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Home > Publications > Quill > Asleep at the switch



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Friday, December 14, 2001
Asleep at the switch

Journalism’s failure to track Osama bin Laden

Simon Marks

It has become fashionable in the weeks since Sept. 11 (“Nine-Eleven” in the clipped cadences of cable news-speak) to discuss the monstrous failure of U.S. intelligence that led, in part, to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The phrase “asleep at the switch” has become a mantra used to describe the inability of the FBI, the CIA, and the Department of Defense to catch Osama bin Laden before his Al Qaeda organization perpetrated their deadly deeds.

But consider this: On June 23, the Reuters news agency distributed a report headlined “Bin Laden Fighters Plan anti-US attack.” The lead: “Followers of exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden are planning a major attack on U.S. and Israeli interests.”

Two days later, it was United Press International’s turn to spread the alarming news. In a dispatch dated June 25, the agency informed its subscribers that “Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden is planning a terrorist attack against the United States.” The following day, another UPI report (“Bin Laden Forms New Jihadi Group”) described the formalization of ties between bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and the Egyptian branch of Islamic Jihad.

Unless you’re a maven of the Reuters and UPI wire feeds, the chances are that you didn’t see any of those reports. A search of the country’s major newspaper and broadcast network Web sites reveals that barely any considered the stories worthy of publication.

That’s hardly surprising. At the time, the news industry was gorging itself on the disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy, the alleged drinking habits of Presidential daughter Jenna Bush and the latest 100-point drop by the Dow. Let the record show that, in the context of the U.S. media before Sept. 11, news of bin Laden’s plans to launch an attack against American citizens didn’t even make it into “News in Brief.”

When the history of U.S. journalism at the turn of the century is written, it is to be hoped that the summer of 2001 will be noted as the profession’s historic low point. Ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, news coverage of events overseas had dwindled to a point where the world’s leading terrorist mastermind didn’t warrant a mention on the nightly news – even when he was directly threatening American citizens.

For the best part of a decade, the country’s broadcast networks in particular sought to marginalize international news. NBC, CBS and ABC closed costly overseas bureaus, fired staff specializing in global affairs and eagerly embraced a domestically focused news agenda.

They justified their actions by opportunistically blaming the American public for a lack of interest in global affairs. In April 1997, CBS News President Andrew Heyward told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “it’s just a fact of television ratings life that almost without exception it’s very difficult to score a number with international news.” NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley told the same newspaper that “a lot of foreign news after the Cold War seemed to be less vital ... more complicated, less directly linked to many Americans. How do you cover the former Soviet Union and make sense of it?”

Today, of course, the networks’ infatuation with domestic news has come to a screeching halt. Suddenly, “Osama bin Laden” doesn’t seem such a hard name to pronounce, “Al Qaeda” no longer appears to be an alien concept, and the networks have found a way of covering Afghanistan.

And yet, the manner in which many of them have chosen to cover this epoch-changing story reflects the deep crisis provoked by the cutbacks they made in their global resources over the past decade. The first war to be covered by three competing, round-the-clock news networks is being reported by correspondents who – for the most part – are inarticulate in the language of international affairs and global diplomacy.

Consider the output of MSNBC, the 24-hour news channel operated by NBC News. Since Sept. 11, the network’s Ashleigh Banfield has come to define the new style of global crisis coverage. At 33, the former local news anchor from Dallas is the rising star of network news, charged with helping her network reach increasing numbers of younger viewers. Her first act upon arriving in Islamabad was to change her hair color from blonde to brown, then purchase a seemingly endless supply of Pakistani scarves and robes.

She told The New York Times that she’d done this to remain “under the radar” in Pakistan and proceeded to file a large number of reports in which bemused citizens of Islamabad watched Banfield – very much “above the radar” at this point – touring their city with a camera team in tow. “These people are very poor” she informed viewers in hushed tones during one report, gesticulating at a group of Pakistani homeless behind her.

