Losing the Terror's Trail

While it is busy rewarding itself with accolades for bravery and insight for coverage of the war on terror, the American Fourth Estate might also take the time to examine what went wrong in its own ranks over the past two and a half years.

The U.S. media's record from 9/11 to 3/11 is not encouraging. Prior to the attacks on Sept. 11th, 2001, the mainstream American news media gutted its foreign news coverage. News magazines and networks eliminated half of their overseas bureaus. Stories from distant lands virtually disappeared from front pages and 30-minute prime time TV news shows.

So it did not come as a surprise to everyone in the business that U.S. media outlets were so ill-prepared for the ensuing war on terror. Eager to satisfy their domestic audience's anger and newfound patriotism, news organizations regularly portrayed the warriors on our side as do-no-wrong wonder boys and the killers on the other side as wild-eyed fanatics.

Good Vs. Evil

The essentials of "the story" were black and white. A bearded and barbaric Osama bin Laden, burrowed away in his subterranean digs in the Afghan highlands, had ordered his minions to attack America, whose leader was now standing up like a gruff Western sheriff to announce that he would bring bin Laden to justice "dead or alive."

This typecast scenario and its promotion on the airwaves helps explain President Bush's skyrocketing popularity in those heady early days of the war on terror. In the eyes of the media, he and the experienced members of his war room could do little wrong.

With the expected collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the hunt for the "bad guys" was on. But most news organizations -- still caught in the vice grip of the struggle of good against evil -- never bothered to examine the real reasons for the American failure to nab bin Laden and his cohorts in Afghanistan when the opportunity clearly presented itself. Relying on background briefings and Pentagon press releases, the media looked stumped when bin Laden and his top lieutenants slipped the noose at the battle of Tora Bora.

When it became clear that bin Laden and company had fled to Pakistan beneath the wings of the world's most powerful military, the Secretary of Defense flew into Afghanistan to promote an obscure story about the discovery of a clandestine chemical weapons laboratory.

Reporting conditions were indeed difficult, not to mention dangerous. Yet, even in the aftermath, few news organizations bothered to examine how the heavy and misdirected U.S. aerial bombing of Tora Bora in October and November of 2001 killed scores of Afghan civilians and alienated the very tribesmen that the Pentagon was hoping to win over in its efforts to corner bin Laden.

While senior White House and defense officials argued after Tora Bora that sending more American troops into the fray would have created a logistical nightmare, no similar arguments were put forth three months later when hundreds of U.S. troops were whisked into the battle labeled Anaconda.

Apart from some rare critical analysis led by the New York Times' defense writer Michael Gordon, Afghanistan was logged as a successful "regime change." Pentagon planners went on record claiming a "huge victory." Few in the Fourth Estate thought to challenge that assertion.

The upshot of the media's Afghan cheerleading was a less-than-critical approach to the looming war with Iraq. The appealing idea of yet another easily-achieved "regime change" flashed across the airwaves of America. Major news magazines featured Donald Rumsfeld's plan on their cover with a sharp-looking secretary of defense touted inside as the man with the plan.

Whither WMD?

Rather than focus on the most pertinent question of whether an invasion of Iraq was a logical progression of the war on terror begun in Afghanistan, the U.S. media obsessed over another question: "Does Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction or not? In the absence of solid analysis of the Iraqi regime's ties to Al Qaeda, national polls indicated that most Americans believed that the nefarious Saddam had direct links to the 9/11 tragedy.

Again, the administration drove the agenda. The media held up the spotlight on France, whose government the Fox Channel and some others pilloried as our only real nemesis; the old curmudgeonly ally who now wanted to cut short our legitimate efforts to fight evil. Rarely was it highlighted that French President Jacques Chirac's views were actually those of the vast majority of Europeans in "old and new Europe," rational minds that didn't comprehend the logic of invading Iraq at a time in history when it was likely to stir a hornet's nest of terror in the Middle East. (Polls in Spain, for example, put opposition to the U.S. invasion plan at between 80 and 90 percent.) The media almost completely ignored the softer but, nevertheless, dissenting voices of our Canadian and Mexican allies.

Left unchecked, pro-invasion rhetoric in America snow-balled.

Journalists, anxious to make their names, leapt on the backs of Abrams tanks headed into the Iraq desert. Behind the scenes, publishing houses across our great land prepared scores of glossy new titles for the coming year that would depict the conquest of the Arabian sands and the fall of Baghdad. It was a story, they presumed, that the American public would devour.

Alas, a few weeks after the conquest of Baghdad -- about the time that news reporters finally convinced their editors that the cheering Iraqi crowds, which hadn't ever been out in force anyway, were now nowhere to be seen - the Fourth Estate started to ask unusually hard questions about just where those dreaded WMD's really were.

Networks and news organizations began stressing the downside of the invasion. The Al Qaeda connection? That looked incredibly dubious now as well.

By this time, of course, it was too late to reverse the course of U.S. foreign policy. A tattered stars and stripes fluttered lamely in the Arabian winds, battered by sandstorms and the loss of internationally credibility. We were in the Middle East for keeps. Iraq's Al Qaeda fighters, whom the administration had prematurely warned us of, were now trickling across porous borders to take on their own enemy number one, the American G.I.

Even if the Fourth Estate wasn't paying attention to how we ended up in this fix, the American public -- not quite as naïve as they might have appeared to some -- was finally taking note of the ironies.

Philip Smucker covered the war in Afghanistan and the latest war in Iraq. He is the author of "Al Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail," April, 2004; Brassey's Inc.

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