Media experts explore response to war on terrorism

Even seven months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, journalists are frustrated by the reality that some complex aspects of the war on terror continue to be impenetrable, according to Steve Coll, managing editor at The Washington Post.

"Al Qaeda remains an elusive subject," Coll noted. Similarly, the jihadist movement is "a transnational subject. It's a very difficult subject to root out. It requires language skills. It requires deep forms of specialization To organize foreign correspondents to try to describe and chronicle phenomena of that kind both before and after Sept. 11 was really just beyond our ability."

Coll was among a panel of editors who discussed the enormous challenges and pressures facing journalists and editors post-Sept. 11. The panel, which assembled Tuesday, April 30, at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs , also included Richard Starr of The Weekly Standard and Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation. Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press, moderated.

The panelists maintained that issues of free speech, censorship, patriotism, civil rights and media preparedness have been at the forefront for journalists and editors over the past several months.

Opinion-oriented publications face distinct dilemmas, added vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation and commentator for CNN and MSNBC.

"Criticizing government policy during wartime is certainly not a path to popularity," said vanden Heuvel, a 1981 Princeton graduate. "But in my mind, the most patriotic act is holding one's country to its highest ideals."

At The Nation, "from the very beginning, we took issue with the idea that skepticism or criticism of government policy was unpatriotic or un-American," she explained. "We argued that we need a multiplicity of voices, a true national debate about what sane national security means in the 21st century."

"The Nation is about a mile away from the World Trade Center, and like everyone else on Sept. 11, we got to work, and people watched TV," she said. "We were horrified, we were saddened, we were angry. People wept."

Then, the "Sept. 12 issue set a tone and a purpose that I think the magazine has striven to maintain in the weeks since," vanden Heuvel said. "It paid respect to the reactions of anger, hurt and grief, and our editorials in those first few weeks made the case for an 'effective and just response' to those horrific terrorist acts. We argued that such a response, might include discriminate use of military force. This is a magazine that had not supported the use of military force since World War II," she said.

Starr, of the conservative opinion magazine The Weekly Standard, said that one of the most striking effects of the war on terror was an increase in the engagement level of citizens, in terms of their knowledge of events, compared to before Sept. 11. Through their interest in media coverage, people became better informed, resulting in a population that now has an increased understanding of world events.

The panel event was co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School and Students for Informed Dialogue, a University graduate student group formed to foster dialogue about the root causes of the events of Sept. 11.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601