Asleep at the Switch: Journalism's Failure to Track Osama Bin Laden

By Marks, Simon | The Quill, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Asleep at the Switch: Journalism's Failure to Track Osama Bin Laden


Marks, Simon, The Quill


It has become fashionable in the weeks since Sept. 11 ("Nine-Eleven" in the dipped cadences of cable news-speak) to discuss the monstrous failure of U.S. intelligence that led, in part, to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The phrase "asleep at the switch" has become a mantra used to describe the inability of the FBI, the CIA, and the Department of Defense to catch Osama bin Laden before his Al Qaeda organization perpetrated their deadly deeds.

But consider this: On June 23, the Reuters news agency distributed a report headlined "Bin Laden Fighters Plan anti-US attack." The lead: "Followers of exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden are planning a major attack on U.S. and Israeli interests."

Two days later, it was United Press International's turn to spread the alarming news. In a dispatch dated June 25, the agency informed its subscribers that "Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden is planning a terrorist attack against the United States" The following day, another UPI report ("Bin Laden Forms New Jihadi Group") described the formalization of ties between bin Laden's Al Qaeda and the Egyptian branch of Islamic Jihad.

Unless you're a maven of the Reuters and UPI wire feeds, the chances are that you didn't see any of those reports. A search of the country's major newspaper and broadcast network Web sites reveals that barely any considered the stories worthy of publication.

That's hardly surprising. At the time, the news industry was gorging itself on the disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy, the alleged drinking habits of

Presidential daughter Jenna Bush and the latest 100-point drop by the Dow. Let the record show that, in the context of the US. media before Sept. 11, news of bin Laden's plans to launch an attack against American citizens didn't even make it into "News in Brief."

When the history of US. journalism at the turn of the century is written, it is to be hoped that the summer of 2001 will be noted as the profession's historic low point. Ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, news coverage of events overseas had dwindled to a point where the world's leading terrorist mastermind didn't warrant a mention on the nightly news - even when he was directly threatening American citizens.

For the best part of a decade, the country's broadcast networks in particular sought to marginalize international news. NBC, CBS and ABC closed costly overseas bureaus, fired staff specializing in global affairs and eagerly embraced a domestically focused news agenda.

They justified their actions by opportunistically blaming the American public for a lack of interest in global affairs. In April 1997, CBS News President Andrew Heyward told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "it's just a fact of television ratings life that almost without exception it's very difficult to score a number with international news. NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley told the same newspaper that "a lot of foreign news after the Cold War seemed to be less vital ... more complicated, less directly linked to many Americans. How do you cover the former Soviet Union and make sense of it?"

Today, of course, the networks' infatuation with domestic news has come to a screeching halt. Suddenly, "Osama bin Laden" doesn't seem such a hard name to pronounce, "Al Qaeda" no longer appears to be an alien concept, and the networks have found a way of covering Afghanistan.

And yet, the manner in which many of them have chosen to cover this epoch-changing story reflects the deep crisis provoked by the cutbacks they made in their global resources over the past decade. The first war to be covered by three competing, round-- the-clock news networks is being reported by correspondents who - for the most part -- are inarticulate in the language of international affairs and global diplomacy.

Consider the output of MSNBC, the 24-- hour news channel operated by NBC News.

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