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Pulitzer Center Update December 19, 2008

Managing the fear factor: The media's role in a time of transition?


The Day After: Can Our Vision Survive? Retreat at the Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund
Organized by U.S. in The World, December 16-18, 2008

What I'd like to address, in considering the media's role in the event of another major terrorist attack, are three main points:

The first is well known, and at this time and for this group doesn't require much in the way of elaboration: that in the wake of 9/11 and other recent terrorist incidents the media has generally done a poor job, more often serving as a megaphone for terrorists than as a source of dispassionate perspective, on the one hand, and on the other more often serving as handmaiden or cheerleader to political actors pushing extreme responses than as a careful check on government abuse and overreach.

The second is also well known, at least in part, but I think poorly understood as a likely significant factor in how we as a society handle the next great challenge posed by terrorist or comparable attack. That factor is the rapid diminution of the traditional elite news media and the far from certain nature of what is emerging to take its place, especially given the virtual abandonment of traditional news media outlets by almost anyone under 40. In the newly fractionalized media world of the internet there is a cacophony of voices like never before, to be sure, but it is arguably also easier than it has ever been to manipulate the media, and by extension the public as well.

My third point is that given the media climate we now face, it is incumbent on those who care about the nurturing of an informed citizenry to be proactive – which is to say we cannot simply wait upon events and hope that at that point we will rise to the occasion. I want to talk a bit about the approach we've taken at the Pulitzer Center, because at the core of our mission are these twin goals – to insure coverage of emergent crises and systemic global issues that would otherwise go unreported, and then to take that reporting out to where our target audience is, in schools and on college campuses and on YouTube.

But first, my point about the media's generally poor record of framing the issues.

My own summary take on media coverage of terrorism over the past decade, most of it at this point generally conceded, runs as follows: that in the 1990s we paid no more than halting and episodic attention – brief bursts of saturation coverage in the wake of specific incidents, from the 1993 World Trade Center attack through the 1995 attacks in Oklahoma City and on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the attack on the USS Cole in Aden in 2000. What is extraordinary in retrospect is how quickly media attention faded, how quickly we turned our focus to the sensations of political scandal, celebrity news and crime, and how little space and time even the most elite of our media devoted to a series of high-level reports from within the government and beyond warning that in terms of terrorism worse was to come.

In the wake of 9/11 attention was sustained, of course, but all too often in ways that exacerbated emotions that were already fraught. For me, the two years or so between 9/11 and the first souring of the Iraq war were profoundly unsettling. I graduated from college in 1974 and thus became a journalist at the height of Watergate; for most of my career the media was still profitable, still powerful, and still arrogantly confident of its God-given and Constitutional right to challenge the powers that be. After 9/11 we suddenly weren't challenging, in anything like the ways we had before, and in truth it wasn't until the public itself turned on George Bush, when his approval ratings dropped from the stratospheric levels he managed to sustain for a longer period of time than any other president since polling began – it wasn't until then that we began to regain our footing. In the meantime we had basically stood moot, only a few of us challenging the mass registration of Muslim-Americans, the renditions, a series of extravagantly unsubstantiated show trials, the extra-Constitutional provisions of the Patriot Act, and the highly suspect bases on which we went to war in Iraq. We were willing co-conspirators, it often appeared, in the demonization of bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, the North Koreans and Iran – and there weren't nearly enough journalist voices out there challenging the conventional wisdom of the moment. On the big issues of war and peace our most important media outlets mostly got it wrong. They weren't alone, of course; it was a consensus that encompassed old Clinton hands as well as Cheney neocons. But it was a gross disservice all the same, to the public and even to an administration which would have been far better served had its policies been challenged early on.

My second point: Dreary as that history is, we are almost certainly in worse shape today because the traditional news media is in free fall. Some outlets have disappeared altogether, others have been hollowed out, and nowhere is the effect more pronounced than in coverage of the world beyond our borders.

Consider where we are: In the run-up to the Iraq war one consistent voice of skepticism was the Washington bureau of Knight-Ridder, challenging the evidence for claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or that he was linked to 9/11 or other terrorist acts. Today Knight-Ridder no longer exists – sold three years ago in a fire sale to McClatchy. McClatchy itself has seen its share price drop from $75 to less than $3. It has sold off the once-great Philadephia Inquirer and announced last month that will also try to sell another once-great paper, the Miami Herald; the press accounts noted that there were no obvious buyers, that the Herald's biggest asset was its prime waterfront real estate but the value even of that had plummeted in the current economic tailspin.

