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From AJR,   April/May 2007  issue

Bungling the WMD Story   

No Questions Asked:
News Coverage Since 9/11
By Lisa Finnegan
Praeger
189 pages; $49.95


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Here's an idea: Turn a psychologist loose on journalists.

Lisa Finnegan is a former newspaper and magazine writer who earned a psychology degree and now studies "the psychology of terrorism and its impact on the media." Here, she analyzes why the U.S. press became so meek after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Many others have documented the press' letdown in fulfilling its adversarial role after 9/11. Seeing the problem is easy. Explaining it is harder (see Books, August/September). So Finnegan's rather studious approach, drawing on individual and group psychology, holds promise for not only understanding the failures but pointing toward reforms.

Obviously, whatever went wrong has potentially staggering costs: the top terrorist still on the loose, a war spun out of control and a civil liberties crisis at home. Finnegan criticizes Congress and the public itself, among others, but she firmly casts central blame onto the media.

Why did journalists, who at least in their own imaginations form a fearless and independent Fourth Estate of relentless truth seekers, buckle so easily? How did an administration that couldn't seem to accomplish much else tame these watchdogs into marginalized yappers?

Finnegan's most provocative proposition is that press docility stemmed from a calculation of self-interest. "American journalists determined that in the highly charged environment that followed the 9/11 attacks, believing the administration's claims and keeping their questions in check best served their interests," she says. "To do otherwise could have led to ostracism by the administration and the general public, and possible harm to their careers."

Their motives? Profit and prizes, Finnegan says. In the run-up to the war, for instance, she charges that the media "highlighted alarmist viewpoints, minimized alternative perspectives, convinced the American public that the need to go to war in Iraq was urgent, and then gathered their Pulitzers and justified their work."

Unfortunately, Finnegan doesn't back this with evidence. She does show examples of media failure, and quotes journalists who felt intimidated. But she makes no substantial case that their submissiveness was intentional, and none that it was driven by a Pulitzer quest.

If her look at material motives rings false, however, her psychological analysis seems more convincing. It starts with the simple power of patriotism. After 9/11, she writes, "journalists were shaken..they were focused on the fact that the United States was vulnerable, and deemed everything else unimportant." So they didn't probe the breakdowns that let the attacks take place, scrutinize the administration's response or effectively resist its moves to control information and divert attention. Some even wore lapel flag pins.

The press hardly squeaked when the government tried to turn the debate into what President Bush called "a black-and-white choice with no grays." Or when his spokesman Ari Fleischer warned, "All Americans..need to watch what they say." Or when Attorney General John Ashcroft complained, about those who questioned the Patriot Act, "Your tactics only aid terrorists."

Finnegan also believes many reporters were personally "traumatized." She quotes a New York photographer as saying that "the most jarring thing was seeing myself and my colleagues just fall apart on the job."

Intimidated and fearful, some journalists turned to government for safety and reassurance. Finnegan says this may have been especially true among the more than 600 journalists embedded with troops. That led, she says, to becoming overprotective of authorities and slow to chase bombing errors, torture and policy failures.

More darkly, she suggests a U.S. policy of "targeting journalists," especially those who tried to operate outside the official embedding system. After several international journalists were killed by U.S. forces, a Pentagon spokesperson warned against independent reporting. "We are saying it is not a safe place; you should not be there." (See "Close to the Action," May 2003.)

Overall, Finnegan believes, the press lapsed obediently into innocuous "groupthink." "During times of uncertainty," she contends, "reporters tend to be more subservient than objective."

This part of Finnegan's analysis rings truer: a press at first respectful in the face of tragedy, then unduly passive under the pounding of hardball politics and propaganda.

If this is human nature, as Finnegan suggests, then is there a cure? At least, she says, you can "minimize your vulnerability to such manipulation." Her suggestions boil down to detachment and determination: Ask hard questions, pursue documentation, seek comments outside the party line and follow up on loose ends and claims. It seems like pretty good psychology: Just use your head.