Charles R. Nesson, the Weld Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, moderated a panel of journalists who spoke about the job of asking critical questions in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11. Nesson directs the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the law school and for many years worked with the late CBS News producer Fred Friendly in the PBS series “Media and Society.” What follows are edited remarks of the journalists and moderator.

The Boston Globe, September 16, 2001.

I’m Charles Nesson. The question is how do you ask the right question? The way we teach at Harvard Law School, the answer to the question is the process of answering. But that leaves you with the question: If the answer to the question is the process of answering it, what’s the question? That has been puzzling me for years. After September 11, I wondered what’s the question. Then, five days after the attack, The Boston Globe in their Focus section asked, “Why Do They Hate Us?” That sort of question hit me when I saw it.

So what went on at The Boston Globe to come up with this question? What was the resistance to this question being asked earlier? We obviously don’t know. But my guess is that’s one of many questions that came up in asking what is the question. Someone had the wisdom to say let’s get to the heart of it. So here we are. We’re journalists, sitting around, and we’re trying to figure out, what is the question? What’s the right question for us to ask?

Alex Jones: A lot of stories have addressed this question, and it was the obvious question given the magnitude of what happened and also what was clear from day one was that it was a very well thought out, very calculated operation that took place over a long period of time. So given the facts we knew, it was the only question because of the devastation. We knew that they wanted to kill a lot of people. We knew that they wanted us to watch it on television because of the 20 minute lapse between the destruction of the first trade center and the second, so we knew how methodical it all was. Obviously, these people really hate us.

Charles Nesson: That was the evidence that they did this, that they hate us. But why do they hate us? You don’t consider that a loaded question? You don’t consider that, in lawyer’s terms, a question that assumes the answer to facts not yet in evidence? You think this has been proved?

Ellen Hume: I think it’s a very narcissistic, American-centric question, and I think it’s the wrong question. For many Americans who have never thought about this before it’s the right question, but for those who have lived abroad it’s pretty obvious that this is something other people think about a lot. For me, the correct question, which I’m very eager to hear more about from people who know about this, is what were they trying to accomplish? Because that encompasses why do they hate us, but it also carries out, so what do they think will happen next, and how do we play or not play into their hands with our own behavior? Because that to me is the crucial question: “What were they trying to accomplish?”

Michel Marriott: I don’t think that question [“Why do they hate us?”] is one that germinated within newsrooms. I think it was one of the times when the newsroom tries to serve the readership, and they think that is a question that is germinating among the readers. It speaks to a certain naiveté. For people who have not been following foreign policy, for people who have not been keeping track of global events, that’s almost an emotional response, almost like a spurned lover. Why does he hate me? It was also a very humanistic sort of question that I think very intelligent people in newsrooms are thinking is what our readers really need to know. Or this is their point of entry, so we will then try to bring the story through that portal, and that’s where that question comes from and not really from the journalists who cover these events.

Rami Khouri: I have a problem with that question, with its last three words “they hate us.” It’s very imprecise and loaded. It’s a very political and sort of culturally distorted kind of question. Who is “they”? The bombers or the wider societies? Or the Islamic or the Arab world? “They” is not clear. And hate is not the right word. For the people who did the bombing, their emotions are stronger than hate. The societies that allowed these terrorists to rise have an emotion that I think is not hate; it’s a very complex, mixed emotion of positive and negative. And “us” is not a very precise word. Are you talking about American society as a whole, the Western free world democracies, the United States government, the United States people?

Charles Nesson: When we read this, when you say to yourself why do they hate us, do you not have a sense who we are who are asking this question? Who are we asking this question?

Alex Jones: I don’t think it really matters, frankly. The reason for putting it that way was to narrow the focus to a point. And the point was actually to try to get the perspective of the people who did this thing into the newspaper so that people were not just sort of shaking their fists but were trying to understand some motivation that would help explain it. Obviously it’s imprecise—they, us—who are we talking about? It was a journalistic device, a headline that was intended to get people to read what was on that page and those were representations of the perspective of people who are far into the experience and knowledge of most of the people in this country.

