It was the perfect storm. A massive, Pearl Harbor-style surprise attack from abroad; a spreading, bioterrorism plague at home; a country caught in the numbing grip of fear; an endless war against a vague enemy; and an administration determined to recast the news to its own liking. In a whirlwind of government-mandated secrecy, censorship and press intimidation, many of journalism’s most hardwon principals and tools are being lost. At the same time, precious civil liberties are being trashed and Orwellian internal surveillance measures are being instituted, all in the name of security. Where are the hardhitting investigative journalists now that they are most needed?
More than any other conflict in history, this is a war for—and against—information. “This is the most information-intensive war you can imagine,” one military officer involved in the planning told The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz. “We’re going to lie about things.”
Leading the charge from his secret bunker is Vice President Dick Cheney, a man who dislikes the press “big time.” A decade earlier, as secretary of defense, he took aim at journalists who failed to follow in lock step behind the administration’s Panama and Persian Gulf War policies. Time magazine’s photographer, Wesley Bocxe, was even blindfolded and detained for 30 hours by U.S. National Guard troops for disobeying Cheney’s press coverage restrictions.
Cheney’s harsh rules led to protests from numerous news organizations. In a letter to the defense chief, senior executives from Time and CNN argued that the restrictions gave Pentagon personnel “virtual total control…over the American press.” They bitterly complained that Cheney’s policies “blocked, impeded or diminished” the “flow of information to the public” during the Gulf War. In an earlier letter, Time’s managing editor charged that the restrictions were “unacceptable” and marked “the formal re-imposition of censorship for the first time since Korea in an actual wartime situation.” Newsday’s Patrick J. Sloyan, whose reporting during the Gulf War won him a Pulitzer Prize, said the restrictions reflected Cheney’s “utter contempt” for the First Amendment and “deep hostility” toward the press.
Another old face is that of Secretary of State Colin Powell. A decade ago, while chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, he was one of the principal architects of military censorship. The Bush administration’s information war resembles a battle for territory. First disarm the enemy by taking away or degrading its weapons, such as the Freedom of Information Act, publicly available information, and dissenting views. Then, once the opposition has been neutralized, capture the hearts and minds of the target audiences with an artillery barrage of one-sided propaganda. Finally, impose dictatorial powers. Here are the measures thus far:
To silence the opposition, the administration called on television networks to refuse to air live and unedited videotaped messages issued by Osama bin Laden. While offering not a shred of evidence, officials claimed that the videos might contain secret coded messages. No doubt to the administration’s pleasure, the weak-kneed networks voluntarily took the request one step further and declined to air virtually any video of bin Laden. Then it turned out that the administration, along with Britain, offered media outlets a number of bin Laden tapes and encouraged them to air them since these tapes help boost their case against him. Apparently worries about “secret codes” gave way to the value of propaganda, thus demonstrating that the original claim was merely a sham.
Even the government’s own Voice of America—a supposed shining example of press freedom to the rest of the world—was ordered by the State Department to spike an interview with Taliban head Mullah Mohammed Omar out of fear of what he might say. This provoked a stinging response by the VOA’s news director, Andre DeNesnera. “The State Department’s decision is a totally unacceptable assault on our editorial independence, a frontal attack on our credibility,” he told his staff. “This certainly was a dark, dark day for those of us who have—for years—fought to uphold journalistic ethics, balance, accuracy and fairness.”
Next, the administration tried to censor Al-Jazeera, the highly reputable and independent Arabic television network based in Qatar. Secretary of State Powell told the emir of Qatar that he was concerned about the “inflammatory rhetoric” used by the broadcaster, even as the United States was dropping monstrous fuel-air bombs on mule-riding Taliban forces. On November 13, U.S. aircraft dropped 500-pound bombs on the network’s empty Kabul offices, destroying them. Although a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida denied that the attack was deliberate, Al-Jazeera’s managing editor, Mohammed Jassim al-Ali, had a different view. “They know where we are located, and they know what we have in our office, and we also did not get any warning,” he said.
