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A Media Day In Infamy

by Geof Parrish Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2001 at 9:35 PM

A comment on the media hype and inaccuracies coming from the media.

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.

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