Charles Nesson: So Ellen, what was your question, the right question?

Ellen Hume: I’m not sure it’s the right question. I think it’s a right question—“ What were they trying to accomplish?” Because if they were trying to accomplish an expression of hatred, then that could be one or two of the essays about why do they hate us. They hate us, and they were trying to accomplish pain. Or it could also encompass what is the strategy? What do they think this is going to trigger? Are they hoping we will bomb Afghanistan? What is it they’re looking for? So I would have asked a question that would have elicited, I think, a more complex range of answers, but would also have covered why do they hate us.

Melissa Ludtke: This is also a question with different levels to it. If we’re sitting here as a group of journalists talking about this, then it seems this headline is also inner-directed at journalists. Where did we fail in terms of educating the public prior to this happening so that they come to these events with a basis of knowledge that maybe we don’t have to ask that question at this stage? It is important that we look inward and ask ourselves some of the questions that we’re asking to a public audience. Where did we fail? What about our coverage, prior to this event, did not give people an understanding they need at this point to make an interpretation of what’s going on?

Charles Nesson: So yours is the journalism business? You educate America. If America is completely ignorant on some major aspect of the world, so that they are utterly amazed that there is a large segment of the world that hates us, that’s your fault.

Melissa Ludtke: We are one piece of an educating process. We aren’t the only educators, but certainly that is one of the roles journalists play in our society today.

Rick Kaplan:
What journalists recognized when that happened is that all of a sudden they’re going to get to be journalists again, they’re going to get to cover news again. All of a sudden, Gary Condit doesn’t matter. And, even for that couple of weeks, we’re not going to see some of the CEO’s come down and take a look at the balance sheet and see how much money is being spent. I’ve never seen so many happy, depressed, sad but invigorated journalists as I see now. I think what happened is they sat there and said, “Gee, it’s been a long time since we’ve run an international story,” and what this event allows people to do is to sit there and say, “Okay, we’re back in business. We can be journalists again.” Now we’ve got fewer resources, whether you’re in print or television, but we can go do our thing.

“Why do they hate us?” is a great question, but the point is it’s just the headline, and it allows us to begin the process of educating people about what Islam is, what Afghanistan is all about. There is a lot that people need to know because all that news has been missing from the newspapers and from television. And the things this country has done in Kyoto and in other places that have just irritated the hell out of the rest of the world, and has gone fairly uncovered by television and, for the most part, by a lot of print, all of a sudden it scomes back into play.

Audience member: I’d like to comment on the question that you raised when we started, “Why do they hate us?” It’s a brilliant question to ask, because that question, apart from dealing with who are the “they” that hate us, who are the “us” and, as Rami said, the hated self, that question is rooted in the assumption we are the good guys, so why do they hate us? If you take it a little further, it is a question of perception; the perception of America, uniformly, virtually across the country, is that we are the good guys, and whatever we do, however faulty our foreign policy may be, the actions of that foreign policy are taken as the actions of the good guys, and how dare you disagree with us.

Charles Nesson: Can I add to that? To me one of the most interesting, challenging features of this was the idea that these people who did such damage had lived with us for extended periods of time. They saw us up close. We, who love ourselves, and somehow assume that we must be loved by anyone who truly knows us, it must be misunderstanding. That’s the basis of this. So you’re saying, if I hear you right, there is no misunderstanding?

Audience member: There is a vast gulf of perception between the selfimage of the people of America and the image that people outside have of Americans. Maybe one of the reasons why this gulf will always remain is because no attempt is being made to bridge that gulf. Asking a question like this, if I was sitting in my newsroom in the newspaper that I was working for, I think this is a great device. It is a device to raise debate; for people to think about both sides of the question. If this generates the kind of debate I think it was intended to generate, then it’s a great question to ask, because it goes to the very root of who we are, and who they think we are, and why don’t we think alike on that question?

