Getting a Grip (Anniversary Edition)

Up From the Rubble:
Salvaging Journalism in Post 9-11 America

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 10/17/02

Now that the rubble of the World Trade Center has been cleared, and the Pentagon has been mostly rebuilt, we need to start dealing with the cultural rubble from last year’s terrorist attack.  Most disturbing was the destruction of the free press that occurred concurrently with the terror attacks. By nightfall on September 11th, 2002,  the mainstream national media spoke with one voice and there was no dissent.  According to Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation, mainstream American journalists adopted a uniform set of ideological assumptions:  It was time to rally around the flag; Those who questioned Bush Administration policies were giving “aid to the enemy”; Any attempt to link the events of 9-11 to the United States’ previous role in the Middle East or elsewhere did not deserve serious coverage; And previous media demonization of the Muslim world was now vindicated.

News Anchors Wrapped in the Flag

After 9-11, newscasters around the country literally wrapped themselves in the American flag – with one jingoistic morning anchor on Buffalo’s ABC affiliate draping herself in an odd star-spangled red, white and blue cape, as if it were some bizarre sort of prayer shawl or American Burqa.  Fox News anchors all quickly adopted red, white and blue lapel ribbons as official on-air dress.  CNN draped their logo in old glory.  Newspapers across the country took advantage of their color printing capacity and saturated their papers with flags.  TV stations across the country developed “America Under Attack” logos and ran them liberally during their newscasts and teasers.  Deep voiced radio announcers droned on at the start of their newscasts with quick lines such as, “From the Front Lines of America’s War Against Terror.”  Despite the lack of a subsequent attack, the universal message was, “Be Scared!”  In this mediated world of impending and unthinkable attacks, the only solace to be found was in the halting rhetoric of our leader’s voice, which radio stations such as Buffalo’s trash-talk outlet, WBEN-AM, often put to music.

In this environment, the media rescued the failed presidency of George W. Bush and ceremoniously brought it to life.  The naked emperor was suddenly a strong leader.  He was smart, calm and well poised to take command of the nation in its time of trouble.  Bush’s lexicon became the nation’s lexicon, as the media adopted his “charismatic” rhetoric.  During the period immediately following 9-11, journalists tripped over themselves to line up behind Bush, with CBS News’ Dan Rather, the nation’s most visible journalist, proclaiming, “George Bush is the president.  He makes the decisions.  And, you know, as just one American, [if] he wants me to line up, just tell me where” (Miller 2002, Bass 2001).  Responsible journalism in America was on its deathbed.

There were no critical voices in the mainstream media.  Absent was any debate, as the nation went off to war in Afghanistan, and as the House of Representatives passed draconian legislation rolling human and civil rights back fifty years.  Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, speaking to a reporter for The Columbia Journalism Review, said there was “a frightening suppression of the news” after 9-11.

Following 9-11, a host of related stories were suddenly off limits – reporting them became unpatriotic. The CIA’s role in supporting and training the fundamentalist Mujahideem terrorists during the cold war, U.S. oil companies attempts to court the Taliban and run pipelines through Afghanistan, the previous Bush administration’s support of Osama bin Laden, and dozens of other pertinent stories went unreported in the U.S. media, despite grabbing headlines around the world.  An artifical information gap, separating Americans from their global neighbors was beginning to emerge, nurtured by a self-censored national press corps. 

The Truth Behind the Third Tower Collapse

In a culture of hawkish hyper-patriotism, all of the heroes of 9-11 became off limits for criticism.  Rudolf Guiliani, for example, who in the course of one day rose from jilted husband and despotic mayor, to national hero, was actually responsible, along with the terrorists, for the collapse of the third World Trade Center building, a 47 story tower known as #7 World Trade Center.  Number-seven, it turns out, housed Guiliani’s personal emergency command bunker, which was complete with 42,000 gallons of diesel fuel, illegally stored above ground to run the mayor’s emergency generators.  The fuel caught fire after the collapse of the towers, and caused a structural member of the building to melt, just as the jet fuel did in the larger towers.  This story, though circulating in the alternative press, was not reported by the mainstream media for nearly four months.  When if finally broke, it was downplayed.

