Short Attention Span
As the fourth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the U.S. news media--with some stellar exceptions--are not distinguishing themselves with their coverage of homeland security.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (email@example.com) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
The intruder scouted the target and decided exactly where to strike. He headed to the site, slipping swiftly through unguarded gates toward a bright orange windsock, a signal that deadly chemicals were stockpiled nearby.
Once inside the compound, he spied the prize: a railcar that doubled as a storage tank for 100,000 pounds of lethal anhydrous ammonia, a colorless, highly compressed gas that in seconds could trigger a replay of 9/11 horror.
Released into the atmosphere, the poison attacks the moist parts of the human body--the mouth, throat and lungs. This particular killer goes for the eyeballs and turns skin into a gooey mass. Respiratory systems are paralyzed by excruciating pain.
"If I'd had a bomb instead of a press pass, thousands of people would have died. I have no doubt about that," says Carl Prine, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who wandered through 63 of America's most lethal chemical plants undetected seven months after the worst terrorist attack in the country's history.
That afternoon in Chicago in April 2002, he left the way he had entered, unnoticed, despite a media credential dangling around his neck, a notebook and camera in full view.
A year later, CBS' "60 Minutes" invited Prine to retrace his steps to spotlight the vulnerability of America's chemical storehouses. On June 15, the reporter was on Capitol Hill, covering testimony on the need for chemical security upgrades.
"What I did is a metaphor. It's not scientific. It exposes a very great gap in security in a way that readers can understand," Prine says. "The scary thing, nearly four years after 9/11, we don't really know the state of chemical plant security nationwide."
Few would dispute the notion that Prine scored home runs with his tenacious reports on homeland safety. But was his aggressive coverage the exception or the rule?
As the fourth anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center approaches, it's a fitting time to assess the American media's performance in chronicling the unprecedented war on terrorism on the home front. AJR interviewed editors, reporters and media critics across the nation on how well security issues have been covered and who is leading the way.
Always, there was high praise for the correspondents dodging kidnappers and car bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what about domestic terrorism issues? When the conversation turned in that direction, the media received only sparse applause for coverage at the national and local levels.
"The best of the reporting is absolutely marvelous, but there just hasn't been enough of it," says Barry Sussman, editor of Harvard University's Nieman Watchdog Project. "Overall, it has been very thin and spotty." The Watchdog Web site (niemanwatchdog.org) posts dozens of security questions that either have been explored inadequately--or not at all.
Says New York Times reporter Tim Golden, "The Department of Homeland Security is probably one of the biggest bureaucratic disaster stories in recent decades, and it gets so little coverage."
Media lawyer Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, gives America's press corps a meager C- for homeland security coverage. Dalglish faults journalists for not protesting louder about mounting government secrecy that thwarts newsgathering. "We are out there ringing bells and banging on people's heads... It's hard to get their attention," she says. Dalglish singles out Knight Ridder, Cox Newspapers and Associated Press CEO Tom Curley for sounding alarms over the burgeoning secrecy and its impact on the lives of average Americans.
The media would not earn an A from Douglas C. Clifton, editor of Cleveland's Plain Dealer, either. "No one is doing an excellent job on a consistent basis of reporting the hidden impact of homeland security issues," Clifton says. "The coverage is episodic--moving targets of opportunity that bubble up as news."
Critics point to a dearth of hard-hitting investigative reports, cutting-edge enterprise and localization of issues emanating from the massive Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies. An analysis of newspaper coverage in 2004 carried out on behalf of the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication underscores the concern. Over a six-month period, media consultant Tim Porter reviewed hundreds of articles on post-9/11 security issues in newspapers of all sizes. In November, he delivered his findings to reporters participating in the institute's Security and Liberty Fellowships.
During his presentation, Porter described a "vast potpourri of journalism, some of it excellent, some of it horrible and the bulk of it the routine grist that fills the daily white space--press conferences, announcements, institutional processes." He found the majority of the stories to be short, written off the news and told from a bureaucratic point of view, with heavy reliance on spokesperson edicts and on the wires. Overall, it was "very, very ordinary," said Porter, a former editor at the San Francisco Examiner and an occasional AJR contributor. "It was pretty much 'he said, she said' journalism."
In an interview, Porter noted that the biggest challenge for journalists is to find ways of reporting on homeland security that help the public understand and relate to the issues. Readers receive little benefit from a story that tells them, "The ACLU says the Patriot Act is bad; the government says it's good."
