MONTREAL – When U.S. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge stood in Washington last Sunday to warn that some of the country’s largest banks were being targeted by al-Qaeda terrorists, the mass media splashed the news on front pages and television screens – despite recent well-known intelligence failures in the "war on terrorism."
And then it emerged that some of the information that provoked the warning and deployment of heavily armed police in New York, New Jersey and Washington, DC was three years old.
The media diligently also reported those developments Tuesday (and subsequent denials from Ridge that the alert was the administration’s attempt to divert attention from Senator John Kerry, who had just been officially nominated as the Democratic contender for President George W Bush’s job) – but should it have been more skeptical in the first place?
”We covered Ridge’s announcement live on Sunday. We also covered the fact that some of the information was a few years old, on The Early Show the next day and on the CBS Evening News,” says Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage at CBS.
”We have to balance the public’s right to know when the government is issuing terror alerts with a bit of healthy skepticism regarding the motivation,” she added in an email interview.
Right to know what: what the government is saying about the threat of a terrorist attack, or if there is, actually, a genuine threat of such an incident?
”It’s very clear that intelligence has been manipulated by the Bush administration (in the past). And part of the job of the media, as much as to repeat what officials tell you, is to evaluate the credibility of those claims,” says Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra, a magazine published by the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
”That’s really why you have the freedom of the press guarantee in the constitution, because that function is so critical for a democracy,” Naureckas added in an interview from New York.
Just over two months ago the New York Times printed an extraordinary article admitting its journalists had been misled by sources who confirmed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, the main justification used by Bush to order an attack on the regime of President Saddam Hussein in March 2003.
The weapons have yet to be found.
”In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” Times editors wrote. ”Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged or failed to emerge.”
But could the ‘Times’ and other outlets just ignore Sunday’s more pointed threat, knowing that – given the air-borne attacks against New York and Washington on Sep. 11, 2001 – a new attack was a possibility, regardless of the administration’s intelligence record?
”If you’re a police officer,” says Naureckas, ”and need to make a difficult decision about how to deploy your personnel, then you’re in a terrible dilemma if you have an untrustworthy government putting out warnings like this because you make critical decisions that could cost people’s lives.”
”But with the media, it’s far less clear that that’s the case … if al- Qaeda is in fact planning an attack on the Prudential building in Newark, it’s unlikely that the population of New Jersey will be able to do something meaningful to prevent that from happening just because they read about it in the New York Times,” he adds.
But not everyone agrees.
”If you don’t warn people and something happens, and you knew about it, you have a real problem,” Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, a member of the Senate’s intelligence committee, told the ‘Times’ this week.
”The other thing is, by warning people and causing them to be alert, you may very well pick up somebody who has been skulking in a doorway around the World Bank or the stock exchange," she added.
The Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Fox News did not respond to IPS requests for an interview for this story.
In hindsight, journalists might have heard a little warning voice inside on Sunday when Ridge – who took the unusual step of issuing the alert directly to newspaper editors and network anchors via a conference call – used the occasion to plug his boss’s record.
Americans should ”understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president’s leadership in the war against terror,” said the Homeland Security chief, almost three months to the day before November’s presidential election.
Naureckas argues that in this pre-election period, when the public is increasingly divided between those who are ”very much frightened” by terror warnings and others ”who don’t have any faith left in the Bush administration,” journalists must press officials harder to back up their claims.
”Particularly when you have problems of trust with the government, you need the media to do more to separate factual information from political spin, from manipulation, and I don’t think they’ve been doing enough to make that happen.”
But according to McGinnis, CBS ”certainly check(s) out the facts and report on them in a timely way, whether complimentary toward the government or not.”