When is Missile Defense news?

Rich Tucker

3/25/2002 12:00:00 AM - Rich Tucker
Have you heard the news? I doubt it. On March 15, a rocket fired from a Pacific island destroyed a dummy missile fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California some 4,800 miles away. The dummy set off three decoy balloons to try to confuse the interceptor – making this the most challenging of the six ground-based tests the Pentagon has held so far. Four of these tests have been completely successful. Did you see the story in your local paper? How about the national press? You might have come across it if you flipped to page A15 of the March 16 Washington Post. Then again, you might have missed it even there, since it was a tiny six paragraph story. The Post didn’t even bother assigning a reporter to the story, instead picking up an AP wire report. The New York Times did file a staff report – and buried it on page A16. That story was a bit longer – seven paragraphs – and contained one quote: “Our concern about these tests is that the American people are getting unrealistic expectations”. That’s from Chris Madison of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a group opposed to missile defense. Talk about balance. How about out west? The Los Angeles Times had a longer version of the AP report carried in the Washington Post. It ran to 13 paragraphs, but was also buried – running on page A17. And that report contained a quote from the same man -- Madison -- the New York Times quoted. Again, not a word from missile defense supporters. We sent e-mails to the national editors of all three papers. Only Scott Kraft of the L.A. Times responded. He explained that the story got somewhat greater coverage in his paper’s California editions than it did in the national editions. He also pointed out that, “with the Bush administration firmly committed to building a missile defense, and the decision to dump the ABM Treaty now already made there's less hanging on each of the tests”. That belief may explain why the March test got even less coverage than an earlier missile system test, in December. That test – also successful – made page A4 of the Washington Post and page A11 of the New York Times. It settled for page A26 of the L.A. Times. In its December story, the Post quoted an opponent of missile defense downplaying the importance of the successful test. Again, none of the papers quoted a proponent of missile defense. Memo to all these newspapers: Call Heritage. 202-675-1761. We’ll put you in touch with a supporter of missile testing, in case you don’t have one in your Rolodex. Apparently, successful missile tests are only going to generate a tiny blip on the radar screen of the major newspapers. What about failures? As a possible answer, let’s look at how the Post covered a different missile story. On Dec. 15, 2001, the paper ran a front page story about the Navy’s decision to cancel a sea-to-air missile defense program. The paper opened the story by stating that the end of the Navy’s program was “a serious setback for the Bush Administration’s missile defense plans”. That’s because the cancellation, “combined with the failure Thursday of an interceptor rocket that was being tested for use in a land-based missile defense system, called into question whether the United States would be able to develop any missile defense programs on the timetable projected by the Bush administration.” So at the Post it’s on the front page when a program is pulled, or when a rocket fails in the testing phase. It’s considered big news because those failures mean the Bush Administration might not be able to have a missile defense plan in place by its self-imposed deadline. However, it’s not front page news when two missile defense tests succeed completely -- even though the fact that the system was able to “hit a bullet with a bullet” twice would seem to hint that the Administration may in fact be able to make that deadline. Oh. Newspapers do their job when they report all the news. Missile defense is a critical story. Isn’t it time the nation’s newspapers started giving missile defense the coverage it deserves?