June 4, 2002







An F-14B Tomcat and an F-18C Hornet prepare to launch from the USS John F. Kennedy at night in the Arabian Ocean, April 10, 2002.

War on terror:
A high-tech spectacle, but what about the human cost?

Michael Haller is the publisher of the German media review Message and is a professor for journalism at the University of Leipzig, Germany. He has worked for the weekly newsmagazines Der Spiegel and Die Zeit. The Big Story recently asked him his thoughts on American coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks. (Translated by Nicole Balzereit)

While international media criticized the lack of objectivity in the American media's coverage of September 11 and the war in Afghanistan, the American audience often perceived the coverage as not patriotic enough. What is the reason for this?

Michael Haller

Even more than during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in the past, many Americans felt directly threatened. This mysterious terrorist group dared to attack the most powerful superpower in the world. As soon as 12 hours after the attack, public opinion was settled: the bad ones there are waging a war with us, the good ones! This is what the U.S. government said, and this is what the media reported. By using the term "war," the world is divided into two camps: the allies and the enemies. This bipolarity was characteristic of the mainstream media after September 11 - and the general-interest publications were not able to escape this.

Those who did not report patriotically in the first months after September 11 lost readers / viewers.

How realistic is the maintenance of critical distance for such a big story - especially when New York-based journalists are directly involved in the events?

At the moment, those who write against public opinion that has been fueled by Washington run the risk of being stamped as enemies of America. So first of all, the American public needs to get out of this war hysteria. If this is actually a war, rather than a military conflict, it is a cultural one, which needs to be fought with arguments. Al Qaeda and bin Laden are fundamentalist criminals who need to be proceeded against by the police. As soon as journalists understand that the U.S.A. is not in a war but is chasing gangsters with police-military measures, they can re-adopt their traditional role as journalists and observe from a healthy distance.

Why is the U.S. government keeping information from the press?

We have to consider that the more questionable a war is, the smaller the agreement of the public is to warfare. Right after September 11, the justification to lead a war seemed very high. But the more September 11 moves into the past, and the blurrier the profiles of the perpetrators become, the more the readiness of Americans to accept victims on their own side diminishes. That is why the Pentagon has to strive to produce stories of success - even is these might merely be castles in the air.

How big was the influence of the American government on the media's coverage? Has the American media really been manipulated by the Bush administration, as the European press criticized?

Here, we have to distinguish between several phases: During the first 12 hours after the attacks, the important big media outlets and Bush played the information back and forth into each other's hands. Then the opinions had been made, and the themes and terms were set. When a nation says, "We are in war," the media is called upon to plead the nation's cause and to accept the repression and manipulation of information.

Let's wait until the Americans have recovered from their shock and have recognized the war hysteria for what it is. That's when the "normal" times will be back. The freedom of press itself is not threatened. The concept of freedom of information is far too deeply rooted in the U.S.A. Right now, most journalists are "sleeping" and are thereby missing their traditional role. But sooner or later they will wake up again.

What do we take away for the future from the media coverage after September 11? Is there anything in the coverage by the European media that you either criticize or regard as specifically well done in comparison to the American media?

After all the criticism I have to express some praise: We did not have a Susan Sontag in Germany! Many of the [German] media outlets acted as if the terrorists had struck in Berlin or Munich: They identified with the Americans. This is a typical German thing: to recommend oneself to others. German journalists should have had more neutral and distanced coverage.

On the underrepresentation of international news in the U.S. media: Many foreigners living in the United States as well as some Americans lament the American media's lack of reporting that goes beyond the rim of their own country. However, the events of September 11 worldwide stayed the number one topic in the media for a considerable amount of time. What are the reasons for America's seemingly lack of interest for what happens outside of its own country?

There are mainly three reasons: The United States are themselves as big as an entire continent, about which most Americans want and have to be informed as extensively as possible. Second, many U.S. citizens are not sufficiently educated to be interested in global affairs. And third: The United States is the leader in the world: Here is where the music plays! Why bother to deal with the weak and ill on the other side of the ocean?

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