No Questions Asked, by Lisa Finnegan
On Sept. 11th 2001, an enormous sea-change occurred in our national political culture. The onset of that change can be traced further back, at least in part, to the disputed 2000 presidential election and the sporadic but portentous terrorist attacks on American lives and property during the 1990’s. In recent months, new threats against the lives of air passengers have been discovered.
The 1990’s now seem like a distant pre-lapsarian Eden, before the fall of the twin towers and the attendant collapse of our sense of security. Yet we remain at the very beginning of an era that will likely last for decades. We have not begun to measure the extent of the changes we see – in our personal lives and psyches, our communities, our nation and the world; it will take years to fully comprehend where we are. As Hegel noted in “The Philosophy of Right,” wisdom comes in hindsight: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”
It is one of the burdens of journalism – including timely nonfiction books – to minimize this disparity between our situation and our understanding: to provide rolling accounts of events as they flow. It is no easy thing. But it is a burden for which journalists must be held accountable, because such timely and time-constrained explanations are part of journalism’s debt to democracy. Without them we cannot begin to figure out where he have come from and where we are going.
Even from the limited perspective of the present, we can look back over the past five years and see that a new climate of fear and insecurity has infected our politics; in some cases it has been the politics of exploiting, or even propagating, fear and insecurity. Here, too, the national media are responsible as gatekeepers, along with public figures and the public in general. All share responsibility – but journalists are responsible most of all – for the quality and climate of information.
It is a premise of this series – and an axiom of modern life – that all politics is mediated. So to explore any change in our political culture is also to look at how it might have been mediated differently. To understand what is going on around us with any confidence, we must all be media critics: not just capable of partisan sniping or finding bias under every journalistic rock, but also of discerning good and bad journalism through a wider lens than our own political beliefs.
Thus, to understand the political sea-change we are still undergoing inevitably means exploring all aspects of the media’s coverage of those still-unfolding events. To be sure, we await the verdicts of historians decades and centuries hence; but we don’t have the luxury of merely sitting back and waiting for them. We must understand what is going on right now, with all the advantages and disadvantages of our immediacy to events. Our very democracy depends on it. For some things, such as the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s arsenal, knowledge has arrived too late.
As the only known alternative to force and fear, democracy is an endless process of criticism and counter-criticism, examination and cross-examination. It demands that we simultaneously use, observe, and critique our mediating institutions, because in gathering information and holding public institutions accountable, they represent us; we must talk and argue about their performance, just as we talk and argue about the performance of our political representatives. Both, for better or worse, are essential to the democratic process.
In any debate it is important to be candid and critical about the facts. Being candid means finding the relevant facts and stating them clearly; being critical means keeping facts and values apart, as much as possible. To the extent we can do that, we can have democratic debates – which by definition involve talking to, and not past, people with whom we disagree.
However, facts alone don’t generally win arguments – or constitute arguments; at least, not interesting ones. Facts are crucial nodes of agreement across partisan lines; they may embarrass particular policies or strategies but they seldom embarrass value systems. Only when the facts are abundantly clear, and point overwhelmingly in one direction, do they truly speak for themselves and acquire critical moral mass. And that is the case here; that is what makes the book you are about to read extraordinary and important.
Lisa Finnegan has performed an estimable service in laying out important facts (including the crucial sub-class of revealing quotations by important players) regarding the performance of the American media since 9/11. She does so in a remarkably methodical, accessible, and non-polemical fashion. Those who would defend that performance, in regard to crucial issues of foreign policy, national security, and civil liberties, will confront a significant challenge here: a veritable wall of factual evidence of media failure. And much of the argument is made by journalists.
Indeed, the singular strength of NO QUESTIONS ASKED is that the facts that Ms. Finnegan marshals speak so eloquently for themselves, without partisan embellishment. And they tell a story of gross failure on the part of much of the American press corps. That is not to say countervailing facts might not be brought to light, or their importance debated. We must have that national conversation. But while the significance of facts may be disputed, their existence cannot be denied, else all conversation stops.
That debate will further unfold in the coming years, as the Bush presidency becomes history and its astonishing effects on American life play out well into the 21st century. I believe “No Questions Asked” will be a key resource and point of entry for discussion, documenting the failed lenses of the national media for understanding our times. Students and scholars, journalists and citizens will benefit both from this book and from the broader, clearer discussion it makes possible about the direction of our nation in this fateful time. ■
Series Foreword by Jeffrey Scheuer