Says Porter, "It really doesn't explain anything about what's at stake. It's not humanized. It's not placed in the context of the community; there's no deeper exploration of it... If my knowledge of the world were limited to what I gleaned from this coverage, I might think all human beings were a spokesperson of some type."
Although Porter found notable exceptions, the best reporting on security issues tended to be produced by the top tier of America's newspapers.
There was even less to applaud on TV. During the first three months of 2005, ABC, NBC and CBS aired a combined 40 minutes on terrorism precautions and homeland security during their weekday evening newscasts, according to the Tyndall Report, which monitors network news. Two years before, they aired more than three times as much in the same period. Tyndall's numbers indicate that, unless news is breaking, homeland security is off television's radar.
Aaron Barnhart, TV critic for the Kansas City Star, lists "60 Minutes" as the newsmagazine most likely to tackle security stories, with Friday night's "Dateline NBC" running second. "Other than that, it is a non-issue," says Barnhart. "This is one of those topics that's hard to get people in television excited about. How do you bring show business values to something so deadly serious, complicated and massive as homeland security?"
Cable, preoccupied with such fare as the Terri Schiavo death watch, Michael Jackson, the Runaway Bride and the missing teenager in Aruba, also has not distinguished itself on the homeland security front on a regular basis. A notable exception is CNN's "Defending America," a weeklong series that began on January 17, to examine how communities were specifically addressing security concerns and whether or not Americans were safer. Domestic terror issues have been a common thread on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight," which on June 29 featured a report by homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve on flaws that allow criminals and terrorists to obtain passports using someone else's identification.
Overall, says TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall, cable television's daytime agenda is usually limited to updates on the top human interest/true crime/celebrity scandal stories instead of public policy issues, which are more likely to surface in prime time. Homeland security topics, for example, have been debated on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor," but "much of prime time is devoted to opinion, argument and commentary rather than conventional reporting," says Tyndall.
One cable executive says it all boils down to a matter of scheduling. "There's just 24 hours in a day, and there are big chunks taken out of that time frame with other stories," says John Stack, Fox News Channel's vice president for newsgathering. "It doesn't reflect a lessening of the importance of domestic or homeland security issues."
In the post-9/11 era, we have witnessed the largest reorganization of the federal government in 50 years, skyrocketing official secrecy--vast quantities of data, once readily available, have disappeared from government Web sites--and billions of dollars pouring into state and local coffers to keep American safe. So why aren't more news managers fixated on what's playing out in the name of protecting the homeland?
As the war on terror enters its fifth year, a certain amount of fatigue might be setting in with both journalists and the public, speculates David Boardman, president of Investigative Reporters and Editors. But overall, he sees secrecy as the biggest stumbling block. "I don't think it's getting the attention and energy at the national level that it should be, in part because this is tough stuff," says Boardman, managing editor of the Seattle Times. "It's hard to get information; everything has been shut down."
Boardman, whose I-team won a Society of Professional Journalists award this year for a series on the Transportation Security Administration, makes an important point. Covering the amorphous war on terror has challenged traditional methods of newsgathering, especially where public documents are concerned.
Computer-assisted reporting and database aces often find themselves shut out. Records, once theirs for the asking, now are stamped "classified." Taking a lead from the White House, where hush-hush is the rule of the day, many official sources have clammed up, not only in Washington, D.C., but also in state offices and county courthouses throughout the land. (See "The Information Squeeze," September 2002, and "In Control," February/March.)
Steven Aftergood, a vociferous defender of the public's right to know, sees a worst-case scenario playing out. "They assume that terrorists are everywhere and reading everything," says Aftergood, who directs a program for the Federation of American Scientists aimed at challenging excessive government secrecy. "This indiscriminate kind of fear has led to restricting information without considering consequences."
But it's not as if an army of reporters is clamoring for more access. Dwindling newsroom resources are another reason for the lack of attention to homeland security issues, which tend to be complex and difficult to decipher for readers. This comes at a time when newsholes are shrinking, ad revenue is down and staffs are being cut. Newspapers, desperate to stop the bloodletting of circulation loss, are in a quandary, endeavoring to balance feel-good stories and serious takeouts.
"The economy of the newspaper business means there's not as much space as there used to be for national and international news. It's a big deal," says Deborah Howell, until recently Washington bureau chief and editor for Newhouse News Service. "I am hearing this from all over. There is less A-section space, and that directly impacts getting national security and homeland security stories in the paper."
