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?
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
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
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
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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