Fighting the Last War: The American Media in the Aftermath of September 11
An address to the London School of Economics, September 30, 2002
The crisis that now grips our world has been framed in many different ways by many different people, according to their perspectives and sometimes their political motives. It has been called, variously, a clash of civilizations, of cultures, of religions, of political systems, of values and ideologies, and even a face-off between good and evil themselves. While there is probably some degree of truth to be found in each of these perspectives, to be sure, it seems to me that what the world faces is fundamentally a crisis of awareness -- one that has been developing for many years, and that afflicts those on all sides in different but related ways. I am struck again and again by how much we see and hear in this age of modern technology, but how little we know and understand. For all our wisdom and exposure, we do have a crisis of awareness.
Much has been said and written about the disastrously poisonous effects of the systematic dismantling of formal educational systems and the demise of a free press in many parts of the world. Dictators of various stripes have managed to suppress carefully reasoned debate and prevent honest discussion of culture, government, and systems of belief, and so they have stunted, skewed, and twisted their people’s ideas and lives in often terrifying ways. To cite just two prominent examples, the children who emerge from the madrassas in Pakistan can hardly be said to have an education in the traditional sense of the word, and the people of Zimbabwe who learn about their country’s crisis over land and food only in the government-controlled media cannot possibly understand what is happening around them and what the future holds.
In Britain and the United States, our educational systems and our media, however flawed, are, of course, much broader in their purview and more incisive in their critiques, because they are free to be. But we nonetheless face a crisis of our own, and it, too, has to do with deficiencies in the development of perspective. I speak here primarily of my own country, but perhaps my remarks will have broader applicability in Britain and the rest of Europe.
After the terrorists struck the United States on September 11, 2001, one of the things that quickly became clear was that as egregiously inaccurate as some perceptions of American culture around the world had become, our own lack of awareness of what those perceptions are and how they had gotten that way was nearly as shocking. Never mind, for the moment, the failures of intelligence and law enforcement at the heart of the matter. The attacks put the American public and press -- and, to some degree, those of the entire international community -- on the defensive, scrambling to catch up with all that we had missed or ignored and trying to cobble together some rudimentary understanding of why and how this could have happened. It has been an uphill battle -- after years of general disuse, our capacity to comprehend the complexities of international politics and culture had atrophied severely, and our actual understanding, on the whole, remains rudimentary.
Worse, a great many people still do not seem to care. A recent survey indicates that Americans’ interest in international news, after an initial post-September 11 surge, is just barely stronger than it was a year before the attacks. Nearly two-thirds of those who expressed moderate or low interest in international news said that was because they felt they lacked the background to follow it. And a solid majority of all the respondents said they continue to track international news only when major developments occur.
This is the struggle that we in the business of educating and informing the public now face. Our educational systems must begin working double time to provide the international background these people feel they lack, and they must start the job not at the university level, but in nursery school. At the same time our media outlets must broaden their coverage and explore new ways of attracting, focusing, and maintaining public interest. If we continue our present habit of paying attention to the rest of the world only when great crises jolt us from our somnolent self-involvement, we had better prepare ourselves to be even more frequently and rudely awakened in the years and decades to come -- if not next week.
In America, the trends that precipitated this crisis of awareness began to take deep root in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when, in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and other troubling international events of the time, the nation began to give in to the temptation to respond to global turmoil by withdrawing as much as possible from the international scene. Frankly, America became estranged from the rest of the world. While building up military strength, Congress cut the foreign affairs budget. The Reagan administration repeatedly proposed reducing to zero the federal Department of Education’s budget for international studies programs. Many U.S. consulates throughout the world were closed. And the American media, disappointingly, followed suit. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing through the ‘90s, international coverage dwindled steadily, particularly in the broadcast media. Foreign bureaus were closed -- they were too costly to maintain, network executives said, especially considering what little good they were doing for the ratings. Even The New York Times, for its part, took a wise look around the world, in a moment of austerity, and closed its Teheran bureau because nothing was happening -- just a short time before the Shah of Iran was overthrown. Eventually, whole nations, regions, and even continents went for as long as a full year without a single mention on the nightly news of the three commercial networks. There was a surge of interest in international news around the time of the Gulf War, of course, and a sudden fascination with the Horn of Africa during the catastrophic engagement in Somalia, and with the Balkans when American troops were dispatched there. But by and large, these incidents played as isolated episodes, with little context provided by the American media and little inclination among the general American public to draw any inferences about what they might indicate when analyzed as a whole.
