Abandoned in America, The Death of Awareness

This was written by a good friend of mine a couple of years ago … a worthy read:

I fear the morning is coming when we will wake up in America to thousands of dead and a public that has drifted into such a mind-numbing ignorant bliss to the degree that when it happens it will have devastating effects. However, even more than this, I fear how this misinformed and ignorant public will whip back in such an intense emotional state with politicians driving along that knee-jerk, sound bite solutions will destroy years of progress within the counterterrorism community and not only not help to make the country safer but simply create illusions of safety when there is in fact none.

There is much I don’t know but there is one thing I do and that is terrorism. It has consumed the past 15 years or so of my professional life. I also know a little about journalism having spent a brief stint in the print world and having spent the last 12 years working with and providing materials to just about every wire service, newspaper, magazine and network around the world.

The average American has been abandoned. Journalism in this country has always held a privileged role and rightfully so. There was a reason why a newspaper had certain rights and privileges that do not exist for a comic book publisher or a Hollywood studio or the people that make soap. It was a sacred duty of the media to inform the public. Something now only conveniently bandied about when a catchy scandal is breaking and “news” organizations sue to get access to government documents or say Paris Hilton, Michael Jackson or the Runaway Bride have an upcoming court appearance and well, the ratings on streaming that live…

Here’s the question though. Where is an average American able to learn about how much of a threat al-Qaeda or FARC or Ansar al-Islam or any other major terrorist organization poses to this country? Does not a news organization in the US have a duty to, under its privileged status, make sure the public is informed on issues of such consequence? Or is the sole measure of what gets air time and resources and one of ratings and clicks.

Watch CNN, MSNBC and Fox for enough hours and priorities become clear. A horse or worker stuck in a trench, a high-speed chase or a Paris Hilton and her ilk rule the day, only to be superseded by that favorite national news past time of “gotcha sound bites”. Funny though, these things never seem to drive coverage on France24 or al-Arabiyah. They seem to be hopelessly lost in covering such things as an attack on the US Consulate in Turkey, or developments in Afghanistan or even far flung places like Mauritania, which yes I understand poses a real challenge for Americans who don’t even know which continent to look for it in.

I could recount endlessly major terrorist attacks the world over, many involving American targets, that got little or no coverage in the US but did get covered everywhere else. One of the deadliest bombings in the world against tourists in Egypt a number of years ago wasn’t even cause for CNN to switch away from a Larry King interview of Tammy Faye Baker. It’s no wonder American’s are either completely ignorant or horrifically misinformed about world events and why self-promoting, book-selling talking heads who claim there is no more al-Qaeda are seen as credible.

The majority of Americans continue on in ignorant bliss of the shifts and changes in the world around them. They watch in glee as “reality tv” bleeds its way into the broadcast news networks with their “iReports” and celebrity gossip coverage. I can recall just a month or so ago when a headline on CNN’s website proclaimed that iReporters were having trouble buying food, apparently they have not formed a union yet or realized they are just a cheap way to avoid sending crews out. Those Americans who know better are aware there is more going on in the world but if the news is not going to deliver it to them then where do they go? In the broadcast world, if they are lucky they can get France24, BBC News 24 or even CNN International. However, that is a role of the cable/satellite programming dice. I can get one out of three where I live and I have both satellite and cable.

It brings me back to the remarks of CNN’s Miles O’Brien a number of years ago when the news media in a summer slump decided to coin an average number of shark attacks into a media event dubbed the “summer of the shark”. Miles ruminating on air about the disturbing turn the collective American conscience had taken since 9-11 commented how before 9-11 “news” coverage had drifted into a world of how to better seal your windows to save on air conditioning, get better gas mileage or pay down your credit cards. He carried the thought through to how when 9-11 happened Americans were blindsided because no one had been bothering to do the story and how between the sharks and a lost boy scout in the woods (the other big media event of the moment) we appear to have already drifted right back into the same place.

We love to use that phrase “Never Forget” in America and we speak it with deep impassioned sincerity but oh how quickly we do. It is both our strength and greatest curse. We move on like perhaps no other society, however, in doing so we fail miserably at retaining any of the lessons learned of the past. Immediately after 9-11 news organization after news organization held endless public hand-wringing sessions on how we need to do more, send more reporters around the world, more international coverage, etc. etc. and for a bit it happened. However, month by month, year by year, the public and media turned away. 9-11 was a historic event. Al-Qaeda was over in some place called Afghanistan and Iraq and well if they could attack us here they would have by now so therefore they obviously and quite logically cannot. So the sharks and the boy scouts and home improvement and Paris Hilton and workers stuck in trenches came back in droves and all those who trusted that if something important was going on in the world, it would of course be on CNN or MSNBC or Fox, went soundly back to sleep.

The problem, however, is that complicated, nuanced stories that leave people feeling uneasy and require thought will never, ever draw the ratings of the bear in Circuit City or the shark jumping behind the surf board. Spoon fed adjective laced fluff and gossip does. You can dress the terrorism issues up in a political fist fight with battling talking points or a sexy government investigation, then sure it will hold its own for a bit more but by that point you have gutted all the fact and context for a snappy headline designed to get more clicks than actually inform and there is the rub.

Are you a news channel or entertainment? It is a simple black and white question only made gray by those who want the ratings of the entertainment world while trying to play under the guise of credibility and status afforded to a news organization. For my two cents I don’t understand why everyone does not just stop playing around and go straight to porn. You could lay off just about everyone, shoot it on the cheap and ratings would be through the roof. Heck you could even have iReporters shoot it and then you would not even need to have cameramen. I have little doubt there would not be droves of volunteers. If it is just about return on investment and clicks then instead of showing clips of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show on endless loop for days as Fox News did a few years back while talking about how horrible it is that this was aired on one of the major networks when kids could watch (apparently kids don’t watch Fox News), why not just leap ahead to the inevitable conclusion.

