a former full-time journalist turned journalism professor. I continue to
commit occasional acts of journalism, and I retain a deep affection for, and
commitment to, the craft and its ideals. That’s why it pains me to say this:
The performance of the U.S. corporate commercial news media after 9/11 has
been the most profound and dangerous failure of journalism in my lifetime.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the void is being filled by other
institutions, including the Media Education Foundation with its new
documentary, “Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American
That performance of journalists in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq
was so abysmal that the country’s top two daily newspapers, the
Washington Post and New York Times, eventually were forced to
engage in a bit of self-criticism, albeit shallow and inadequate. The U.S.
news media’s willingness to serve as a largely uncritical conduit for the
lies, half-truths, and distortions the Bush administration used to create
the pretext for war showed how easily journalists can become de facto agents
of a state propaganda campaign, which in this case mobilized public support
for an illegal war.
But the lies that led to the Iraq War are only part of a bigger story, the
most important story of the past three years: The Bush administration’s
manipulation of the tragedy of 9/11 to extend and intensify the longstanding
U.S. project of empire building (and the complicity of most Democrats in
No publication or network in the mainstream of U.S. journalism has offered
an independent, critical analysis of that project. Only a few journalists,
mostly on the margins, have even dared to take a crack at it. The best
consistent work has been in the foreign press or the alternative media in
the United States.
This also has been the year of the political documentary, and “Hijacking
Catastrophe” is the best film in this genre to date.
(Full disclosure: I was one of the people interviewed for “Hijacking
Catastrophe,” and I also have appeared in two other MEF films. I agreed to
participate in these projects because, after years of using MEF videos in
the classroom, I have come to respect the quality of the work and the
integrity of its staff.)
Until this year, MEF had focused primarily on media criticism; its videos
examined the effect of mass media on U.S. politics and culture. MEF
primarily took as its task the job of explaining the failures of
journalists, not doing the work of journalists. With “Hijacking
Catastrophe,” directors Sut Jhally and Jeremy Earp also take up that task,
covering the tremendously important story of the current phase of the U.S.
empire that journalists have let slip through their fingers.
The film concentrates on two major topics: The neoconservative agenda for
U.S. domination of the world, which was created long before 9/11, and the
selling of that agenda to the U.S. public after 9/11.
The first story goes back to the early 1990s and the end of the Cold War,
when policy planners such as Paul Wolfowitz (current deputy secretary of
defense) were devising a more aggressive foreign policy and military posture
to allow the United States to capitalize on the collapse of the Soviet Union
and to dominate the globe in ways that had not previously been possible. At
the time, the plans were considered so extreme that the first Bush
administration reined in these ideological fanatics; the U.S. empire could
go forward but not in such radical form.
During the remainder of the 1990s, these neoconservative planners chafed at
what they saw as an insufficiently aggressive approach to expansion of the
empire in the Clinton administration. The Project for the New American
Century, a neoconservative think tank, was created as a vehicle for
promoting this ideology, which was able to take center stage with the George
W. Bush administration.
Resistance to such an aggressive and dangerous project remained, however,
and the project still had to be sold to the U.S. public. The attacks of 9/11
created the political climate which made that possible.
The second story told by “Hijacking Catastrophe” is how the Bush
administration -- again, with the Democrats either helping or standing
aside, and the news media playing a compliant lapdog role -- devised and
executed a propaganda campaign to ratchet up and manipulate the public’s
fear of terrorism to justify first an illegal, immoral, and
counterproductive invasion of Afghanistan (designed to solidify U.S. control
in Central Asia) and then an even more blatantly illegal and disastrous
invasion of Iraq (designed to solidify U.S. control of the Middle East).
Reviews in the Washington Post and New York Times both
acknowledged that the film offers a “cogent, concise and engaging” argument
and makes a “convincing case” (the case, perhaps, that journalists from
those papers should have been reporting all along).
Both reviews also note that
Jhally’s and Earp’s presentation of “the facts without any funny business”
marks “Hijacking Catastrophe” as a film different from “Fahrenheit 9/11,”
one that is “more sober, yet no less sobering” than Michael Moore’s movie.
These repeated failures of journalists to hold the powerful accountable
should be a subject of serious discussion not just within the profession but
for all of us. If journalists don’t provide a truly independent source of
news and instead routinely subordinate themselves to power -- especially in
times of war and national crisis -- it’s difficult to imagine how citizens
can adequately inform themselves so that they can participate in the
political arena in a meaningful way.
But when journalism fails, it’s possible for other institutions to take on
some of the news media’s obligations. That doesn’t mean MEF or groups like
it can replace existing journalistic institutions on their own. Nor does it
mean that Jhally and Earp are holding themselves out to the public as
journalists, in the same way that so-called “objective” journalists do.
Instead, films such as “Hijacking Catastrophe” provide information and
analysis, coming from a political orientation (critical, dissident,
progressive -- historically, the hallmarks of great journalism) that is up
front. The question isn’t whether the people who made the film and appear in
it have a politics -- of course they do, just as mainstream journalists and
mainstream journalism’s institutions do. The question is whether the
information presented is accurate, the judgments made are honest, and the
conclusions reached are compelling.
On those criteria, “Hijacking Catastrophe” is one of the best pieces of
journalism of recent years.
* For details on “Hijacking Catastrophe,” go to
http://hijackingcatastrophe.org/. For information on other MEF
documentaries, go to http://mef.tv/.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of
Texas at Austin and author of
Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be
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