by Pat Holt
Friday, September 14, 2001
THE PRESS UNDER SCRUTINY: ACCEPTED VS. CRITICAL COMMENTARY
Despite the spreading sense of powerlessness that has struck many Americans, there IS something we can do in response to Tuesday's catastrophe.
Considering the way journalism now works in America, we can expect something more from the mainstream media than what we got during the O.J. Simpson trial, the South Central L.A. riots, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the death of Princess Diana, the World Trade Center bombing and other huge stories of recent years.
As the Bush Jr. administration asks Congress for $20 billion and a blank check to go to war, instead of allowing the news media to issue reports from Washington without question, we can seek critical commentary and open debate - if not in the mainstream, then somewhere else.
* When government officials announced that the United States has "got to eradicate the very idea of training camps for terrorists," it was nice to be reminded early on, thanks to independent journalist Michael Moore ("Roger and Me") at http://www.alternet.org, that our very own CIA runs terrorism camps throughout the world and was responsible for the training of the prime suspect, Osama Bin Laden, during the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union (he was 22).
This kind of irony seemed lost on the mainstream media in what seemed to be an attempt, as in the Gulf War, to get on the bandwagon and support the President.
Even Christiana Amanpour skimmed over the fact that bin Laden was CIA-trained in her report on CNN. NPR did air a critical commentary about it with the BBC, but the context of the discussion was the superficiality of American journalism and the reasons why facts like these don't get reported.
* News anchors and political "experts" kept saying Tuesday's attacks were the result of "a massive failure of U.S. intelligence." But the point they missed was that we didn't need spies to tell us what bin Laden was planning. He had announced it several times.
In "Did We See It Coming?" Alexander Cockburn at Creators Syndicate (writing for http://www.workingforchange.com ) reveals that only three weeks ago, bin Laden told the editor of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper that he planned "very, very big attacks against American interests."
Cockburn writes, "Here is bin Laden, probably the most notorious Islamic foe of America on the planet, originally trained by the CIA, planner of other successful attacks on US installations such as the embassies in East Africa, carrying a $5 million FBI bounty on his head proclaiming the imminence of another assault, and US intelligence was impotent."
When, finally, ABC showed videos in which Osama bin Laden made similar threats, Ted Koppel and a commentator talked about bin Laden's penchant for "predicting" terrorist attacks, but never asked why the United States government didn't act on this information.
Why didn't they? To Cockburn this kind of "blindness" was typical "of almost all Tuesday's mainstream political commentary." Newscasters and the experts they called in jumped on the Osama bin Laden bandwagon and were "incapable of explaining with any depth" the other possibilities (Palestinian, Iraqi) that should have been explored early on.
* Let's say the government had reason NOT to believe Osama bin Laden's threats. That means journalists were right to believe that the United States was "taken completely by surprise," yes? No, says Ariana Huffington at http://overthrowthegov.com.
Huffington reminds us that seven months ago, the U.S. Commission on National Security, headed by former senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, "released a prophetic report predicting this kind of terrorist assault on U.S. soil."
The report concluded "that the question was not if a terrorist attack on America could happen, but when."
Much of Washington ignored the report, but that's no excuse for the fact that the media missed the significance of its findings, says Huffington. "The sad fact is that the media should have known what the real danger was - and should have told us."
That function - the drudgery of sorting through the many to find the newsworthy few - is the job of the American press, she says. "Forewarned is forearmed. And there is no doubt that we all would have been better prepared if the media had focused 10% of the energy and resources it spent obsessing about Gary Condit on talking about the findings of the National Security Commission."
* Perhaps the worst indictment was leveled at one of the nation's newspapers of record, however, this time by Nina Burleigh at http://www.tompaine.com.
"The morning after the worst terrorist attack in history," she writes, "the nation's great editorial page editors have offered up the wisdom of a group of middle-aged white men whose claim to fame is that they lost the Vietnam war.
"And on a day when every television and newspaper hack around the country was proclaiming 'a new era' in national defense needs, the Washington Post...solicited the wisdom of a pair of Nixon Administration chicken hawks. The New York Times gave readers the advice of its resident ex-Nixon speechwriter.
