Sometimes, as Matthew Yglesias pointed out last week, it’s what they don’t say. And when its Fox News keeping mum, you better listen hard.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress — over intense White House objections – created an independent, 10-person commission to investigate the bombings that took nearly 3,000 lives. In the tradition of the Warren Commission, and the inquiries into Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 commission would offer up the definitive take on the historic tragedy, and provide key assessments so America was never caught off guard again. And it would do that by combing through millions of documents, with unfettered access. Thomas Kean, former New Jersey Republican governor who’s chairing the commission, recently reported it’s engaged in "the largest investigation of the United States government in United States history."
This may read well on paper. But Kean and company have been forced to grovel not only for enough money to do the job, but also for access to key White House documents, most notably sensitive (read: embarrassing) presidential daily briefings, and specifically any from the summer of 2001 that appear to have warned Bush about an imminent and spectacular al Qaida attack inside the United States. (Bush decided to spend the rest of the day fishing on his “ranch” following the still-secret briefing.) Last week a deal was finally struck, giving a small number of commissioners access to the most sensitive documents, and letting them, in effect, report back to the entire panel about what they saw. Some victims’ family members labeled the backroom deal a charade.
Either way, the 9/11 commission qualifies as news, or so one would think. Well, not at Bush-friendly Fox News. On-air reports about the 9/11 commission have been as common as anchors with bad teeth or academics with leftward leanings; in other words, ‘not very. …'
Fox has treated viewers to a virtual news blackout on commission-related news. And if this has been an accident, it has to be one of the most amazing news-gathering coincidences in cable history. All of Fox’s marquee programs – “Hannity & Colmes,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Special Report with Brit Hume,” “The Beltway Boys,” “The Big Show with John Gibson,” “Fox News Sunday,” and “Your World with Neil Cavuto” – have managed to avoid the 9/11 commission as if it were a Dan Quayle spellathon.
It’s been a year since the 9/11 inquiry was formed (did we mention the Bush White House objected to it?), even tried to appoint “Mr. Official Secrecy,” Henry Kissinger, to head it? During this time, the above mentioned Fox shows have aired at least 1,300 episodes and welcomed, I’m guessing, 4,000 guests. (Not 4,000 separate individuals, since lots of people are repeat guests. But 4,000 separate bookings nonetheless.) How many of those 4,000 were invited to discuss the 9/11 commission? Five percent? One percent? According to a Nexis search, the number hovers closer .1 and .2 percent of the guests, or perhaps 10 people, tops. And we’re being generous, because among several of those 10, the 9/11 commission came up only in passing. As for guests invited on exclusively by Fox to talk about the commission, its investigation, and its battles with the White House? The number is closer to zero. (That’s “snake eyes” if you’re reading, Bill.)
Are we picking unfairly on Fox? Perhaps. Unfortunately, most of mainstream media have done a spotty job covering the commission, with some notable exceptions being the AP, the Dallas Morning News and the Newark Star-Ledger. (For Nexis heads out there, the search of “9/11 commission and Fox News” for the last 12 months captured 21 transcript matches, no matter how fleeting the on-air reference was, compared to 63 matches for “9/11 commission and CNN.”)
Even so, if your ambition were to watch your post-9/11 news in a 9/11 commission-free zone, while you chose instead to direct people’s attention away from any failures that may have left the nation vulnerable and instead convince the country to focus on say, an imaginary threat from Iraq, Fox would consistently been the best choice. And perhaps no place on Fox has would have been safer than Bill O’Reilly’s no-spin zone.
This sounds a bit weird, I know. After all, right? O’Reilly insists he’s not a card-carrying conservative, but is fueled by a calls-`em-like-he-sees-`em blue collar streak that owes no allegiance to either party. Plus, during the dark days following the deadly World Trade Center attacks, it was O’Reilly (according to O’Reilly) who made America safe from do-gooding celebrities like George Clooney who helped raise tens of millions of dollars for United Way charities, but then, shockingly, failed to keep detailed dibs on where the money went. Surely, that Bill O’Reilly was keeping a hawk’s eye on the commission and standing up for 9/11 families, right? Hmm, not exactly.
