20 years after 9/11, political journalists decry extreme polarization but blame no one, certainly not themselves

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(I’m relaunching Press Watch today after taking some time to deal with other things and think about the site’s future. Thanks for bearing with me. More soon.)

Looking back on how America went from a moment of profound unity after 9/11 to the extreme political polarization of today, the mainstream media tells itself – and us – a profoundly self-serving story.

The same elite journalists who contemporaneously failed to hold the responsible parties accountable are now telling us there is really no one to blame, it just sort of happened, it was kind of inevitable, and there was certainly nothing the press could have done about it.

But it doesn’t take much distance to see how wrong that is.

Another way to tell that story is to describe how, from the Bush administration until today, Republican Party leaders have time and again crossed lines that the fourth estate should have been defending, but didn’t.

They sent the nation to war on a lie, lied about its conduct, lied about surveillance, lied about torture, lied to cover up their misdeeds. They lied about taxes, they lied about Democrats. Eventually, under Trump, they lied about almost everything. They turned Americans against each other – mostly whites against “other”.

And rather than call out these affronts to core journalistic values, mainstream reporters took notes. The press coverage was largely anodyne, because news journalists aren’t supposed to “take sides”. But without a powerful, unified voice from the mainstream media consistently asserting the truth and unabashedly upholding values like plurality and tolerance, the lies and the nativism spread and took hold among a horrifyingly large chunk of the public.

You won’t get any indication of that in the news columns of the Washington Post or the New York Times (although you may see it in the opinion sections).

It would require sober self-reflection and humility. It would mean putting aside two decades of day-in-day-out self-rationalization. It would mean admitting they failed.

So obviously it’s out of the question.

And there is zero appetite within the leadership of our major newsrooms to change course.

Consider Sunday’s front-page Washington Post story by Dan Balz, arguably the dean of the political press corps, headlined in the print edition: “We locked arms. Now, we’re at our throats.” Its subhead: “The attacks couldn’t stanch a deepening rift. Time has made it worse.”

It’s a master class in passive construction. How did we get from the “determined and resilient expression of national unity” after 9/11 to the “political wars that rage and have deepened”? Well, it just happened:

Americans reverted more quickly than some analysts expected to older patterns of partisanship. With time, new divisions over new issues have emerged, and they make the prospect of a united nation ever more distant.

Balz does acknowledge an echo between Bush’s rhetoric and the current politics: “Bush described the world in Manichaean terms: good vs. evil,” Balz writes. “Today’s politics at home is often practiced that way.”

But Balz bizarrely diagnoses the problem as “disillusionment and cynicism on the part of citizens” — born of the false assertions of certitude about the progress of the wars from “one president after another.” That’s passive, euphemistic – and nutty.

The root of the real problem is that Bush (along with Dick Cheney and Karl Rove) made a mockery of what one White House official (probably Rove) called “the reality-based community.” Whether it was lying about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, or denying the state-sanctioned torture of detainees, or attacking war-hero John Kerry as unpatriotic, it was the Bush administration that created the climate of reality-denying that fuels the radical right-wing extremism (not simply “polarization) of today.

To Balz, however, it just happened:

The 2003 invasion was based on what turned out to be a lie, that there was credible intelligence evidence that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had a stock of weapons of mass destruction. After Hussein was ousted, U.S. officials tried to remake Iraq in a misguided and bungled effort to establish Western-style democracy and institutions in that country.

Eventually, “confidence was undermined,” Balz writes. The war on terror “turned into” a political wedge.

And now the pandemic “has become a political conflict.”

In Balz’s view – in the Washington Post’s view, in the New York Times’s view — nobody on the right has agency. The press has no agency.

By Contrast

Lucky for us, Will Bunch, the gutsy political columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently published an important piece headlined: “We knew America would never be the same after 9/11. We didn’t know how bad.