Reporters who wanted to write stories that went beyond the official government line found their efforts stifled by an administration obsessed with secrecy and disinformation.  Government press conferences are now often choreographed, with officials providing little if any information to reporters.  We now have secret military tribunals and nameless prisoners, sometimes held at military bases on foreign soil, inaccessible to the press.

Facets of everyday journalism were criminalized in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th.  In New York, Mayor Guiliani ordered the area around the World Trade Center closed.  According to the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, several journalists were arrested on trespassing charges.  Two weeks later the Guilliani administration issued a ban on amateur photography near the ruins, installing signs warning that photographers risked arrest.  In Pennsylvania, journalists investigating the mysterious dual debris fields where the wreckage of the fourth hijacked plane fell, were also held by police on trespass charges.  Information gathering became difficult at best, and at worst, criminalized.

Telling The Truth About Lying

After establishing the reality that they were not going to provide much information to the press, the Bush administration then announced that they were going to freely provide disinformation, via a CIA/Pentagon controlled “Office of Strategic Influence.”  The new agency, based on the Contra-War model of the Office of Public Diplomacy, had a stated purpose of planting lies in the world’s media, in an effort to make U.S. war moves palatable.  Telling the truth about lying, however, is still a faux pas.  The Bush administration officially cancelled the project, but the cat was out of the bag about their policy of lying to the press – yet a compliant press corps never cried foul. 

In a related event, a story that’s been kicking around the alternative press for about a decade, suddenly made national news as West Virginia’s aging senior senator, Robert Byrd, exposed the previous Bush administration’s transfer of biological weapons material to Saddam Hussein’s government in the 1980s during their war with Iran.  Bush’s secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, in another public lie, categorically denied the charge, but the renegade Byrd produced a paper trail of government documents.  In the wake of the scandal, the American Gulf War Veterans Association demanded that Rumsfeld resign.

Lying is now standard practice for the Bush administration, but journalists are loath to challenge the official lies or admit that administration sources are not credible, and hence, can’t be relied upon as accurate sources of information.  With an environment dominated by a combination of no information, and disinformation, it’s impossible for journalists to do their jobs, even if they wanted to.

The few mainstream journalists who tried to cover the Afghanistan war found access to U.S. soldiers, the battlefield, and civilian areas in Afghanistan to be severely restricted. The handful of journalists allowed to report from in-country were confined by military authorities in an airplane hanger to prevent them from photographing or interviewing injured soldiers.  Afghan forces under U.S. command confiscated film from American journalists covering the war.   With news crews denied access to the war zones, they had to rely on footage supplied to them by Pentagon public relations officials.  These government produced Video News Releases, complete with interviews of gung-ho troops, appeared transparently as news reports on American TV stations.  Rather than protest their inability to report the news, American news organizations simply allowed the government to supplant the news with propaganda footage, legitimated as news by the acquiescence of a compliant press corps.  The public never knew the difference.

Bruckheimer’s War

More recently, according to John Macarthur, author of  “Second front, censorship and propaganda in the Gulf War,” the military gifted Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, with comprehensive access to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  Bruckheimer, who produced films supporting the military, such as “Pearl Harbor,” and “Blackhawk down,” which was subsidized by the U.S. military through “in-kind” assistance, is now shooting a so-called “reality series” for ABC which will feature U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.  The London Guardian has dubbed this blatant propaganda as “militainment.”  ABC’s own news reporters, by contrast, do not have similar access to troops.

For reasons of self censorship, and acquiescence to government attempts to control information, the mainstream press has failed to live up to its responsibility to educate and inform Americans about current events – an especially important duty for a nation that now perpetually stand on the cusp of war.  Information starved American citizens, for their part, are craving information about global events.  According to a comprehensive study commissioned by the Pew International Journalism Program, which surveyed editors at 65% of all American newspapers with daily circulations in excess of 30,000 copies, 95% of those editors surveyed said reader interest in international news increased following 9-11. 

