Nov
01
2001

The Op-Ed Echo Chamber

Little or no space for dissent from the military line

"When op-ed pages first became the rage some 25 years ago, they were supposed to be places for nontraditional voices to be heard." -- Allan Wolper, Editor & Publisher ethics columnist (5/29/99)

Whether the mainstream daily op-ed page was ever a true forum for debate or for "nontraditional voices" is questionable. But during the weeks following September's terrorist attacks, two leading dailies mostly used these pages as an echo chamber for the government's official policy of military response, while mostly ignoring dissenters and policy critics.

A FAIR survey of the New York Times and the Washington Post op-ed pages for the three weeks following the attacks found that columns calling for or assuming a military response to the attacks were given a great deal of space, while opinions urging diplomatic and international law approaches as an alternative to military action were nearly non-existent.

We counted a total of 44 columns in the Times and Post that clearly stressed a military response, against only two columns stressing non-military solutions. (Though virtually every op-ed in both papers dealt in some way with September 11, most did not deal specifically with how to respond to the attacks, with many focusing on economics, rebuilding, New York's Rudolph Giuliani, etc. During the period surveyed, the Post ran a total of 105 op-ed columns, the Times ran 79.)

Overall, the Post was more militaristic, running at least 32 columns urging military action, compared to 12 in the Times. But the Post also provided the only two columns we could find in the first three weeks after September 11 that argued for non-military responses; the Times had no such columns. Both dissenting columns were written by guest writers.

The Times' and Post's in-house columnists provided the bulk of the pro-war commentary. Two-thirds of the Times columns urging military action were written in-house, as were more than half of the Post's pro-war columns. This may say something about which journalists are singled out for promotion to the prestigious position of columnist.

In-house hawks

New York Times columnist William Safire, whose seven columns during this period included four that explicitly endorsed a military strategy, wasted little time in calling for war. With next to no information available the day after the attacks (9/12/01), Safire was already urging readers not too be overly concerned about evidence or civilian deaths:

Lashing out on the basis of inadequate information is wrong, but in terror-wartime, waiting for absolute proof is dangerous. When we reasonably determine our attackers' bases and camps, we must pulverize them--minimizing but accepting the risk of collateral damage--and act overtly or covertly to destabilize terror's national hosts.
Thomas Friedman

Thomas Friedman

Generally, however, Times columnists tended to be more reserved in their pro-war advice. For example, in "Talk Later" (9/28/01), Thomas Friedman wrote, "The big question is how we fight this war to deliver to Americans what they want--which is not revenge, but justice and security."

Meanwhile, several columnists at the Post expressed their pro-war opinions in bloodier terms. In a column titled "Battle Hymn" (9/23/01), George Will eschewed the notion of international law in favor of death and destruction:

The Bush administration is telling the country that there is some dying to be done.... The goal is not to "bring terrorists to justice," which suggests bringing them into sedate judicial settings--lawyers, courtrooms, due process, all preceded by punctilious readings of Miranda rights. Rather, the goal is destruction of enemies.

In "The War: A Road Map" (9/28/01), columnist Charles Krauthammer urged that military action be threatened against Iraq, Iran and Syria as well as Afghanistan.

Would a column by a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace associate lend balance to the virtually uniform saber rattling of the Post's op-ed page? Not necessarily. Just one day after the attacks (9/12/01), Carnegie scholar and Post columnist Robert Kagan declared what he saw as the only option: "Go to war with those who have launched this awful war against us." In his column headlined, "We Must Fight This War," Kagan waxed nostalgic about "the Greatest Generation," and wondered "whether this generation of Americans is made of the same stuff."

In "Pacifist Claptrap" (9/26/01), guest columnist Michael Kelly used what he imagined to be Aristotelian logic to prove that the pacifist position is "evil":

Organized terrorist groups have attacked America. These groups wish the Americans to not fight. The American pacifists wish the Americans to not fight. If the Americans do not fight, the terrorists will attack America again. And now we know such attacks can kill many thousands of Americans. The American pacifists, therefore, are on the side of future mass murders of Americans. They are objectively pro-terrorist.

(Journalist Robert Fisk, who has repeatedly interviewed Osama bin Laden, believes that September 11 attacks were designed to draw the U.S. into a war that would destabilize pro-Western Islamic governments--The Independent, 9/16/01. If so, then by Kelly's logic, it would be he and other pro-war pundits who are "objectively pro-terrorist.")

Dissident pair

Found among many other calls for war in the Washington Post were the only two pieces in either paper during the period studied that explicitly argued against a violent response. In contrast to the overheated tone of many of the Post's pro-war pieces, these columns employed more sober rhetoric.

Guest columnist Anne Brodsky (9/24/01), a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Maryland, warned of the ravages of war:

At this time we have more in common with the Afghan people and many others around the world who are victims of terrorism, fear and human rights abuses on a daily basis. I am hoping that this will give us empathy and bring us together against a common enemy, rather than tearing us farther apart. Hatred, fear and blame are the calling cards of terrorists. If we give in to this, they have won.

And guest columnist Kevin Danaher (Washington Post, 9/29/01) of Global Exchange evoked the sentiment of demonstrations taking place in cities and campuses across the country: "Justice, Not War." Calling for an approach relying on international law, Danaher wrote:

The perpetrators of the recent attacks can be apprehended and brought to justice without killing innocent civilians if we have the support of the world's governments. If America were to engage the world in setting up an effective international criminal court system, the support from other nations would be so strong it would be impossible for any country to shelter the perpetrators of mass violence.

When media critics argue that U.S. news media have a duty to provide a broad debate on war, a common response is to ask, when there seems to be such an overwhelming political and popular consensus in favor of war, why the media are obligated to provide meaningful space for dissent.

In truth, the consensus for war in this time period was overstated. In polls that offered a choice between a military response or nothing, it's true that overwhelming majorities chose war. But given the choice between a military assault and pressing for the extradition and trial of those responsible (Christian Science Monitor, 9/27/01), a substantial minority either chose extradition (30 percent) or were undecided (16 percent). These people had next to no representation in the op-ed debate; in fact, it's likely that many people asked to choose whether or not to go to war had never seen an alternative to war articulated in a mainstream outlet.

But even accepting the idea that there was an overwhelming public sentiment for war, the task of journalism is to remain independent, to ask tough questions of policy makers no matter how popular their policies. After all, American history includes many official policies that were popular in their times, policies which today are viewed as disasters. Wouldn't the country have been better off if journalism had provided a stronger, more abiding challenge to the consensus that supported Vietnam, say, or the internment of Japanese-Americans?

More than any other newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post--with their unmatched influence in the nation's capitol and in U.S. newsrooms--have a duty to provide readers with a wide range of views on how to deal with terrorism, its causes and solutions. If the purpose of the op-ed page is to provide a vigorous debate including critical opinions, both papers failed their readers at a crucial time.