Johnell Bryant says she had never heard of Osama bin Laden.
So when Mohammed Atta, the man believed to have been the ringleader of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, told Ms. Bryant that the Al Qaeda chief would “someday be known as the world’s greatest leader,” she told ABC News that “I didn’t know who he was talking about.”
Johnell’s conversation with Atta occurred in the spring of 2000. She was working at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, reviewing Atta’s application for a $650,000 government loan. He wanted the money to buy a crop-duster (it is now presumed that it wasn’t for agricultural purposes).
Thanks to the dogged work of the ABC News investigative unit and its lead correspondent Brian Ross, we now know that when Bryant refused to give Atta the loan, he threatened to slit her throat.
Later in their conversation, he offered to buy – for cash – an aerial photograph of Washington that graced the walls of her office. He questioned her about security arrangements at Washington’s monuments, at the World Trade Center and at other public facilities, including the Dallas Cowboys’ football stadium.
Even without the benefit of hindsight, this was not a government loan officer’s average encounter with a member of the public.
But Johnell Bryant had never heard of Osama bin Laden.
At a time when Washington is gripped by investigations into what the Bush administration knew of Al Qaeda’s plans in the weeks leading up to Sept. 11, it is also legitimate to ask why no alarm bells rang in Bryant’s mind after her meeting with Atta.
In an article published in Quill last year (“Asleep at the Switch: Journalism’s Failure to Track Osama bin Laden,” December 2001), I postulated that America’s broadcast networks and newspapers had – for the most part – abnegated their civic responsibility by failing to report extensively on Al Qaeda’s activities before the September attacks.
On June 23, 2001, the Reuters, Associated Press and AFP news agencies reported that one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants publicly voiced a threat to attack the United States. Despite the fact that Al Qaeda had already obliterated American lives in the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, the new threat was never widely reported to the American public.
Instead, in spring and summer 2001, CNN and its ilk offered a barrage of coverage concerning missing intern Chandra Levy, the drinking habits of President Bush’s daughters and the so-called “summer of sharks.” (The shark coverage was pure fantasy. Statistics now published by the University of Florida have shown there were actually fewer fatal shark attacks in the summer of 2001 than in previous years.)
America’s broadcast networks and major daily newspapers consistently failed to warn the American public of the very real threat posed by Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. A broadcast news industry that had decided that foreign news was too expensive to produce, too complex to explain, and simply antithetical to the profit motive viewed “Osama bin Laden” as just one more unpronounceable foreign name that would lead U.S. viewers directly to their remotes.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the American media has done a creditable job of reporting the failures of the FBI and the CIA to “join the dots” and unravel the Al Qaeda plot. But the same American media has totally failed to admit, confront or investigate its own moral responsibility for the events that led to 9-11.
Worse, networks that abnegated their responsibilities in the past are now proudly doing so again. At a time when Al Qaeda remains at large, the Middle East remains on the brink, the Indians and Pakistanis are threatening a nuclear conflagration and Argentina is falling apart, CNN’s domestic network resorted one morning this June to introducing its viewers to “strange and exotic fruits and vegetables from around the world.”
Correspondent Maria Hinojosa (a veteran of National Public Radio who surely knows better) appeared live on national television to introduce her audience to apparently alien concepts such as the “papaya.” Her reports appeared on CNN’s “American Morning” – a broadcast whose very title communicates an absence of any global content to those viewers wondering what might have occurred in the world while they were sleeping.
Shortly after 9-11, broadcast network executives spoke of that day’s events as a turning point for the industry. It was the moment they realized the folly wrought by a decade of cuts to their international operations and renewed their determination to keep the American public informed about the world around them.
CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather described the immediate period after the attacks on New York and Washington as “a great moment in American journalism. Now, whether we can make this moment last, and how long we can make it last, these are the open questions.”
Today, the questions are no longer open. Slowly but surely, the networks have returned to their bad old ways. CNN, for example, produces a highly successful external service (CNN International) that is available only to viewers overseas. It’s a network rich in serious global content and light in the pap that its domestic sister ceaselessly transmits to U.S. viewers. The domestic CNN managers have full access to CNN’s international content. They simply choose not to air it in the United States, in effect conspiring to keep Johnell Bryant and millions like her in the dark.
This summer, international coverage has often been eclipsed by the wildfires in Arizona, the search for missing Salt Lake City teenager Elizabeth Smart, and the discovery of the remains of Chandra Levy. (It’s a modern-day irony that the parents of Levy are nationally known media figures; the parents of murdered American missionary Martin Burnham, kidnapped by the Abu Sayaff militants in the Philippines, went largely unnoticed until their son’s violent death.)
The next time a would-be terrorist wanders into a government office seeking $650,000 of U.S. tax revenues and mentioning, say, the Abu Sayaff, or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, it would be nice to think that the news media might have done their civic duty and alerted the loan officer to the threats posed by those groups and others sympathetic to Osama bin Laden’s cause. But that’s only a nice thought. In the real world, the conglomerates that own America’s networks have costs to trim and profits to puff, and as the history of U.S. news since 9-11 now proves beyond any shadow of a doubt, once you start down that road, there’s no turning back.
Simon Marks is president and chief correspondent of Feature Story News, an independent broadcast news agency. He’s based in Washington, D.C.