"It is not impossible to find smart people in this country with new ideas about terrorism and how to go about fighting it. One of them is Jessica Stern of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, formerly with the Clinton Administration National Security Agency. Stern spent the last several years interviewing the men and boys in Pakistan whose most fervent dream is to die the sort of death the hijackers died yesterday. Stern and others like her have taken the time to learn a little Urdu and face the enemy on enemy ground, to find out how he thinks and perhaps learn ways to foil diabolical plans."
The traditional press has opened up somewhat to other points of view since then, but as Burleigh concludes, "for the Post and Times to trot out these failed policy makers on this terrible day-after is evidence of profound reliance on outworn thinking to address dangerous new territory."
* George W. Bush's idea of stopping the "evil" by "hunting down" a defined and located enemy through immediate and aggressive military strikes was seldom if ever challenged in the press.
But Elija Wald at http://wwwtompaine.com is one of many outside the mainstream to react in horror: "If we want a safer world in this situation, we cannot achieve it militarily," he writes. "For decades, the United States has acted as if, as the world's most powerful nation, it could safely explore violent solutions to international issues, while itself remaining inviolate."
Indeed the real experts, the ones who live in the Middle East and, like William O. Beeman, have monitored developments in Afghanistan from nearby countries (in his case Tajikistan), are rarely if ever brought forward in the American press.
Beeman is one of many who cautions us to listen to, and try to understand, Osama bin Laden, before we make him the target of war. Writing for the Pacific News Service (available at http://www.pacificnews.org), Beeman says that bin Laden has been "mischaracterized as an anti-American terrorist. He should rather be thought of as someone who would do anything to protect Islam."
Beeman lays out a brief history in which bin Laden is seen less as the "madman" Bush has labeled him and more as "a true ideologue" who since the Gulf War has considered it his mission to stop the United states from "occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places." Says Beeman: "Bin Laden will not cease his opposition until the United States leaves the region."
How I wish Beeman had been on TV to issue this statement: "Above all, Americans need to remember that the rest of the world has an absolute right to self-determination that is as defensible as our own. A despicable act of terror such as that committed in New York and Washington is a measure of the revulsion that others feel at U.S. actions that seemingly limit those rights. If we perpetuate a cycle of hate and revenge, this conflict will escalate into a war that our great-grandchildren will be fighting."
* We did learn from the press that Bush wants "sweeping powers of war" from Congress because he considers this conflict as a matter of "the good guys against the bad guys." He wants to move quickly so that Americans will not forget their outrage, their hatred and their need for revenge toward Osama bin Laden.
It probably would be unAmerican for the traditional press to invite spiritual leaders to comment on this way of thinking, but why not? Why don't we encourage every point of view possible when we teeter on the brink of World War III?
Tony Miksak, owner of the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, California, is also a commentator for KZYX FM, and this week quoted the Dalai Lama - "though anger brings us more energy, that energy is essentially a blind one. There is no guarantee that the anger and energy will not become destructive to our own interests."
Authors of books on spirituality are at least present in our consciousness to cool hotheadedness and hatred. Author Gary Zukav ("The Dancing Wu Li Masters") challenges accepted thinking in an essay called "Compassion and Revenge," which he sent out to readers and can be found at his website, http://www.zukav.com.
Zukav points out the neglected fact that the terrorists "who committed these acts of violence were in extreme pain themselves," and that in the act of attacking American buildings, "they were fueled by the violent parts of ourselves - the parts that judge without mercy, strike in anger, and rejoice in the suffering of others. They were our proxy representatives. If you can look with compassion upon those who have suffered and those who have committed acts of cruelty alike, then you will see that all are suffering. The remedy for suffering is not to inflict more suffering."
* Watching news coverage of the attacks and aftermath since Tuesday, I keep wondering, what's holding the press back? Why DON'T these editors and producers bring in people who question, criticize, argue, contradict or damn the approved point of view?
Perhaps Huffington is right: American media, she says, is "shying away from issues of vital importance out of fear of scaring viewers away. Better to bury their heads in the sand."
Thank heaven, then, for the press that does get through. In the websites mentioned here - TomPaine.com, WorkingforChange.com, OverthrowTheGov.com, AlterNet.org, PacificNews.org and in others - spirited discussion is offered from all angles, leaving it up to readers to decide for themselves.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
To subscribe, send a blank email to:
To unsubscribe, send a blank email to: