Many people believe that one of the first causalities in times of national crisis is freedom of the press as the government takes measures to deal with the emergency. Since September 11th, analysts have been studying the role of the U-S media and how well they have served the public.
Following the terrorist attacks, most of the media attention focused on the human tragedies in New York, Washington and a countryside in Pennsylvania. The media were filled with pictures and stories of sorrow and heroism.
But did American radio and television stations, as well as newspapers and magazines, keep the public informed of how September 11th truly affected their lives? And did the news media adequately question and report on Bush administration’s statements and policies?
Jim Naureckas is the editor of EXTRA, the magazine of the national media watchdog group, FAIR.
He says, "In terms of covering the human impact of September 11th, I would give them a high grade. In terms of covering the policy consequences, I think that the grade would have to be pretty low on certain issues, like the passage of the Patriot Act, which really had a profound impact on what kind of civil liberties we have in this country."
Congress passed the Patriot Act in late 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks. It increases funding to support government anti-terrorism efforts. It also allows authorities to broaden surveillance and intercept communications believed to relate to terrorism.
Supporters say it will “unite and strengthen America by providing appropriate tools to intercept and obstruct terrorism.” Critics say it opens the door to too much government snooping in private lives and threatens civil liberties.
Mr. Naureckas says, "One of the things I think the media haven’t done enough of is stepping back and saying, in a big picture sort of way, have the steps that the government has taken since September 11th really made the public safer?"
Alan Davis, head of operations at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, says U-S media have not fulfilled their mission.
Mr. Davis says, "What I think the American media have failed to do is to address some of the wider issues and to actually focus on the key three things, which I think are the media’s mission. And that’s mainly to educate, to inform and to hold to account."
He says for various reasons, the media have not been able to provide full coverage of U-S military operations in Afghanistan.
"Obviously there’s a problem of lack of security internally in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda, warlords and what have you with bandits. But obviously a key problem has been the lack of access created by the Pentagon," he says.
Mr. Davis says there appears to be too much dependence by the media on Pentagon news briefings and not enough on going out into the field. He says news bureau chiefs often may be too busy worrying about the next scheduled newscast.
However, Warren Watson, vice-president of extended learning and marketing at the American Press Institute, believes the media have challenged the Bush administration.
He says, "I think the media have done a good job. And I read the Washington Post on a regular basis, the New York Times and I see the network news and CNN and I think we’ve done a good job to keep that story in the administration’s face. It’s difficult when you don’t control the information. And I think that we’re moving in a direction where the general public feels comfortable with information being withheld. But I don’t see a problem there yet."
Alicia Shepard, co-author of the book “Running Toward Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 911,” says journalists are not able to travel the battlefields looking for stories.
She says, "Journalists are somewhat hamstrung when a covering a war because they are no longer, like in Vietnam, allowed to roam around freely. So it does put them in a position where they have to rely on the Pentagon. I think that given the same kind of freedom that journalists had during the Vietnam War we’d probably be getting better reporting."
Despite that, she says, eventually the full story will be told.
"Somehow in the long run information gets out," she says. "It just seems to me that there is usually some responsible citizen or member of the military who makes sure that journalists know. And those people who are the watchdogs, who come to journalists, are rarely punished."
Warren Watson says other problems facing news organizations are budget cutbacks and the resulting layoffs or lack of hiring. He says the budgetary bottom line has a major impact on the ability of the media to cover stories.
He says, "You know, if you’re talking about television, you’re talking about the biggest companies owning all the television outlets. In newspapers you’re talking about an increasing smaller amount of companies who are controlling most newspapers. And so the profit margin – the profit motive I should say – is more important than ever for everyone. And I think that’s at times regrettable. And there’s no sign that that’s going to change."
Alan Davis, of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, agrees that economics and network time constraints are affecting in-depth coverage.
Mr. Davis says, "I think there’s a big, big decline in investigations. You know we all know why. Investigations are very, very expensive to mount. They’re very time consuming. And at the end of the day you might actually find a good story. And so that’s a big, big problem. In these days of the rolling news basically the pressure is on to find the golden nugget in three minutes."
The Bush Administration has made it clear that it views Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a threat to U-S security – and is weighing plans for invading Iraq. Mr. Davis says the U-S media should be following this story very closely and considering the various scenarios.
He says, "If the American or coalition forces go into Iraq, what might happen? What might happen to Saudi Arabia? What might happen to the West Bank? What might happen to Jordan? What might happen sadly even to Egypt? Basically, all these issues should be raised and aired. And there should be a lot more reporting from the Middle East and the (Persian) Gulf on actually what this may entail."
Jim Naureckas of FAIR says the American media should provide an open forum on the issue.
He says, "Well, I think there is too much of an assumption that the United States is going to war. That’s a question we really haven’t had a debate about yet."
Recently, the Pew Research Center released a poll on what Americans think of the media. It says public criticism of the media, which lessened immediately after the 911 attacks, is once again strong. Only 49-percent think news organizations are highly professional, down from 73 percent in November. Pew says the rating is even lower now than before September 11th.
Also, 49 percent consider the U-S media patriotic. But that’s some 20 points lower than in November. Some 35 percent say the media are too critical of the country.
Alicia Shepard says as she researched the book “Running Toward Danger” the dedication of journalists became clear.
"The journalists in New York – photojournalists, producers, print reporters – the first tower fell, they ran with everybody else. And then they went back. I think that that kind of commitment to informing the public is remarkable and should be told," she says.
The Pew Center says despite the public criticism, most of those polled say news organizations should continue their role as watchdogs. Nearly 60 percent say “press criticism keeps political leaders from doing things that should not be done.”