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The Unanswered Question

BY Susan J. Douglas

There certainly are people who know full well, or certainly suspect, why the United States is in the crosshairs of various aggrieved groups.

This editorial is part of our April 2010 issue's cover story.

Helen Thomas’ pointed, and deceptively courageous question, “Why do they want to do us harm?” obviously begs the bigger question: “Why do we not know why they want to do us harm?”

Of course, as the many contributions in this issue demonstrate, there certainly are people who know full well, or certainly suspect, why the United States is in the crosshairs of various aggrieved groups. But the mainstream media–beleaguered by budget cuts that have especially slashed international news, much too complicit with news management by political elites, hamstrung by news routines that favor fleeting attention to isolated events over broader historical or political context, and incessantly pressured by forces on the right–have played a central role in keeping people in the dark.

Thomas herself, and she is hardly the only disaffected journalist here, points to an overly compliant and insufficiently aggressive news media that, for years, hasn’t pushed back hard enough. Indeed, my colleague Michael Traugott, an expert on the news media and public opinion, found that in the wake of 9/11 the media focused almost exclusively on the heroism of American police and firefighters, and repeated the assertion that the reason for the attacks was that “they hate our freedoms” rather than “probing in depth into the geopolitical situation that might have fueled the terrorism.”

One new, and odd, norm that seems to have emerged in the press, especially after 9/11, is the notion that tough, persistent questions somehow equal rudeness or not knowing your place. Just witness the negative or nonreactions to Thomas–powerfully reinforced by the intertwined lanyard of ageism and sexism that seek to dismiss her. Under the previous administration, the press was of course intimidated by 9/11 and the “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” stance that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. imposed. Now, is it that they might like Obama too much, or are they just completely used to accepting an administration line on terrorism (which erases its roots in U.S. foreign policy)?

There also seems to be a real gap between the eyewitness, courageous reporting by people like Richard Engel of NBC, Dexter Filkins of The New York Times, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson of NPR and others who convey the horrors of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (including the roots of anti-Americanism) and their much less gutsy counterparts in the White House press corps.

What’s so interesting and moving about Thomas’ persistence here is that she’s been acting much more like someone from the progressive press than from the mainstream media.

The Nation, The Progressive and In These Times were, from the start, way ahead of the Iraq War story, skeptical of the WMD line from the beginning, and predicted with pinpoint accuracy all of the multiple disasters that would result from a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

So with the 33th anniversary of In These Times, however deep our frustration and disappointment with the failures of much of our news media to promote the civic knowledge necessary to a democracy, let’s also remember and celebrate what the progressive press has brought to the table, and how some of our counterparts in the mainstream media still seek to be indefatigable compatriots, just like Thomas.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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