Rita Cosby, Emmy winining TV host, Bestselling Author, Special Correspondent to Inside Edition-CBS
What have we done wrong? What have we done right?
I’ll sort of since I’m the first speaker, just kind of give a little background especially as a media person. First off I just want to say thank you very much to the Turkish Cultural Center. I think it’s so wonderful what you have accomplished, and I think this conversation is so critical of all the different pieces of coverage, and I was very much involved in 9/11 coverage, and also took place not too long ago on the tenth year anniversary. I think this dialogue is especially important so we in the media, and we the American public and everyone throughout the world understands the great and tremendous difference there is, as Fethullah Gulen eloquently said, between a Muslim and a terrorist. There is a tremendous tremendous distinction. I will tell you also that I didn’t know that much about Fethullah Gulen until recently until the last few months or two. And I’m so happy to hear about him. I think his message that I think all of you especially in the Turkish community had so much to be proud of. I think it’s incredibly courageous and incredibly important message that he has initiated that dialogue especially right after 9/11 and before I get forward, I just want to say that I make a vow as someone in the media that I will make sure that his voice and those of others like him are always heard.
Just to give you a little bit of background, 9/11 for me was very personal. I have never even talked about this before. But I probably would have been in one of the twin towers when it collapsed. It was my first day off from Fox news and it was one of my first days off in years and I was supposed to meet someone for breakfast right across from the twin towers but I canceled the night before. The kind of journalist I am, I would have been in one of the buildings so when 9/11 happened, it was deeply personal to me. At the time I was a senior correspondent with Fox news. My beats were terrorism and aviation and some of the things I took a strong interest in. So I was deeply involved in the coverage. In fact, I was on the phone with a government agency right after the first plane hit the towers. I remember calling up as soon as I saw the first plane go in and I thought Oh my goodness, terrorist act! I had known what had happened in the years earlier World Trade Center, so I thought maybe it could be a terrorist act not just an accident. I was on the phone with a government agency at the time, literally when the second plane went in, and they put the phone down. And immediately I heard about Osama bin Laden. Immediately I heard about Amman Maqsoud, the northern alliance leader who had been killed and all the background. And hearing right away that they were saying there were all these warning signs that we as America missed in the intelligence community. When they came back on the phone, like a good journalist, I said, can I report these details, these facts, and they said yes, as long as you don’t say the source. So I was one of the first Americans to report about Osama bin Laden, and I knew who this man was, because I had followed the millennium attack. After that, during that reporting, and I was doing a lot of reporting constantly about 9/11, my dear friend Barbara Olson was on that plane that hit the Pentagon calling her husband Ted Olson., then soliciting general who was also my friend, saying that this plane has been hijacked. After all of that, just constant coverage. Then I got on one of the first trains. I was in Connecticut visiting my mother at the time. Still, again, working the whole time because this was such an important story. Then I got on the train heading down to Washington to go to my home which was right across the street from the pentagon. So I left this hell here and came to that hell. Literally my apartment was covered with smoke. And it was physically across the street from the pentagon, so I continued wall to wall coverage. In fact I moved up from fox in Washington soon after 9/11 because Fox news decided to do 24 hour news coverage at that time. It was such an important event. You know over in the name of our country and I knew as someone who had covered a lot of terrorism stories, prior to 9/11, that the world had changed forever. Not just America, but literally everywhere. We were talking and you were mentioning some of the interviews in that introduction, Carol. One of the breakfasts that I will always remember right after 9/11 of course we had U.N. General assembly which we had not too long ago. And I had a breakfast with Mohamed Hatime, then the president of Iran. And I asked him and he sort of started saying how terrible, how horrible this act was and you know what a terrible feat was on America, and I asked him a telling question. I said, what is the difference between George Bush, our president at the time and Osama bin Laden. And I thought his answer would be, oh this is a democracy and this is a horrible person. His answer was, there is no difference. They are both terrorists. And it showed to me a stark important binder and a stark important awakening of how important it is for both sides to have an understanding. It showed that they are miles apart. And it was a very sad revelation. As an American to hear our president, however you feel about the presidents, republican or democrat, I was very offended to hear one of our presidents in the same line being referred to in the same light as someone as horrible as that. As a journalist,. I also went down to Guantanamo. I was the first journalist to witness the interrogation with the detainees and to be able to see detainees up close. So I saw that element of the war on terror. I have also been down to Afghanistan Pakistan border and seen our troops in action, and sadly, as we just saw with the anniversary that just took place, it is also still a reminder, as I speak to all of you as an American because we are all so worried with the tenth year anniversary that there could be another attack.
It is a constant reminder that democracy still under attack throughout the world. In great countries like Turkey, and also the great countries like America, and I hope that this conference today continues to strengthen bonds between the two countries. The voices Fethullah Gulen are broadcast in every corner of the world. Turkey and the United States have such a critical relationship. In 2002 I interviewed Bulent Ecevit, and then of course the Prime Minister of Turkey and he said to me that he was concerned about us going into Iraq, but also spoke very much of a message of peace. Very much a powerful message and I think it’s so important that Americans and we the media understand the pivotal role Turkey has played. You know your borders are with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and many others; it is a critical strategic and important place in the world also philosophically place to have a democracy there in that part of the world. It is so important for us. Your president just recently came out and condemned Bashir Al Assad and what he was doing. I thought that was extremely courageous and so powerful to do so. And I hope my message today and I hope what I will continue to do with my fellow colleagues and also with all Americans to make sure that the distinction is heard over and over again. I’m an immigrant. My parents both came from different countries. My mother is Danish, my father Polish. I grew up in a place where I knew that the world was much bigger than America, and we all sort of come from somewhere, so when the attack of 9/11 happened, me as an American, and also me as a journalist, I did not view it as Muslims attacking America. I viewed it as horrible fanatics using an excuse, using Islam, I thought using their faith unfairly. I hope that I can continue to push that message so that people can understand that there are wonderful Muslims out there who are doing incredible things and are amazingly contributing to this country and everywhere throughout the world. It’s such a privilege to be with all of you and thank you for having me here this morning.