The Bush administration’s extraordinary attempts to muzzle the voices of opponents led Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation, to warn in a New York Times op-ed column, “Openness should not be a casualty of war.” A former editor and publisher of The Detroit News, Giles added, “Over generations of actual and ideological combat, the press has enabled American citizens to be familiar with the images and messages of our enemies. Why is Osama bin Laden so different that television news can be pressured into blacking him out?”
In a little-noticed action, Attorney General John Ashcroft sent out word to federal agencies encouraging them to resist responding to Freedom of Information Act requests whenever they can find any legal ground to do so. This reversed a 1993 memorandum by Attorney General Janet Reno that promoted disclosure.
In a brazen effort to bury the ghosts of the past, particularly those of a number of his senior advisors who worked in the Reagan administration as well as his father’s vice presidency, Bush drafted an executive order to keep old presidential records secret for eternity. Historians say the unprecedented order would usher in a new era in secrecy and would turn the 1978 Presidential Records Act on its head by allowing such documents to be kept hidden “in perpetuity.”
Chillingly, the White House warned Americans to think twice about criticizing the government. “People have to watch what they say and watch what they do,” said press secretary Ari Fleischer.
Finally, the administration successfully blinded the media to events in Afghanistan by purchasing exclusive rights to commercial satellite imagery of the area—an unprecedented action—costing $1.91 million a month.
As if all the new press restrictions imposed by government fiat were not enough, many news organizations in a misguided view of patriotism began self-censorship. Among the worse examples was CNN’s shameful decision to order anchors, each time they mention Afghan civilians killed by U.S. bombs, to also mention the people killed in the September 11 attack. There was no corresponding requirement, however, to mention the innocent civilians killed by U.S. bombers every time the attack on the World Trade Center is mentioned.
Every day, as a new policy—limiting press freedom or trampling on civil liberties—is announced or leaked, the United States seems to be moving closer and closer to George Orwell’s Oceania, his dreary, imaginary country locked in a perpetual state war. Although the enemy would change periodically, either Eurasia or Eastasia, the war was eternal. This was because its true purpose was not the capture of territory but the control of dissent by keeping people in a constant state of fear and hatred. Such is the vague, undefined “war on terrorism,” a battle unbound by time or space. As Bush announced in September, the enemy is some shadowy “evil” that lurks in more than 60 countries around the world, and its elimination may take years.
In Oceania, the war contaminates every aspect of society, excusing pervasive surveillance, censorship and authoritarianism—Big Brother—all in the name of protecting the homeland. “Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it,” wrote Orwell. “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment…. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.” Of course, Orwell wrote his book long before the development of night-vision glasses.
Not since the dark days of Richard Nixon has there been such potential for good, penetrating, investigative reporting. Secret arrests and detentions of Middle Eastern men are taking place, and the press is prohibited from tracking what happens. Military tribunals are proposed for suspected terrorists, depriving defendants of American legal protections. An Office of Homeland Security is created beyond the reach of congressional oversight and thus more difficult for watchdog journalists to monitor. Surveillance powers of domestic intelligence have been expanded, and now the FBI will be gathering intelligence by dubious means and without court orders, along with investigating crimes.
The question is, is the media up to these investigative tasks? Judging from past performance, the answer is not likely. In fact, the self-indulgent television networks have been much more of a problem than a solution during the anthrax coverage. Terrorism consists of two components—an act of violence and the generation of great fear in a large segment of the public. Although some deranged terrorist was responsible for the initial act of sending a few deadly anthrax letters, it was the networks that generated enormous, disproportionate fear throughout the country—which is exactly what the terrorist was counting on. Yes, it was a big story, but it was not Armageddon. In a country of nearly 300 million, five people died and several others suffered debilitating effects. Yet as a result of each network tripping over itself to outshock the other—endless dire reports on how millions would die not just from anthrax but smallpox, hemologic fever, and nearly every other disease known to man—large segments of the public became understandably paranoid. There are nearly 50,000 deaths from colon cancer each year, yet how many minutes of airtime and breaking new coverage does that subject get?