More “Terror” News

According to the Pew study, 78% of the editors reported that they increased their foreign news hole.  Of those who reported increasing their foreign news, 88% said that “all” or “most” of the increased space was taken up by stories relating to “the anti-terrorism effort.”  Of course “terrorism” is an ill-defined word.  British journalist Robert Fisk defines terrorists as “those who are using violence against the side that is using the word.”  Hence, mainstream media reporting on terrorism fails to see state sanctioned violence by client states such as Israel and Pakistan, as terrorism.  Nor does it see the institutionalized poverty that is structurally maintained within the hegemonic global economic order, which kills millions of people each year, as terrorism.  And of course the very terror of the anti-terror campaigns, ranging from bombs dropping on civilian areas to the arming of repressive states, is not reported as terrorism.  Hence, the terrorist backlash, born out of desperation, and fueled by a cycle of hatred that is nurtured by so-called anti-terror campaigns, is incomprehensible to an information-starved public. 

Americans, horrified by the images of 9-11, and baffled by the reality that there are people in the world who hate us so, that they would sacrifice their own lives in order to kill a faceless cross-section of the U.S. population, have begun to ask, “Why do they hate us?”  The official answers, from people like Dan Rather, who explained that the terrorists targeted us, “because they’re evil, and because they’re jealous of us,” just didn’t cut it.  The Bush administration line, explaining that they hate us because we stand for freedom, democracy and other similar values, which in fact we don’t really stand for, reeked of shallow rhetoric.  The question still lingered, but none of the answers offered by the mainstream media seemed to make much sense.  Hence, when confronted with the demand for more international news, the media responded with more Bush administration propaganda. 

Put simply, the media failed to respond to the market.  In the days following 9-11, as the media shamelessly became cheerleaders for the Bush administration’s moves toward war, the demand for accurate balanced information kept increasing.  A noticeable gap appeared between the available information, and the public’s demand for information.  Widely available Internet technology allowed alternative media activists to immediately, and inexpensively, address this market imbalance.

The New Media Evolution

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, Americans immediately turned to the Internet to search for news after the attacks of 9-11.  Their numbers overwhelmed existing internet news sites. At the same time, “do it yourself” journalists instantly created a plethora of alternative sites.  At first, the new web sites responded to increased web traffic on 9-11, offering eyewitness accounts and photographic images of the disasters in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. In short time, their content grew in response to the censorship of the mainstream media as well.  The new sites provided political analysis of events related to 9-11 that represented a wide array of perspectives and interpretations, news about responses to the attacks from around the world, links to previously published stories giving context to the attacks, and investigative reports on subjects such as Bush family connections to the bin Ladens and U.S. support for fundamentalist terrorists.  Whereas the mainstream media focused on the events of 9-11 simply in tactical terms, reporting about immediate reactions and security moves, the web journalists provided a political, economic, cultural and societal analysis of the events. 

The failure of mainstream journalism is tied to the fact that journalism education often fails to prepare journalists to understand the world around them.  They may know how to write, but they often don’t have a clue as to what they are writing so eloquently about.  Hence, they develop a reliance on official sources who spoon feed stories to them – complete with an official spin.  For these journalists, the terror attacks were simply the result of a weak security state – expanding police powers would insure a safer America. The web journalists were able to move beyond this Neanderthal analysis.  And evidence shows that the successful ones were also were able to write eloquently.  Mainstream journalists are also reined in by the economic interests of their corporate owners and corporate sponsors – masters that independent journalists don’t have to answer to.

