In 1951, psychology researcher Solomon Asch initiated a series of interesting, social psychological experiments. His studies show that, when put in a situation whereby everybody else in the room is making evidently false statements about blatantly obvious facts, a substantial proportion of subjects either start to doubt their own senses or wittingly join the choir, just to go along with the majority and avoid the trouble of having to take a controversial stand. The subjects of this experiment were randomly selected, and no pressure was exerted on them: answers that were incorrect or out of line with the majority, would suffer no other negative consequences than uneasiness or shame. This experiment possibly sheds some light on the way mainstream media have been covering the 9/11 attacks, and especially the many challenges made to the official account of this event. More broadly, it can probably provide some insight into how mainstream news outlets function on a daily basis, especially with today’s tense context increasing the pressure to conform on crucial issues.
Strange compliance. The first serious challenge to the official account of the 9/11 attacks was a French bestseller written by Thierry Meyssan, which mainly focused on the Pentagon attack. Meyssan argued that there was no evidence that the US Army headquarters had been struck by a plane. He also contended that both Twin Towers and WTC7, a third high-rise building that neatly collapsed to the ground – although this one was not hit by a plane – were brought down by controlled demolition with the use of explosive charges placed in advance. Such a scenario obviously implied some degree of US complicity at the very least, if not full organisation of what would then be a false-flag event, in which an enemy attack is simulated in order to justify some sort of reaction (in this case, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military budget rises and dramatic increases in domestic and global surveillance). Quite expectedly, the public and media outcry in the face of such outlandish accusations quickly became all but unanimous. Refutation of Meyssan’s arguments was made all the easier by the fact that his book appeared too early to be thoroughly researched, and most of his arguments were poorly supported. Strangely, instead of focusing on some assertions that could have been easily debunked, most journalists preferred to go ad hominem and scrutinise Meyssan’s character and background in order to discredit him. Very soon, in France, by some strange twist of logic and partly due to the concerted efforts of a small group of mostly neo conservative-linked media players, Meyssan’s views, and almost any challenges to the official 9/11 attacks story, become associated with Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, a notion which regularly surfaces in French public debate whenever arguments run out. From then on, anyone questioning any aspects of the official story faced ridicule and exclusion from public debate.
This opportunity to ask tough questions around controversial subjects may be exactly what Western societies are gradually losing in the face of rising global terrorism.
Ignored, not discussed. Meanwhile, the 9/11 Commission, set up to prepare “a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11 attacks”, published its report. Although completely overlooking key elements of the event, such as the third tower that collapsed by itself, and any financial aspects, it was embraced by the mainstream press as the definitive account of the tragedy. In its aftermath, the media simply ignored any challenge to the official narrative, exclusively covering uncontroversial aspects pertaining to 9/11: architecture contests to find a replacement for the Twin Towers, the huge delays in the reconstruction of Ground Zero, bone fragments found on the roof of the nearby Deutsche Bank building more than four years later, recurrent commemorative ceremonies here and there, etc.
Outside of the media spotlight, an impressive body of serious research was gradually being developed by experts and scientists in various fields surrounding the 9/11 issue, with architects, engineers, firemen, pilots – both commercial and military – among the more notable. Architects and Engineers for 911 Truth, for instance, launched a petition signed by more than 2,500 – mainly American – architects and engineers. Based on their professional expertise, they demanded a new investigation into the destruction of all three WTC skyscrapers on 9/11. Citing a number of technical arguments, they made a case for the destruction of the towers by explosive demolition, which could hardly have been pulled off by Al-Qaeda operatives. While alternative media occasionally paid attention, mainstream news outlets thoroughly ignored these associations and their work. They similarly failed to address, let alone refute, the many interesting and sometimes puzzling arguments that were made in books and films that were never reviewed, not even to slate them. David Ray Griffin, for instance, wrote a dozen books calling into question the official account of the attacks with detailed and well-sourced arguments, but the only time he was allowed onto US television, he was hardly able to speak a word through the flood of insults thrown at him by an angry news show host. However, based upon the increasing body of research available, the online vox populi doubting the official story grew louder and louder, with films including Loose Change getting astronomical numbers of views. It was only when a few celebrities started voicing their doubts about the official 9/11 account that French media felt compelled to pick up the topic again. In the news items and debates that ensued, scientific scrutiny was once again scarce. Discussions revolved around how people could entertain such strange views and what proportion of them did so, which celebrities had raised the subject and why, how the internet was propagating other silly theories like man had never been to the moon or aliens had perpetrated 9/11. The few debates that were held were typically between scientists defending the official story and celebrities challenging it, while the original proponents of the latter’s arguments were thoroughly kept away from the spotlights. All in all, the issue got ridiculed again, and a new period of media silence ensued.
Norwegian journalists. I analysed the first ten years of mainstream news coverage of the whole 9/11 saga, mainly in French-language media, in a documentary film entitled Wrong, Blasphemous and Sinful in its English version. While researching the comparative media coverage in Western countries, I stumbled upon the work of several Norwegian journalists who had apparently been able to discuss the subject openly and in a balanced way in their respective publications. Opposing views on the 9/11 attacks and the newsworthiness of challenges to the official story were even the topic of heated debates at the September 2008 Global Investigative Journalism conference held in Lillehammer. Travelling to Norway in order to take closer look, I discovered that the debate was not as pervasive as it had seemed, but at least it appeared that open discussion of this taboo subject was possible in the mainstream press, although not without fuelling intense controversy. “When you touch upon a taboo subject,” journalist Sven Egil Omdal told me, “you’re either met with utter silence or a violent, emotional response. People try to categorise you, to put you outside of the playing field. It’s silly, actually. It should never be wrong for a journalist to ask questions. We may be criticised for giving stupid answers, but never for asking questions.”
This opportunity to ask tough questions around controversial subjects may be exactly what Western societies are gradually losing in the face of rising global terrorism. 9/11 was a turning point in that regard, and heralded a new era of pressure towards conformity. To this day, it remains unclear what exactly happened on September 11, 2001, because serious questions surrounding the event have never been journalistically or academically investigated on a broad enough scale. This does not mean that 9/11 was an inside job, but what it does mean, is that with the rise of permanent terrorist threats, democracies are losing a substantial part of their flexibility to question themselves on an increasing array of crucial subjects like war and terrorism, or capitalism and free trade, to name but a few. As George W. Bush stated at the beginning of the New Era: “Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Most journalists received this message loud and clear, partly because, unlike the subjects of Asch’s experiment, a lot is at stake for them: failure to conform on some key issues might entail loss of credibility or career advancement, or even job loss.
Critical mass. Fortunately, Asch took his experiment one step further, and examined what would happen if one other person in the room made truthful statements against the deceptive majority. Interestingly, in such cases, the rates of conformity displayed by the subjects would drop considerably. Transposed to the media realm, it means that asking painful questions may be a lonely discipline, but also a useful one in that it can elicit emulation, until critical mass is reached and unwanted questioning cannot longer be ignored. Until then, endeavours like the American Project Censored, which publishes an annual anthology of “the news that did not make the news”, will remain alive and kicking.