The Media and 9/11: How We Did

After the attacks, journalists were swept up in the national feelings of fear and outrage -- and failed to do their job

media -9-11- tony the misfit-body.jpg

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.

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.

9-11 Ten Years LaterWhat 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.).

When reports began to emerge that suspects were being tortured, the Bush Administration came up with the euphemism "enhanced interrogation techniques."

We supinely went along. For decades prior to 9/11, the four largest American newspapers called waterboarding torture, according to a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. Then, in 2004, in the aftermath of revelations that the Bush Administration was engaged in waterboarding of terrorist suspects, the four newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture.

When suspected terrorist suspects were taken to Guantanamo, they were by any common understanding prisoners. But the government called them "detainees," and so did we, which sounds far less pernicious.

A book could be written about the lives that have been ruined by allegations from intelligence officials that a man was a "suspected" terrorist. We routinely reported on these arrests without flinching. One of the first cases of extraordinary rendition was that of Muhammad Saad Iqbal, a Pakistani who was picked up in Jakarta in December of 2001. He was secretly shipped off by the CIA to Egypt, where he was tortured. Indonesia said he was sent to Egypt because he had an Egyptian passport and was wanted for visa violations, which a major American and an Australian newspaper reported prominently in stories that gave credence to the allegations that he was a terrorist sent to Indonesia to hatch other plots. In fact, he had never even been to Egypt, nor Afghanistan. He was completely innocent, without any "links" of any nature to Al Qaeda; indeed, after being held by Americans for seven years, he was released without a single charge being filed against him. No one will be held accountable for the damage to his life -- not public officials, not journalists.

In Britain, perhaps the most glaring example of journalists' being too willing to accept what law enforcement officials said in terrorism cases was the arrest of the pilot Lotfi Raissi a few weeks after 9/11. The FBI and British authorities alleged that Raissi had trained some of the 9/11 pilots. The evidence seemed compelling -- pages missing from his flight log -- and few journalists expressed skepticism (here, I must ashamedly plead guilty). As we subsequently learned, the pages were "missing" due to the negligence of Scotland Yard, and Raissi was completely exonerated.

A brief explanation for what happened to the press after 9/11 can be found in a book by a New York Times correspondent. In Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice, Eric Lichtblau tells how, in 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft said in testimony to a congressional committee that a mosque in Brooklyn was sending money to Al Qaeda. Lichtblau wrote a story that ran on the front page, even though the Times reporter in Brooklyn cautioned against accepting Ashcroft's allegation. The Brooklyn reporter was right. The story was wrong, as Lichtblau acknowledges in his book.

"We in the media were no doubt swept up in that same national mood of fear and outrage," Lichtblau writes.

His honorable candor should invite, if not shame, his colleagues to do some of their own professional soul-searching.