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October 31, 2001     Beverly Hills Weekly
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October 31, 2001
 

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The public opinion forum where Beverly Hills dukes out the issues Arianna Huffington Jake Tapper Even before tile Twin Towers had fallen on Tuesday, the media hunt for thc villains had begun. Informed speculation immediately suggested the handiwork of Osama Bin Laden. Lesser villains faced charges from different quarters: our cur- rent administration, the previous administration, down to the airport security guards and check-in personnel who t)iled to spot the hijackers. "Who's to blame'?" is the second thing we all say when tragedy strikes -- right after "Oh, my God." It's an extremely human response to an incomprehensible situation. But what no one is talking about is another, equally seri- ous intelligence failure -- the failure of the media to proper- ly estimate the intelligence of the American people by catering to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of ratings and, of course, money. As shocking as Tuesday's attacks were, it shouldn't have been quite so surprising• Only seven months ago, a congressionally mandated federal commission released prophetic report predicting this kind of terrorist assault on U.S. soil, concluding that the question was not if a terrorist attack on America could happen but when. The U.S. Commission on National Security, headed by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, tbund that "despite the end of the Cold War threat, America faces dis- tinctly new dangers, particularly to the homeland" and identified "homehmd security as a primary national security mission." The commission chairmen continued to lobby the administration to heed its recommendations as re,-ently as last Thursday when Hart called Condoleezza Rice• A key conclusion of the commission was the need to replace the hodgepodge of agencies that currently deal with terrorist threats and attacks -- including the CIA, the Justice Department, the Defense Department, FEMA, U.S. Customs and the Coast Guard -- by the National Homeland Security Agency. Like the rest of the report, this simple and sensible suggestion was ignored. "What happened," Hart told me, "ought to call into question what is important in our society and how the media cover it. But no one is asking this on TV, and I'd be amazed if there was a single discussion on the board of any newspaper asking: Did we do our .job'? There seems to be no self-reflection, no understanding by the media thai they have a job under the direction of the Constitution to inform, not just entertain, the American people." In our modern, information-drenched times, the power ofthe media has increased as dramatically as the number of people wielding that power has shrunk. Wc are at their mercy. They set the agenda, they decide what we as a nation should be concentrating on. The First Amendment wasn't intended as a license to make billions. It was there to guar- antee that the people stay informed. And when the media fail at this job, we all suffer. Unfortunately, the American press's penchant tor rigorous -- even merely diligent -- reporting is rapidly disappearing, a victim of corporate pressure to build the bottom line and not rock the highly profitable status quo. Muckraking has been replaced by smut-rak- ing, with the media hunting down the latest sensation as opposed to the hard stories that are essential to maintaining our freedom and democracy. But after Sept. 11, it seems fair to say that the real danger to Americans isn't shark attacks• And the sad fact is that the media should have known what the real danger was -- and should have told us. Forewarned is forearmed. And there is no doubt that we all would have been better pre- pared if the media had focused 10 percent of the energy and resources it spent obsessing about Condit on talking about the findings of the National Security Commission. So we are faced with a media that gives us bread, circuses and people being forced to confront their darkest fears -- while shying away from issues of vital importance out of fear of scaring viewers away. Better to bury th~'tr talking heads in the sand. That's the real fear factor media critics should be writing about. The Commission warned Bush, but thc White House passed on recommendations by a bipartisan, Defense department-ordered commission on domestic terrorism. They went to great pains not to sound as though they were telling the president "We told you so." But on Wednesday September 12, two former senators, the bipartisan co-chairs of a Defense Department-chartered commission on national security, spoke with something between frustration and regret about how White House offi- cials failed to embrace any of the recommendations to pre- vent acts of domestic terrorism delivered earlier this year. Bush administration officials told former Senators Gary Hart, D-Colo., and Warren Rudman, R-N.H., that they preferred instead to put aside the recommendations issued in the January report by the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century. Instead, the White House announced in May that it would have Vice President Dick Cbeney study the potential problem of domestic terrorism -- which the bipartisan group had already spent two and a halt" years studying -- while assigning responsibility for dealing with the issue to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, headed by former Bush campaign manager Joe AIIbaugh. The Hart-Rudman Commission had specifically recommended that the issue of terror- ism was such a threat it needed far more than FEMA's attention. Before the White House decided to go in its own direction, Congress seemed to be tak- 'ing the commission's suggestions seriously, according to Hart and Rudman. "Franklyi the White House shut it down," Hart said. "The president said 'Please wait, we're going to turn this over to the vice president. We believe FEMA is competent to coordinate this effort.' And so Congress moved on to other things, like tax cuts and the issue of the day." "We predicted it," Hart said of Tuesday's horrific events• "We said Americans will like- ly die on American soil, possibly in large numbers -- that's a quote (from the commission's Phase One Report) from the fall of 1999." On Tuesday, Hart said, as he sat watching TV coverage of the attacks, he experienced not just feelings of shock and horror, but also frustration. "1 sat tearing my hair out," said the former two-term senator. "And still am." Thc commission was supposed to disband after issuing the report Jan. 31, but Hart and the other commission members got a six-month extension to lobby for their recommen- dations. Hart said he spent 90 minutes with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and an hour with Secretary of State Colin Powell lobbying fbr the White House to devote more attention to the imminent dangers of terrorism and their specific, detailed recommenda- tions for a major change in the way the federal government approaches terrorism. He and Rudman briefed National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on the commission's find- " ings. For a lime, the commission seemed to be on a roll. Jake Tapper is a journalist and co-host on Take-5, CNNS" original talk program fea- turing a new generation of reporters, opinion makers, and observers. Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of eight books, including "How to Overthrow the Government," published in 2000 by Regan Books ( Harpe rCollins ). October 25 -31, 2001 = §