The Media and September 11

by Lee Edwards
Wednesday, January 30, 2002

The proper functions of the mass media in a crisis, according to media scholar Doris Graber, are to disseminate vital information to citizens and public officials; interpret events, placing them in context; and provide support for affected communities. In a major crisis, like the terrorist attacks of September 11, the media should abandon their adversarial role and join with public officials to restore public order, safety, and confidence.

Most observers would agree that the American media performed admirably on September 11 and the days following. Their stories were, for the most part, balanced, poignant, and politically neutral. Since September 11, wrote veteran journalist Fred Barnes, the press has been more in sync with the American people, "than at any time in decades."

Emblematic of the media’s newfound patriotism was CBS’s Dan Rather, who appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and broke into tears at the mention of the firefighters at the World Trade Center. Geraldo Rivera, a liberal media icon, quit his nightly show on CNBC and signed with Fox News to cover the war in Afghanistan, explaining, "How can you be a dove when someone has committed mass murder in your neighborhood, killed friends of yours?" Walter Isaacson, the new CNN head, sent a memo to correspondents instructing them to remind viewers of the terrorist attacks that prompted America to go to war.

Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the attacks, clearly understood the critical role of the media in wartime. Dressed in battle fatigues, he frequently sent recorded messages to Al Jazeera Television, based in Qatar, which then beamed his messages around the world. In response, President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, phoned the heads of the five TV networks and suggested they be careful when running future video releases of bin Laden. A child of the information age, Rice knows that, in today’s world, battles are fought on the airwaves as well as on the ground.

In the weeks and months following September 11, some in the media reverted to their former confrontational and cynical selves. Soon after the bombing of Afghanistan started, reporters began referring to a possible Afghan "quagmire," calling up unhappy memories of the Vietnam War. When the Taliban quickly and unexpectedly surrendered most of the country, these reporters stopped referring to a quagmire but pressed for more information about U.S. military movements.

Their demands reflected the ago-old conflict between the military and the media in wartime, with the military emphasizing national security and the safety of those engaged in battle, and the media insisting that the public has a right to know almost everything about everything.

Which makes the need for moral responsibility among the media all the greater.

— Lee Edwards