Change the Channel

by Brian Nick | 11/5/01 6:00am

I have always been a staunch defender of the free press and of the proliferation of 24-hour news networks. In recent years, the media seems to have taken the place of idle investigators in many of the nation's most closely watched stories. In both the recent Chandra Levy disappearance (remember that?) and the investigation and subsequent impeachment of President Clinton, the press actually assisted what appeared to be incompetent law enforcement and justice department officials by breaking stories and extracting additional evidence from key witnesses. Although constant coverage of these stories may have made us all nauseous, it did help to propel the stories forward. For most Americans, these relatively trivial occurrences became a daily soap opera, with episodes being broadcast continually throughout the day whether or not there was any new information to talk about. Now that the news channels have the task of informing America about continuing threats to our livelihood as well as our military efforts abroad, it appears we have created a monster.

On Sept. 11, I, like many Americans, spent most of my day at home in front of the television watching in horror as the towers came down and the panic in New York City unfolded. The coverage of the events that day was superb. It was dignified, it was solemn, and it was candid. In the aftermath, however, it seems as if day after day the media is supplying us with unconfirmed news, much of which ends up being false and ends up inciting irrational panic in the public. In addition, many news stations, despite protests from government officials, decided to air footage of Osama bin Laden speaking about his reasons for hating America and his plea for Muslims to unite against us in a holy war. While the media has an indisputable right to air this content, we should seriously question the judgment of anyone who would choose to do so. The man responsible for the deaths of over 5,000 Americans does not deserve a public forum in this country in which he can list his justifications for committing such a heinous act. Perhaps if he is apprehended alive, he will have the opportunity to do so, but only in a court of law. The bottom line is that it does not appear that the media can be trusted when it comes to deciding what to report on and what to leave unsaid. For these reasons, the best thing we could do right now as Americans is simply not to watch the unreliable 24-hour news channels for any length of time. Of course, an all-out boycott of one of our nation's most precious institutions cannot be called for without good reason.

One of the dangers of having these 24-hour news channels is that much of the time they report news as it comes in simply to get it on the air before their competitors. (Ahem 2000 Election?) This is the reason we saw stories about anthrax in Nevada, stories which later proved to be untrue but which caused widespread panic, as many feared we were being exposed to this disease on a nationwide basis in the first week in October. As reporters often fail to emphasize, cases of anthrax have been limited to only a handful of people in less than half a dozen U.S. cities. In addition, we have no reason to believe that the terrorists who are distributing the anthrax have the capability to use it in its aerosol form, which has the potential to infect a large number of individuals, or presumably they would have done so already. In addition, there has been talk of other potential threats, including smallpox and nuclear sabotage leading to meltdowns. There have actually been "experts" on television advising people to think about getting a smallpox vaccination and to ask their doctor about a drug that fights radioactive poisoning. Clearly this type of panic-inducing rhetoric is not what this country needs right now. Believe it or not, MSNBC reported the other day that sales of canaries have nearly doubled since the anthrax scare began! The idea is that canaries, which are used in coal mines to detect gas leaks, could somehow alert their owners to a biological attack because they would die immediately. This is a stunningly stupid idea for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that a canary would not die immediately if exposed to many potential biological weapons. Still, there are people requesting smallpox vaccinations, canaries and gas masks. This irrational behavior is the product of well-intentioned but severely misguided reporting by news organizations.

The truth is that we are much more safe from biological, chemical and nuclear attacks now than we were before Sept. 11. It is obvious from the lack of effectiveness of the anthrax letters that they were meant to scare us more than they were to infect people with the disease, though they have infected a few. If you do choose to watch the news, focus on the press conferences given by our government officials and listen to their instructions. Little good comes from harping on every word some commentator has to say about public safety. In the war we are waging with terrorists, public panic and insecurity are victories for the enemy.