After the attacks, journalists were swept up in the national feelings of fear and outrage -- and failed to do their job
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, journalists are spewing forth endless retrospectives -- asking people to recall "where were you when," interviewing anguished families of victims, and probing whether politicians have been successful in their "war on terror." It is unlikely, however, that journalists will look at themselves and their profession and ask, "How did we do post 9/11?" They should.
"Osama bin Laden wasn't Einstein, not even Lenin or Che Guevara. He was Charles Manson."
The role -- many would say, failure -- of the media in the run-up to the Iraq war has been widely debated. But two questions more immediately related to 9/11 have been less loudly argued: Did we exaggerate the threat of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, thus contributing to the collective paranoia, intrusive security measures at airports, and multi-billion dollar security industry that survives on fear? And did we fail to monitor the erosion of civil liberties?
During the Cold War, a communist-under-every-bed hysteria was fueled by demagogic politicians, aided and abetted by journalists who didn't want to risk being branded anti-American, or who perhaps shared the view. I remember a reporter in Egypt once telling me that she knew how to see her stories get on the front-page: put a reference to "communism" in the first three graphs. After 9/11, Al Qaeda terrorists were ubiquitous, and "linked to Al Qaeda" became a journalistic mantra, still in wide use today.
When I was in Southeast Asia from 2002 until 2006, stories about the Philippine organization Abu Sayyaf routinely asserted that it was "linked to Al Qaeda." Yes, at one time in the early 1990s, Osama bin Laden may have given money to the organization, but after 9/11 it degenerated into a lawless gang of bandits that kidnapped and murdered for money, without any ideological commitment.
What does "linked to Al Qaeda" mean, anyway? That the "linked" group's leaders pledge allegiance to Osama bin Laden? That some members trained at Al Qaeda camps, or that the terrorists share a hatred of the United States and Jews?
Osama bin Laden wasn't Einstein, not even Lenin or Che Guevara. He was Charles Manson. Al Qaeda never posed an existential threat to the United States, failed to establish control in a single country, let alone establish a caliphate from Morocco to Indonesia. What he did on 9/11 was a crime, a crime writ large, not the opening salvo in a war, and we should have treated him as a long-bearded psychopath cowering in a cave.
Instead, like the politicians, journalists were consumed with the fear that there might be a terrorist attack they hadn't anticipated, and that there were Al Qaeda sleeper cells crawling around Europe. Newspapers deployed their resources accordingly.
They were far less concerned about civil liberties. Editors long ignored isolated reports that the United States was holding suspected terrorists in secret prisons. "We wouldn't publish it even if we knew," a senior editor at a major American newspaper said when it was suggested that his paper devote its impressive investigative talent to exposing the secret prisons.
That outlook, formed by 9/11, was shared throughout the industry. It took four years before the "secret prisons" were exposed, by Dana Priest at the Washington Post (though her editors, at the request of the White House, withheld some of what she had found, including the countries that were cooperating with the U.S.).