Journalists back watchdog role despite 9-11

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the News section on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003. View related article, 150? Cool. Top 10? Awesome! also from Sunday’s P-D. )

By Kaitlin Bell of the Post-Dispatch

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the rules of war, but they also changed media coverage of war and politics, several prominent journalists concluded at a panel discussion Saturday celebrating the 125th anniversary of Student Life, Washington University’s campus newspaper.

With the credibility of United States intelligence suddenly called into question and few other sources to work with, American media found themselves afloat after the 2001 attacks, Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff said. The problem of a secretive American intelligence force was compounded by an elusive enemy that was hard for both journalists and the American government to pin down, he said.

“What we know or what we think we know is just dwarfed by what we don’t know,” Isikoff said.

Isikoff, best known for breaking the story of President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, joined Boston Globe national editor Ken Cooper and James Madore, media critic of Newsday, in arguing that the media must be vigilant in their roles as political watchdogs.

“You have an administration that philosophically believes in secrecy in government,” Cooper said. “It’s essential to their view of government.”

Isikoff, Cooper and Madore all worked on Student Life in their student days at the university, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this weekend.

Some in the audience – also composed of former Student Life editors and reporters and their spouses – argued that national security concerns should supersede a responsibility to inform the public, while others bemoaned what they perceived as a dumbed-down, often biased print media that increasingly emphasizes the “horse race” aspect of political campaigns rather than the issues involved and the people affected.

Isikoff, Cooper, Madore and reunion chairwoman Laura Meckler of The Associated Press were quick to defend the media’s right and responsibility to report independently of the American government’s own agenda.

Cooper urged reporters to go beyond a narrow, American-focused world view. At the same time, though, Cooper said he urges his political reporters to look past the usual Washington insiders to voters whom political issues affect. Madore warned that while embedded reporters in Iraq provided rare first-hand accounts of military operations, media organizations need to consider the overall strategies of war, not merely the day-to-day lives of soldiers.

The Student Life reunion weekend featured the presentation of the first Greg Freeman Award to Alex Fak, Class of 2003, for two columns he wrote on the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s registration requirements for international students. Freeman, a Post-Dispatch columnist who died in December, was co-editor in chief of Student Life in 1976-77.