Even before the Twin Towers had fallen on Tuesday, the media hunt for the villains had begun. Informed speculation immediately suggested the handiwork of Osama bin Laden. Lesser villains faced charges from different quarters: our current administration, the previous administration, down to the airport security guards and check-in personnel who failed to spot the hijackers.
"Who's to blame?" is the second thing we all say when tragedy strikes -- right after "Oh, my God." It's an extremely human response to an incomprehensible situation.
Near the top of many people's list of culpable parties is the U.S. intelligence community. The phrase "massive failure of intelligence" became one of this week's numbing clichis. But what no one is talking about is another, equally serious intelligence failure -- the failure of the media to properly estimate the intelligence of the American people by catering to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of ratings and, of course, money.
As shocking as Tuesday's attacks were, it shouldn't have been quite so surprising. Only seven months ago, a congressionally mandated federal commission released a prophetic report predicting this kind of terrorist assault on U.S. soil, concluding that the question was not if a terrorist attack on America could happen but when.
The U.S. Commission on National Security, headed by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, found that "despite the end of the Cold War threat, America faces distinctly new dangers, particularly to the homeland" and identified "homeland security as a primary national security mission." The commission chairmen continued to lobby the administration to heed its recommendations as recently as last Thursday when Hart called Condoleezza Rice. A key conclusion of the commission was the need to replace the hodgepodge of agencies that currently deal with terrorist threats and attacks -- including the CIA, the Justice Department, the Defense Department, FEMA, U.S. Customs and the Coast Guard -- by the National Homeland Security Agency. Like the rest of the report, this simple and sensible suggestion was ignored.
Don't feel bad if you didn't hear about this report. Despite its far-reaching implications regarding the security and the very future of our nation, very few people read it. Indeed, very few reporters read it. Or, if they did, very few of them reported that they had read it. In fact, the Hart-Rudman report received practically no play either in print or on television.
"What happened," Hart told me, "ought to call into question what is important in our society and how the media cover it. But no one is asking this on TV, and I'd be amazed if there was a single discussion on the board of any newspaper asking: Did we do our job? There seems to be no self-reflection, no understanding by the media that they have a job under the direction of the Constitution to inform, not just entertain, the American people."
At the time the report came out, the media were too busy ferreting out the latest info on the supposed defacing of the White House by Gore loyalists and, later, on Gary Condit, over-age Little Leaguers and shark attacks.
In our modern, information-drenched times, the power of the media has increased as dramatically as the number of people wielding that power has shrunk. We are at their mercy. They set the agenda, they decide what we as a nation should be concentrating on.
The First Amendment wasn't intended as a license to make billions. It was there to guarantee that the people stay informed. And when the media fail at this job, we all suffer.
Unfortunately, the American press's penchant for rigorous -- even merely diligent -- reporting is rapidly disappearing, a victim of corporate pressure to build the bottom line and not rock the highly profitable status quo. Muckraking has been replaced by smut-raking, with the media hunting down the latest sensation as opposed to the hard stories that are essential to maintaining our freedom and democracy. But after Sept. 11, it seems fair to say that the real danger to Americans isn't shark attacks. And the sad fact is that the media should have known what the real danger was -- and should have told us.
Forewarned is forearmed. And there is no doubt that we all would have been better prepared if the media had focused 10 percent of the energy and resources it spent obsessing about Condit on talking about the findings of the National Security Commission.
So we are faced with a media that gives us bread, circuses and people being forced to confront their darkest fears -- while shying away from issues of vital importance out of fear of scaring viewers away. Better to bury their talking heads in the sand. That's the real fear factor media critics should be writing about.
No one can deny that the threat of international terrorism is a complex onion to peel. But, after this week, is there anyone doubting that it is an important story worth explaining with all the skill and seductive power that we know news professionals can muster?
Hindsight is always 20/20. But we'll forever wonder: Would the World Trade Center still be standing today if the Hart-Rudman report had been spotlit instead of swept under the Gary Condit rug?