All of this changed -- at least momentarily -- on September 11, 2001. Americans were suddenly desperate for context -- for anything we thought might help us begin to understand what had led to these vicious attacks on our country. To their credit, the news media responded quickly and comprehensively. Special reports abounded. In one broadcast illustrative at once of how eager the networks were to help and how much work they had cut out for them, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings stood on a room-sized map of the Middle East and central Asia, walking from country to country discussing the various influences and interests at play in each and their relationships both within the region and with the United States. Of course, the fact that he was walking on the countries caused consternation in some circles, but never mind -- it was an improvement! Public interest in the news in general doubled in the months following the attacks, according to one poll, and many media commentators predicted a renaissance in international journalism -- a time when foreign correspondence might be revived as a respectable line of work and analysis of the global scene might push the underage drinking of the president’s daughters off page one.
Less than a year later, it was already apparent that the commentators had spoken too soon. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in June of this year found that overall, American levels of reading, viewing, and listening to the news have changed little since the spring of 2000. It did indicate a slight increase in the percentage of Americans who say they are following international news very closely -- from 14 percent to a slightly less underwhelming 21 percent -- but mostly among affluent Americans, college graduates, and older people. Younger, less educated, and less affluent respondents showed no significant increase in interest, and there was no evidence to indicate that even those who did claim to follow international news were paying much attention to reports beyond those devoted to terrorism or the conflicts in the Middle East. The burst of inquisitiveness that followed the September 11 attacks was not much more, it seems, than an adrenaline rush -- intense and invigorating, but ultimately short-lived and probably exhausting.
The increased interest, if temporary, was accompanied by a similar surge in public confidence in the media. In November of last year, again according to Pew Center figures, Americans gave the media all-time high marks on a range of criteria, including professionalism, accuracy, morality, and patriotism. More than ever, the press was seen as standing up for the nation and protecting democracy, and its overall performance was rated as either excellent or good by 77 percent of the survey respondents. But this, too, quickly faded. All of these ratings had slid significantly by July of this year, some by 20 percentage points or more, all to below 50 percent. Even more troubling, a large number of Americans were expressing a distrust not only of the media, but also of the fundamental philosophies and principles underpinning their existence. A poll conducted in August by the University of Connecticut’s Center for Survey Research and Analysis found that 49 percent of Americans believe the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution goes too far in the rights it guarantees, and almost half said the press has been too aggressive in questioning the U.S. government about its war on terrorism. Not surprising, perhaps, when the policy dialogue is about the Patriot Act, the new Department of Homeland Security, and the invention of a system whereby neighbors and colleagues can learn how to inform on each other.
The implications of these trends are particularly ominous at a time when the United States -- and perhaps Britain -- stand on the brink of another major military conflict with Iraq, the global ramifications of which are still maddeningly unclear and serious questions about which remain unanswered. The American public clearly has some pressing concerns about the government’s intentions. The Washington Post recently reported that while a majority of Americans appear to favor an invasion of Iraq, they want President Bush to explain his plans in far greater detail than he has to this point and to obtain the approval of Congress and the support of U.S. allies before taking any action. The report also noted that support would plummet if an invasion were to involve significant U.S. casualties. Who better to reflect these concerns than a press that, by design, closely follows, questions, and reports back to the public about the government’s every move? And yet the press, if it truly has its finger on the pulse of the culture, walks a tightrope between the public’s legitimate interest in the answers to these questions and its mistrust of the people asking them. Just a short time ago, we saw a backlash in which public officials -- and, more alarmingly, other media organizations -- questioned whether The New York Times had gone too far in reporting the negative side of the story regarding a potential American attack on Iraq.
There is no question, I think, among those who have dedicated themselves to the practice and support of journalism in the United States, that the press must persist in its efforts, regardless of how public opinion judges it for doing so. The pendulum of public opinion swings frequently, especially when crises arise and there is a temptation to blame the messengers for the troubling news they deliver. I have no doubt that the time will return when public appreciation of the press’s vigilance runs high, and there is evidence even now that in spite of their misgivings about the motives behind the press’s questions, many -- and perhaps most -- people are glad that the questions are being asked.
But the press must remain self-critical as well, and careful to avoid becoming so wrapped up in the looming crises that it allows them to eclipse entirely its coverage of the rest of the world. The war on terrorism and the escalating tensions in the Middle East are not the only international stories worthy of attention, but these days you would not know from watching or reading the American media that some countries -- like those of Central and South America -- even exist. Americans who want to understand the current economic crisis in Argentina, for example, might do better taking out their old CDs of Evita than watching the television news. Some might argue that today’s events in Latin America are of far less importance than what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip, and I do not contend by any stretch of the imagination that these stories do not deserve their positions at the very top of the hierarchy of important news. However, it is worth remembering that, just a few months before the September 11 attacks, the Taliban was known to the American public primarily for destroying a few historic statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan -- and drew big laughs as the punchline to one of the jokes in Steve Martin’s monologue at the 2001 Academy Awards.