Howell, who will become the Washington Post's ombudsman later this year, found that newsroom managers are not as drawn to homeland security stories as she thought they would be. She recalls a conversation with an editor who told her, "Unless it happens in the county next door, we're not interested." And, she adds, other Washington bureau chiefs have told her they have had similar experiences.
The abstract nature of domestic terror issues could explain why some news managers shy away from aggressively pursuing the impact of the Patriot Act or the information crackdown in their communities. The Bush administration has been criticized for not doing a better job of defining what it means by "war on terror" or explaining the inner workings of the nation's homeland security apparatus. Instead, there is an endless fount of unknowns: Who is the enemy? How serious is the threat in places like Fargo and Poughkeepsie? How efficient is the color-coded alert system? What precautions are in place in case of a bioterrorism attack?
For most Americans, the realities of the post-September 11 era fail to hit home except when they are languishing in an airport security line or if they lose a loved one in Iraq, says Marc Cooper, a contributing editor of The Nation and a senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism. He reasons that the myriad of unanswered questions places an even greater responsibility on reporters to get the information.
"It sets the bar higher, and failure to reach that bar has even greater consequences," says Cooper, who draws a comparison to the Vietnam era, when public discourse reached a boiling point. "Back then, there was a draft, and everybody's rear end was up for grabs, so this was something people really thought about. Today, this is a very strange war..ambiguity filters into every aspect."
Cooper cites another factor for the media hanging back: "This is an administration that fairly openly expresses its hostility toward the notion of an aggressive press. Anybody who believes that doesn't have a chilling effect is living in la-la land."
Despite the roadblocks since 9/11, some journalists have ventured smoothly into uncharted territory and carved out new niches to produce first-rate work.
At Newhouse, veteran military affairs and national security reporter David Wood works on a full-time enterprise beat focusing on the military and the war on terrorism overseas. (Another reporter focuses on homeland security issues.) In June, Wood coauthored a series on the National Guard in crisis. The stories documented how, thrown into a fast-paced new era of fighting insurgents abroad and protecting neighbors from terrorists at home, the Guard was barely hanging on.
A story by Wood and Harry Esteve of Portland's Oregonian, a Newhouse paper, told how the National Guard struggles to scrape together enough soldiers and hand-me-down equipment to meet overseas deployment orders. Recruiting has fallen behind, and seasoned soldiers are quitting in frustration. The report concluded that any new crisis--a bloody escalation overseas or a large-scale terrorist attack at home--could find the Guard unable to respond and America at risk.
Earlier, Wood turned his attention to how excessive government secrecy was impeding the war on terrorism. In August 2004, the reporter told how Washington bureaucrats were piling up new secrets at a record pace: more than 14 million in 2003, or 39,981 new secrets every day. That, his story noted, was the kind of data hoarding that the September 11 commission cited as a major factor in the government's failure to anticipate the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Because his mission is enterprise reporting, Wood has the luxury of time. In today's environment, "If you need information fast, you're screwed," says the reporter, who has covered war and foreign affairs for 25 years.
At Cox Newspapers, Washington Bureau Chief Andy Alexander viewed mounting government secrecy as an undercovered story and a hot-button issue, not only for journalists but for Americans in general. In January he asked then-Justice Department reporter Rebecca Carr to develop a "secrecy beat" to show how ordinary people were being impacted by the post-9/11 information freeze. She now covers the beat full time.
In March, Carr wrote about citizens in Aberdeen, Maryland, who live near a sprawling military weapons training facility and worry about toxic chemicals seeping into their water supply. For years, the Army provided them with detailed base maps and information about where trouble might be found. Now, they are fighting an information blackout, despite the discovery of a toxic derivative of rocket fuel in the water. "How can they protect themselves if they don't have the information?" asks Carr.
During research for this story, Knight Ridder was singled out on a number of occasions for providing first-rate coverage of the war on terrorism at home and abroad. The chain's newspapers often have run strong commentary against government secrecy and the declining access to public documents.
On October 7, 2004, Knight Ridder Washington correspondent Shannon McCaffrey used documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to reveal a drop in FBI criminal caseloads as the bureau's focus shifted to counterterrorism. The story documented the high cost of the change as organized crime, drug and white-collar referrals--those cases agents send to prosecutors to pursue--were all down. As a result of the FBI's new emphasis on preventing a terrorist attack, some 1,000 agents had been permanently reassigned from the agency's famed criminal investigation division, wrote McCaffrey.