Here’s how he tells the story of what happened after 9/11. It’s so much clearer, so much stronger, so much truer than Balz’s account:

Any national unity dissolved rapidly into fear and paranoia, which a cynical new government in Washington preferred to exploit rather than tamp down — the better to plant our flag in oil-rich lands abroad and silence any dissent here at home. Those bad tidings — and the conspiratorial mindset we embraced in the wake of 9/11 — would be turned against nations that had nothing to do with the attacks, against immigrants in general, against legitimate protest, and finally, inevitably, against one another. The era that started with the Islamic radicals who hijacked Flight 93 failing to reach the U.S. Capitol dome ended with American fanatics breaching its rotunda. The late Osama bin Laden could not have drafted a better script for his evil ambitions.

Who was responsible? “That fish stunk from the head,” Bunch writes. He deftly ties the angry, authoritarian nativism that Trump stoked and exploited to Bush’s “homeland-security state.”

And Bunch zeroes in on the press’s gullibility — how it “created the petri dish of cynicism and distrust that allowed conspiracy theories to nurture and grow, first about 9/11 itself but eventually about matters as diverse as ‘the Big Lie’ of the 2020 election or COVID-19 vaccines.”

Amen.

Bunch is hardly alone in his diagnosis of the problem – I dare say most reality-based observers of politics share his take, privately if not publicly. The news journalists among them are simply too afraid – and too compromised – to say so.

New York Times opinion writer Jamelle Bouie is not so constrained, and he nailed it in the first paragraph of his column, “George W. Bush 2021, Meet George W. Bush 2001,” on Monday:

You can draw a straight line from the “war on terror” to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, from the state of exception that gave us mass surveillance, indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition and “enhanced interrogation” to the insurrectionist conviction that the only way to save America is to subvert it.

He explained:

The “war on terror” eroded the institutions of American democracy and fed our most reactionary impulses. It set the stage for a new political movement with an old idea: that some Americans belong and some don’t; that some are “real” and some are not; that the people who are entitled to rule are a narrow, exclusive group.

Two new books make a similar argument.

In “Subtle Tools : The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump,” national security law expert Karen Greenberg writes how “the subtle tools forged out of the wreckage of 9/11 have acted as a corrosive blanket smothering the good out of a democracy in turmoil.” Chief among those tools is “the degradation of language, the starting point for political dishonesty and power mongering, and the platform upon which undemocratic and unlawful policies have been fashioned.” Other tools include “confusion and imprecision in the roles and responsibilities of the institutions of government,” and, of course, “secrecy and the withholding of facts.”

All those tools are an affront to truth-tellers. But expressions of protest from the journalists working on these stories were essentially nonexistent.

In “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 era destabilized America and produced Trump,” national security journalist Spencer Ackerman writes that “The sense of civilizational besiegement that the Forever War inspired was central to MAGA.” It “revitalized the most barbarous currents in American history, gave them renewed purpose, and set them on the march.”

Anniversaries aren’t always significant. But this one, coming as we painfully extracted ourselves from war in Afghanistan, provided an opportunity for some serious self-reflection and self-assessment from the leaders of our major newsrooms.

But I see no signs of that. They prefer the blissful passivity of Dan Balz and his prose.

Related Reading

  • The press went belly-up to George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks – starting on Day One. Eric Alterman brilliantly revisits Bush’s bumbling, terrified immediate response to the attack.
  • Although it’s somehow been lost to history, one of the finest critiques of the press corps’ role as “complicit enablers” in the Bush administration’s Iraq-war sales job came in Bush press secretary Scott McClellan’s 2008 book.
  • I wrote about the unlearned journalistic lessons in 2007 and 2008, back when I was working for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
  • In my final White House Watch column for the Washington Post, in June 2009, I looked back at the Bush years and what struck me the most was all the lies, and how political reporters consistently failed to challenge them.
  • And Balz has been a frequent topic of this website, most notably here.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Alterman thinks Bush may have had some sort of breakdown after the 9/11 attacks. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. I figure that’s what happened when he went AWOL from the Texas National Air Guard back in the ’60s, too. Bush was an F-102 pilot, and those planes had some dangerous characteristics that killed quite a few pilots. I’ve always figured Bush had some sort of in-flight incident that completely freaked him out, so he just quit. And his old man had enough clout to cover it all up. The same sort of panic attack could well have happened on 9/11–certainly that deer-in-the-headlights look on his face when he was told what happened in that classroom suggests the guy was literally stunned.

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