The 24-hour network news channels in America right now have more in common with TMZ, arguing radio talk show hosts, CourtTV, Jerry Springer and 5th grade level debate between political hacks spitting out talking points that are as predictable as the sun rising in the morning, then they do news organizations.

From my perspective this is not the fault of many of the top old-school correspondents, producers and anchors who work tirelessly with little resources and fight endless battles just to eke out a minute here or there to try and heroically explain something that can’t humanly be done in less than 10 minutes. Many of you are on this list and I know the situation you face. The problem lies deeper within the evolving culture and revenue driven model of what’s passing for a news organization today.

The painfully short major network news heavyweights at NBC, CBS and ABC still hold to a higher standard but in a changing media market and different lifestyle schedules many people simply do not happen to find themselves sitting in front of the TV and tuned to the same channel as they once did 15 or 20 years ago and even when they do, the extremely short time spans these shows have to inform their viewers of all the key events in the world makes it impossible to get all the high profile stories in, let alone do them justice in two minutes. However, I have watched in amazement as people like Lisa Myers and others do just that under what seem to me to be impossible constraints.

There are also other true hardcore journalists still out there who can get air time to share just a small fraction of what they know. Michael Ware at CNN is one of those people. It’s balanced, well-researched, insightful and informative reporting. The catchy headline takes second  seat to actually informing the viewer and helping them walk away smarter on an issue than they were 10 minutes before. It’s reporting like that which we so desperately need more of in the States. Either that or France24 needs to increase its profile here.

Making all of this worse is that the problems are not limited to broadcast. Shrinking budgets, staff and resources at major newspapers, magazines and wire services are only further complicating things. As old business models are turned on their heads and the all-mighty click metric rules the day. Wire services like AP, AFP and Reuters are the staple of life when it comes to knowing what is going on in the world. Should a push to do more entertainment or resource cutbacks begin to impact coverage in certain areas, it would quite literally be as if those places ceased to exist in many ways for those who read the news but for now their reporters strewn around the world continue to fight the good fight and provide that one reliable outlet. AP reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere has been terrific and showed a depth of knowledge and source development that is what real journalism is about. The problem here though is not that the stories are not being done but rather how many people are seeing the stories if they do not get picked up.

On the newspaper side there still is no one that can hold a match to the in-depth reporting that is done by papers like the Washington Post when they really get behind a story. The Washington Post’s two multimedia features in recent years on al-Qaeda and most recently the IED issue were a more solid and informative treatment then I have seen in any American media and not just on those issues but on almost any terrorist issue. They are an example of what can really be done when the appropriate time, resources and space are allocated to allow the journalists to do their job and the reader to be informed. All is not well in the newspaper world though and the changing landscape is bearing down heavily on the old models. Much of this was captured in the final season of David Simon’s brilliant insight into urban life in America on HBO, “The Wire”, when he focused the spotlight on The Baltimore Sun.

Despite these two last bastions, I’m deeply worried. It’s simply not enough. As a print person it pains me to say it but in today’s day and age, if it is not on TV, more often than not, it did not happen. Whether in the circles of government or in the mind of the public, the morning paper may still often set the news cycle but it is the 24-hour news networks that determine whether or not it grows legs. Even as an intelligence professional, myself and my colleagues often find ourselves running in circles because someone saw something utterly insignificant and unimportant on TV and well of course then it must be urgent and so emails get dispatched and everyone stops what they are doing to answer the questions of the customer who happened to flip on a TV. Give the same person a critical intelligence report on something they do not get and that is not on TV and you are lucky if they bother to read it in some cases.

This brings me back to one simple question. If all the news powerhouses in this country are not going to buckle down and decide that ratings or not, in the post 9-11 world it’s important to educate and inform Americans on these issues, then who will? Also, informing does not mean taking one out of hundreds of FBI bulletins that leak removing all context and common sense and flashing them across the screen as breaking news. More of this tired practice is not needed. What is needed is knowledge and context and real reporting.

At IntelCenter we just released a wall chart with the logos from 39 different active terrorist groups. How many Americans do you think could even think of the names of say five or more groups? Similarly there are more than 50 groups actively operating in Iraq right now. I’d put money down that if you were to walk the street and ask Americans to name just one group other than al-Qaeda they could not. Yet these groups are killing Americans on a regular basis. If we cannot name the groups who threaten us, how can we even begin to understand the nature of the threat and the challenges that face us.

My small part in this battle is to give tens of thousands of dollars every year in free books, DVDs, intelligence reports and video licenses to every news organization and documentary crew doing real reporting on this stuff but beyond that informing the public is outside of our scope and responsibility. Our products are simply too expensive and technical to be able to fill that role. Schools cannot help because well most of us are long done with them. Think tanks and other questionable organizations often only serve to spin the data to serve their political objectives or agenda. They are not beholden to the ethics and professional practices of an intelligence analyst or a journalist. Academics are often too far removed from practical concerns to significantly contribute and they do not have the profile or exposure to reach people on a regular basis. As for the government, some more information coming out of DHS might help but that is trickier than it sounds for a whole host of reasons and the role of a quasi news agency is not one it should be serving.

So I ask, if the news organizations that serve the American people do not step up to the plate and say on this issue, ratings be damned, this is our responsibility and duty, well then… we’re just fucked.

That morning will come and for weeks on weeks following, questions will be asked, “Did you see this coming? Were you surprised?”

And we will all say “Never Again” as we slap billion dollar overnight sound bite feel good fixes into place that will not be sustained.

Until of course we forget yet again…

via: http://www.bigmedicine.ca/benvenzke.htm

his website: http://www.intelcenter.com/

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