June 1, 2002







Brill on Content:
Media did a good job on 9/11, he says, but now they're up to old tricks


Brill's Content folded last year, but Brill remains in the media review game. He is now writing a book on the country's response to September 11, parts of which will look at how the media performed

What do you see as the most important story the media didn't cover in the obsession over 9/11?

I'm writing a book on how the U.S. came back from September 11, taking a look from various perspectives including the Red Cross's response, the airline bailout, National Security, etc. One thing I will say is there has been a lot of unfair coverage of Tom Ridge. The media has misjudged what his job is supposed to be. He is much more important than the New York Times and Washington Post have given him credit for. The National Security Advisor has no staff or significant budget and no one would dispute that Condoleeza Rice is influential on national security issues. I would suggest that if Ridge had an agency he would have less power not more. He oversees all activities that deal with this war on terrorism. In the process he channels an incredible amount of money and power towards fighting that war.

Additionally, the media, including the New York Times and others has overplayed and exacerbated issues around the victims' families' funds and the Red Cross. Most families are happy with the settlements.

How has the 9/11 story affected the media's players? Who has capitalized and who has lost out?

Top journalism organizations have done a fantastic job including New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times, Time and Newsweek. They found themselves in a situation where they had really important news to report. For example, the 12 people at the New York Times who cover this story are very talented and they have been doing a great job with it. They have taken new approaches to the story and done great reporting.

Regarding the TV coverage, this kind of story exposes how the TV networks were less equipped than ever to handle such a story. Over the past few years they have been stripped bare of their news gathering capabilities. There was a time when networks had bureaus at the Justice Department, Congress and the Pentagon with a single person who spent all of his/her time covering the news from that source.

Because this story is more visual than most, how did it feed the already obsessive media?

"Recently CNN did a live telecast of Robert Blake riding to jail in a police car...If this is where TV news coverage is going we're really in trouble."

The media responds what the population wants. So as time has passed since 9/11 the media has shifted its focus to less newsworthy subjects. The coverage might have changed, i.e., gotten worse, but the threat of terrorism today is the same as it was in October. By watching TV one might not get the sense that this is true. [Recently] CNN did a live telecast of Robert Blake riding to jail in a police car. He was not resisting, just sitting in the back of a car. They covered it like it was another O.J. slow speed chase. If this is where TV news coverage is going we're really in trouble.

There are more important issues out there - border security for example. Everyday, 700 containers a day come into the U.S. unchecked. Our northern borders are not guarded. We are moving to a national ID system and we don't have supporting law or infrastructure to handle it. Everywhere you go you are asked for identification. The media should be leading people. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and others are leading people but other media outlets are not. Just at a time when we benefit from interesting debate on a show like CNN's Crossfire, it gets jazzed up and recast as a boxing match. This is not good.

How well have the traditional big three networks handled the Big Story in comparison with the 24-hour news channels?

It makes Ted Koppel more willing to show up to work 25 to 30 weeks per year and now the show is great. When news people get paid $5 to 8 million salaries attracting eyeballs becomes a higher priority over reporting the news. Having a lot of money doesn't make these guys bad people. I have a lot of money and I'm not a bad guy. It's just that they have a different focus. If these guys were willing to go back to the salaries that Walter Kronkite and Ed Murrow were making they would be more accountable for lifting the standards of journalism.

For the last few years the trouble with the media was that the news became less important in the lives of people. We had no Cold War, no civil rights unrest in the South, no Vietnam War and a good economy. On Sept. 12 this changed and news became very important to people again. People needed news again. People turned to news sources that they trusted. In the aftermath of the attacks, CNN did well in getting people information when they needed it. Now, if people want to watch talking heads fight they can turn on Chris Matthews or whatever person and format CNN is putting on the air today.

Has this Big Story changed how Big Stories will be covered in the future?

If anything this story has reminded journalists and people who consume media that journalism is a pretty important profession and function in society. I think it would be easier in October to convince people to go into the profession than it was in August. I am personally concerned about the country's shrinking attention span. The country needs to pay closer attention to the real stories. If God forbid we have another attack, journalists will once again be on point to deliver the news effectively.

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