Misunderestimating the Public

Press gatekeepers may fret about information, but the average Joe is swimming in it.


If you've spent any time perusing the news lately, you might get the impression that the American media are now All War, All the Time. Don't be fooled. Here inside the Beltway, the media continue to scrutinize every possible facet of a topic that even terrorism cannot shake from their minds: the media. Journalists are complaining that outside forces, be they corporate cutbacks or stingy press secretaries, are keeping them from doing their jobs. But if that's so, why is it easier than ever to get information?

Media navel-gazing is hardly new. With so many journalists scurrying about the nation's capital, they naturally get together on occasion to consider how important they are. Before September 11, the typical "media forum" went something like this: A few top-level media types would dream up a topic, set out scones and coffee, network for a few minutes, then launch into an hour of introspection about "the role of the media" in this new era of—take your pick—technology/multiculturalism/ globalism/corporate conglomeration/etc. The scones and coffee are still around, but the tone and frequency of these self-examinations have changed dramatically since the terror attacks.

American University convened a typical pre-terror media forum on September 4: "Bush II and the Media: 'Misunderestimating' Each Other?" The title was an irreverent evocation of one of the president's better-known manglings. Panel members included Richard Berke, national political correspondent for The New York Times, David Gregory, White House correspondent for NBC News, and Judy Woodruff, senior correspondent and anchor of CNN's Inside Politics. In the course of the discussion, panelists traded groans over the 2000 election crisis, the new administration's reluctance to share information with reporters, and the public's nagging affection for unseemly stories in the emerging Monica/Chandra tradition.

Fast forward to a November 12 event at the National Press Club. "American Newspapers: Headlines, Bottom Lines and Covering the War" was that night's installment of the Kalb Report Series, a string of forums named for Marvin Kalb. Talk about gravitas: Kalb has over 30 years in the business, serving as a chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC, and as moderator of Meet the Press. Now he runs the Washington office of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy. Joining Kalb on the panel were such equally serious journalists as Tom Curley, president and publisher of USA Today, Robert Rosenthal, former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, two journalism professors, and a media analyst. There was no misunderestimating this crew.

Rosenthal's presence was especially telling. He became something of a martyr for serious journalists when he quit his high-profile Philadelphia job in early November over a dispute with owner Knight-Ridder. Corporate was concerned about dwindling ad revenue and readership, so they told Rosenthal to cut back on staff. He quit instead. Disputes over the "corporate" drive for profit have long been a thorn in the Fourth Estate's side. The new age of terror has added a bit of urgency to the ranting, however.

Why? It all has to do with "seriousness." Journalists aren't covering O.J. and Monica anymore: There's a war on. Even Geraldo has traded in his pundit credentials for a shot at the front lines. The panelists carped about media outlets that were supposedly caught "asleep at the wheel," having recently cut back on expensive foreign bureaus. Kalb and company readily admitted that the press responded rapidly by pumping vast sums of money and personnel into covering the war. They also said that so far, the coverage has been good. What they wondered was whether the profit-minded bosses would continue to foot the bill. Rosenthal's experience served as a cautionary tale. When Kalb asked his old pal "Rosie" if the influx of funding would continue, he replied that it was "too soon to tell."

I poured some gas on the fire during the Q&A period when I mentioned the palpable change in tone at these forums since September 11. I asked if the panelists thought the focus would eventually shift back to snarky examinations of Bush's creative magniloquence. Tom Wolzien, a senior media analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., LLC, looked me squarely in the eye, intoned the memory of the thousands of Americans killed in the attacks, and said, "Let's never forget it." Kalb agreed, arguing that in this new age of terrorism, "there is no place" for newsroom hacks who refer to the commander-in-chief as "W."

These weighty discussions have not been limited to the National Press Club. In a move that fuses the nation's top academic institution with its most highly regarded think tank, Harvard's Shorenstein Center and the Brookings Institution have launched a weekly series in the wake of September 11: "The Role of the Press in the Anti-Terror Campaign." "We don't usually carry these things through week after week," Brookings Senior Fellow Stephen Hess said while introducing the series on October 31, noting the special attention currently being lavished on such matters.

The first forum, called "Lessons of Wars Past," featured megastars Ted Koppel, Peter Arnett, and Daniel Schorr. (Schorr got his start as a foreign correspondent in 1946; he's now at National Public Radio and still working.) It was full of musings about the proper way to cover a war and the government's stubborn refusal to hand out information.

Schorr reminisced that in World War II—unlike today—front-line correspondents wore standard military uniforms. "They were a part of something called the war effort," he said. "They would go and ask, 'Would it be harmful if I reported this?'…That got lost somewhere." Schorr argued that such close cooperation between the military and the press began to deteriorate in Korea and Vietnam as the government tried to more closely "manage" what journalists reported. He said that press relations with the military have "been going very rapidly downhill" ever since.

For his part, Koppel railed at the current administration's attempts to strong-arm broadcasters into keeping Osama bin Laden's video releases off the air, because they might contain secret messages. "I thought at the time, what a totally stupid argument," he said, noting quite sensibly that people who really wanted to see it could find the footage online.

The best exchange of the series probably came at the November 8 forum, when someone asked Army Col. Bill Darley if the military would ever allow reporters to "embed" with Army Rangers on special operations missions. "The short answer, under current circumstances, no," Darley said. After discussing it momentarily, his long answer turned out to be even more emphatic: "At the present time, embedding is out of the question. That's the bottom line."

In some ways, discussions like these are essential. The media must provide people with the information they need to assess the war effort, its aims, and its progress. In other ways, however, the debate is pointless.

While it is appropriate to praise the courage and determination of a frontline press corps operating under very tough conditions, it is far too early to offer more than cursory judgment of the coverage. Weekly panels notwithstanding, this really is first-draft history, and we may have reason tomorrow to revise our view of the stories that we are reading and watching today. We simply have no idea of the full context of the war, much less the stories that reporters may be missing or possibly misunderstanding.

Anyway, the real media story isn't potential cutbacks in coverage; it's the vastly greater opportunities to follow this war than have ever existed. Americans can turn to traditional local and national coverage, both in print and online. But they can also call up digital coverage by a staggering number of sources near and far, including accounts by the British press, the Pakistani press, and even Al Jazeera.

A major complaint at media forums both before and after the attacks has been that the public "forced" journalists to cover such unseemly issues as the Condit affair. CNN's Aaron Brown recently had something useful to say about that. Shortly after the attacks, Brown reported an update in O.J. Simpson's road rage trial. He paused after the report, then looked into the camera. "Oh, for the days," he said, when O.J.'s problems seemed important.