Five years After 9/11, Media Finds its Backbone
As an near-endless stream of coverage today honors the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the media-related question is obvious: What did it do to mainstream news media outlets?
I've always felt media's reaction to 9/11 was the same as the rest of the country's response. In dealing with the direct emergency, we saw heroic effort; but fear, anger, nationalism and ignorance of our enemies led us to serious missteps in the weeks, month and years afterward.
Indeed, I would suggest mainstream media has only truly found its voice as a watchdog and check on government power in the last couple of years -- as it has become increasingly obvious to the population that the war in Iraq has brought great cost with limited benefit, and media outlets grow more incensed at the way the administration has tried to manipulate them.
I spoke with Keith Olbermann last week, and we talked a bit about the start of the Iraq war in 2003. I suggested that his cable channel, MSNBC, was far more nationalistic and patriotic than it is these days (when I went to interview Joe Scarborough at the channel's New Jersey headquarters that year, there was a huge American flag draped across the lobby ceiling). "I think many of us in the media gave him (Bush) the benefit of the doubt back then," Olberman told me. "But people want a government which can protect them. And they saw (in Katrina's aftermath) that this government couldn't protect them from standing water."
I think the same could be said about the mainstream media and 9/11. In the aftermath of that attack, we had a shellshocked media establishment -- largely centered in New York City -- which was ready to support a World War II-style galvanizing of national will. And when Bush used that opportunity instead to pursue the political and fiscal goals that benefitted a more narrow segment of the population, journalists slowly began to react.
Now, even an attempt to throw blame on the Clinton administration for the U.S.'s underestimation of Osama Bin Laden in an ABC movie has been picked apart, as various officials denounce different scenes and every major news outlet picks up the story (a few tidbits: clinton's national security advisor did not halt an operation to apprehend Bin Laden in afghanistan, CIA director George Tenet -- who also served Bush -- did. And Madeline Albright did not inform the Pakistanis of an air strike aimed at Bin Laden -- the U.S. military told Pakistan when the missiles were aloft so they would not think they were launched from India and attack them mistakenly. And ABC's whole four-hour snoozefest may have been produced by a company with ties to evangelical conservative activists focused on transforming Hollywood. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the miniseries....?)
The Proejct for Excellence in Journalism has found, not so surprisingly, that post-9/11 network evening news coverage has upped the stories about foriegn policy, armed conflict and terrorism (up 102%, 69% and 135%, respectively), while stories on domestic affairs dipped by close to 50 percent. Giving credit for this change to 9/11, however, when we've been at war in Iraq for more than two years, seems overreaching a bit.
Stranger still, some of the original stars of 9/11 coverage five years ago have met some questionable ends.
Ashleigh Banfield -- Considered a star-in-the-making for her gutsy coverage of the attack, reporting live while covered in dust and debris from the towers' collapse, Banfield became the punchline to an awful TV joke a year later -- crisscrossing the country in a bus and earning press clippings like a wall street journal story which called her "windswept and inept." And as her star was descending, she criticized her own cable channel's war coverage in a speech at a Kansas City college. Her contract was not renewed and she now works at CourtTV.
Aaron Brown -- Brown had barely been hired as top anchor at CNN when the planes slammed into the World Trade Center. Heading to the roof of CNN's New York studios, he anchored a day of coverage which earned him considerable plaudits and cemented him as the face of the network. But lukewarn ratings for his 10 p.m. newscast and his inability to show up on days off to anchor coverage of the Challenger shuttle disaster and Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement announcement foreshadowed his fate. Losing his gig to whippersnapper Anderson Cooper, he's now a professor at Arizona State University.
Howell Raines -- Hailed as a leader who would raise the metabolism of the New York Times upon taking over as executive editor in September 2001, he immediately faced the task of getting the best newspaper in the land geared up to cover the worst terrorist strike on American soil -- which just happened to be in their backyard. Thanks to their efforts, the paper won a record seven Pulitzer prizes and Raines earned a National Press Foundation editor of the year award. But staffers felt his push for attention-getting stories threatened their journalistic credibility, and when serial fabricator Jayson Blair was unmasked, Raines lost his position in the upheaval.
Geraldo Rivera -- Sent Afghanistan to cover the response of military forces to the 9/11 attacks, Rivera wound up reporting on a friendly fire incident that happened many miles from where he said it did. His syndicated show Geraldo at Large, is rumored to be in danger of cancellation by Fox TV's syndication unit.
Enough to make you avoid covering the next big terrorist conflict, for sure...
Cockroach Freaks out Sarasota Weatherman
I'm not sure which is more surprising: that the multi-million-dollar complex the Herald Tribune Media Group built in Sarasota already has a pest problem, or that somebody who lives in Florida would let a palmetto bug break their concentration.
So what happens when a lizard skitters on camera?