Ellen Hume: I think one of the things that we’re getting back to now is that this is a very important moment for journalism. We are discovering that it’s a moment when news is important again, and the questions we ask are important again. They don’t just have to be sexual titillation, and they don’t just have to be entertainment. They can be real questions. What’s been missing is the international coverage—because, frankly, it hasn’t been allowed, and there hasn’t been space for it even if smart reporters have struggled to get this coverage into American media, and I know they have. The question is, why does it matter? If we blow off Kyoto, why does it matter? If a president or another candidate doesn’t know the names of his counterparts around the world, why does it matter? What’s happened is we have been forced to understand suddenly that it does matter. If we can add that idea as we go forward then there is a real role for journalists. We’re not just America’s hosts. We’re the ones who are supposed to help figure out why it matters, without taking a point of view. That’s the American style. We’re not supposed to take a partisan point of view. That’s an interesting challenge for all of us.

Charles Nesson: I’m a lawyer. Lawyers have their art of asking questions. Journalists would seem also to live by the question. It’s our weapon in both professions. Yet you don’t think of yourselves as lawyers, and you don’t think like lawyers. What would you say is the difference? What is it that makes you a journalist, as opposed to me, a lawyer, in terms of the way we use the weapon of the question?

Alex Jones: I’m told that lawyers never ask a question, at least in court, that they don’t already know the answer to, or at least that’s a technique—that you don’t risk an answer that might be damaging to you. I think journalists go about it in a very different way. They are trying to illicit information that they have no stake in one way or the other. Their only interest is in getting truth.

Lawyers have an advocacy role journalists don’t or shouldn’t. So when they’re asking questions, they’re asking it with a very different purpose. I don’t think it is wrong to think of the sort of strategies of questioning as being similar to those that might be used in a cross-examination, but I think that the purpose is somewhat different.

Michel Marriott: Also, the people we talk to are not compelled to answer. I can’t subpoena a source like a lawyer can. Because I know that, I know the relationship between me and the person I’m trying to get information from is so radically different, I have to bring a whole new set of techniques to try to get at the truth. Even though I know the truth is sort of philosophically difficult sometimes; it can be relative, circumstantial. But I do kind of go into this with a very idealistic thought, that there really is a truth out there that I can find. If I mine it carefully enough and persistently enough, it will surface, and I will recognize it, and I can capture it, and I can put it in print, and other people can enjoy it, or respond to it, whatever.

Murrey Marder: I think the basic difference is that we see ourselves in our better moments as seeking the accountability for the use of power; whether it’s the city council or a town sheriff, a state senator or a president, he or she has public power. We see ourselves as holding power to accountability.

Charles Nesson: You speak for the oppressed.

Murrey Marder: We speak supposedly for all of those who are subject to the use of power. Some of them are oppressed, some of them are very rich and unoppressed.

Charles Nesson: But don’t you think that that’s a bit idealistic?

Murrey Marder: Gee, I hope it is. Geneive Abdo: That’s why this question, “Why do they hate us?” should have been asked 30 years ago, and not asked today for the first time. It took this crisis for us to ask the most obvious question. I mean, the resentment didn’t happen, didn’t begin yesterday. But as journalists we have become so removed from the topics that we cover. I mean, I think a good argument could be made that we used to represent the oppressed, now we don’t know who we represent. Certainly this business has changed in terms of its whole class structure during the last century. Now we are sort of white-collar workers, whereas before we used to be blue collar. That, to some extent, has changed who we represent. Are we really speaking for the oppressed?

Susan Reed: I think you’re right, and I think the better question for journalists is why didn’t we know that these terrorist networks were alive and operating and living among us? I think that one of the striking things about what has happened, I saw this in a cartoon where there is this older couple sitting on the couch reading People magazine: “Why didn’t they tell us about these people?” they say. One of the things I think Geneive is saying is that journalists have become members of the white-collar working class, and in this robust period of economic growth they have ridden the tide as well, so that we were all caught surprised on September 11.

Charles Nesson: What’s emerging is a picture of journalism serving an audience in much the same way that network entertainment serves an audience. And serving that audience sets up a kind of loop of shared hallucination between the folks out there who want stories and the folks here, who are generating it for them. This loop can take on a life of its own.

