A Media Day In Infamy

Historically, when national and local media respond to a breaking emergency, speculation and hyperbole take over. On Tuesday morning we witnessed, again, how powerful media images can electrify a world instantly; and, how we in the media sometimes use our power irresponsibly.

For hours in the morning, Tom Brokaw and NBC were reporting that the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- along with Hamas, one of the two groups responsible for many of the suicide bombings in Israel -- had claimed responsibility for the attack. That unsubstantiated claim turned out to be based upon one anonymous phone call to Abu Dhabi television, but it lasted for hours, until a DFLP spokesman could call and explicitly disavow it.

That was just the tip of it. Speculation was rampant, on absolutely no evidence, that someone Islamic -- usually Osama bin Laden -- was responsible, but that speculation often broadly invoked "Islam" as responsible -- using every adherant of one of the world's largest religions, with a couple of billion believers, as shorthand for "terrorist." Pat Robertson was on the 700 Club within an hour, blaming Islam itself, and later, on Fox, talking about Satan and Arabs. It was reminiscent of what turned out to be grossly inaccurate reports, in the first few hours after the Oklahoma City bombing, that "Arabs" were behind it. If I were Arab-American, I'd be scared.

As it became clear that the immediate attacks were over, the talking heads moved in. Across the country, media localized the story by reporting on our communal fear. It not only recited the local closings (done either out of prudence or panic), but, also, as the hours and repetition wore on, trotted in "experts" who offered speculation as truth. The cacophony itself added to our communal fear.

Mercifully, no New York official was foolhardy enough to immediately speculate on casualties. Had anyone put out a number, particularly a fantastic number, it would have been stripped of caveats and instantly bandied about as a received truth, adding to the public's sense of panic. Both national and local media also deserve credit for avoiding excessive speculation on the numbers of casualties.

But while speculation on who was responsible ran wild, without exception, not one talking head I saw or heard wanted to touch on the why, except for occasional references to madmen. But it was, and is, worse than that. The attackers were not insane; they were engaging in a cold-blooded, premeditated mass murder of another country's civilians to achieve political ends. Some of the networks' talking heads -- former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Al Haig come to mind -- had, in the past, overseen the same things.

Haig, interviewed by CNN's Judy Woodruff, decried that those who might "quibble," based on "a misguided sense of social justice," with a U.S. response that takes innocent lives abroad or denies constitutional rights at home. Woodruff did not question this remarkable assertion.

Our collective, emotional public response is to want vengeance. Who would feel differently? It's hard to say why this happened, but there has been so much bloodshed around the world that the U.S. has been associated with -- often with much higher death tolls than this attack but with fewer cameras present -- that it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that the same feelings we have this week -- of fear, vulnerability, rage -- are the feelings that motivated this cowardly attack in the first place. That was territory no media reports dared venture into.

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