Sep 05, 2002

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U.S. Freedoms Dealt Serious Body Blow

When the investigative arm of the Fourth Estate sees its role as an adjunct to the prior estates' policy and vision, the very idea of a free press becomes a hollow hope.

By Tom Koch

A year after the airplane hijackings that resulted in the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., what's the score? The answer is, in the U.S. language of athletic tallies beloved by its leaders: terrorists 10, U.S. 0. Despite Bushian rhetoric (“You're a friend . . . or an enemy”) and Texan “Reward: Dead or Alive” hyperbole, terrorism remains alive and well. So apparently, does the alleged mastermind of the attacks, Osama Bin Ladin.

What is ailing is the health and welfare of the U.S. itself. The country's largely unilateral war on terrorism has gained it no fans on the international scene. At home, the idea of personal liberty and justice, the supposedly protected civil rights of all, have been dealt serious body blows.

Nowhere has this been clearer to me than at an early summer meeting of investigative reporters and editors (IRE). At the San Francisco meetings, what was absent was the skepticism and hard questioning that typically characterizes the annual gathering of 1,000 reporters and editors whose self-proclaimed mission is to get the dirt on the U.S.'s problems by whatever means legally possible.

There was instead a general acceptance of official views on the government's actions in Afghanistan, and the image of a just U.S. unjustly placed under siege.

In a session on public health with two of U.S. newsdom's heavier hitters - Newsday's Laurie Garrett and (Portland) Oregonian editor Stephen Englebert, formerly of the New York Times - bioterrorism was the subject. It was, indeed, virtually the only subject. Material from the U.S. centre for disease control, available in the conference hotel's lobby, detailed both the failure of the U.S. health care system, and its systemic inequalities.

Blacks and Hispanics die earlier and are sick more frequently - the result of inequalities in education, housing, and employment opportunities. They are also less likely than white Americans to have access to healthcare coverage. Those who do have a health plan are less likely - shades of the movie - to be comprehensively covered.

Conference experts speaking on public health, didn't consider these issues, however. Their concern was the threat of bioterrorism and a recently announced $2 billion federal initiative for public health responses to it. Who will get the money, Garrett asked, and how much will be spent?

Across the conference there was a similar insistence that normal issues of journalistic concern must go by the way in the post-September 2001 world. In a session on “balancing national security and public access,” moderator Brian Duffy (U.S. News and World Report) told attendees 9/11 required a new dialogue in which reporters should understand and work with federal concerns rather than critiquing and questioning their actions.

Not everyone agreed, of course. OMB Watch's Gary Bass lamented the big chill, the new official perspective of the Bush administration that everything is to be classified unless absolutely judged inconsequential. Fellow panelists Duffy, and former federal lawyer Elizabeth Rindskopf, told him this was OK. Few reporters rose during question period to side with Bass.

Generally, conference speakers (and attendees) used the language of the Bush administration. Afghan citizens removed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were detainees, not prisoners of war as many other nations insist. Thus, the legality of their removal, and the manner of their maintenance, went unremarked.

The government says the nation remains in peril but we only have their word. Journalists aren't given the details of possible threats and so neither are we. News writers and editors acquiesce and what falls by the way are all the subjects - public health, political chicanery, and the questionable legitimacy of the war itself - that reporters would otherwise consider fair game.

Forget the state of deteriorating cities, rampant illiteracy and a healthcare system that fails more than 40 million U.S. citizens. Pay no attention to the state of disrepair of U.S. public schools. Do not consider questionable incarcerations and apparent violations of constitutional protections. Focus on the terrorist threat and nothing else. It's where the money is, as Garrett reminded reporters.

The default assumption over the last year is that the government needs room to manoeuvre, even if that means the restraint of citizen freedoms and a curtailed flow of information that was, in theory, the country's most precious feature.

And yet, it is at times like this that journalists should be most active. It is when the government seems heavy-handed and over-wrought that the journalist's role is to question official postures. When the investigative arm of the Fourth Estate sees its role as an adjunct to the prior estates' policy and vision, the very idea of a free press becomes a hollow hope.

Americans are scared and so are their journalists. What is most terrifying to most, I think, is that the instigators of last year's plane attacks understood the U.S. psyche. They knew that at least three out of four times the passengers on those planes would not react. All the terrorists needed was a symbolic weapon, a box-knife, to take control.

The U.S. myth of self-sufficiency and action was wounded in the attacks. A plethora of aircraft hijack films starring Steven Segal, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, et al promised there will always be a hero when needed most. Someone else will save the day. No need for us to get involved. And the thing about fictional U.S.-style heroes is, while they may fight a bureaucracy (or a bureaucrat), none stand against the nation itself. “I love America,” Sylvester Stallone's Rambo character says in one of his movies. When it plays, and replays, the audience always cheers.

That it didn't work was terrifying in the extreme. The myth was shown to be false and the natural vulnerability of the U.S. and its citizens was made evident. The official campaign to name as heroes all the citizens, police and firefighters, who survived the September attacks was, from this perspective, an attempt to repair the national psyche's damage. After all, U.S-based reporters and editors know that were they hijacked, they, too, probably would have sat and waited rather than acted.

As a result, they are quiescent. For the terrorists this has been the signal victory. They got the press, too, and with it, at least for a time, the nation's soul.

U.S.-born Tom Koch is adjunct professor of gerontology and a forum associate at the David Lam centre for international communication. A long-time journalist, he is also the author of books on news and news writing including The News as Myth, and Journalism for the 21st Century. His web page can be found at

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