Also during that same period it was discovered that the Food and Drug Administration was investigating the deaths of 53 patients who used defective dialysis filters manufactured by Baxter International, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of medical supplies. Nowhere on television was that ever reported even though more than 10 times as many were killed as by anthrax, and a brief story on the topic might have saved some lives. It just wasn’t as “sexy” or competitive as anthrax.
Veteran television and radio journalist Daniel Shorr said the nonstop coverage was a serious problem. “The networks have settled into a new familiar routine of treating every anthrax scare—most of them hoaxes—as a major news event, with live reports from correspondents, law enforcement, and public health officials,” he said. “Thus, a small investment in a powdery substance can bring a big reward in media attention for antisocial elements who get their kicks that way.”
Robert J. Samuelson, writing in The Washington Post in early November, agreed. “Our new obsession with terrorism will make us its unwitting accomplices,” he said. “We will become (and have already partly become) merchants of fear. Case in point: the anthrax fright. Until now, anthrax has been a trivial threat to public health and safety: four people have died of the 17 known to have been infected. So far, it’s the functional equivalent of a mad gunman on the loose or a biological Unabomber. By contrast, there were 42,000 deaths from car accidents and 17,000 from homicides in 1998…. The coverage has so far been all out of proportion to the actual threat.”
Another reason that much of the media is not up to probing what is probably the most important story in a generation is that they spent the last decade in an endless search of the trivial. With a few exceptions—The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS “60 Minutes,” and ABC “Nightline”—the closest most reporters and television producers came to investigative journalism was taking a handout from a staffer on the hill. “Before September 11,” wrote Samuelson, “the press was caught in a prolonged process of self-trivialization. We seemed to live in an era dominated by the personal, the small, and the titillating. The summer’s big stories were Gary Condit and shark attacks. Before that, there was Monica Lewinsky. Great national issues with heavy moral, political or social significance were disappearing, consigned to back pages or ignored altogether. Among media stars, many were enthusiastically self-absorbed, gleefully shrill, and blissfully uninformed on matters of substance. Attitude was king or queen.”
Prior to the September 11 attacks, for example, the network evening newscasts had devoted a grand total of 58 minutes this year to bin Laden—with ABC in last place. Yet in the four months from May to September, the same newscasts carried two hours and 59 minutes on the Chandra Levy story—with NBC way out in front. Said Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, “The Chandra/Condit story showed us how low TV news can sink.”
Another problem is the growing xenophobia within the television news business. According to the Tyndall Report [a TV news monitor], foreign bureaus provided only a third as many minutes of coverage for the evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC in 2000 (1,382) than they did in 1989 (4,032), which was a high point. At the same time, foreign news bureaus are closing down at an alarming rate. ABC went from seventeen 15 years ago to seven in 2001. Chris Cramer, the president of CNN International Networks, recently wrote that many networks have given up international coverage for higher ratings, with “most of CNN’s competitors focusing on U.S. news only.” Those networks, he said, had “committed the worse crime in journalism” in “the failure to make the important interesting.”
“Freedom itself is under attack,” said Bush. Unfortunately, it is his administration that is leading the charge. As the U.S. government returns to the days of Nixonian secrecy and unprecedented attacks on civil liberties, it is the job of the press to climb over, or dig under, the titanium walls and return with the truth. The question is, after a fat and lazy decade of triviality, do they still have what it takes?
James Bamford, author of “Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency,” (Doubleday, 2001), is the former Washington investigative producer for ABC’s “World News Tonight.” He is working on a book dealing with the events of September 11 and will be a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s graduate school of public policy in 2002.