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Remnick: Blame profit-seeking news media, apathetic public for poor foreign reporting

The 16th John S. Knight Lecture

The editor of America's hottest magazine, the first one to comprehensively detail the story of sexual abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, told overflow crowds at Stanford University Monday and Tuesday that the press failed to prepare Americans for the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and might fail them again.

David Remnick, the tall, tousle-haired, intense 45-year-old editor of the New Yorker, faulted both a news media preoccupied with trivial stories -- such as the trials of Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson -- and a public that would much rather watch an episode of "Friends" than "Frontline."

Between the historic collapse of communism in Europe and Russia and that crystal September morning when al Qaeda pilots flew passenger-laden airliners into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the American press had "taken a nap," he said. The former Washington Post Moscow correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner delivered the 16th annual John S. Knight lecture Monday night. The next morning three other prominent journalists and a Stanford scholar responded to his critique.

The American media as a whole did not do its job as well as it should.

-- David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker

The events of Sept. 11 caught the press as much by surprise as the rest of the nation, Mr. Remnick said. With the end of the Cold War, foreign bureaus shrank and the media searchlight turned elsewhere. "How many reporters spoke functional Arabic?" he asked. "How many newspapers had ... Middle East bureaus? What background had American journalists provided on Islamic fundamentalism?"

Gathering news abroad is expensive, Mr. Remnick explained. It requires hiring reporters and translators, providing offices, transportation and language lessons. In an era when news executives consider journalism less a public service and more "non-fiction show business," foreign reporting was the place to cut staff.

The public must share the blame, Mr. Remnick argued: "The public bears responsibility for what it watches, what it reads and what it ignores." Americans, he said, are insular, little concerned with what happens beyond our borders. Few learn foreign languages. Few travel abroad.

Americans enjoy unprecedented choice of media content and work long hours, he noted. Perhaps out of a desire for escape, "we are not often enough eager for the serious." News weeklies "put Jesus or babies or back pain on the cover, or baby Jesus with back pain," he deadpanned, rather than international news because the former topics sell so much better on the news stand.

After Sept. 11, Remnick said, network television and newspapers "for a period of weeks, even months ... reported with dedication and intelligence. This was a change."

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Remnick said, "the American media as a whole did not do its job as well as it should." It did not discover how early the "arrogant and errant" Bush administration had decided to go to war with Iraq, or ask skeptical questions about the evidence behind administration assertions of Iraq's connection with al Qaeda or weapons of mass destruction.

Quoting Michael Getler, ombudsman of the Washington Post, Remnick said, "Almost everything we were told before the war, except that Saddam Hussein was bad, turned out to be wrong."

Remnick leavened his criticism of the press, saying its information-gathering capacity is not as great as that of government intelligence agencies. He also pointed out that European intelligence and political leaders, even chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix, believed the Iraqi government had not come entirely clean about its military programs.

Turning to the future, Remnick said he wasn't sure whether New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh's stories revealing the torture and sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib would be a turning point in American support for the occupation of Iraq.

More certain, he said, was the damage to America's reputation and the loss of moral authority. Arab leaders, he charged, were taking advantage of popular outrage against America to suppress critics urging greater freedoms. "Even the U.S. banner of human rights has been lost at Abu Ghraib. In the eyes of Iraqis -- and those are the eyes that count -- we have lost whatever moral sway we once had."

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