Author: R. Nolan
August 15, 2002
Welcome to this week's edition of Global Q&A. Today we are speaking with Mr. Stephen Hess, media expert and Senior Fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. Mr. Hess is currently researching the role of the press in the war on terror, a topic he discussed with the Foreign Policy Association.
Over the past six months, we've had critics charging every possible bias against the press, from the New York Times Middle East coverage, to Fox News and CNN covering the war in Afghanistan. What role should the press be playing in the war on terror, and is it living up to that role?
SH: The role of the press is the same as the role of the press in any event – to cover issues that are important to their consumers and to cover them as completely and as accurately as possible. Actually, so far in the war on terrorism, the press has done quite well. The public recognized that initially. After 9/11 and its immediate aftermath confidence in the press shot way up. It's gone back down again, but I think that's because Americans have a skeptical view of the press in general, and as they think about other things besides terrorism, they've gone back to their previous view of the press as either politically biased in some cases or not interested in the things that they are interested in.
Afghanistan was a tough war to cover. The press did as well as it possible could. The Pentagon was not particularly helpful. Of course, we wouldn't expect reporters to be dropped in with Special Forces, but in general, this has been a very button-down administration. It has been a very dangerous war. Putting aside the death of Danny Pearl, eight war correspondents were killed in Afghanistan. They have been working on our behalf.
Do you think the initial surge in faith in the press came out of the patriotic spirit that swept the nation in the beginning of the war on terror, and now that it has cooled there comes a decline?
SH: I think that in part it was due to a need for the press at that time – an immediate need to know. Things were very important to Americans, and this was made even more evident by the anthrax scare. In other words, Americans ultimately weren't interested in Monica Lewinsky, or even in Gary Condit. They get a lot of attention on cable news, but they don't make much difference on our lives, and therefore the press actually gets criticized for things that are sensational or trivial. In this case, it is the opposite. The press was praised for giving us information that was so sensitive to us.
What about some of the more specific accusations, for example, early on the media was charged with being extremely patriotic and biased towards the U.S. Has that changed now that the war has become more multi-faceted, complicated and even controversial?
SH: There are criticisms of that, which you always see in the Noam Chomsky school of thought, of course. In fact, the American people were overwhelmingly in favor of the actions of the government, and the press was reflecting the reality of where the country was at. It did play up criticism in some areas, particularly in areas such as civil liberties and possible discrimination against Muslim Americans, for example. If there had been more dissent, I think the press would have covered more dissent.
Obviously information is a crucial aspect of any war, but the war on terror is the first of this century that has been so extremely intertwined with modern media. The so-called CNN effect has spread to the Middle East, with satellite stations such as Al Jazeera broadcasting vivid images to millions of people in the region and beyond. Which groups involved in the war on terror have used the media most effectively?
SH: I think what happened with Al Jazeera was that we were shocked that the Arab world had learned how to use the media as well. I don't mean that they were using it better than we had used it. After all, many claim that the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the rollback of Communism was importantly created, or certainly aided by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. We know, or think we have known how to use the media for a long time. The only thing that is a surprise in this case was the newness of an Arab network, sponsored and paid for in this case by an Arab nation, but in fact using many of the same techniques that the American media uses.
How would you evaluate the Bush administration's performance in the media war that has gone hand in hand in the war on terror?
SH: Well, in some areas, they have been incredible button-down, and journalists have not been happy with their access. They have done some things that are very credible from their point of view. Of course most importantly were the briefings by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield. It's quite amazing, when you think of what a Secretary of Defense has to do in a typical day, the amount of time he was clearly spending on briefing the press and on the preparation for briefing the press. It is quite remarkable. That paid big dividends. He became somewhat of an icon. The man is nearly 70-years-old and something of a celebrity. It's really something, and he did it quite well.
Another thing that they did exceedingly well in the terms of public diplomacy, or propaganda -- and I think this was probably mostly credited to Karen Hughes -- was in Afghanistan to quickly show what had happened to women under the Taliban government. Not only did they make the case very quickly that we were dealing with a very oppressive regime in rather graphic terms, but they neutralized one type of liberal element within the United States that might have been more critical had it not been so clear that the Americans were bringing women back into the 21st century in this country.
I'd like to touch on the issue of Iraq for a moment, since it seems that the media has played a very critical role here, whether by choice or not. Elements within the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department have always used the press to leak information, but the recent leaks concerning attack plans and other sensitive information seem more extreme than in the past. Is this a sign of division within the administration, or are they simply using the leaks to test public opinion? What's your take on that?
