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A Look Back On Terror Coverage: The USS Cole Bombing

Occasionally, we take a look at the experience of covering major news events of the past. Sharyl Attkisson recently shared what she remembered most about one chapter of the Clinton/Lewinsky saga. Bob Orr discussed separating fact from rumor in the 1996 TWA Flight 800 crash. And Charlie Wilson remembered filming outside the Washington Hilton when Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981.

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, one of the biggest terrorism stories before 9/11, and one that dealt with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Correspondent David Martin was among those who covered the story and he addressed some of the criticisms that have arisen since then about media coverage of terrorism prior to 9/11.

"I certainly remember the Cole as a very big story," said Martin. "It was a warship nearly sunk by two men in a motorboat. The assumption was that it was Osama because two years before in '98, we had the embassy bombings in Africa and that had been Osama."

As far as questions about whether enough attention was paid to the Cole bombing in its immediate aftermath, Martin contends that the denouement of the story wasn't all that much different from many other major stories that simply run out of steam.

The Clinton administration "never had any evidence to launch another strike," said Martin, so "the Cole started to no longer be a daily news story because there was no subsequent action that would keep it alive."

"The big question for a while was, should the captain of the ship be punished and should the ship even have called in a place like Yemen," he explained. "But it started to, like all news stories, run its course and there weren't any new developments to keep it alive -- this happens with every news event."

As far as criticisms that the media didn't spend enough time covering the threat of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden before 9/11, Martin disagrees. "I've obviously done more stories on terrorism since 9/11, but we didn't have a war on terror before 9/11, and that took everything to a different level. But I think of all my journalistic sins, paying attention to terrorism I think is not one."

"Where we failed, and I mean everybody," said Martin, "was in making the leap of imagination that those kinds of attacks overseas were the harbingers of 9/11."

"You could say we're guilty of same mistakes that the government was" he said, because the media knew about events such as the plot in the Philippines to bomb airliners over the Pacific (the so-called "Bojinka plot" of 1995, which was essentially another version of this year's thwarted London bomb plot) and didn't foresee the potential that such attacks could occur in the U.S.

"We never made leap of imagination that what we saw out there -- the Bojinka plot, the embassy bombings, the Cole bombing -- would somehow add up to another attack on the scale of 9/11," said Martin.

But he doesn't think terrorism and bin Laden were topics that the press ignored prior to 9/11. "Terrorism was on the front burner as a news story," said Martin, citing coverage of the embassy bombings and the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996. "I don't think that we ignored the terrorism threat and more often than not, we associated it with Osama bin Laden."

"I remember actually talking to somebody at '60 Minutes' about week before 9/11 and he was asking me if I thought we should do a story about how we're making too much out of bin Laden," recalls Martin. "And obviously, we weren't making too much, we weren't making enough out of him."

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