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"I see two big holes, Bob. I see two stories that are crying out to be done that I think in other contexts would have been much further along than they are now."



    What the Press Isnít Covering

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September 22, 2001


BOB GARFIELD: Of course the reporting on the terrorist attacks and the aftermath has continued apace, covering the rescue efforts, the death toll, the criminal investigation and the preparation for what is being called America's War against Terrorism. Here to update us on the coverage is Scott Shugar who writes the Today's Papers column for Slate.com Scott, welcome back to On the Media.

SCOTT SHUGAR: Hi, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: The coverage of these events, television and the print media has been pretty phenomenal and quite expansive, but I'm just wondering, as someone who reads the papers all the time, have you detected anything particular that's missing?

SCOTT SHUGAR: I see two big holes, Bob. I see two stories that are crying out to be done that I think in other contexts would have been much further along than they are now. The first one is the question of exactly how it is that no Air Force fighters were able to intercept any of the four airplanes. I mean that's an incredible fact if you think about it. We have a North American Defense Command that has a budget of some large number of dollars and has fighter aircraft that are on alert -- yet basically they weren't able to bring any of their assets to bear.

That could be scandalous, but it certainly bears looking into.

BOB GARFIELD: Well I have seen some stories, for example, that there were fighters that were on their way to intercept the plane that had hit the Pentagon but were 8 minutes away when the crash occurred.

SCOTT SHUGAR: I've seen some coverage of this story also, but basically it's been incredibly complacent. The AP moved a story late in the week giving the times at which the Air Force scrambled planes.

But that very story said: but it's not clear what they could have done if they'd gotten there anyway. That is incredible to, to think that we have this whole air defense establishment -- planes with missiles connected to the FAA -- and the whole point is really maybe they can't do anything. That, that's not what they say when they ask for the money for the budget.

So I think it's been pretty lazy reporting. It was partially deflected by the White House because they rolled out Dick Cheney last weekend to basically dazzle the press on Sunday when he appeared on Meet the Press when he said that the President authorized shooting down airliners that didn't respond to--commands from the fighters.

BOB GARFIELD: "Take them out," as the vice president put it.

SCOTT SHUGAR: Which of course was very dramatic and seemed to divert the press from the basic issue.

BOB GARFIELD: You said there was another story that you thought got under-covered.

SCOTT SHUGAR: Yes. It has been reported that the FBI had identified two people who turned out we believe to have been among the hijackers as being people that they didn't want in the country, and they notified the INS, and the INS reported back basically sorry -- too late - they've already come in. And the reporting seemed to basically stop at that point!

This seems very complacent to me. It's as if once the FBI had determined that the people have gotten into the country, that's it. That's it, that's it investigatively. Which of course we now know is false. They arrested so many people on the days afterwards that it raises the crying question: why didn't the FBI do these other things then?

BOB GARFIELD: For our purposes the, the crying question is: why did journalism pull up short? What makes these news organizations less aggressive than they might have been on these subjects in the past?

SCOTT SHUGAR: I think that there's a-- two-fold answer. One is there are a lot more obvious doable stories right now. When you have 5,000 murder victims you can do incredible human interest stories from now until doomsday.

The other reason is that journalists are afraid -- either consciously or subconsciously -- of appearing to be unpatriotic. To think that being a patriotic journalist requires you to have missed stories like this I think is a huge mistake.

After all, if a story like this leads to the improvement of how the FBI investigates suspicious characters once they're in the country or if a story like I was mentioning before about how the FAA and the NORAD handle hijacked aircraft would improve that system, both of those would be of great benefit to the country.

BOB GARFIELD: Well I must say that my suspicion on this is that the New York Times and the Washington Post and the L.A. Times and the Boston Globe and maybe, you know, ABC News are actually working on these stories right now to try to do a post-mortem on What Went Wrong.

But as to the larger question of when a misguided sense of patriotism gets in the way of basic journalism, do you see that happening a lot?

SCOTT SHUGAR: I think in the Gulf War it happened quite a bit. I think basically journalists are aware that nowadays they are reasonably unpopular among ordinary folk, and I think that they're aware that one of the things they're most unpopular for is the widespread belief that journalists are in it for the "big story" and the "big paycheck," so I think it's not too far from the conscious mind of most newspaper reporters and news anchors to avoid reinforcing this impression.

BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well thank you very much!

SCOTT SHUGAR: Sure.

BOB GARFIELD: Scott Shugar writes the Today's Papers column for Slate.com.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up: Hollywood rewrites history to protect our delicate sensibilities; comedians in confusion; and what audiences want now on screens big and small.

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.

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