SH: We can make speculations about the nature of leaks. The Pentagon is very good about keeping secrets. When it wants to keep a secret, it is usually capable of doing so. It has to do in part with the fact that the people there are very disciplined. They are patriots. They operate on a need-to-know basis. So when you get some of the leaks in this regard coming out of the Pentagon, they are not leaks, but they are plants – that they have been deliberately put out there for one reason or another. On the other hand, it seems clear – although maybe Don Rumsfield is uniquely good actor – that he is very upset about this, and he is busy investigating this, which may suggest that they are not as good as we always thought they were, and this is a way of tightening up the system. If that is the case, if they are not plants, it would suggest that there is a good deal of debate of a serious enough nature, in which one side would choose to go to the press. By the way, when it comes to the military, the press is not considered a natural ally. There is a great deal of hostility toward the media in the military, largely growing out of the Vietnam War. You could play through this one, but obviously none of us know. Of course, the end result is that we do think we know things we didn't know before, and it will be useful in any serious debate that the nation should have, and really hasn't had. We've had a good debate on op-ed pages, a debate largely limited to the elite if you will. But really the two days of hearings in the Senate were the first public airing. By that I mean not that people said at those meetings things that we didn't already know, but that they were covered as news stories, rather than as op-ed or opinion.
While its pretty clear how people feel about Saddam Hussein as a person, in terms of invading Iraq, many have said that Bush has yet to make a convincing case for an attack on Iraq. However, a majority of Americans, according to recent public opinion polls, support an invasion, for almost, word for word, the same reasons you read in the press. Has the press played a role in shaping this public opinion?
SH: I don't think so. I think there are several things involved. First of all, there is a score left over from the Gulf War – the feeling that is wasn't ended properly, that we should have gone to Baghdad. Secondly, Saddam Hussein, because of the Gulf War, is far better known than most Gulf leaders. Also, wars at this point, certainly the Gulf War, the Bosnian war, the Afghan war, are very different from previous wars like Vietnam, Korea and World War II in that main street America really doesn't pay much for it – I mean in a serious way. We now have a volunteer army. The people who fight our wars are professionals who want to fight wars, as opposed to a draft of an army made up of people who would otherwise be doing something else. The wars have been quicker, because of effective use of air power. So we haven't really seen the consequences. When you ask the question on a public opinion poll, people haven't given a lot of thought to the question, because we're very involved in other things, including the state of the domestic economy. ‘Would you go to war with Saddam Hussein?' The answer is ‘Why not, we know he's a bad guy.' The question doesn't necessarily go in depth beyond that.
In this month's edition of the American Journalism Review, you discuss the rise of American interest in international news. Is there indeed an increase in interest?
SH: There has been an increase in space given to international news for obvious reasons. Whenever Americans are in harm's way there is going to be more attention given, and more Americans are going to be interested in that. I don't think that means that more Americans are interested in the monetary problems in Brazil, or Argentina. It would be nice to think that American news organizations are going to increase their coverage and put more correspondents abroad -- because its important, and they should, and they have a special responsibility as a business that really no other business, at least any business protected by the Constitution has -- but I don't see any sign of that. It's terribly expensive for one thing, and for various reasons major parts of the news business are in trouble financially. Advertising is down. But it's more than that. The argument that it is too expensive is relevant particularly to the broadcast television networks. But for example in print media, nearly every paper in the United States gets a huge quantity of foreign news through the Associated Press. Additionally, every newspaper has a second wire service, usually supplemental. It may be through the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times, so that every day, all of this news comes in to American newspapers that is already paid for. So you can't make the argument that they don't run it because it is costing them a lot of money – its not costing them anything since they have already paid for it. So I'm skeptical that we are going to see more news other than that which directly relates to U.S. involvement or potential involvement in other parts of the world.
Should American media companies be held more responsible for educating citizens – for making the international stories local and explaining the “Why”?
SH: I think localizing the stories as much as possible is a very good way to make them more interesting, and there is no question that there are local angles available. Now that implies that they have their own people there. Reuters is not going to localize a news story for the Ashtabula newspaper, so when you say they should localize a story, it implies that they should care enough to send their own people. I think wherever it has been done, and the examples are few but there are examples of small papers that have done that, and they have gotten a very positive response from their readers.
Trust and respectability are crucial to any kind of news provider. When we are dealing with situations like that in the Middle East, Kashmir – very highly sensitive issues that often touch close to home -- how much do Americans trust their news sources?
SH: The problem is that the news is read through the eye of the beholder, and you could be watching the same thing but if your interest is pro-Israel, you will see it one way and if your interest is pro-Palestinian you are going to see it another way. Because of the involvement of very vocal Americans, Jewish Americans and Arab Americans, they [news organizations] are very aware of this. Typically, news organizations really don't hear much from consumers, but in this area, they hear a lot from consumers. My feeling has been that the reporters do a very good job. They are top reporters, it's a top beat – they don't send rookies to cover the Middle East. I've been there myself to study the coverage there. I think we're being well served in that regard. I should say that in the Middle East, it is one of the few areas where news organizations have tended to keep their correspondents – because it is so important and because so many of their consumers care. There was a recent article in the New York Times, I believe, noting how many organizations are pulling their reporters out of Japan because it is no longer as important to us. Nobody is pulling their reporters out of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Cairo these days. Again, it's tough and dangerous reporting. Reporters are going to be killed before this is over.
Associated with: Information Technology and Media, Terrorism, US Role in the World, Transcripts