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Media Circus

All Apologies

By Michael Anft | Posted 11/7/2001

With all hell breaking loose at home and abroad, we need leaders who will take responsibility for their actions--and inactions--as well as protect us from those who would do us harm. This all seems plain and simple enough; a government that can't protect its people doesn't deserve to exist, and likely won't continue to. The press' role in all this is to ask the right questions and encourage vigilance from our would-be protectors, along with (sometimes loudly) pointing out their mistakes.

Very few editors and reporters, caught up in the hysteria of an anthrax "epidemic" that threatens to involve three figures' worth of people--maybe--out of 280 million, have taken this role seriously. Fed handouts from the glib secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and almost-daily alarmism from Attorney General John Ashcroft, the front-line chroniclers of history have chosen to tackle bioterrorism one victim at a time while taking Rumsfeld's word on progress in the war against Afghanistan (or its leaders, or its terrorists, or . . . whatever).

The result has been pillowy coverage, a free ride for a government that taxpayers feed billions of dollars annually to save them from the sort of things that happened Sept. 11 and after. That the federal apparatus has failed--from the CIA to the FBI to the postmaster general to the past and current administrations--is beyond question. But amid the flag-waving and "God Bless America"-singing, there's apparently no safe and popular way to say it. (And media, being a collection of saleable products, mustn't be unpatriotic enough to hurt sales, right?) Outside of an op-ed piece or two, the daily print medium's inclination has been to give breath-by-breath accounts of whatever calamity it's trailing. When it comes to asking hard questions--Why are there no suspects in the anthrax cases yet? Do we even know if Osama Bin Laden is in Afghanistan? Why is George Tenet still running the CIA?--reporters have held back, citing "unprecedented times" or some such hooey.

Local scribes are not immune to such head-in-the-sand irresponsibility. Sun columnist Dan Rodricks' Oct. 26 piece is headlined, "In uncertain times, government officials are still human, too." Rodricks is careful to note that elected officeholders and political appointees aren't above criticism, but he adds that they should be excused this time around. "[Y]es, the feds messed up by not getting postal workers in Washington tested earlier, but I'd like to remind all the second-guessers out there that we've been floating in uncharted space since Sept. 11." Well, yeah. But it's the government's job to at least foresee the possibility of such "uncharted space" (they spend hundreds of millions per year on it), and it's the media's job to make sure the government is taking care of such things--to "second-guess" it, and sometimes first-guess it.

The column is particularly galling given that the infection of postal workers has been one of the few occurrences that caused the slumbering media giant to stir--or at least regurgitate compelling questions, posed by postal-union officials. Even as his colleagues showed faint signs of life, Rodricks equated the government's failure to fulfill its responsibility with insufficient public anti-terrorism. "I'm guessing that you never wrote your congressional rep to ask for more federal funding to protect the nation against possible anthrax attacks," he wrote, evincing a fourth-grader's naiveté about the workings of government.

Five days later, Rodricks dug some sand out of his ears and took a step back from such water-carrying, exposing his argument to "a little tinkering" and blaming politicians past and present for not properly pushing preparedness. Good for him. But the impulse to bury a journalist's raison d'être--asking the right questions of people in high places--lives on elsewhere. And there are so many questions.

Strange Bedfellows

Given the circumstances, it's tempting to applaud WBFF (channel 45) general manager Bill Fanshawe and parent company Sinclair Broadcasting's senior vice president, Mark Hyman, for their on-air editorials lambasting The Sun. We would, if they'd gone on about the daily monopoly's eviscerated coverage of the city, weak columnists, and useless Business and Live sections. But their tersely worded broadsides made us laugh more than anything else.

In mid-September, Fanshawe blasted Sun media reporter David Folkenflik's worthwhile coverage of tensions within WBFF's news department and the station's overt (and ethically questionable) enlisting of its ostensible journalists in the flag-waving fervor. Late last month, Hyman accused the daily of teaching would-be terrorists how to refine anthrax in an Oct. 18 graphic, officially joining in the hysteria without recognizing that the graphic lacked vital information (like how to get ahold of anthrax, for example).

The snit between media companies comes at a time when the two have an informal arrangement to give Sun writers face time on 45's abysmally rated morning show. So far, about 10 Sun staffers have made the trek from Calvert Street to TV Hill as part of a public-relations campaign designed to increase their visibility. "We call it the 'columnist campaign,'" Sun spokesperson Carol Dreyfuss says. The most amusing sortie of which came when Folkenflik showed up on 45 last month to provide content for an organization about which he reports. No word on whether he and Fanshawe mixed it up in the hallway.

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