Susan Reed: Yes, unfortunately in America it really can. I’ve worked overseas for several years, and I know that you’re on the other end of a long telephone cord trying to get an executive producer of your evening news show to listen to you and to put a story on the air. I also know that it’s very hard to get Saudi Arabia to let you in to cover the bombing of Khobar firsthand, and I know New York Times reporters who are standing at the embassy in Egypt yelling for a visa right now because they can’t get it. So it is more complicated. But I do think that journalists weren’t asking the right questions before this happened.

Charles Lewis: We didn’t do these [international] stories either at the Center [for Public Integrity]. I want to be frank. Look, we all know that international coverage by the U.S. media has radically decreased. Is it ABC that now has seven or eight people overseas? A lot of bureaus have closed. From an investigative reporting standpoint, if you said “I’d like to go investigate the CIA’s relationship with bin Laden over the last 10 or 15 years. I’m going to need about two months on the ground in Afghanistan,” an editor would say “Good luck to you, pal. If you find something, send it in, but we’re not paying for it.” Nor is there much in the way of investigative reporting about a number of the government institutions involved in this process now and the failures across the board. There has not been a great mandate [for it]. There is no sex scandal involved. There is no ready, easy video. You actually have to leave New York to do the story. It just doesn’t get done and didn’t get done.

James Trengrove: I might just say that we’re lashing out at each other here as journalists for not paying attention to the stories. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, you could walk down the street and ask people, “Why did he do that?” How many are going to be able to say why he invaded Kuwait in the first place? Nobody knows? And that war was on television and in the newspaper. Everybody saw it. What were the reasons for it? If you ask people now, even at the time that it happened, people didn’t know. People don’t care. Now that it has hit home, people may care. But we can’t be responsible for writing stories, or putting stories on television, or having debates. We can’t be responsible if people don’t watch.

Charles Nesson: Did journalists ever look at that controversy from Saddam Hussein’s point of view?

James Trengrove: Some did, yes, but who paid attention to it? Who cared at that point? All we knew was that American troops were going over there. That’s the story that mattered. So if we asked this question before September 11, “Why do they hate us?” and we even put it on the front page of the section as The Boston Globe did, how many would have paid attention to it? How many would have read it? We can’t be responsible. If you look at the top five selling American movies any week, they are action adventures. Look at what people are watching on television. So if you’re producing news at CBS, ABC or NBC, and if you’re going to go wall-towall with international coverage, you’re not going to last very long because you have to sell commercial time, and if people aren’t going to watch, you aren’t going to be on the air.

Murrey Marder: Our focus tonight is on asking probing questions that arise out of events we cover and asking ourselves what the press can best do under these circumstances to explain, to edify, to educate all of us. For example, we have had overwhelming support of the President in Congress, one vote against, which is so reminiscent of the votes endorsing the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which were two votes against. That happened to have been the trigger for me of what touched off in subsequent years this Watchdog Project. Because the press of the United States failed to pursue that issue, which touched off the enlarged war in Vietnam. What we have now done, and I do not see it raised in any newspaper that I have read, what is it we have authorized the President of the United States to do in his own name, and what restrictions are there on him, if any? As far as I know, there are no restrictions. Now, others are more familiar with the legislative verbiage, which I believe has not been published in any of the papers that I have read. This is what we have to focus on. What is the way in which you can help lead us into better questioning technique for pursuing these issues as this completely murky situation unfolds? What can you tell us, from a legal standpoint, what would you as a lawyer do to question the administration as it proceeds here? What are we missing journalistically?

Charles Nesson: Let me try and take your question. There are two kinds, there are two places where the question comes in. The question comes in when you’re examining the witness, sure. But the much more important question comes in when you’re crafting your case. What is your claim? What is your defense? That’s where the real lawyer’s art comes to play. That is where our professions differ, of course. [However,] when you pick a question to pursue, a focus, an issue, you’re doing much of what a lawyer does in plotting a line of attack, as opposed to just the actual cross-examination where you try and elicit, or trap, or do whatever.

