Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Editor & Publisher: Media Fell Short in Covering 9/11 'Report Card'

Media Fell Short in Covering 9/11 'Report Card'

Has September 11 fatigue set in? A high-level report declares that the U.S., while fighting terrorists abroad, has not done nearly enough to keep us safe here at home. Surely it has dominated front pages all week? Not exactly.

By Greg Mitchell, Editor and Publisher

(December 06, 2005) -- The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001 -- you remember them. Cost nearly 3,000 American lives and haunted the families of the victims. Traumatized the nation. Damaged our economy, led to a new cabinet department and the controversial Patriot Act. Gave the new U.S. president, who was foundering in the polls, almost unprecedented power and popularity. Led directly to a war against Afghanistan and overthrow of the government there. Led almost as directly to the invasion of Iraq, then a continuing war and occupation that has cost another 2,000-plus American lives and countless billions of dollars in expenditures.

September 11 is unquestionably the major American event in recent decades and the terrorist threat to our homeland is the issue of our time. So you would think that when the official and much-respected commissioners charged with studying the tragedy and offering advice on preventing another such attack released a report card on whether the government, four years later, is fully doing its job to keep us safe, it would deserve banner headlines and massive and continuing television coverage -- especially if the grades were poor, with five “Fs” and a dozen “Ds” out of 41 categories.

Well, such a report card was released on Monday -- this may be news to some of you -- and the media response was ... underwhelming.

Yes it made the front pages in some papers, got some favored spots on network news and provoked the usual cable news chitchat for a few hours or so. But Saddam Hussein's courtroom tantrums, the latest twist in the Tom DeLay case, and the first human face transplant, of all things, got just as much, or more, attention.

Does anyone know, for example, that the bi-partisan commission, led by Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, gave the Bush administration -- which launched a war on Iraq largely in the name of reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction -- a "D" on its efforts to secure WMD worldwide, calling this "the greatest threat" to America's security?

"If my children were to receive this report card they would have to repeat a year. We cannot afford to repeat this mistake," said Timothy J. Roemer, one of the commission members. His colleague on the panel, James Thompson, the former Illinois governor, asked: "Are we crazy? Why aren't our tax dollars being spent to protect our lives?"

Yet an E&P survey of 40 major U.S. newspapers found that on Tuesday only six in this cross-section featured the story on their front pages. The San Francisco Chronicle had the most lavish treatment, with a huge replica of a school report card included. The others were: San Jose's Mercury-News, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Houston Chronicle, on the other hand, carried the headline: “Concerns Over Face Transplant Grow.”

It's true that the unhappiness of the commissioners started to leak out Sunday, and some papers, such as the Boston Globe, carried front-page dispatches on Monday. But most didn't put it on the front page either day, including The New York Times.

The new CBS News blog, Public Eye, reports, "All three networks featured packages on the news, but NBC’s 'Nightly News' was the only broadcast to lead with the story. ABC's 'World News Tonight' and the CBS 'Evening News' led with stories about Saddam Hussein's trial."

But maybe I'm just over-sensitive about this. Like many in New York, I did lose a good friend in the attack on the World Trade Center.

In an online chat Tuesday at The Washington Post, a visitor asked the paper's longtime political reporter Tom Edsall, “The 9/11 report card obviously is big news here in D.C., but do you think that the average American is going to pay attention to this? And what effect will this have?"

Edsall replied: “I was surprised to see this morning that our competitor, The New York Times, played the story inside. Insofar as the press drives a story, that will diminish public reaction. I only saw the beginning of CBS News last night and don't recall an early mention of the 911 commission findings, which would also weaken the lasting power. The NYT has a wider national distribution than the Post. We gave the story top of the front page story, which I think is the correct play. All this is to say -- I don't know if the issue has legs or not. It should.”

Has legs? What 9/11 wrought certainly does have legs -- from severe budget deficits to a stretched-thin military to a continuing war in Iraq. It's the height of hypocrisy for the administration to downplay the fresh concerns about readiness while declaring that we are in a worldwide and open-ended war on terror to allegedly make the homeland safe. Newspapers share in treating this as just another issue of-the-day.

The commissioners asked if maybe we need another wake-up call. Apparently, the answer is: yes.

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