While the media certainly have an important role to play in informing people about the world in which they live, they obviously cannot and should not be expected to carry the entire burden of doing so. It is certainly disheartening to discover that the reason for widespread disinterest in international news is that so many people feel they lack the education necessary to understand it. We must reexamine an educational system that has failed to paint a portrait of the world complete and complex enough to permit an understanding of the interdependent global community. It is telling that the headlines and general thrust of many post-September 11 stories in America -- not to mention a cascade of political speeches -- asked the question, “Why do they hate us?” rather than, “Why do we know so little about them?” The perception that the United States somehow could and did function separately from the rest of the world had become so deeply ingrained that the less self-centered formulation of the question did not even occur to most, and all the media were doing was reflecting this depressing cultural fact.
I refer to this as a cultural fact because I do not believe that it is simply a trend that we can easily reverse. I don’t think our cultural myopia is incurable, but its symptoms are so many and its causes so deep that we must attack it at every level of the culture, among every population, and in every age group. Our press and our educational systems must work in tandem in this campaign, the former to report fully on the events of the entire world and the latter to provide the global context by which those reports may be fully understood. This is what I mean by fighting the last war. Excuse the military metaphor, but it is a battle that must be fought on many fronts, and it will not be won quickly. The news media can open -- or reopen -- as many foreign bureaus as they decide they can afford, but until they can staff them with reporters who are truly conversant in the languages, histories, and political and cultural intricacies of the regions they are assigned to cover, they will continue to reflect the American tendency to approach global events from the perspective of outsiders, interested only insofar as the events directly affect their own lives. And until our educational institutions -- from our preschools to our colleges and universities -- begin to frame every discipline they teach in relation to the global culture and history with which they are inextricably interconnected, any nuance the media do manage to achieve in their coverage of international affairs will be lost on the general public anyway. This change will take generations.
The good news is that, while many Americans believe that the lack of international context in their education has prevented them from following and understanding international news, the American public seems to strongly support -- by a wider margin than ever before -- the means by which we might begin to provide that context. In a survey conducted by the American Council on Education in the spring of this year, nearly three out of four respondents, regardless of race, age, income, or education level, agreed that higher education has a responsibility to educate the public about international issues. Seventy-nine percent agreed that students should have a study-abroad experience sometime during college -- up slightly from 75 percent in 2000 -- and eighty percent agreed that the presence of international students on U.S. campuses enriches the learning experience for Americans. What is more, support was particularly high among younger respondents and minorities, who have not historically participated in international education to a great extent. Our educational institutions must act now to take advantage of this interest. It is clear from all available evidence that education plays a critical role in people’s awareness of and involvement with the events of the world around them. With the public thirsty for opportunities to increase their knowledge in these areas, it would be a great disservice if we did not satisfy them.
There are even some silver linings to be found in the reports about American distrust of the press. Even in a November 2001 poll that found American support for government control over information during the war on terrorism to be as strong as it was during the Gulf War, almost 75 percent of the respondents favored coverage that presents all points of view, including those of countries unfriendly to the United States, over lock-step pro-American news. In the same poll, more than half also said that in covering the war, news organizations should dig hard for information rather than simply trusting government and military officials. At a moment when displaying the American flag seems to be the most favored expression of political involvement -- and to question the president in any way is often portrayed by his aides as unpatriotic -- it is encouraging that half the public thinks it’s worth continuing a more open conversation.
The American public’s wariness of both the press and the government will always produce similarly strange dichotomies between its desire to know the truth about the government’s activities and its wish, in times of crisis, to believe that the government will generally act in good faith to protect the nation’s best interests. This actually bespeaks an underlying faith that both of these American institutions can be trusted, when all is said and done, to keep each other in line. But the really striking number, as far as I am concerned, is the indication of exceptionally broad support for reporting that reflects the full range of perspectives on the United States’ involvement in other countries, even when it means listening to the voices of those most hostile to the ideals and values the American public holds dear. It is only through listening to the full range of voices throughout the world that we may begin to develop genuine understanding, and it is comforting to think that now, at last, the American public seems ready to try.
We have a very long way to go, many challenges to surmount, and much hard work to do in creating the circumstances under which we might overcome our crisis of awareness. But there is a wide-open window of opportunity in the American public’s receptiveness to a broadening of the international perspectives we take in our educational institutions. If we approach the situation from this angle, reforming at every level the means by which we steep our students in global awareness at the same time that our news organizations push the envelope to promote an understanding of world events, I believe this is a war we can win.