'Send in the historians,' cry critics of sound-bite news

When Americans sit down to watch TV now, it's not difficult for them to find special reports about Afghanistan or Osama bin Laden. That's a dramatic change, considering that before Sept. 11, many in the US didn't know the Taliban from the Autobahn, thanks in part to a scarcity of international news.

But as the weeks pass and the US draws closer to a prolonged military campaign to fight terrorism, some critics say news coverage should be moving to a deeper level - offering more context than that seen in quick-turnaround specials and debates among talking heads.

Professors specializing in the Middle East are particularly concerned. They say a better understanding of the region and its history is needed for Americans to judge what kind of battle US forces will face - or to consider what kind of response is appropriate.

Academics' list of concerns began on Sept. 11 with the airing of footage of celebrating Palestinians taken out of context. It continues today with overgeneralizations about the region and what some see as the omission of historians in favor of terrorism experts and former diplomats.

"Where are the historians? Where have they been, and why have they been excluded?" asks Julia Clancy-Smith, an associate professor of history at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "We watched CBS almost non-stop the first week, and we didn't see any professional historians," she says.

She and others in her field see parallels between the US government's march toward Afghanistan and the Europeans' attitude in World War I. "[They] confidently said, 'This is going to be a quick war.' "

It's looking for patterns in the past - along with explaining how the US has been involved historically in the Middle East - that she says people are missing by only hearing from diplomats or beltway analysts. "Historians really complicate things - and we really need that right now," she adds.

Complicating matters for professors, they say, is the heightened sense of patriotism in the country now. When they try to explain the intricacies of the Middle East, they are sometimes viewed as condoning what happened on Sept. 11. Others say they were being censored even before the attacks, especially on subjects such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where those who might offer criticism of Israel, for example, have often been dropped as potential experts.

"I'm used to it. I think they don't want to hear the other side of the story," says Yvonne Haddad, a professor of history at the Center for Muslim-Christian Relations at Georgetown University. She's been uninvited as a guest from national television and radio programs at the end of the vetting process.

Major broadcast and cable networks are surprised by charges that they are sidelining historians, arguing that they regularly draw on academics as sources.

"Your information is inaccurate," says Judy Milestone, senior vice president in charge of network bookings at CNN. "We turn to the academy all the time when we need somebody who really knows chapter and verse about an issue."

Sara Just, a senior producer at ABC's "Nightline," says her program also calls on academics, but points out that sometimes the PhDs they contact can't articulate well enough to go on the air.

Not all news coverage on TV is criticized for being shallow - programs on PBS and some reports by ABC's Peter Jennings are held up as examples by critics. And last Sunday, CBS's "60 Minutes" included a segment that made reference to US training and funding of Osama bin Laden during the period when the Russians were in Afghanistan - a detail Professor Clancy-Smith says was omitted from some early profiles she saw on CNN and the Discovery Channel.

Newspapers are also accused of being biased and mischaracterizing the Middle East. Immediately after the attacks, one Middle East historian recalls being asked by a reporter why Mr. bin Laden had done it, when it wasn't clear yet who was responsible.

Such problems are highlighted on television, a mass medium where discussions of complex issues are presented in a few minutes, often reducing issues to their essence. "I don't think that adequately prepares the public to have the depth of understanding they're going to need to ride this thing out," argues Edmund Burke III, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

He and others say more explanation is needed about what makes the countries in the Mideast tick. The US is about to insert itself into a region where nations are at odds with each other and each has its own individual internal challenges, these historians say, wanting to highlight for the public that the region is not one single band of Muslims united against the US.

Steven Caton, a professor of contemporary Arab studies at Harvard, knows he can't do much to change the way information is presented on TV, so he takes a more grass-roots approach. He prefers to give talks at churches and other local organizations such as schools and labor unions, where listeners are "not afraid to ask you very naive questions."

People get the chance to have a real exchange of ideas, he says, adding, "In some ways, I feel like I can do better in reaching people in these concrete, face-to-face situations, than I can in 30 seconds on CNN."

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