Nov
02
2001

Op-Ed Echo Chamber

Little space for dissent to the military line

During the weeks following September's terrorist attacks, two leading dailies used their op-ed pages as an echo chamber for the government's official policy of military response, 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 (9/12/01 - 10/2/01) 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 addition, both op-ed pages showed a striking gender imbalance. Of the 107 op-ed writers at the Post, only seven were women. Proportionally, the Times did slightly better, with eight female writers out of 79.

When critics argue that U.S. news media have a duty to provide a broad debate on war, a common response is to ask why-- after all, isn't there a political and popular consensus in favor of war?

Perhaps, but there's reason to believe that the extent and nature of that consensus has been overstated and distorted.

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 either military assault or 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.

There is also a little-acknowledged gender gap in poll responses about military action, a fact that lends new significance to the gender imbalance in Washington Post and New York Times op-eds. In the final two paragraphs of a 1,395-word story titled "Public Unyielding in War Against Terror " (9/29/01), the Washington Post pointed out that women "were significantly less likely to support a long and costly war." According to the Post, while 44 percent of women would support a broad military effort, "48 percent said they want a limited strike or no military action at all."

Similarly, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll (Gallup.com, 10/5/01) showed that 64 percent of men think the U.S. "should mount a long-term war," while 24 percent favored limiting retaliation to punishing the specific groups responsible for the attacks. In contrast, "women are evenly divided-- with 42 percent favoring each option." Noting that "women's support for war is much more conditional than that of men," Gallup reports that though 88 percent of women favored taking retaliatory military action, that number dropped to 55 percent if 1,000 American troops would be killed (76 percent of men would support a war under these circumstances).

Of course, gender equity on the op-ed pages would not guarantee proportional representation for dissenters-- some of the most virulently pro-war and anti-Muslim columns have been written by female commentators (e.g., Mona Charen, who called for mass expulsions based on ethnicity-- Washington Times, 10/18/01). But given the gender differences suggested by polling, more women on the op-ed pages might well give the lie to the conventional wisdom that all Americans have no-holds-barred enthusiasm for an open-ended war.

Even, however, if one accepts the idea that the public overwhelmingly favors war, the task of journalism is to remain independent and to ask tough questions of policy makers. After all, American history includes many official policies that were popular in their time, but which today are viewed as disasters. Wouldn't the country have been better off if journalists had provided a stronger, more abiding challenge to the consensus that supported Vietnam, 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.

ACTION: Please urge the Washington Post and the New York Times to broaden the range of debate on their op-ed pages about the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

CONTACT:New York Times Terry A. Tang, Op-Ed Page Editor

Toll free comment line: 1-888-NYT-NEWS

Washington PostMichael Getler, Ombudsmanombudsman@washpost.com (202) 334-7582