Martin Raincoat, a long time Aussie foreign correspondent, is sitting in the United States reading the paper with the radio on and the TV blaring – getting worried.

It was only the morning after Tuesday’s attack, even before rescuers could get to bodies, when America’s legion of radio shock jocks was stoking the fires of hatred.

“We should be going after their babies and make sure they’re wiped out as well, to make sure they don’t grow up and do the same thing to us,” was the way internationally-syndicated breakfast radio host Howard Stern suggested the US military respond to the attack. His American audience was just as eager to see that “they” would have the nation’s deadliest weaponry unleashed on them. New York-based Stern was just one of many prominent and local radio figures fomenting hatred. He even urged Americans to turn on anyone who appeared to be revelling in the nation’s tragedy, suggesting “they” deserved everything they got.

The mood quickly caught on, with some New Yorkers giving police the description of a vehicle occupied by foreigners celebrating the attack. Police found and stopped the vehicle. No, the three people were not charged with whooping it up in democratic America. They were handed over to Immigration and Naturalisation Service agents who found irregularities with their immigration documentation and bound them over for deportation.

The big four TV networks spent much of the first 24 hours of the aftermath beseeching viewers not to jump to any conclusions about who was responsible for the attacks. The ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC anchors, fresh from getting it so wrong on the “It’s Gore, not it’s Bush, no it’s not” November 2000 election coverage, well remember the debacle of their coverage of the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing. The collective media “experts” had judged and convicted “Middle East extremists” while the fires were still burning in the bombed federal building.

The arrest of home-grown bombers with their own grudges against Washington punctured the media’s hitherto “trusted source” status. But at the same time as veteran anchors Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw were busy warning viewers not to make presumptive judgements about the New York and Pentagon attacks, they all prodded “experts” to give their opinions as to who they thought was behind them. Unsurprisingly, all fingers were pointed at Saudi radical Osama bin Laden. But no-one could accuse the anchors of finger pointing. They were just asking the questions.

So what were the papers saying? The Philadelphia Daily News: “Revenge. Hold on to that thought. Go to bed thinking it. Wake up chanting it. Because nothing less than revenge is called for today.” The Washington Post: “A state of war also means a national commitment, nurtured by bipartisan co-operation in Washington, to attack and defeat the country’s enemies.” Tiny Rhode Island’s Providence Journal displayed the measured tone for which the state is often ridiculed by comedians as being more liberal than a Californian social workers’ convention. Urging Americans to “remain calm, lest our outrage make things worse,” the Journal urged the nation’s leaders to “speak out against blaming entire national and ethnic groups. Such assignment of group guilt is un-American and exactly the sort of thing that those who attack us engage in constantly.” A quick spin of the radio dial made it seem un-American not to be blaming ethnic groups.

Largely and frighteningly absent from any US media coverage of Tuesday’s horror was an analysis of why so much hatred was directed in such a chilling manner against the US and its people. There was plenty of acknowledgement that “these people hate our values and our way of life”, but journalists and anchors did not ask the “experts” why. One of the few organs to try to fill that vacuum was the Miami Herald, the principal daily of the city mocked by the rest of America as “the banana republic” since its population of Latinos now outnumbers African-Americans and Caucasians combined.

The paper published the views of London-based independent columnist Jonathon Power under the heading: “US pays heavy price for its arrogance all over the world.” Among Power’s observations; “Not for nothing is anti-American resentment on the increase all over the world, not least in Europe, where there is some astonishment at the way the new US administration has ploughed ahead with its self-interested agenda, 05 Most ordinary Europeans say that America has got itself into this hole by its own disregard for what others think. The first law of holes, of course, is to stop digging, which is what Washington should have told Israel six presidents ago when it started its counterproductive policy of building (Jewish) settlements on what everyone knew was Palestinian land” and, finally; “America is threatened not by nuclear-tipped missiles from unknown rogue nations but by small groups of angry men who, although prisoners of their zealotry, know well enough that much of the world, while not agreeing with them, understand their frustration.”

The US media, in all its forms, is unsurpassed in its capacity to deliver news fast, albeit in a clinical and, at times, nationalistic fashion. The September 11 attacks have only served to underline that capacity. But, more importantly, the coverage of the attacks and their aftermath has also been instructive in displaying the nation’s ever-present insularity and, arguably, reflecting the present government’s isolationist tendencies. It bodes ill for the weeks and months ahead should the US launch its own attacks, because an insular media is incapable of balancing the ledger during a conflict. And if George Bush is serious when he says he’s going to “whip terrorism”, the US will need all the balance it can muster to avoid tilting towards another bloodbath.

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Peter Fray

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