Former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, Michael Massing, contributes an important two-part analysis of press performance post-9/11 in the New York Review of Books. Although written in 2005, the second of his essays, “Enemy within,” reviews familiar constraints on the press due to to declining economic resources. The less visible internal constraint involves journalism’s own conventions and norms, including that of “balance.” When carried too far, the idea of “false balance” leads to equating two unequal sides of an issue. The classic case was the smoking issue, which led news articles to give equal voice to the tobacco industry denying claims of cancer-causing products. More recently, the charge has been made that media accounts are led to consider the false equivalence of Donald Trump on the extreme side of the Republican party and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. The documentary “Merchants of Doubt” examines how various powerful interests have exploited this journalistic norm to advance their message. Former editor at the Washington Post, R.B. Brenner, helps us understand the press from an insider’s perspective.
The question I’ve posed regarding 9/11: “What did we do about it?” leads to in our next stage: “What were leaders planning to do all along, for which 9/11 provided a means to already determined ends.” Joan Didion is one of the most celebrated American authors, with a lengthy biography of her life appearing recently. She is identified with “new” or “literary journalism, which proposes, as Tom Wolfe has said, that it is “possible to write journalism that would … read like a novel.” Her analysis of Dick Cheney, published in the New York
Review of Books (10/5/2006) draws on what, even just five years post-9/11, was a rapidly growing accumulation of book-length analyses of presidential decision-making in the context of national security. If critics have accused Obama of conducting an imperial presidency, former vice-president Cheney has been a strong advocate for a powerful chief executive. In examining Cheney himself, one of the most important shapers of the post-9/11 security response, Didion tries to understand the motivations for the decisions made to go to war. To what extent were they driven by idealism and American values, and to what extent by the quest for political power, calibrated to conform to business interests (exemplified in Cheney’s previous experience as CEO of Halliburton). Intelligence was used not to find answers but to confirm pre-existing decisions and goals (“cherry picking” intelligence findings to support a case for war). His “one-percent doctrine” argued that if there was even a small chance of a threat is must be treated as a certainty, a perspective that short-circuits traditional analysis and debate in favor of suspicion, leaving government leaders wide latitude of action. Most concerning, in Didion’s analysis, is the decline in political accountability and transparency.
Understanding 9/11 means understanding the controversy surrounding the conspiracy-based 9/11 “truther” movement, a manifestation of something deeply embedded in what historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” of American politics. The classic film, Dr. Strangelove, depicts an unhinged officer, convinced that the communists are a threat to our precious “bodily fluids.” The truther mentality is easily parodied, as in this Onion excerpt, which reveals the principle of Occam’s Razor, that the simplest explanation of an event is the most logically plausible. In a more serious vein, the film Loose Change, a home-made documentary, struck a chord in the American public by promoting some of these conspiracy theories, a significant portion of the public believe. The more extreme conspiracy ideas can be refuted and easily dismissed, but the social anxiety that gives rise to them and the serious political impulse they manifest must be taken seriously. Are there forces beyond our view that shape world events? Yes. Does the government have a tendency to lie and manipulate the facts? The post-9/11 experience shows that it does and, historically, always has. Dismissing the 9/11 truther movement as crackpots, although tempting and justified in one sense, fails to reflect these more serious issues–including the media role in failing to address larger structural issues while giving credibility to more conventional conspiracy advocates, whether regarding Pres. Obama “birthers” or climate change skeptics.
To speak to these issues, Prof. Robert Chesney from the UT Law School will join us. His major policy blogsite Lawfare is a go-to site for experts working in the area of national security and international law. He will address topics such as the ones touched on in David Cole’s essay in the New York Review of Books, in the post below, and in the recent book by Charles Savage, “Power Wars,” on the Obama administration’s approach to coping with international terrorism. In some ways, this makes a good bookend volume to the “Bush at War” book read at the beginning of the semester. Come prepared with questions.
Beyond the various narratives concerning the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, what questions arose from a legal perspective? In an analysis of a pre-hunt legal research process within the White House, the New York Times reports that much thought went in ahead of time to establishing the legal rationale for getting and, if necessary killing, bin Laden. The questions debated included:
- Was it acceptable to enter Pakistani territory to carry out the raid? (Yes, they concluded, under an exception to international law)
- Did the president need congressional approval? (No, it had already granted authorization against 9/11 perpetrators)
- What if bin Laden tried to surrender? (How would they conclude he was and what if others were nearby who weren’t?)
- Was it permissible to bury bin Laden at sea? (Yes, reconciling the Geneva Convention rules with Islamic law).
Beyond the media, political and military perspectives regarding the hunt for bin Laden was significant legal apparatus preparing the framework for presidential action.
The recent New York Times magazine carries a long piece that makes a stunning claim, “It’s not that the truth about bin Laden’s death is unknowable; it’s that we don’t know it” (p. 58). In spite of the massive amount of reporting and information disseminated about the hunt for bin Laden, how can that be? As the author Jonathan Mahler observes, “Reporters dont just find facts; they look for narratives. And an appealing narrative can exert a powerful gravitational pull” (p. 45). When Hollywood joins in, the picture is reinforced even further, distracting the public from deeper truths available upon deeper analysis.
The new movie about Dan Rather’s reporting on Pres. Bush’s National Guard record for CBS demonstrates some important “truths” about journalism. Even though a story’s basic message may be true, it can get lost and have its truth undermined by the details. Those details are ever more checkable in an internet-based news eco-system, of which these events around 2004 were among the first to illustrate.