Murrey Marder: The difference is, I’m not trying to win something for my client. Our mission is to serve the needs of citizens. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking any sides at all, that necessarily means getting information that people need to be citizens and getting it to them. I would assume when a lawyer is crafting a case for the client, the client wants to win. “There are things that are ugly in my case, and I’ll make sure that I surely don’t bring them up,” the lawyer would say. “I’ll find ways to obscure this from the jury or the judges so that they don’t focus on it too much.” But a journalist doesn’t do that if they’re doing their job properly. A journalist tries to get the news out. And I think what’s happening right now is we’re trying to make up for lost time. When I started in the news business, we used to use our judgments about what news needed to be told. We, in a sense, were trying to serve the needs of citizens, and most of us used our news judgments in doing that.

But what you hear from too many people when you talk about the news today, is you talk about what people want to see. So all of a sudden now news is governed by what people will watch, not by what citizens need to know, and that’s a disaster. That all of a sudden makes you something just short of being an entertainment programmer.

Melissa Ludtke: And as journalists, we’re supposed to become experts instantly. I’d argue that behind all of this discussion about the right question is really a discussion about the right information. The fact that journalists need to have some time built into their lives to be able to educate themselves, before they go out and presuppose that they know the question to ask. Unless they have that information, they don’t know the next question to ask because they have no basis on which to gauge the veracity of the information they’re being told, or the way to get to the next level of questioning.

Ellen Hume: One of the key things that journalists do and need to do to address the current setting and situation is to diversify their sources. Not to just talk to the officials about what our plans are as a nation, but to talk to everyone we can possibly get our hands on, and this isn’t always so easy because we don’t have subpoena power. We can’t force them to tell us the truth. We can’t punish them if they lie to us. This is a huge difference between what we have as a right and what lawyers often have in the courtroom. So this is a time for us to really think broadly about to whom we pose the question, as well as what the question is.

Rami Khouri: I see a persistent tendency in the United States to find the easy answer to tough questions. People are asking questions that are correct, but they’re not complete. The reason I say that is because I see American journalism doing exactly what they should be doing for domestic issues. When Timothy McVeigh blew up that building in Oklahoma, the press did ask the right questions and started understanding these people. When abortion clinics were bombed, when the race riots happened in the 60’s, there was tremendous questioning about why this happened. How could this happen? So the press has the capacity and the instinct and the skills to do this. The problem is it doesn’t do it beyond the borders of the United States. That’s why I think you have two problems here in the situation of September 11. You have the problem with the terrorists, and there is another problem with America’s place in the world. And I think when Americans start asking the complete questions about these two and how they interact with each other, then people will start getting to the bottom of this thing. The press can do it. It does do it in the United States. Why doesn’t it do it with things overseas? That’s a very tough question that the press and the political culture of this country need to answer.

Journalists on the Watchdog Panel

  • Geneive Abdo—Tehran correspondent for The Guardian, Nieman Fellow 2002.
  • Ellen Hume—media consultant, former White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
  • Alex Jones—author, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, former reporter for The New York Times, Nieman Fellow 1982.
  • Rick Kaplan—fellow at the Shorenstein Center, former president of CNN.
  • Rami Khouri—columnist and radio commentator in Jordan, Nieman Fellow 2002.
  • Charles Lewis—founder and chairman of the Center for Public Integrity.
  • Melissa Ludtke—editor of Nieman Reports, Nieman Fellow 1992.
  • Murrey Marder—former chief diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, benefactor of the Watchdog Project, Nieman Fellow 1950.
  • Michel Marriott—technology reporter for The New York Times, Nieman Fellow 2002.
  • Susan Reed—freelance journalist, former CBS News reporter, Nieman Fellow 1999.
  • James Trengrove—senior producer for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” Nieman Fellow 2002.

Nieman Reports will publish more excerpts from the “How to Ask Probing Questions” Watchdog conference in our Summer 2002 issue.

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