“And Now, Here’s Wolf Blitzer, Fresh Back From a Sitdown With Osama bin Laden!”

By Corey Pein

Those are words you’re not going to be hearing this election year — nor probably next year, nor the year after that.

But why? The campaign press frequently reminds us that international terrorism may be the single biggest issue in this election, and the candidates seem to be engaged in a contest of oratory to one-up one another in real or imagined “toughness.” (Remember John Edwards at the Democratic convention, vowing “We…will…destroy…you”? And last-month’s quickly-backed-away-from leak that the Bush administration might “postpone” the election in the event of an attack?)

It seems to us that both the candidates and a complicit campaign press corps are dodging a fairly essential question — what drives the presumed enemy in this “war” that both Bush and Kerry have embraced? As the 9/11 Commission’s report noted: “The history, culture, and body of beliefs from which bin Laden has shaped and spread his message are largely unknown to many Americans.”

You can’t blame the faltering public education system here. You can’t even entirely blame the candidates, who always prefer garish caricatures of the enemy to detailed portraits. But you can blame the press. In the rare cases when al Qaeda’s motives are characterized, the U.S. press has been content to portray “the terrorists” as a vague, “shadowy” amalgamation of “jihadis” whose horrific plots are fueled mainly by hatred for American freedoms and by whatever charities and dope pushers the Justice Department has fingered this week. The truth, as usual, is more complex, though the effort needed to explain al Qaeda is surely deserved. By default, Osama bin Laden is a major player in the election, but we know more about P. Diddy’s struggle to get out the vote than we know about what drives bin Laden or what his goals are.

And that’s too bad, because, while OBL isn’t likely to sit down with Tim Russert any time soon, he does indeed have a manifesto. The 9/11 Commission’s report put his agenda concisely enough to fit as a context paragraph in a newspaper story:

Seizing on symbols of Islam’s past greatness, [bin Laden] promises to restore pride to people who consider themselves the victims of successive foreign masters. … His rhetoric selectively draws from multiple sources — Islam, history, and the region’s political and economic malaise. He also stresses grievances against the United States widely shared in the Muslim world. He inveighed against the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest sites. He spoke of the suffering of the Iraqi people as a result of sanctions imposed after the Gulf War, and he protested U.S. support of Israel.

The Tampa Tribune, seized by one of those periodic fits of reason that strike the press from time to time, recently ran an editorial titled “Exactly What Does Bin Laden Want?” In it, the Trib quoted an NBC interview with “Anonymous,” the now-muzzled CIA officer whose book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror spurred yet another odd alliance between national-security bureaucrats and anti-war Democrats.

Granting that bin Laden despises America’s libertine culture, Anonymous goes on to say:

To think that he’s trying to rob us of our liberties and freedom is, I think, a gross mistake. What he has done, his genius, is identify particular American foreign policies that are offensive to Muslims whether they support these martial actions or not — our support for Israel, our presence on the Arabian Peninsula, our activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, our support for governments that Muslims believe oppress Muslims, be it India, China, Russia, Uzbekistan. Bin Laden has focused the Muslim world on specific, tangible, visual American policies.

Some of those grievances are not perceived but real. The U.S. does prop up Saudi Arabia’s corrupt monarchy, arguably a worse tyranny than the one that colonial Americans threw off by force. And high-ranking military men like Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who equated Islam with Satan and said God installed George W. Bush, sure make it seem like this is a war on Muslims.

Anonymous’s “solution” is a little bizarre itself: To bomb the Arab nations to pieces. This, he concedes, “will yield large civilian casualties, displaced populations, and refugee flows. Again, this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America’s only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.” Yikes! Many in the public would be surprised to know that a leading alternative to Bush’s foreign policy is a dressed-up version of advice heard from many a GED in International Affairs after 9/11: “Nuke ‘em all.” But such is the press’s failure. We don’t know what’s at stake, let alone why.

