JY&A Consulting

America’s return to complacency?

Is the alleged lack of interest from the public in the US real, or merely a self-fulfilling prophecy? And how should the media deal with coverage of the second phase of the “war on terror”?

Donna Borak1

ON June 11, I had the opportunity to sit amongst distinguished US and international journalists responding to an American epidemic: the revival of complacency in the US.2 Nine months after September 11, American public interest had demonstrably remained unchanged in international affairs. Reportedly, evidence suggested that the scope of international interest did not go beyond stories relating to the "war on terror", national security, the Middle East conflict and Kashmir. At a time when researchers had anticipated a surge of public interest, their findings are discouraging, leaving the fate of journalism in much uncertainty.3
   In the immediate months following 9-11, the public watched, and read with surmounting avid interest, carrying with them a sense that there was never a sufficient amount of information to quell their curiosity or open-ended questioning. The media was left the task of "decoding the rage" of jihad and fundamentalism, anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and more importantly the question of ‘Why?’
   Washington Post columnist Michael Getler wrote on June 2, ‘Whatever ability we as citizens now have to understand the murky world of counterterrorism and the pitfalls of insufficient alertness, coordination and communication by governmental agencies, comes from the news media.’
   Journalism consists of developing trust with our audience. ‘Trust was crucial. These days it’s sometimes hard to know what is real and what it not. News broadcasters’ reputation rests on truth. And that’s why people turned to us again,’ said Richard Sambrook, BBC News Director.
   ‘Educating the public through hard news digging and learning to answer the question, "How do they know that?" would benefit our readers,’ said Bill Kovach, Chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Tell them, ‘Here’s how we know this,’ forcing our audience to understand why this should be important to them and why it matters.
    ‘I think it is a great moment in American journalism. Now, whether we can make this moment last, and how long we can make it last, these are the open questions,’ Dan Rather told the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) three weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
   But, a dismaying perception of reader–viewer interest held by news organizations and owners had fallen under the belief that the American public’s interest would wane in time and that the public would return back to its normal readership–viewer habits. Rather predicted in his interview with CJR, ‘You just can’t survive, much less thrive, without dumbing it down, sleazing it up, going lighter, going softer!’
   Panelists suggested, at the International News and Media conference sponsored by PEW, that heavy press on international affairs was only a short-term goal and would diminish over time for some news organizations. Some argued that, in fact, Americans had a strong desire for foreign affairs, but, with little background knowledge or context, didn’t pursue their interests.
    ‘I wonder whether this commonly held view that the American public is not interested in international news is really true or how much of it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell them less about the world and small wonder that eventually they cease to ask about it. And they are ceasing to ask about it,’ said Mr Sambrook.
   As reported in the study and suggested by panelists, newspapers and television stations with generally low budgets are having difficultly maintaining news holds abroad. As a result, nine months later, 56 per cent of the 218 international news editors and wire editors surveyed rated their own personal international news coverage as fair–poor. Only two per cent rated their coverage as excellent–good in the same category. Two-thirds rated US international news coverage in general as fair–poor.
   As the US Administration poses to enter into Phase Two in "the war on terror", the American public has returned to its residual disinterest and questioned, ‘Where is the truth in all of this? Why didn’t we know this was coming? Why haven’t we heard of Al Quaeda? What has been going on in the Middle East? Why didn’t we know about the Taliban? And if we did, why didn’t you explain why it mattered?’ said Sambrook on the American public’s newfound dependency on Broadcasting news after 9-11.
   Only nine months later are news organizations beginning to piece together and uncover the links that connect the US to the rest of the world. They are learning just how to organize and disseminate that information effectively and efficiently. But in the last nine months, Americans have lost a sense of truth and trust in their Administration and "breaking news"-operated media, in what has become an ever evolving and continuous world of mass globalization.
   ‘I believe there’s a lesson for the media conglomerates—invest in the truth and you will earn the trust and loyalty of audiences. Not just for overnight rating, but for the long game,’ said Sambrook.
   FBI investigations in Washington only lead the American public further down a road of false reality and misperception of the underlying factors that brought on the attack against the US. The Administration plays the blame game against the FBI and CIA, as FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III stands before the Congressional Committee proclaiming his commitment to refurbish the FBI and its internal procedures after Attorney Colleen Rowley’s letter stating that the US had information relating to the possibility of an attack. These changes will take three years to install.
   In its attempts to avoid further national security complications and investigation, President Bush announced the Department of Homeland Security, developed under the conception that it would have the capacity to avoid bureaucracy by creating yet another intelligence department. This department would accomplish what it had tried to do in previous decades: streamline and filter intelligence information, improve communication and enhance research databases amongst the three agencies.
   Two weeks into Congressional hearings, FBI Director Mueller, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge announced the possibility of further attacks. ‘It’s inevitable,’ Mueller was quoted in closed meeting of the National Association of District Attorneys. ‘There will be another terrorist attack and we will not be able to stop it.’
   Even with the could-be politically strategized alerts, the American public has demonstrated no change of interest in international news. It is an evident indicator that Americans have not mastered the lessons of global cooperation and awareness, nor the amount of effect its influence has on the rest of the world. ‘I am always struck by how much of what passes for international coverage here [US] is actually about American interest abroad,’ said Sambrook. ‘But there can be no doubt after 9-11 that America needs to take a close interest in the rest of world.’
   Foreign policy dictates what will happen in our world. One panelist, Emad Adeeb, Chairman of Al Alam Al Youm newspaper in Cairo said plainly, ‘How much of the globalization is being perceived on our side on the world—we know more about the US than they know about us.’ Mr Adeeb continued, ‘What happens in your part of the world is our local news, what happens in our part of the world is your foreign news.’
   Rather than coming forward and accepting the US characterization of an insular xenophobic society, Americans continue to curtail the issue of an uninformed public and dismissing the complacency to foreign affairs. Americans preferably play the blame game on Capital Hill in hopes to control "terror" well beyond their grasps. They attempt to dislodge any possibility that US foreign policy might have had a surmounting play in the events that lined up 9-11. Americans’ question ought not to be ‘Who did it?’ but, ‘Why, did we let it happen?’ •

   1. BA. Consultant, JY&A Consulting (http://jya.co). Copyright ©2002 by Donna Borak. All rights reserved. Republished with express permission of the author. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form without the written permission from the copyright holder.
   2. Conference held at the National Press Club in Washington sponsored by the PEW International Journalism Program. Other speakers at the conference included: Doyinsola Abiola, Vice Chairman, Concord Group Newspapers, Nigeria; Emad Adeeb, Chairman, Al Alam Al Youm newspaper, Cairo, Egypt; Martin Baron, Editor, The Boston Globe; Marcus Brauchli, National Editor, The Wall Street Journal; Steve Coll, Managing Editor, The Washington Post; Alex S. Jones, Director, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy; Kevin Klose, President & CEO, National Public Radio; Andrew Kohut, Director, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press; Bill Kovach, Chairman, Committee of Concerned Journalists; J. Gerardo Lopez, Editor, La Opinión; Dwight L. Morris, President, Dwight L. Morris and Associates; Robert Rivard, Editor, San Antonio Express–News; Richard Sambrook, Director, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News; Najam Sethi, Co-founder and Editor, The Friday Times, Pakistan.
   3. The research commissioned by PEW was conducted by Dwight L. Morris & Associates. The results of the survey, America and the World: the Impact of September 11 on US Coverage of International News, was discussed at a day-long conference (June 11) on the impact of the terrorists attacks on US coverage of foreign news.