In the last few weeks alone we've seen the closing of Copley's Washington bureau, the announcement by Cox that it is selling all of its papers except for two and that it will shut its five foreign bureaus and DC, too. The Chicago Tribune has filed for bankruptcy and the Los Angeles Times has lost the heart of its DC and foreign staff. The New York Times is borrowing against its new building to stay afloat, The Washington Post is increasingly dependent on its non-newspaper operations, and NPR announced just a week ago that it is laying off 7 percent of its staff.

So when the next terrorist attack happens, what will it mean that most large cities in America have no journalist with the specific job of making sense of it to them?

Which brings me to my third point, and something I think close to the purpose of this conference – the need to be proactive, to initiate the reporting we need and go out and engage the audience that needs to see it – and nowhere is this more important than in the area of preparing the public for the probability of another terrorist attack.

In the NPR layoffs announcement it was noted that the network is canceling two shows, News & Notes and Day to Day, that it had created with the express purpose of reaching a younger audience and minorities – meaning that NPR is back to its ghetto of older, more affluent listeners who are already well informed.

The organization I run, the Pulitzer Center, is small -- but we've funded a significant number of projects – some 75 in total over the past three years, and nearly half of them entailing short video documentaries for public television as well as print and radio reports. We've enabled coverage of topics ranging from the downside of the surge in Iraq to the water crisis in east Africa, from a 14-month investigation of health and safety hazards in China to work on the conflict among oil companies, environmentalists and indigenous peoples over some of the most remote, pristine parts of the Amazon. These stories that would not have otherwise been covered have appeared in leading American media outlets, from The Washington Post and Time to NPR, BBC, NewsHour, Foreign Exchange, and major regional papers across the country.

We're also deeply engaged in taking this reporting beyond its initial print or broadcast. Our Global Gateway education initiative has taken half a dozen of our projects, and the journalists behind them, out to middle schools and high schools across the country. The pilot program that began in St. Louis has now expanded to schools from Seattle to New York to Nairobi, and with our Water Wars project this fall we initiated an interactive web portal that makes these reporting resources and the journalists available for online engagement with schools anywhere in the world. We're collaborating with the Choices Program at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Relations to make this resource available to Watson's network of 5,000 high schools.

We're also working with YouTube and Google to bring our short video documentaries to that vast audience. A breakthrough for us was the video we funded last year on the surge in Anbar province. The News and Politics category on YouTube made it an "editor's pick" for a day – and as a result this quite serious piece of journalism generated a quarter million views in five days, with no other advertising. YouTube then asked us to partner with us on the design of a video reporting contest, Project:Report, aimed at encouraging the creation of serious, substantive journalism. The three-stage contest featured our documentaries for public television as the "model videos" for each round, along with "how-to" we videotaped with our journalists on how to do a profile, a local issue with global impact, or a collaborative video. We worked closely with journalism schools around the country and four of the 10 semifinalists were J-School students. YouTube then turned its home page over to the Project:Report winners, for two days running, with the result that their videos have been viewed over 1 million times.

On the university side we've just initiated the Campus Consortium, a network of colleges and universities that agree to partner with the Pulitzer Center to bring our journalists and our online resources on campus. We've done some 60 of these events already, often in partnership with academic departments as a way to build interest and an audience. What we're trying to do now is to systematize that relationship, getting each participating campus to commit $10,000 each year in exchange for one on-campus event, a paid student liaison position to promote use of Pulitzer Center reporting materials, and access to all of our resources. The hope is that we will create a social network of engaged students and faculty, making use of Pulitzer reporting from around the world on a regular basis and, in the process, breaking through the sorts of stereotypes that surface with each incidence of terrorism or conflict abroad.

I mention all this because I think the lesson is obvious. We're a tiny organization, a staff of five people in three rooms and an annual budget well under a million dollars. That we can produce all of this content, and engage people on so many levels, is proof that there is a great demand for quality reporting, engagingly produced, and a huge reservoir of people who want to be engaged, who do not want to fly blind, uninformed and afraid, when we confront the next terrorist attack.

I don't think we can count on the traditional news media to take on this task. Most of it is too consumed with its own demise, or willing to throw restraint aside in the name of whatever sells a few more papers or scores a few more ratings points. But that doesn't mean the task can't be done – or that you don't have new media players willing and eager to collaborate. Of course the Pulitzer Center is, as I've suggested – but it's also Kim Spencer's Link TV, Foreign Exchange, WNET's new venture with WorldFocus or Phil Balboni's for-profit GlobalPost that's about to launch from Boston. It's also Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo and The Beast and YouTube, where people are coming together. The great thing about the "Managing the Fear Factor" initiative is that you're not in this alone. There are many many players in this country and beyond who share your concern, and will eagerly help to spread the word.