Oct. 27, 2002: Soul Searching Follows TV Coverage

The recent sniper attacks in the Washington D.C. area have people in the media assessing their coverage of that event. Good for them. This is a business quick to tell you about your own faults, but not given to introspection. I found this out the hard way.

After the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by Arab terrorists in September 2001, a column appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald from Conrad Fink, the highly respected journalism professor at the University of Georgia and former Associated Press vice president. Fink complained that the U.S. government wasn’t giving the media enough information about its plans to root out the terrorists in Afghanistan believed responsible for the bombings. I found his comments arrogant and I said so. Why the hell do we want the government telling us their battle plans so that we can print the details and let the enemy know what we are doing? Besides, how do we know the media would handle the information responsibly in this day of cutthroat competition?

Admittedly, I am new to this side of the media business, but I thought I had initiated some thoughtful dialogue. Maybe Professor Fink and I would engage in some friendly debate over a cup of coffee. Boy, was I naïve. Fink took my criticisms in high dudgeon. He and his colleagues were indignant that a robber baron-turned-columnist would dare challenge the opinions of a media grandee like himself. One of his minions publicly questioned my credentials because I belong to a country club, as if that has anything to do with anything. Another charged that I didn’t know what I was talking about (an accusation that the Woman Who Shares My Name has leveled at me more than once.)

Then I realized the extent of the problem with the media. Journalists in the business and those who teach them refuse to be judged by any standard but their own, notwithstanding that the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University says public support for the media is fast eroding. I must have missed a class when I was in journalism school several millennia ago, because I thought we were supposed to be serving the public, not our own egos.

Now one year after my dustup with the journalism professors, the media have been moved to some self-evaluation of how they handled the sniper story. Reviews are mixed. Newspaper coverage for the most part was balanced. The television coverage – and this was a made-for-TV event – was clearly over the top and careened from irresponsible speculation to paralysis by analysis. Not surprisingly, the 24-hour cable channels saw little wrong with their performance, with the major exception of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, one of cable television’s leading lights, who found the coverage seriously wanting and observed that, “Sooner or later we are going to have to confront the growing irresponsibility of the media in America.” The man is as refreshing as a cool drink of water.

Perhaps O’Reilly heard the same question I did from the reporter who asked a Department of Defense spokesman if the government didn’t share some responsibility for the attacks that killed ten people given that John Mohammad, the alleged sniper, received marksmanship training in the U.S. Army. Chances are better than good that the bird-brained reporter didn’t ask the local imam if Mohammad went dingy when he converted to Islam, and certainly didn’t ask Louis Farrakhan if the fact that Mohammad worked security for one of his Million Bowtie Marches might have inspired him to take target practice on innocent American citizens.

I am glad to see the media doing some serious soul-searching. Terrorism has been a way of life in this country for a while now. How such acts are reported will have a major impact on the role we assign the media in our society and the way we view each other. Journalists in the business and those who teach them had best remember that, in the end, only the public’s opinion of their performance matters, not their own. I hope that our thin-skinned journalism professors are making that point with their young charges. After my experiences last year, however, I’m not optimistic.