I’m 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 Empire.”
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 that endeavor).
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.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity” from City Lights Books. He can be reached at email@example.com.