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Media shares blame for Sept. 11

Posted: Monday, October 29, 2001

Why were we caught with our preparedness pants down on Sept. 11?

Some blame the government for ignoring not only the warning signs but also previous terrorist acts and threats to repeat them. While the past two administrations can share some blame, a major culprit is the media. The press fiddled with the likes of Gary Condit and Chandra Levy; with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky; with the political games Republicans and Democrats played over the budget and electoral politics, while America was being prepared for burning by her enemies.

This isn't the first time the news media has deliberately missed a story with religious roots. During the 1925 Scopes trial, the media of that day thought they had buried fundamentalism. In 1979, the so-called "religious right" re-emerged from seven decades of political hibernation and the media scratched its head in astonishment. PBS's Bill Moyers wondered in a 1980 TV special where all of these people had come from. He and others might have known had they been paying attention and looked in the right places.

While the media was lying in bed on Sunday morning reading the New York Times and watching the TV interview programs, much of America was worshipping a higher authority and their ranks were growing. Because most in the media elite don't worship anything higher than their careers, they missed this important and newsworthy movement. They never fully recovered from that lapse and most still are incapable of understanding religious doctrines and accurately defining religious terminology. The desire for better TV ratings lead programmers to present people from the extremes for high-octane religious debates, rather than responsible and knowledgeable guests who could enlighten the public with historical facts and informed perspective.

Now comes another religious movement, with an indictment of secular culture similar to Christian conservatism, but with a far more radical and dangerous proposal for altering it. While the "religious right" sought victory through the ballot box, radical Islam seeks it at the point of a gun. But the press missed this, too, to our common detriment.

Some may wish to excuse the media blindness on the grounds that most journalists do not wish to offend. That is selective absolution. While they may not wish to offend certain racial and sexual minorities, they have regularly offended conservative Christians and many Jews by wrongly attaching labels and motives that insufficiently describe what these groups believe. The media has been able to get away with this because they know such people won't send anthrax to them in the mail or hijack airplanes that crash into their offices.

Few in the media know the basics about Middle Eastern culture, politics and history, or Islam and its myriad teachings. Newspaper editors and television executives should require that reporters take a crash course on these topics, or hire people who already have the information and can present it fairly and accurately. The disinformation campaign about our enemies will succeed in proportion to the ignorance level of our citizens.

A major part of the problem has been journalism's failure in recent years to cover foreign news. When I worked for NBC News in the 1960s and early '70s, one of the more useful endeavors was a year-end national tour by our correspondents, who would come in from Hong Kong, London and Paris and join a team of domestic reporters for enlightening "town meeting" sessions attended by the public. Today, the networks have closed most of their foreign bureaus and rarely cover news from overseas. Advertisers covet 18- to 49-year-old female viewers, who buy their products, so foreign news has been dropped in favor of too many stories apparently chosen for the express purpose of reaching this demographic.

The TV networks, from which most people get their news, will only make the commitment and spend the money to cover foreign news again if there's sufficient demand and if it's profitable. That will depend in large part on whether viewers want such coverage and support it by buying the advertised products.

Given the media track record, I wouldn't bet they will make the commitment now and our ignorance will place us in greater danger.

Cal Thomas writes for Tribune Media Services.



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