MSNBC has never satisfactorily explained why Banfield dyed her hair to stay “under the radar.” Reporters Amy Kellogg with Fox and Hillary Brown of ABC both appeared to feel perfectly secure keeping their blonde locks and western clothing. Short of uttering the colonial-era phrase “the natives are friendly,” Banfield could not have done much more to patronize both her Pakistani hosts and her audience.

Patronizing the audience is rapidly becoming the ‘modus vivendi’ for America’s broadcast networks. Experienced anchors like CNN’s Judy Woodruff are ordered to “loosen up” by bosses who – just days before Sept. 11 – chose to relaunch CNN Headline News as a network focusing on “lifestyle and entertainment news.” Some of the nation’s finest broadcast writers – Tom Aspell of NBC, Jim Wooten of ABC, Alan Pizzey of CBS – find themselves losing the battle for network airtime as a new breed of young correspondents, recruited directly from the country’s local news outlets, rise to the fore.

Youth is “in.” Experience is “out.” For a generation of war correspondents who learned their craft in Korea, Vietnam, Biafra, Latin America and the Gulf, the Bush administration’s “war on terror” represents one final, fleeting day in the sun. The future belongs to the raw talents who are encouraged – in some cases even instructed – to cover war as if it’s a travelogue.

It is not their fault that they lack the gravitas to report the subtleties of global events. Reporters who spend 24 hours a day living and breathing the Chandra Levy story cannot also stay abreast of the geopolitical circumstances in Central Asia. Besides, even in the face of the most compelling global news story of our time, the U.S. networks have continued to maintain a policy of limiting the information they present to their viewers.

For example, in mounting its war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the Bush administration successfully won permission to station U.S. forces on air bases in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is today ruled by a deeply repressive, neo-Stalinist regime, and yet viewers have been offered virtually no coverage of that nation’s appalling record on human rights and open society reform.

Similarly, the Bush administration’s new, positive relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has been held up to very little critical examination, despite the Russian leader’s questionable commitment to democracy and his vow to introduce a “dictatorship of law” in Russia.

These stories and others have found no time on America’s broadcast and cable networks, despite being compelling matters of global import. After a while, a network that can’t figure out how to “make sense” of the former Soviet Union doesn’t even bother to try.

There have been some notable exceptions. ABC’s David Wright, CNN’s Matthew Chance and Nic Robertson are three correspondents whose work has shone brightly since the conflict began. Each of them has brought erudite maturity to their reporting, calmly and skillfully explaining the events that they’ve witnessed. ABC’s John Miller has continued to win deserved plaudits as the one network correspondent who has consistently and doggedly tracked bin Laden’s footsteps.

Public television has relied heavily on the global resources of Independent Television News (ITN) of London. But in London, too, overseas news coverage is under threat. On Nov. 22, at the very moment battles were raging for control of Jalalabad and Kunduz, Steve Anderson, the head of news for Britain’s independent television network, opined that “the jury is still out on this question [of whether viewers want more foreign news]. I don’t detect a notable clamor in the British audience to find out what’s happening in Sri Lanka.”

At a time when the public is more eager for information about global affairs than it has been since the end of the Cold War, the nation’s broadcast networks have never been less prepared to answer the call.

It cannot be known whether widespread reporting of bin Laden’s June 25 threat against U.S. interests might have prompted alert citizens to question the activities of the 19 hijackers plotting the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It cannot be known whether greater public scrutiny of Al Qaeda might have led to demands within the U.S. government for more intelligence information. It can, however, be stated with certainty that in the months leading up to Sept. 11, U.S. media organizations were simply disinterested in telling their readers, viewers and listeners about the activities of bin Laden and his followers.

Many lessons can be learned from this historic abnegation of journalistic responsibility.

One can only hope that the networks and their corporate owners will now continue to embrace a global news agenda. But don’t be surprised if they seize the earliest possible opportunity to turn away from the world and bring us instead unrelenting coverage of Congressman Gary Condit’s re-election campaign.


Simon Marks is president and chief correspondent of Feature Story News, an independent broadcast news agency. He’s spent much of the past decade covering the former Soviet Union for “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” and various public radio programs, and he hopes he’s made sense of it.

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