With the development of “personal journalism, guerilla journalism” and “citizen-produced journalism.” the Internet came of age in the wake of 9-11.  New news sites that emerged in response to the new demand for alternative information after 9-11, such as New York City journalist and author, Bill Weinberg’s excellent World War 3 Report (, continue to thrive and grow today.  Alternative radio programs such as Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, and long established publications such as The Nation and In These Times, also thrived as they challenged the dominant information paradigm. In short, the collapse of credibility suffered by the mainstream media in the wake of the 9-11 attacks fueled a renewed growth in the alternative media – a growth that is forcing the mainstream media to cover previously unreported stories.  By forcing the mainstream media to cover such stories, the alternative media is providing a service that stretches well beyond its own relatively small audience.

Getting a Grip

Last September 11th I was content to concentrate solely on my research and teaching. After a previous stint at a local paper whose publishers declared any negative mention of the auto industry, SUVs or The Buffalo News, off limits, I took a break from journalism. In the wake of September 11th, however, I couldn’t contain myself.  I started writing a piece, which grew into a 4,300 word treatise.  I pitched it to a few venues around the country who regularly published my work, but none of whom would run it in its bloated state.  Still, it was tight writing.  There was nothing to cut.  The story needed context and nobody in the media was providing it.  Frustrated, I emailed it to a few friends, so at least somebody would read it.  As it happens, they emailed it to a few friends, and so on.  Within days, professors in the U.S. and Europe were emailing me to ask for reprint permission.  I was invited to speak at a forum on terrorism.  The Internet had given my story a life of its own – one devoid of editorial control.  Ideas now traveled on their own merit.

The positive reception for my piece inspired me to start writing again, and after a meeting with folks here at ArtVoice, I began writing the Getting a Grip column, mostly in response to the new censorship practiced by the mainstream media. During the last year, this column has been published every week.  I’ve reported on many of the national and global stories ignored or outright censored by our city’s monopoly daily.  ArtVoice’s readers know the connections between the Bush family and the bin Ladens.  They know of Dick Cheney’s role at Halliburton Energy, and that company’s role in Central Asia.  They know all the details about the 2000 coup in Florida.  They know our local government is a kleptocracy. They know their SUVs run on blood and our hedonistic consumerism causes ecocide and fuels a sweatshop economy.  I’ve now written 52 such columns, averaging 1,800 words each.  This column is my anniversary rant.

Early on, I expected this would be a short-term gig.  I set up a special email account for hatemail.  But it immediately filled with fan mail.  Many of my columns have gone into international syndication.  I’ve been interviewed on radio stations across the U.S. and have been invited to speak at various churches and educational institutions.  I was surprised to find out that this stuff is indeed popular.  In the end, I guess I was naive to think that a column, which was critical of our unelected authoritarian government, would be unpopular.  I suppose that I too had bought into the official post 9-11 rhetoric. 

The Death Industries

Though my columns are sandwiched between cigarette and auto ads, I’ve never been censored.  And I don’t expect to be censored.  The column drives readership numbers. Unbridled journalism does have a market niche. Reporters at The Buffalo News privately refer to my column as “edgy.” Yet, offended advertisers from the death industries (SUVs, cigarettes, malt liquor etc.) aren’t talking about boycotting this paper.  It’s a winning product, and they need it if they are going to reach active consumers – even if an occasional article exposes them for the parasites they are.  This is what ArtVoice has to offer the capitalist marketplace – an edgy product.  And publishers of a handful of independent weeklies understand that this so called “edge” is their trademark.  If these papers drop their few edgy articles and columns, then there will be nothing to distinguish them from their better-funded daily rivals, and they will die. If this happens, there are always smaller and possibly edgier alternative newspapers ready to take over the franchise. 

On September 13th of 2001, it looked as if American journalism was down for the count.  For the mainstream press, this is still true.  But it was the ultimate destruction of the mainstream press, mostly at its own hand, that paved the way for a new press movement.  And it’s proving popular and unstoppable.  At least, that is, until it’s outlawed.


This column, which celebrates the one-year anniversary of “Getting a Grip,” has been adopted from a talk presented by Dr. Niman last week at the 2002 International Conference of The Union for Democratic Communications (

Copyright 2002.  For reprint permission, please contact permission @