Geov Parrish, AlterNet
September 11, 2001
Historically, when national and local media respond to a breaking
emergency, speculation and hyperbole take over. On Tuesday morning we
witnessed, again, how powerful media images can electrify a world
instantly; and, how we in the media sometimes use our power
For hours in the morning, Tom Brokaw and NBC were reporting that the
Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- along with Hamas, one
of the two groups responsible for many of the suicide bombings in Israel -
- had claimed responsibility for the attack. That unsubstantiated claim
turned out to be based upon one anonymous phone call to Abu Dhabi
television, but it lasted for hours, until a DFLP spokesman could call
and explicitly disavow it.
That was just the tip of it. Speculation was rampant, on absolutely no
evidence, that someone Islamic -- usually Osama bin Laden -- was
responsible, but that speculation often broadly invoked "Islam" as
responsible -- using every adherant of one of the world's largest
religions, with a couple of billion believers, as shorthand for
"terrorist." Pat Robertson was on the 700 Club within an hour, blaming
Islam itself, and later, on Fox, talking about Satan and Arabs. It was
reminiscent of what turned out to be grossly inaccurate reports, in the
first few hours after the Oklahoma City bombing, that "Arabs" were behind
it. If I were Arab-American, I'd be scared.
As it became clear that the immediate attacks were over, the talking
heads moved in. Across the country, media localized the story by
reporting on our communal fear. It not only recited the local closings
(done either out of prudence or panic), but, also, as the hours and
repetition wore on, trotted in "experts" who offered speculation as
truth. The cacophony itself added to our communal fear.
Mercifully, no New York official was foolhardy enough to immediately
speculate on casualties. Had anyone put out a number, particularly a
fantastic number, it would have been stripped of caveats and instantly
bandied about as a received truth, adding to the public's sense of panic.
Both national and local media also deserve credit for avoiding excessive
speculation on the numbers of casualties.
But while speculation on who was responsible ran wild, without exception,
not one talking head I saw or heard wanted to touch on the why, except
for occasional references to madmen. But it was, and is, worse than that.
The attackers were not insane; they were engaging in a cold-blooded,
premeditated mass murder of another country's civilians to achieve
political ends. Some of the networks' talking heads -- former secretaries
of state Henry Kissinger and Al Haig come to mind -- had, in the past,
overseen the same things.
Haig, interviewed by CNN's Judy Woodruff, decried that those who might
"quibble," based on "a misguided sense of social justice," with a U.S.
response that takes innocent lives abroad or denies constitutional rights
at home. Woodruff did not question this remarkable assertion.
Our collective, emotional public response is to want vengeance. Who would
feel differently? It's hard to say why this happened, but there has been
so much bloodshed around the world that the U.S. has been associated with
-- often with much higher death tolls than this attack but with fewer
cameras present -- that it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that the
same feelings we have this week -- of fear, vulnerability, rage -- are
the feelings that motivated this cowardly attack in the first place. That
was territory no media reports dared venture into.