Question and answers:
Audience member: You put a straight line between the term terrorism, Islam and Muslims so you distinguished it very well. I’m wondering generally we don’t really see these kinds of news on CNN or you know fox, so can you just tell me and if you’re talking about these things with your colleagues. How many people are there that think like you. I just want some inside information, if that’s possible.
Rita: That’s a great question. I do think there is a lot of dialogue amongst journalists about this and sort of hit on a point that Alex said. There is one thing I do differ strongly with what he said. You brought up the point abut sort of the Muslim voices after 9/11 fell on deaf ears, for the sake of debating here, I’ll speak as a representative of the media. I do think we could have done an absolutely better job to get the Muslim voices out. I will say that. I will also say in defense of the media, and defense of many Americans, when it happened, there was such shock that there was such overwhelming shock of what happened at 9/11 that we truly didn’t understand what was happening. So I think some of it was not by far, and I could speak especially for myself and my colleagues. I don’t feel that in my world there was an intentional “let’s not distinguish clearly between the two.” Maybe some of it was a naiveté not understanding the Muslim religion, and I have Muslim friends, and, as I mentioned, I come from a very international background, and those experiences, I do think are shared in my stories, but I do think that not as many Americans understood the Muslim faith, those who are not Muslim. I do think we could do a better job of that. I think we are getting a better job of that. On the flip side, I would tell you an interesting thing that happened, and I always think of this, and I went to Dubai, I’ll never forget, a couple of years ago, and I went into a mosque, it’s one of the few public mosques, and I asked an Imam, because he was of course very strongly condemning the 9/11 attacks and what had happened in America. I said to him, where were the Muslim voices afterwards protesting? Maybe some of it in America’s naiveté expects these big long protests in the streets of New York and all those other things, because that is what we do and he said to me, and this really upset me too. He said, “We didn’t do that, because we don’t do that.” But I said, “You should have done that,” I said, “I’m sorry that maybe we should have expressed that more.” Maybe, listen to some of those voices, and maybe they didn’t need to take to the streets, to these huge voluminous displays of dissatisfaction and anger, and maybe we should have as Americans and as journalists, done a better job of hearing those voices, but at the time there was so much confusion, and such a state of disarray. If there is good news here, we are ten years later. I do think that there are many people who have come to understand what a beautiful faith the Muslim faith is. And I would tell you that amongst my colleagues, they have tremendous respect, and I think now much better education as to the faith, the background of Islam and the understanding of Islam, and a clear distinction.
Audience member: Better late than never.
Rita: Absolutely, so I think sometimes it takes an unfortunate act, a horrible act that happened on America, and hopefully if there is any silver lining, it’s a better understanding of the beautiful messages.
Audience member: Thank you.
Rita: To answer your question, why we didn’t here from Fetulleh Gulen, I am sad we didn’t, and I will just honestly say that as someone who has covered so much of 9/11 I would have loved to have known more about Fetulleh Gulen earlier. I would have absolutely put him on my shows and showcased him left and right. I think his message is so powerful and so universal. To hear it from someone like him, who is so highly reveled and a very renowned Islamic scholar, I think it would have carried a lot of weight, and I think I would have been very happy to put it higher. Not to make any excuses for the press, but I do think at the time right after 9/11, I don’t think and I could again only speak for my world from my own experience, and remember I was a senior correspondent of a major news network at the time, so I feel like I could speak with some authority. I do not believe, and I never to this day have heard a discussion amongst my colleagues from anyone, saying we are intentionally going to go after the Muslim faith, ever. I understand the flipside, why you feel those voices were not heard. Do I think we could have done a better job? Absolutely, I think there were many times in American history, and in world history, where after an event happens, there is such utter chaos. I could tell you, you know, we were just overwhelmed after 9/11 happened. There were so many things happening. Funny how when you brought up that great example talking about the protests in Iran, and I had to think back and I did cover it and I remember that, but I also remember the images in Pakistan and elsewhere. And unfortunately, there were a number of places where they were protesting, cheering, burning the American flag, and I think some of it again, we do hope of course we come from an unbiased perspective, but I did cover it as an American, who at the time, seeing an American flag burned, if I saw Turkish flags burn if that act had happened on Turkish soil, I would have been absolutely furious for Turkey, and standing by your country. I think there were so many emotions and so many things happening, and I think in hindsight we can certainly look back and say that the great voices like Fetulleh Gulen and some of those others, many of those others hearing about now did not get voiced enough. I hope now that we can sit back and look at it that those voices can play a huge role in the discussion. I hope that we can look at ourselves. I was happy to hear that the Washington Post had covered it. That is a major newspaper in this country, so it wasn’t blind. Do I think that we could have done a better job? Absolutely, but I also think at the time, we were covering so many of these angles. Who was Mohamed Atta, where did he come from, how did this all happen, where did all these things happen. In fact, at the time that Fetulleh Gulen was coming with these statements, there were so many things happening at the time, we were trying to figure out what country they were from? Did they come out with box- cutters? Did they not come out there with box cutters, so many details, that there were so many details that there were a lot of things that I think we missed. In hindsight, absolutely, but I could speak to you as someone from my heart as a journalist, and for my colleagues that had we had, I would have had fetulleh gulen, and if I would have seen it time again, we were covering so many different aspects. I would absolutely front row and center, and I will in the future.
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