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Cover the Terror War as a War

January 23, 2005|Hugh Hewitt | Hugh Hewitt hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show. His new book is "Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That Is Changing Your World." His blog is

An experimental column in which the Los Angeles Times invites outside critics to slap around a Southern California newspaper that has a two-part (or bigger) Sunday Calendar section.


So many targets, so little time. I have picked The Times' coverage of the war on terrorism to criticize because that coverage is woefully inadequate, failing to educate the paper's readership on the nature and extent of the threat the country faces.

Defenders of The Times might point out that in the last four years more than 10,000 stories in this paper have used the words "terror" or "terrorism." But my complaint is not about quantity. My complaint is that The Times has chosen to cover the global war on terrorism mainly through stories it treats as distinct, even though they are interconnected in profound ways with immediate consequences for every American. Readers need to be told in more detail and more repeatedly how the Islamist bombs that killed almost 200 civilians in Madrid are related to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi's Al Qaeda-linked thugs, who continue to butcher pro-democracy Iraqis, for example. They need to be told over and over that members of this network, however loosely linked, continue to see the U.S. as their most tempting target.

The Times does do the occasional big-picture story. For instance, on Sept. 26, a Page 1 article, "Al Qaeda Seen as Wider Threat," described the Iraq war as "a new front in the battle against terrorism and a rallying point for a seemingly endless supply of young extremists willing to die in a jihad, or holy war." But it relied too heavily on experts who seem most concerned that the invasion of Iraq has triggered an expansion in the ranks of jihadists. Imagine a newspaper during World War II giving so much space to people fretting that the Army's victory over the Japanese at Guadalcanal would only make the combined enemy forces more eager to fight on Iwo Jima and Normandy -- though indeed the first major victory in the Pacific might very well have had exactly that effect.

On Jan. 11, 2005, The Times' Op-Ed page published a column by Robert Scheer titled "Is Al Qaeda Just a Bush Boogeyman?" Apparently, in the 40 months since Sept. 11, at least a few Americans have gone from "who did this?" to "no one did this." The way this paper has covered the difficult and complex story is part of the reason for such ignorance.

I would like to see The Times restructure its coverage to accomplish crucial objectives:

* Do more to identify and inform the readers on the organization, leadership and capabilities of the Islamist terrorist network, paying more attention to experts who support the war in Iraq and believe, along with President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and many others, that the battles there will ultimately slow the spread of terrorism elsewhere.

* Start a daily -- a daily -- feature on the Global War on Terrorism and call it that. Explain the money trail and detail the leadership and do so with the repetition that assures that readers are not overwhelmed with one giant aircraft carrier of a piece. Give them the digestible segments that make for understanding. Where does the support come from and who manages the accounts? Are there names behind the cash that funds the madrasas that churn out the jihadists? What has been done to stop the funding? Beneath Osama Bin Laden, his top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, and the Jordanian Zarqawi, who are the generals, the colonels and the rising young officers of the movement? Tell us and tell us again as reporters turn up new information. And alert readers to the many widely visited and cited blogs that have emerged as sources of analysis of this war's intricacies -- among them the Belmont Club (, the Command Post (, and the Fourth Rail (

In short, The Times needs to reorganize to actually cover the war as a war. The last global war was not covered as though the Pacific Theater was independent of the battles in North Africa, or the Russian front disconnected from the D-day invasion. As with that global struggle, so with this one. As it is, unfortunately, readers know less of the terrorist enemy than 1942 readers knew of the geography of North Africa.

Another attack on the United States is inevitable. It will be a test of this paper and big journalism generally if, when the identities of future attackers are discovered, their organizations' intricacies and intentions will have been covered extensively in these pages.

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