Knight Ridder's strategy began to take shape during a conference call in the wake of September 11. Washington Editor Clark Hoyt recalls being on the line with the top brass, including Chairman and CEO P. Anthony Ridder, when somebody asked, "How many resources will we have to do this?" "Whatever it takes," Ridder responded.
In a June interview, Ridder recalled the conversation and what prompted his commitment. "It was such an enormous story, and it really was an opportunity for Knight Ridder to do distinguished work," he said, lauding the company's reporters and editors for their strong collaborative efforts over the past four years. Before, the chain's newspapers tended to go their own way, except when they shared resources during major events like national political conventions or the Olympics, Ridder said.
After 9/11, "We worked together as a total company to work in a coordinated way...and, we're sticking to it in the future," he added.
In another massive effort, Chicago Tribune Managing Editor James O'Shea mobilized a global team of reporters for a 13-part series titled "Struggle for the Soul of Islam" that ran throughout 2004. The first story explored the struggle between moderates and conservatives for control of a suburban Chicago mosque. "Islam is a crucial element in the war on terror... It's a local story because it affects every community everywhere," O'Shea says.
Editors at the AP figured out that they had one thing working for them that no one else had--journalists in all the places that terrorists roam. Correspondents continue to chip away at how al Qaeda and other clandestine organizations move money around the globe, who has influence and power and who does not in the murky underworld. During the July 4 weekend, AP launched a three-part series titled "Border Insecurity" that took six months of reporting. The investigation found that, nearly four years after September 11, signs of vulnerability and laxity remain along U.S. borders. Smuggling networks continue to channel thousands of illegal immigrants from "special interest" nations linked to terrorism, and a "catch and release" policy frees them to move about the United States.
A May 21 page-one New York Times story about an innocent Afghan taxi driver arrested as a suspected terrorist and beaten to death while in American custody emerged after reporter Tim Golden obtained a nearly 2,000-page confidential file of the Army's criminal investigation. For the reporter, who twice has shared in Pulitzer Prizes, persistence is often a key to getting sources to open up.
"It's obviously getting harder to get federal officials to talk on the record, especially about issues that deal with terrorism and security," he says. "But I've often had the luxury of time, of being able to interview people repeatedly on the same subjects and to keep pushing them to put at least some of their comments on the record."
Doggedness also paid off for National Public Radio's Daniel Zwerdling, who won an IRE award this year for his two-part series exposing abuse of immigrant detainees in U.S. prisons. He told in horrific detail how guards beat prisoners and let dogs attack them.
During his investigation, Zwerdling faced the daunting task of dealing with immigration officials at the DHS, a highly secretive monolith of some 20-plus agencies. It took nearly three months and dozens of telephone calls and e-mails before the reporter gained access to a New Jersey jail to interview a detainee who had been attacked by a dog. In the end, "They just figured, 'Say yes to something or this guy is never going to leave us alone,'" he says.
At one point he sent an e-mail to the official spokesman for DHS' Division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Newark, New Jersey. The spokesman called angrily demanding to know how the reporter had gotten his e-mail address since it was not supposed to be "public." "It was easy--he was listed on the Web site as the department's media contact," Zwerdling says.
Some regional outlets also have produced stellar work. In April, a trio of writers at the Oakland Tribune won the Society of Professional Journalists' investigative reporting award for newspapers with circulation below 100,000 for a four-part series documenting how federal dollars flowing into California's public safety agencies were misspent.
Michele Marcucci, Sean Holstege and Ian Hoffman reviewed nearly 2,000 homeland security documents, obtained under the California Public Records Act, to show that more than a quarter-billion dollars had been doled out with little regard to the needs of the recipients. An agriculture commissioner in the Central Valley got intelligence-gathering software to file his monthly pesticide reports to the state, and one town bought traffic cones with the largesse.
Gregory Hahn of the Idaho Statesman brought the impact of the Patriot Act home when he uncovered a secret surveillance unit within the Boise police department. Hahn painted a chilling portrait of a Criminal Intelligence Unit that could look into any crime and gather information on any citizen while keeping its files under wraps.
WTHR-TV, the NBC-affiliate in Indianapolis, sparked an FBI investigation when it aired a story about the illegal sale of confidential military documents and aircraft manuals on the Internet. CBS affiliate KIRO-TV in Seattle used hidden cameras to expose the vulnerability of telecommunications centers and the largest natural gas plant on the West Coast.
