TCS Daily

Tragedy as Soap Opera

By Duane D. Freese - April 9, 2004 12:00 AM

Marshall McLuhan, what are you doin'? The nation sure could use you now.

For the late author of Understanding Media -- famed for his observations that the medium influences the response to a person's message as much as the actual message -- could truly appreciate three exchanges between President Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and her Democratic Party interrogators on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, a.k.a., the 9-11 Commission.

Now, the commission's charter is fairly straightforward. It is "to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. The Commission is also mandated to provide recommendations designed to guard against future attacks." It is, in short, supposed to find out what went wrong and what might be done to fix it, if it hasn't been fixed already.

But the commission took a dreadful turn into soap opera land when it began its televised testimony, particularly that of Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism expert during both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Clarke began his testimony with an apology to the victim's families, which he then sprung to an attack on the Bush administration for not taking counterterrorism seriously enough -- although admitting none of his recommendations would have prevented 9-11 in the first place.

The televised testimony served to sell Clarke's just published book, which was at odds with much of what he testified in many ways. But as if commission-hearings-as-sales-tool weren't bad enough, the commissioners themselves demonstrated that this is not a fact gathering enterprise.

It certainly wasn't fact gathering that former Watergate special counsel Richard Ben-Veniste was doing in the following exchange with Rice:

BEN-VENISTE: Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6th PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?

RICE: I believe the title was, Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States. Now, the ...

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

RICE: No, Mr. Ben-Veniste ...

BEN-VENISTE: I will get into the ...

RICE: I would like to finish my point here.

BEN-VENISTE: I didn't know there was a point.

RICE: Given that -- you asked me whether or not it warned of attacks.

BEN-VENISTE: I asked you what the title was.

RICE: You said, did it not warn of attacks. It did not warn of attacks inside the United States. It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information. And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.

Perhaps, Ben-Veniste forgot that he asked two questions, the first being the substantive one. For if his only question was about the title, he certainly didn't require Dr. Rice to give it to him. He can read, can't he? I believe he can. And I doubt very sincerely that he would have asked such a question and engaged in such combative, purposeless questioning were cameras not rolling. What was his purpose, then?

And what was former Nebraska Sen. Robert Kerrey into with this introduction to his questioning?

KERREY: Let me ask a question that -- well, actually, let me say -- I can't pass this up. I know it'll take into my 10-minute time. But as somebody who supported the war in Iraq, I'm not going to get the national security adviser 30 feet away from me very often over the next 90 days, and I've got to tell you, I believe a number of things. I believe, first of all, that we underestimate that this war on terrorism is really a war against radical Islam. Terrorism is a tactic. It's not a war itself. Secondly, let me say that I don't think we understand how the Muslim world views us, and I'm terribly worried that the military tactics in Iraq are going to do a number of things, and they're all bad. One is ...


KERREY: No, please don't -- please do not do that. Do not applaud. I think we're going to end up with civil war if we continue down the military operation strategies that we have in place. I say that sincerely as someone that supported the war in the first place. Let me say, secondly, that I don't know how it could be otherwise, given the way that we're able to see these military operations, even the restrictions that are imposed upon the press, that this doesn't provide an opportunity for Al Qaida to have increasing success at recruiting people to attack the United States. It worries me. And I wanted to make that declaration. You needn't comment on it, but as I said, I'm not going to have an opportunity to talk to you this closely. And I wanted to tell you that I think the military operations are dangerously off track. And it's largely a U.S. Army -- 125,000 out of 145,000 -- largely a Christian army in a Muslim nation. So I take that on board for what it's worth.

OK, so in private, if you had the opportunity you might want to raise those concerns with Rice. And that would be fine and dandy. But, again, the charter here is fact gathering about 9-11. The commission and its hearings supposedly weren't composed as a soap box for the commissioners.

Finally, there was this little pronouncement from Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic representative from Indiana:

ROEMER: You're the national security advisor to the president of the United States. The buck may stop with the president; the buck certainly goes directly through you as the principal advisor to the president on these issues. And it really seems to me that there were failures and mistakes, structural problems, all kinds of issues here leading up to September 11th that could have and should have been done better. Doesn't that beg that there should have been more accountability? That there should have been a resignation or two? That there should have been you or the president saying to the rest of the administration, somehow, somewhere, that this was not done well enough?

This is fact gathering? This is getting down to the real issues? How would you respond to a demand for falling on your sword? Rice did about as well as possible:

RICE: Mr. Roemer, by definition, we didn't have enough information, we didn't have enough protection, because the attack happened -- by definition. And I think we've all asked ourselves, what more could have been done?

The exchanges are nonsense. And it isn't merely Democratic partisan nonsense. If a Democrat was in the dock, I have no doubt that Republicans would play to the cameras, too.

I have throughout my career in journalism supported cameras in just about every forum, from the city hall to the county seat to the Congress to the courts. Bring government to the people. But I grow wearier every year of the posturing for the cameras. It is childish.

A new study in the latest Pediatrics found that toddlers who watch TV end up suffering attention deficit problems later in live. Talk about an attention deficit problem, have we as a nation forgotten what Sept. 11 was about? An attack by foreign Islamic terrorists on our homeland? How does it serve the memory of those who died that day and the future safety of American citizens to engage in self-flagellation in front of the world through a television soap opera?

McLuhan, in an interview in Playboy during his hey-day, remarked: "Media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment. Such an extension is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what's happening to it."

The televised commission hearings have become mind numbing. Wake up, America. What are we doin'?


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