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Pressing Issues

Big Media Can’t Hold Itself Accountable

A case study of past 9/11 news coverage reveals a press corp stuck in its ways, bound to casting leaders as heroes despite their faults and drawing false equivalencies that fail the public.

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Political punditry is the most consequence-free job in this country. Even by the laughable lack of standards to which most are held, America’s elite opinion columnists and editors are free to be wrong all the time with no fear their laptops will ever be taken away.

There’s no easier way to prove this (or give yourself a blinding migraine) than to read (or re-read) mainstream commentary in the aftermath of 9/11. Last week’s history-blurred commemorations highlighting “national unity” and how America “came together” belied the absolutely bonkers tone most journalists took in the days after the attacks.

Whether they gave themselves over to street-preaching fire and brimstone or intoned that the World As We Knew It Was Over, the people who’d appointed themselves the arbiters of national events were sure that once and for all things would be different.

Andie Tucher, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review in November 2001, described a future in which journalists set aside trivial concerns like political sex scandals and sensational criminal cases:

Now other sets of historical parallels kick in and other visions of the future of journalism arise: the unsparing photojournalism of the 1930s that brought home the silent aches of the Depression; the humane and courageous coverage of the war in the ’40s and of the civil rights movement that came after it; the feisty investigative reporting of the late ’60s and early ’70s that dared to question authority. The “Greatest Generation” that fought World War II was great because it had to be — because it faced a greater crisis than any its parents had or its children would. And if the United States is entering yet another era of pain and challenge, a small compensation might be that journalism too has a history of rising to the occasion.

This was a new world, our thought leaders proclaimed, no longer subject to the rules of the old. Journalism, obsessed with trivial matters like missing white girls and deadly shark attacks, would rededicate itself to serious international reporting and cease covering the government like a horse race or fashion show.

“It’s the end of the age of irony, said Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter. Time magazine’s Roger Rosenblatt wrote something similar, saying that events would chasten those who treated current affairs as an endless soap opera: “The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything. The consequence of thinking that nothing is real—apart from prancing around in an air of vain stupidity—is that one will not know the difference between a joke and a menace. No more.”

No hyperbole was too great, no sweeping generalization too broad. No rhetoric soared so high its wax-wings melted. Time magazine gave over an entire section to let then-columnist Lance Morrow make what he called “the case for rage and retribution:”

“The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush— is clearly ready for war,” wrote Andrew Sullivan, five days after the attacks. “The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead -and may well mount a fifth column.” The Washington Post’s Michael Kelly described all critics of American imperial power as “objectively pro-terrorist.”

Jonathan Alter, then editor of Newsweek, declared “Time to think about torture,” gleefully describing ways in which suspected 9/11 hijackers could be subjected to war crimes and calling anyone who objected to that a pussy.

Couldn’t we at least subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap? (The military has done that in Panama and elsewhere.) How about truth serum, administered with a mandatory IV? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings? (As the frustrated FBI has been threatening.) Some people still argue that we needn’t rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they’re hopelessly “Sept. 10″—living in a country that no longer exists.

As the fires in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington died out and the U.S. moved to war in Afghanistan and later, in Iraq, journalists lost none of their delusions of grandeur but much of their gravitas.

Tim Russert, the late host of Meet the Press whose work is often cited as the kind of Sober Political Reporting we now sorely lack, wrote in the Washington Post:

I don’t think the English language has yet found the words to describe the pain and anguish we felt that day. And yet we learned much about each other. The bravery of the first responders who went up the stairs of burning buildings. The heroic selfless souls on United flight #93. The patience of tens of thousands of drivers who left the devastated areas in an orderly way. I have not honked my car horn since September 11 as a gesture of respect to all of them.

Now that’s serious.

Journalists thought of themselves as Edward R. Murrow on the rooftops of London, bringing news of the Blitz to the darkened world. But for that story to be true, they needed FDR and Churchill and Eisenhower. Not finding them, commentators instead cast George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the late Donald Rumsfeld as the heroes the narrative needed.

These cruel, incompetent, small men and the Republican government they controlled became lions among lesser creatures. No matter how they blundered or lied, they were still the kind of steely-eyed leaders American sorely needed in our moment of crisis.

Better that than the pundits be wrong.

Political commentary got absolutely ridiculous. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, then host of Hardball, positively fawned when Bush landed on an aircraft carrier in a fighter jet and declared the end of the Iraq War. One of Matthews’ guests, convicted Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, took things a step farther and admired how Bush’s flight suit outlined his penis, saying “he’s just won the vote of every woman in America” with his “manly characteristic.” Ew.

The New York Times’s Tom Friedman, a national brand even then, said out loud on national television that the point of attacking Iraq was to tell the “Islamic extremists” to “suck on this.”

Anyone who writes or speaks on current affairs for long enough will eventually be wrong about something, of course, but the direct line from these failures of journalism to those of today is in the lack of consequences faced by anyone who was so glaringly, obviously, loudly wrong.

If you built houses for a living and they all fell apart and blew up or caught fire, your company’s name would be worthless. Many of the journalists who dove into the foam of post-9/11 hysteria are still directing coverage three presidents later.

Jonathan Alter is on a book tour for a biography of Jimmy Carter, a man whose shoes Alter isn’t fit to polish. He’s a regular on the “ideas festival” circuit, lamenting coarseness in modern politics as if his own bloody fantasies following the attacks hadn’t been borne out in the photographs from Abu Ghraib.

Chris Matthews, amscrayed from Hardball over sexual misconduct, also has a new book out, about America and “character.” Tom Friedman is still writing about prospective American wars in the Times, salivating over the possibility of attacking China. He even taped a segment for Stephen Colbert’s show looking back at his “suck on this” comment and chuckling about it.

Lance Morrow, author of the rage manifesto quoted before, has refined his anger and is now directing it at all manner of “progressive elites” and those who use non-binary pronouns, while also making time to lament the “stupidity” of Biden’s withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal is either unaware of his past work, or more likely, approves of it.

This is the establishment that drove frantic coverage of Hillary Clinton’s non-scandalous emails, that drew constant false equivalency between Donald Trump’s catastrophic, racist policies and whatever mild thing obscure Democratic lawmakers did. This is the press corps that continues to attack Democratic “overreach” intended to keep Americans alive in a global pandemic, while ignoring the Republican descent into actual fascism and bloody authoritarian conspiracies.

Is it any wonder nothing seems to change, year after year, in the pages of America’s newspapers and on its political talk shows? When xenophobia, sexism, religious and racial bigotry, and the stupidity that’s far more common than all of these other sins put together persist despite the shrinking audience for these solipsistic rage-takes? If you never change the players, you can’t expect a new production.

That lack of accountability doesn’t just promote those who got it wrong. It disappears those who got it right. Many, many writers stood against the temptation to gloss over bigotry, and questioned the justifications for rage. It’s important to recall that there were protests against the war in Afghanistan as early as September 13, 2001 when the wreckage was still burning.

Everyone was not taken in. Everyone was not resigned to war. Everyone did not fall victim to hazy dreams of glory, to notions of “our” war, to desperation for courage so great it would make heroes out of smoke.  Some called out hate crimes for what they were, and noted that the tide of hypernationalism intended to raise spirits was instead galvanizing racial animus in places far from the sites of the actual 9/11 attacks. Some opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, opposed every bombing and escalation, and advocated tirelessly for troops to return home. Their words deserve at least as much remembrance, as much veneration, as those who wanted the rest of the world to “suck on this.”

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