Prine, of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, invested time gaining the trust of a network of sources at the local, state and national level that he can call on for daily security issues or in case of a catastrophe. The reporter, part of the newspaper's terrorism team of five, keeps a gas mask, carbon suit, latex gloves and boots, a canteen fitted with special filters and a nerve-agent antidote in a backpack next to his desk.
In his Volkswagen, there are MREs (meals ready to eat), a change of clothes, a first aid kit, extra batteries for his laptop and emergency flashlights so he can move quickly if disaster strikes.
When Cox Newspapers' Rebecca Carr began covering the secrecy beat in January, it was an opportunity to practice what she has long preached. "Washington reporting has become too much like stenography and not enough about asking tough questions. We spend too much time worrying about keeping pace with the big dogs on the 'story of the day,' and not enough time doing original reporting," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "There is not enough digging; not enough people asking why the government is operating in this mode. Where is the journalistic outrage? Why aren't more reporters writing about this?"
Similar questions come from the Nieman Watchdog Project and other observers of the news media. Mark Tapscott, director of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy, wonders, "Where are the stories analyzing the constituent elements of the DHS and then asking experts outside of government if any of it makes sense, i.e., how much of the DHS workforce is devoted to pushing paper and how much is devoted to actual anti-terrorism/proactive security development and maintenance?"
Tapscott suggests that a simple compilation of how many DHS employees are within traditional bureaucratic classifications like "management analyst" compared with classifications like "border patrol agent" would be highly revealing.
He cites a May 22 page-one Washington Post investigation by reporters Robert O'Harrow and Scott Higham into wasteful homeland security spending. "I frankly felt like standing up and cheering when I saw that Post piece," Tapscott says. A question the reporters addressed: Has DHS made a difference in the nation's safety commensurate with the amount of money spent? A Post editorial on May 27 concluded, "probably no."
Writing for the Nieman Watchdog Project, Judi Hasson, editor at large at Federal Computer Week, a technology magazine covering the federal government, posed a barrage of questions for local reporters regarding homeland security issues on Main Street.
"Does your community have a plan in the event of a terrorist attack in your backyard? What is it and who coordinates? How often do local authorities get terrorist bulletins from the FBI or other federal law enforcement agencies? What happens if there is an attack while children are in school? Is there a lockdown? An evacuation plan? Will parents be allowed to pick up children regardless of the situation?"
Reporters should be asking these questions of everyone from the school board president to the mayor in their communities, Hasson says.
Merrill Goozner, who directs the Integrity in Science Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, wants more hard-hitting coverage of the nation's germ-research policy. Reporters need to be asking, "Is this really the smartest deployment of our resources?" says Goozner, who argues that funding shifts at the National Institutes of Health have directed huge pots of money toward the study of a few microbes designated as bioterrorism risks while reducing dollars for research on more common infectious diseases such as malaria.
As America prepares to mark the fourth anniversary of 9/11, there appears to be little robust debate in the media or the public about the looming unknowns regarding the war on terrorism at home. Steven Aftergood points to one-party dominance in the White House and Congress as a possible culprit.
With a more divided government, there would be an upsurge of lively debate over homeland security issues, which, for the most part, is absent in today's political environment. There might be contentious congressional hearings, special investigations, subpoenas and vetoed legislation. "Without being partisan, the press then could report many sides of an issue because so many different factions would be in play," says Aftergood. "You would have a much more dynamic political process... In many cases, the press has been slow to adapt to the status quo."
Some, like Stephen Hess, a George Washington University professor of media and public affairs, are concerned that coverage of the domestic battle against terrorism will continue to drift off news agendas, with fewer resources being allocated to the myriad of issues. "Then, the public will be even less informed, and that, in the long run, is a potential threat," says Hess, who urges media managers to consider long-term strategies in their planning.
For instance, editors could talk with global development experts on what the shape of the world might be in five to 10 years and what role America is likely to play. They might begin thinking about repositioning resources and training journalists to cope with what Hess calls a "war without end."
During the Cold War era, reporters learned to speak Russian and studied the evolution of the communist state and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. In today's world, the emphasis might be on learning Arabic and studying the basic concepts of Islam and potential menaces like secret al Qaeda cells and dirty bombs.
Most of all, "it will take clear recognition of what is different about this war than any other in American history," says Hess, who edited a book on the media and the war on terrorism. "The Cold War was much simpler to cover than this."