Yesterday morning, an historic townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side exploded in a spectacular fireball. It turned out that the cause was natural gas -- the doctor who owned in the building was apparently trying to kill himself. But that's not what many New Yorkers thought at first. They were convinced it was terrorism.
Naturally, the first thing that Larry King thought of was 9/11.
After all, he watches CNN.
So do we. And while we couldn't agree more with John Dean, that the climate of overhyped fear-mongering begins at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but there's also more to the equation than just the actions of the Bush administration. Anyone who watches TV news or reads a newspaper -- and who's seen street thugs elevated into global terrorists, or Internet chatter become an "intricate plot" -- knows what we're taking about.
And here's the thing, no matter what we do or say, the current crew in the White House will be whipping up these "terror threats", to paper over mistakes or to justify new military adventures, between now and January 2009. We can't stop them from throwing it out there.
But the media and its role as a super-enabler -- that's a different story. In theory, a news outlet would act as a filter, determining what terrorism stories are important and which ones carry the strong whiff of baloney. Instead, since Sept. 11, 2001, the media has become a giant amplifier, not a filter. When the subject is "the war on terror," no development is too small for wall-to-wall "breaking news" coverage, or a front-page scoop.
But news outlets have another. more important role: To be responsible. Terror fears have warped the American political debate, from clearing the way for an unjust war in Iraq to papering over White House scandals. That type of influence is something that goes well beyond ratings. CNN would also get lots more viewers if Carol Costello or Anderson Cooper read the news in the buff, but that wouldn't be very appropriate. Scaring the American public needlessly, we'd argue, is a much greater sin.
In fact, although they seem not to realize it, but TV execs and top editors have the power to cancel the version of "The Fear Factor" that's broadcast out of Washington, with a few easy moves. Here's how:
1. You set the agenda, and not the White House. You wouldn't tell your plumber how to fix your toilet. So why do the world's best newsmen let politicians tell them how to cover the news? -- it's baffling. (See No.5 - G)
When the government announces "a major terror arrest," it's impossible not to rush in at first with guns blazing, and that's fine. But an hour or so into it, take a deep breath, and do your own analysis. When the government says that drifters with no weapons or plans were going to blow up the Sears Tower, does it pass the smell test? If it doesn't, it's just as easy to run away from a story -- or at least downgrade it to its rightful tiny hole at the top of the hour -- as to rush into it headlong.
2. Define your own terms. Again, news directors are the ones who need to decide whether the terror struggle is truly "a war," or something else, or whether online chatter in an Arab country about New York's tunnels is really "a plot."
There's good precedent for this. Over time, many editors have agreed that in the abortion debate, the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are politically loaded bombs, and not the language of news or accuracy. And so many papers shun these terms. It was easy when citizen groups were involved, so why can't the government get the same treatment.
3. Talk to each other. Shocking, we know. But these are desperate times for America, and desperate times require some desperate measures. Imagine if the news chiefs of CNN and MSNBC and Fox -- OK, Fox is probably out -- had a hotline for sharing their initial impression of terror stories. Imagine if the CNN guy said, "I kinda of think this Miami story is baloney, myself," and if MSNBC agreed.
At the least, we'd love to see this: An emergency summit on covering terrorism. Gather in a big meeting hall, call in the C-SPAN cameras, and work toward some notion of when terror is real, and when it is manufactured. Critics would scream "collusion," but would it really be collusion or would it be serving democracy, journalism's highest calling?
4. Prioritize the issues of the 21st Century. Yes, terrorism is a significant story. But where does it rank against global warming, dwindling fossil fuel supplies, the rise of China and India, or the disappearance of the middle class here in America? You -- and not Karl Rove -- need to make these decisions.
The media is indeed the most powerful tool of our time. But right now, it's being manipulated by outside forces. Jazzman Gil Scott-Heron said famously, "The Revolution Will Not be Televised."
But maybe the real American revolutiion will not be televising.
Pretty good post. Go read the rest.
To which I would add:
5. Tell your corporate bosses and everyone else that you will decide what news to cover, and how it will be covered, not them.
In other words, blow Bush on your own time and leave the newsroom out of it.
Journalists have the experience and know-how to gather, filter, and disseminate the news, if they can remember why they're supposed to. Now that they're all fat 'n sassy, it would help if they could rekindle the fires in their bellies from their younger, leaner, hungrier days.
Wouldn't hurt if they could grow their sacks back, either. Note to newsmen: Think Dana Priest, Christiane Amanpour, Molly Ivins, etc.