Media Blame Game Requires a Mirror

It was perfectly predictable that in the aftermath of terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the search for political scapegoats would be as intense as the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It was just as obvious that Bill Clinton would quickly become the favorite quarry of this quest–particularly among the former President’s old adversaries in the national media and the Republican Party (two entities which often seem to be locked in a mind-meld these days).

There’s another convenient place where these worthies might look for culprits but never do: the mirror. Whatever the various failures and flaws of Mr. Clinton’s tenure may have been, his efforts against terrorism compare favorably with the frivolous preoccupations of his critics.

As articulated by America’s foremost analysts, the general complaint is that the Clinton administration “didn’t do enough” to forestall the atrocities of Sept. 11. This deep insight is a truism: Al Qaeda’s suicide operatives achieved their mission despite any and all measures taken by the government to frustrate and destroy the bin Laden network. Those measures, which were hardly insignificant, were by definition not “enough.”

That simple notion was at the heart of The New York Times’ Dec. 30 investigative report, a long disquisition whose front-page headline conveyed its slant: “Planning for Terror But Failing to Act.” The facts and quotes accumulated by reporters Judith Miller, Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gerth didn’t quite justify that damning summary.

The Times reporters appeared to be laboring under the assumption that Mr. Clinton could have mustered a full-scale unilateral invasion of Afghanistan to capture the Al Qaeda leadership–at a time when the Congressional majority was seeking to impeach him. But if that naïve fantasy is discounted, it is clear even in The Times ‘ account that the Clinton administration made many attempts to strike lethally at Mr. bin Laden. And the fact that Mr. Clinton took terrorism very seriously would have been clearer still if The Times had mentioned the enormous increases he approved in counterterrorism spending by the F.B.I. and other federal agencies.

Speaking of the F.B.I., the Times story neglected another prominent name that scarcely passes the lips of those seeking to apportion blame. That would the bureau’s former director Louis Freeh, a bungler who has become virtually invisible since September. In an article that highlighted several paragraphs of preening recollection from Dick Morris, that’s an odd omission.

The indefatigable consultant evidently convinced the Times reporters that, based on polling done in 1996, he strenuously urged his Presidential client to federalize airport security and prosecute a “broader war on terrorism.” Mr. Morris didn’t reveal this prescient proposal anywhere in the 340-plus pages of Behind the Oval Office , his memoir of his years advising Mr. Clinton, which scarcely mentions terrorism at all.

If Mr. Morris did foresee the horrors to come five years ago, he was quite alone in his clairvoyance. More likely he is rewriting history to denigrate his old boss and inflate himself, an important duty of his current career. In truth, he has been heavily preoccupied during the past several years by smut and petty scandal, not by the looming “terrorist threat.” And in those obsessions, he wasn’t alone at all.

The pundits and personalities who now assign responsibility to Mr. Clinton might as well interrogate themselves about the failure of news organizations to focus on the problem of terror (and, for that matter, on broader international issues); that is a subject, after all, about which they know a lot.

Not all are equally culpable. Several reporters on the Times staff, for example, did outstanding work long before Sept. 11. But as independent broadcaster Simon Marks recalls in Quill , the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists, the failure was general. Most American reporters and commentators were far more interested in Chandra Levy than Osama bin Laden.

In a remarkable passage, Mr. Marks notes that both Reuters and United Press International ran dispatches last June about Al Qaeda plans to attack the United States. Hard to believe, but true–and wholly ignored by every significant news outlet in the country. Most of them were too busy frying Gary Condit to notice.

Harold Evans makes a similar argument in the November/December issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, in which he examines the decision by the major media to ignore repeated warnings from the U.S. Commission on National Security of a terrorist assault on American shores. The former Senators who chaired the commission, Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, were stunned when only a handful of newspapers bothered to feature their findings.

“The Hart-Rudman Report is the kind that required elite opinion to engage in a sustained dialogue to probe, improve, explain, and then press for action. None of the network talk shows took it up,” laments Mr. Evans. “But the commissioners were particularly bewildered by the blackout at The New York Times .” Media Blame Game Requires a Mirror