TV news relies mainly on officials to discuss policy
The crisis of September 11 touched on issues from Middle Eastern politics to skyscraper architecture, Islamic theology to the threat of unconventional weapons. It was a story, in other words, that most ordinary Americans could not easily interpret without help. FAIR has conducted a study to find out which experts the three major television news outlets–NBC, ABC and CBS–sought out to help explain these and other issues in the days following the September 11 attacks.
A total of 189 expert guests were invited by the networks to appear in on-camera interview segments during the period from September 12 to September 17. (People-on-the-street interviews and discussions with eyewitnesses, which made up a significant portion of the guests in the early days of the crisis, were not counted.) FAIR divided these 189 guests into several categories, by far the largest of which was public officials. Current and former federal, local and military officials together accounted for 50 percent of all interview guests. If foreign and international officials are added, the figure rises to 55 percent.
In a disaster situation, public officials often play a helpful role, appearing on television to urge calm and inform the public about relief efforts and safety precautions. But when the discussion turns to interpreting events and offering advice about what should be done, these officials present a very narrow range of opinions. The officials, current and former, who spoke about policy issues were well-known members of the foreign-policy establishment–people like Richard Holbrooke, Brent Scowcroft, Joseph Biden, and Lawrence Eagleburger. Their comments were quite similar on the whole.
“What I do want to underscore,” Holbrooke said on ABC (9/12/01), “is the key sentence in President Bush’s speech last night that the United States will make no difference between those who perpetrated this act and those who condoned it or sheltered the people.” The same day, Scowcroft told ABC that “these are suicidal people. They’re fanatics. We have to go to the people who are giving them aid, shelter and so on, and say, ‘If you’re not on our side, you’re against us,’ and try to mobilize the world against this menace.”
Biden’s main message concerned Pakistan and other allies: “They’ve got to choose sides. There is no question, you’re either our friend or you’re our enemy here. And I am confident that…they will be cooperative in every way” (CBS, 9/16/01). Whereas Eagleburger said the U.S. could punish Afghanistan “by destroying that government or by destroying the infrastructure of that government” (ABC, 9/12/01).
Unfortunately, the non-government specialists brought on to comment–academics, professionals and the like–did not do much to balance the government officials. They made up more than a quarter of all the guests who spoke. But very few of them–only 8 percent of the total–were invited to speak about controversial political subjects like the Middle East, Afghanistan or terrorism. Instead, the majority were experts on subjects like aviation, skyscrapers and emotional trauma. These people had useful things to say, but they could not offer alternative perspectives to those of the foreign-policy establishment guests.
In fact, even the Middle East and terrorism specialists were largely drawn from the same small circle of Washington insiders. Among them were two employees of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a reporter for the New York Times, a “terrorism expert” from the military-associated Rand Corporation, and Johns Hopkins’ Fouad Ajami, CBS News‘ longtime interpreter of the “Arab mind.” None of these commentators tried to challenge the prevailing ideas about the “war against terrorism”; they tended to agree with the government officials.
Alternative perspectives might have been provided by spokespeople from activist and advocacy groups. But there were very few of these–only six (less than 4 percent). Of these, three were advocates for airline pilots or firefighters. The remaining three advocates were spokespeople for Arab-American organizations, but these were forced to spend most of their time simply urging tolerance and explaining that the majority of Arab-Americans do not support terrorism.
Some categories of experts were noticeable for their absence. No experts on international law appeared, even though a lively debate among international jurists has been brewing since September 11 over how the United States could respond legally to the attacks. Very few university-based experts on the Middle East appeared. (The main exception was Ajami.) This absence contributed to the networks’ striking lack of explanation of what United States’ policies in the Middle East have been in recent years.
One bright spot in the guest list was the presence of religious leaders. There were ten of these, about 5 percent of the total, providing a note of introspection and an ethical context to the discussion that was almost totally missing from other interviews. There were seven Christian clergy and three Muslims. In recent years, some networks, such as ABC News, have focused more of their religion coverage on the Christian right. But in the wake of the September 11 attacks, which Jerry Falwell blamed on homosexuals and feminists, the clergy invited to speak were notably more temperate.