The title of a CBS special report Wednesday night posed the question that haunts us all after 9/11: "Five Years Later: Are We Safer?" Given the show's brevity--an hour minus commercials--and the complexity of the subject, CBS's treatment was predictably shallow. After host Katie Couric asked President Bush a few questions of the "your critics say . . . how do you respond?" sort, and we toured the federal antiterrorism command center, there was little time left for an in-depth examination of anything.As if on cue, ex-ABC newsman Ted Koppel has decided to remember 9/11 with a Discovery channel special on Sunday called “The Price of Security,” a look at “the tension” between security and Americans’ civil liberties since 2001.
Then again, CBS, like other networks, has had five years to illuminate suggestions to make Americans safer, and it has barely skimmed the surface in all that time. According to a new study by the Media Research Center (MRC), in fact, TV coverage of the domestic War on Terror has focused most intently not on the threat to our lives but on alleged threats to civil liberties.
The latter demands discussion in an era when potentially intrusive law-enforcement tools are indispensable weapons against an unconventional enemy. Yet when the MRC reviewed all CBS, ABC and NBC evening news segments about three major aspects of the war — a total of 496 reports since 9/11 — it found almost no debate or context. Judging by most of the segments, the Patriot Act, the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and NSA surveillance are legal atrocities with little or no security value.
Koppel was promoting the show on NBC’s Today this morning, where he told Matt Lauer that he preferred that Americans debate the question of civil liberties now, rather than after another attack occurs.
Lauerasked: "You are talking about this delicate balance between securing this nation and, and protecting our individual liberties. And, and you say this is a discussion and a debate we have to have right now because it will be impossible to have after another attack."
Koppel replied: "You can already see, Matt, what is happening right now. I mean, the President, very skillfully and he is talking with you a little bit later today, he's talked to a number of our colleagues. The President realizes that as we come up to the fifth anniversary here, this is the time to push as hard as you can with the memory of 9/11 very fresh. Imagine what would happen if, God forbid, there were another terrorist attack. Any discussion of liberties then would be out the window."
The implication is that citizens would be more amenable to tilting in favor of civil liberties if they weren’t distracted by all the death and destruction. That matches the prevailing media spin we've found over the past five years.Certainly many conservatives (mostly libertarians who worry about things like the government infringing on their Second Amendment rights) have doubts about current policies like the Patriot Act, and the debate about civil liberties belongs in the post-9/11 media mix. But the public demands security too, and the media’s coverage to date suggests that we have more to fear from an aggressive U.S. government than terrorists who’ve successfully hit our homeland once before.
When the networks gloss over the real need for homeland security, they risk looking out of touch with a public that understands what really threatens their civil liberties.