Since the 9/11 commission was created O’Reilly has taped approximately 200 shows welcomed at least 500 guests on the air. According to Nexis, none of them have talked about the 9/11 commission. For O’Reilly, the inquiry simply does not exist. (Though he did manage to scream at the child of one 9/11 victims to “shut up” and “get out” when the follow made some political comments with which O’Reilly disagreed.)
Here, as best as we can determine, are the strongest remarks O’Reilly’s made over the 12 months regarding the White House’s foot-dragging with the 9/11 commission: “It's true Mr. Bush should be more forthcoming with the committee investigating how 9/11 actually happened.”
Is this man on the warpath, or what?
A few weeks ago Fox had no choice but to report on the commission story after the New York Times ran a page-one interview with Kean, in which the mild-mannered Republican put the White House on notice that it may be subpoenaed for additional documents. The next day, Fox anchor Brit Hume gave the story exactly 89 words before segueing into a longer, brighter piece about the rebounding economy.
By this summer though, Fox had already telegraphed where its sympathies lay (one guess!) when it came to the commission’s stand-off with the White House. On the eve of the panel’s interim report released in July, Fox talking head Fred Barnes mocked the commissioners, predicting, “They're going to whine about they haven't gotten the 5 million documents they asked for, and, and, and wanted overnight, and, and as a result, say the Bush administration is stonewalling.”
And in 2002, Barnes’ Fox mate, Mort Kondracke, blurted this out: “Now, look. I am against the national 9/11 commission for exactly the reason you, that you say, that it's a, it's a waste of time.”
Then again, maybe the current news blackout is bigger than Fox. Maybe it’s a Rupert Murdoch thing. According to a Nexis search, the mogul’s neo-con D.c= bible, the Weekly Standard, has yet to commit the simple phrase “9/11 commission” to print in any of the nearly 50 issues (and what, 500-600 articles and columns?) that have been published since the panel’s creation last November. To repeat, the Weekly Standard, a magazine that details the governing minutiae of Washington from a Bush-friendly perspective, has not only managed to avoid writing a single article/column about the 9/11 commission, it’s avoided using the phrase even once. Talk about staff discipline…
Over at the New York Post, which aspires to be legit big city newspaper, reporters have been forced to at least pretend to be interested in the White House’s least favorite inquiry. Usually though, Post editor are able to keep those news reports down to 200 or 300-word bite-sized morsels.
But sometimes the Post editors can’t control themselves and that maddening, out-of-control, partisan wilding ten-person 9/11 commission—the one, ahem – staffed by five Republican-appointed commissioners and headed by a Republican – gets the best of the Murdoch flagship and the paper just has to respond! On Nov. 2, it came in the form of, “Tom Keans runs amok,” which Kean of “waging war on the Bush administration,” while overseeing “a blatantly partisan probe that is rapidly drawing a target – with George W. Bush in the bull's eye.”
(As usual, the Post’s nutty editorial page was following the lead of its big brother, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which months earlier shrieked “The [9/11] commission's passion for documents raises suspicions that it's looking for some 'gotcha' memo.” Scurrying to the White House’s defense, the paper suggested, “A better question is why the Administration is cooperating at all with what looks more and more like a probe with a partisan edge.”)
The priceless part was the Post’s insistence that the White House could stiff the historic investigation all together because—surprise, surprise – the nation is at war: “For that reason alone, the White House is justified in refusing to turn over the most super-secret intelligence estimates over to a multi-member commission.”
Playing the limp patsy for Bush would embarrass even the most partisan journalist, but it’s paid off for Murdoch. This week, London trashy tabloid, The Sun, scored an exclusive interview with the president. And no, there was not much discussion of the 9/11 investigation. Nice breasts, though.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.