that a few positive signs have appeared in the past weeks that seem to indicate that news organizations are beginning to focus on missed opportunities. But if there is a growing recognition of where news organizations might have failed their audiences in the past, many of the ongoing problems have yet to be addressed. When the events of September 11 have become more distant history, predicts Professor McCall, “someone will have a big media convention somewhere and the big mucketymucks will talk about what we could have done better with what I call progressive hindsight. Journalists-we’re all very good at being progressive in retrospect. The problem is, it’s always hard to get changes made in midstream, when they would make the most impact.”
Patrick Wehner is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life at Emory University and served as a special contributing editor for this issue of Southern Changes.