The media could start by giving complete coverage to al Qaeda’s statements. In October 2001, the Bush administration asked networks and print outlets to refrain from running bin Laden’s videotaped soliloquies. Officials claimed that bin Laden could send coded messages through those videos, signaling his followers to launch an attack. News executives accepted this rationale uncritically. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that, “Executives, who described the conference call [with Condoleeza Rice] as cordial, said the material they televise was likely to be highly edited or paraphrased.” It continued, “‘If there’s no news value, it may not air at all,’ said Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News.”

Of course, the daily White House briefing is just packed with news value.

MSNBC prez Erik Sorenson explained to the Times further:

These people are terrorists; this is not an official government … We have added problems with these releases because they are coming to us third-hand from Al Jazeera. While I have a certain level of respect for Al Jazeera, I don’t allow other news organizations to vet our journalism for us.

Sorenson apparently doesn’t mind when the wire services vet NBC’s journalism for it. (Not unless the cable channel hires legions of factcheckers to pore over every Associated Press story ripped from the wire before it is slapped onto the ticker.) Sorenson’s “official government” standard is similarly baffling. Why should bin Laden’s demands be censored by the same networks that treat Kim Jong Il of North Korea, arguably the craziest person alive, as a legitimate diplomatic entity?

Those were more blindly patriotic days. But as unconvincing as the government’s rationale was then, it has only grown flimsier as more details about how al Qaeda operates have emerged. According to the New York Times, a Qaeda-affiliated computer engineer from Pakistan recently told investigators that “most of Al Qaeda’s [internal] communications were now done through the Internet.” Makes sense. Producing and releasing a videotape loaded with coded messages sounds like a lot of trouble when you consider how easy it is to open a new Hotmail account.

Now that even Tom Ridge’s warnings draw skepticism, it’s time to ask whether the networks are considering revising their bin Laden video policies. So we did.

Fox News and NBC didn’t respond in time for this story. CNN’s spokesman, Matthew Furman, initially denied that his network’s policy had anything to do with the October 2001 conference call. “My recollection at the time was that no request was made but rather it was an opportunity for people in the administration to share their concerns.” Furman said CNN reviews the bin Laden tapes on a case-by-case basis, and decides what to air based on “newsworthiness.”

“If there’s nothing new,” Furman said, “we may not air it.” Really? Then what about politicians? They rarely say anything new, yet their talking points are repeated without cease (or sense).

“If you’re asking whether we cover the presidential candidates more than we cover bin Laden, the answer is obvious, of course we do,” Furman said. (He later e-mailed Campaign Desk asking that his comments go retroactively off the record.)

Even if the networks were to change their policies regarding bin Laden’s videos, there are other reasons journalists avoid covering the al Qaeda leader. For one, reporting his demands means having to talk about Israel. To the candidates, that’s about as appealing as a prime-time fundraiser with Rev. Moon. Same goes for the press. These days, anyone who brings up Israel and Palestine at a previously peaceful press conference risks coming off as a frothing-at-the-mouth fanatic. And any writing on the subject as it relates to al Qaeda, is, however innocuous and carefully-phrased, likely to inundate a news organization with angry letters, e-mails and phone calls. So, in the absence of inquiries into bin Laden’s, motives, techniques and political desires, the press falls back on a few time-honored chestnuts of campaign coverage: Assess the candidates’ strategy to fight terrorism by their degree of stage-crafted “toughness,” not by their approach to the issues that actually might matter to al Qaeda’s potential recruits, and will continue to matter whoever the next president is.

Agitprop bumper stickers aside, bin Laden may be happy to see either candidate win. After all, Bill Clinton served his purposes well enough, as bin Laden made clear in a 1998 interview with ABC’s John Miller: “We believe that this administration represents Israel inside America.”

Neither Bush nor Kerry has proposed major changes in America’s relationship with Israel; both want to stay in Iraq “until the job is done”; and both promise lower gas prices, which depends mainly on two things: The Saudi royal family, and the unknown extent of the world’s remaining oil reserves. In other words, neither candidate is willing, in public at least, to even address al Qaeda’s stated grievances, much less to grapple with the real issues from which they spring.

But that’s all too terrible to contemplate, isn’t it? Let’s hear more about that hamster.

Corey Pein was an assistant editor at CJR.