Sept. 11: What did the Media Learn?

by Rick Rockwell

Five years gone from the defining American event of the new millennium and it seems we haven’t learned as much as you might think from that terrible day, Sept. 11, 2001.

Here’s one lesson: even cataclysms of the scale of the 9/11 attacks do not make inordinate across-the-board changes in institutions and people. Certainly, the country has changed since that time and our freedoms are even more fragile and circumscribed than when the planes crashed.

But just look at the media and you’ll see that institution has changed very little with the exception that a new generation of television anchors is now onboard for American viewers to watch.

Ask yourself, why is the Afghan War referred to as “the forgotten war” when it has the most direct links to the 9/11 attacks? Why did the U.S. media for the most part (The New York Times is one of the exceptions) withdraw from Afghanistan, only to return during the past few weeks as the 9/11 anniversary approached? Could it be most of the media unquestionably followed the lead of the Bush Administration to focus on Iraq instead of the incomplete conflict in Afghanistan? Members of the leading media institutions are defensive about how they let the Bush Administration set their agenda right up until the Hurricane Katrina disaster last year when the president and his team starting losing credibility. But face it, if you wanted coverage of Afghanistan in the past few years, you’d do better to turn on the top Arab-language satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera than to depend on the media in the U.S.

Some of this is related to safety. Afghanistan is not a safe place for journalists to work. One Afghan journalist has been killed there this year in a suicide bombing attack. Of course, Iraq is much worse: the Committee to Protect Journalists notes 17 journalists have been killed there since the beginning of the year, not to mention the journalists kidnapped or injured. (See the full report here.) This of course has made many members of the U.S. news media retreat to the safety of the Green Zone in Baghdad. They are targets too, just like the U.S. military.

But in both places, Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public is not getting the full story from the U.S. news media. Besides safety, the main reason is money. The U.S. networks and many newspapers don’t want to pay for the continued presence and personnel it would take to adequately staff the story. If these wars are the defining moments of this generation, we certainly aren’t covering them like the U.S. media covered World War II, Vietnam or other major conflicts of the past.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press studied the attitudes of Americans after 9/11 and found we did not change our media consumption patterns after that event. (See that report here.) Television and telephones were the main media tools people used to get information during 9/11/2001, and they remain the key media devices in people’s lives. Americans did not begin demanding more international news coverage after 9/11. (The Pew report showed only 14 percent of Americans had an interest in international news before 9/11, and by 2002 that had only increased to 21 percent. Hardly a massive change.) Certainly, U.S. media responded by giving a bit more coverage, but we are back in the usual patterns where gossip, entertainment, and fluff predominate.

Could it be Americans don’t have the stomach for the tough news we must face in the post-9/11 world, and so the media respond by giving us more of the same? The answers are there in the television ratings, the circulation numbers and the polls, for all to see.


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