It all came rushing back — the “War with Islam?” graphics, the terrorism experts, the breathless reports of a “suspicious van” parked near Times Square, and Chris Matthews mincing no words when describing the Al Qaeda threat.
"They’re the enemy. They’re going to use any means they can to get us,” he said Tuesday on “Hardball” before moving on to the next segment and what’s being done to keep “killers off our airplanes.”
Whether online or on air, many journalists and networks stars gave up their holiday vacations to participate in round-the-clock coverage of the plot to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253. And given “systemic failure” cited by President Barack Obama it’s understandable that the media would devote the majority of its resources to the unfolding drama, presenting a clearer picture of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian at the center of the story, and how intelligence agencies didn’t connect the dots before a near-catastrophe over Detroit.
One reason for the sustained coverage, according to Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, who has been studying terrorism for decades, is that a link to Al Qaeda became clear quickly. That, the uptick in travel around the holidays — and the apparent symbolism of an attack planned for Christmas Day — as well as a holiday news vacuum, ensured the most sustained media focus on terrorism since British police foiled a 2006 scheme to detonate explosives aboard 10 planes.
But many of the questions being asked in the last decade’s final days go back to those posed at the beginning of the decade, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, like some twisted version of Groundhog Day.
All week, partisan pundits and terrorism experts have debated the merits of torture and racial profiling, whether the U.S. needs to intervene in a foreign country that’s providing a safe haven for terrorists — this time Yemen, not Afghanistan — and whether the government is taking the threat of Islamic terrorism seriously.
“Our enemies believe they're doing this for their God,” said Fox News strategic analyst Ralph Peters on the air Monday. “And when you face religious fanatics, who are determined to kill you, it is a zero-sum game. Court-martialing Seals is not going to impress our enemies. Killing them will impress them.”
Peters said that Islamic terrorists will take away from this event “that we're afraid to admit what our enemy's all about,” adding, “let's see if there's an attack on Easter.”
Later that night on Fox, Karl Rove took issue with Obama’s early statements and treatment of the threat while speaking with Tucker Carlson, a fill-in host for Sean Hannity. “Please, Mr. President, don't play us for suckers,” Rove said. “This is not an isolated extremist. It is part of an international conspiracy which struck us on 9/11 and has been attempting to hurt us every day since then.”
Judy Miller, the former New York Times reporter whose stories on faulty intelligence are commonly included among the biggest blunders in pre-Iraq War coverage, criticized embattled Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano as someone who “has been allergic to the idea of combating terrorism since the day that she was appointed.”
At the same time over on MSNBC, host Rachel Maddow mocked Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for claiming that the attempted bombing Friday was a response to recent air strikes, noting that factually the dates don’t add up. “So, nice try nihilist dirtbags,” Maddow said, “but it`s back to remedial propaganda class for you.”
But there have been few voices taking the position on air — especially with a bit of humor — that the threat of Al Qaeda may be overly exaggerated. Spencer Ackerman, who covers national security for the Washington Independent has been one exception, saying on MSNBC Tuesday that “Al Qaeda is a dangerous and really important threat, but they are not a super army of supermen with, like, Muslim heat vision and so forth.” Therefore, he continued, “it’s ludicrous to think that we should inflate how dangerous they are, because that’s exactly what they want us to do.”
Pat Buchanan, however, responded with an image that brought back the specter of Sept. 11: “Look, there are 3,000 dead people who can testify to how dangerous they are,” he said.
But Peters and Buchanan haven’t been the only television commentators talking up the enemy’s desire to kill Americans and the possibility of future attacks. Indeed, the volume of reporting during the day often gives way to more heated opining at night, raising questions about whether the media’s ability to inform can be shadowed by the potential to inflame.
“You need to report in context at all times,” said Brian Ross, ABC News chief investigative correspondent, adding that there’s always a “danger that we make [Al Qaeda] seem so powerful” in describing the situation as it unfolds.
Ross, along with ABC colleagues Richard Esposito and Pierre Thomas, has been advancing the Flight 253 story since Friday night, including obtaining the first photographs of the underwear bomb — an image that will surely live on long after this botched attack recedes to the back pages.
Interviewed on Tuesday, just after finishing a “Special Report” that broke into ABC’s regularly scheduled programming, Ross said that Obama’s remarks that afternoon justified the resources and air time being devoted. “It’s as serious as anything gets,” he said.
Of course, ABC isn’t the only network with an investigative team all over the story. CBS News first reported that PETN was the explosive in question and that a syringe was being used to detonate it. CBS also followed up in connecting the dots, reporting that the CIA had been monitoring “the Nigerian” since August and that the U.S. government hadn’t found Abdulmutallab’s visa more than once after his father gave his prescient warning to Nigerian embassy officials.
NBC Washington bureau chief Mark Whitaker noted that while his network is “always sensitive to being alarmist,” it “wouldn’t be serving [our viewers] well if we didn't report aggressively how it happened, who was behind it and what lessons we need to learn from it."
And the cable ratings for Friday night indicated that there was intensive interest, Christmas or not. CNN, relying on its vast international resources to cover the story, averaged the most viewers in prime time. It was the first time in four months that the network took the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. block. Fox News also quickly switched to Flight 253 coverage on Friday night, and came in a close second, while MSNBC — sticking with taped programming — was a distant third.
Ali Velshi, whose regular beat is the business world and not international terrorism, arrived at the CNN studio Friday night expecting to do a couple of news breaks each hour during taped programming (with plenty of time in between for some Chinese food and the chance to catch up on bills).
But Velshi’s slow news day turned into one of the biggest of his career, as he took over anchoring coverage for the next three hours with colleagues scattered around the world. “This is the best of CNN,” Velshi told POLITICO. “This is what we are actually made to do and do really well. Everybody knew what their role is.”
And Velshi said that as the network began scrambling the jets, there were discussions about what to put on the air, and whether it’s “alarmist” or “dangerous to know.” Looking at the facts at hand, though, he said it quickly became clear this was a situation that warranted wall-to-wall coverage.
“I don’t think it has been over-covered,” said veteran TV journalist Dan Rather, noting that this story is “serious at a number of levels.”
“Obviously, the U.S. government as a whole was asleep at the wheel,” Rather said. “There’s a word for what’s happened here, and the word is incompetence.”
However, Rather added that “what’s been lacking is sort of going after the innards of this story.” He said there has been some good reporting, but the media still needs to get into specifics of who is responsible — whether at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, the Amsterdam airport or in the intelligence agencies. “So far there’s been very little accountability,” he said.
“There’s been a dearth of that kind of reporting,” Rather said. “There’s been a lot of opinionizing rather than doing the hard reportorial work of who did what and who didn’t do what. That kind of deep digging reporting is missing here.”