A list of my own — connecting the media dots

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Lists, who can avoid them? They push themselves into your brain as end of the year/beginning of the year necessities — round-ups of presents to be bought or returned, resolutions to be made or ignored, things to be done or undone, and, if you pay much attention to the media, stories badly or little covered for the last year.

Who can resist the urge to do a list of one’s own? So here’s mine, nothing unfamiliar to those of you who have been reading my emails these many months, and for new readers a guide to the obsessions which have driven this little service of mine:

A List of My Own

Denial is a pretty basic human trait. Often we don’t see what’s right in front of us because the sight, for whatever reason, is unbearable, or perhaps simply not assimilable to the way we imagine the world to be. But, of course, media denial leads to another kind of denial. It denies us the kinds of knowledge and analysis, the kinds of decodings of reality that would allow us to make reasonable sense of the world.

The wonderful thing about the American media is that you can almost never claim that something went “unreported.” Somewhere — sometimes even in the largest, most distinguished of our papers — something is suddenly offered up on even the most “unreported” of issues. So you can always say, it’s been covered. But in the vast drift of “news” and what passes for news in America, “the torrent” as Todd Gitlin has called it in his book, Media Unlimited, the question is: What is it we’re looking at which goes generally unnoticed?

After a post-September 11th year and a quarter of fairly intense reading around in a reasonable number of the major (and minor) newspapers and magazines, here and abroad, plus a fair dose of prime time TV news and CNN news, here’s my very general scorecard: For nearly a year, the Bush administration got a remarkable free ride in our “liberal” press, domestically and in foreign coverage; this, despite the tons and tons of newsprint devoted to post-9/11 crisis reporting, those millions of words that made up, for instance, “The Nation Challenged” section of the New York Times (which I came to think of as “the Reader Challenged” section). Then, in more recent months, in the big coastal dailies at least, you could feel the unease about this administration oozing out and some good, but scattershot reporting began to appear on, for instance, the Washington Post front page. Often, however, as with Paul Krugman’s column in the Times, the best “reporting” has been relegated to op-ed pages.

The greatest coverage deficit has been at the largest level. Right now, in my opinion, most American journalists are not decoding the world for us, nor putting it together, but more or less smashing it into thousands and thousands of fragmentary tales and leaving matters at that. Analysis and synthesis are in either disrepair or disrepute.

So let me jump on my hobbyhorse and ride nowhere fast, banging on a few subjects I’ve been banging on for the last many months. Here are some of my top nominees for under- or ill- or misreported stories of the year:

1) The Anthrax Killer(s): I find the lack of coverage of, or in recent months even mention of, the Anthrax killer(s) perhaps the most puzzling case of denial in our media at the moment. It’s such an obvious news story to follow up on. Right now, as all of you know, we’ve been swept away by something like a government-induced wave of hysteria about an imagined smallpox attack on our country. And yet the only weapon of mass destruction (other than box cutters) used in the United States has been weaponized anthrax, evidently from our own secret weapons labs. The anthrax assaults, which began at a tabloid newspaper in Florida and ended up in the halls of Congress with various post office stops in between, have simply disappeared from sight. Have you wondered — has anyone — why countless American health workers are being inoculated against smallpox and not against anthrax?

When September 11, 2002 rolled around, there were weeks of ceremonies, interviews with survivors, memorial articles galore; TV shows and books poured out. Did anyone see a single survivor interview or health update on those who got anthrax? Similarly, Osama bin Laden, out there in the Afghani-Pakistani hinterlands (if that’s where he is), is an almost obsessive focus of news speculation, and yet the anthrax killer or killers, assumedly Americans, assumedly living somewhere between our weapons labs and the burbs has (have) disappeared as a subject of news investigation. The Hartford Current covered the case valiantly for a while. But now, I wonder what’s happened to the FBI investigation that seemed from the beginning to be on a meandering course to nowhere in particular? What’s happened to the former Rhodesian, now American bioweapons expert who was, for a while, considered a suspect? Why is no one interested? Why are no teams of journalists investigating? This puzzles me beyond words. Why assume that unknown people will attack us with a weapon — doctored, weaponized strains of smallpox — which may not even be loose in the world, and assume that the anthrax killer(s) will never strike again?

I have no answers here. My only guess: the trail of this killer takes us into the darkest heartlands of U.S. bioweapons research, and so into the heart of Cold War military r&d from which so much has emerged to endanger our world; perhaps, from the FBI on down, everyone is too nervous to want to turn a spotlight in that direction. But perhaps that’s not the reason. I’d love to have an explanation, or two, or three.

(By the way, the interesting Global Beat website had this smallpox note on its site recently:

“Saddam may never actually launch a biological attack against the U.S , but in the current atmosphere of war fever, no one wants to take chances. Unfortunately, RAND now reports that vaccinating 60% of the population against a hypothetical small pox attack–just one of the possible weapons of mass destruction open to a terrorist– is statistically likely to kill at least 500 people. Not only that, but a candidate whose vaccination with a weakened, but live virus, goes horribly wrong may spread the disease to others who haven’t been vaccinated. Of course, the odds of actually becoming a fatal victim of the program are relatively small– unless you happen to be one of the people testing the vaccine, which explains why some of the potential testees–notably doctors and health professionals– are beginning to have second thoughts about the idea. The administration’s compromise is likely to be to inoculate 10 million U.S. health workers at a projected cost of only 25 deaths. RAND’s multi-part study will be published by the New England Journal of Medicine on January 31, 2002. The articles are currently available on-line.”

To take a look at Global Beat click here

2) Our weapons of mass destruction (WMD): Media focus has been on three WMD issues — do the Iraqis still have them (or, alternately, how close are they or were they to the Bomb); will the North Koreans make them (or have they already); can Al Qaeda or some allied terrorist organization get their hands on them? All reasonable and important questions, but also the only WMD questions this administration wants anybody to focus on and generally speaking the only ones our media has focused on or offered analysis of. You can certainly find some modest coverage of specific nuclear or WMD issues — the development of nuclear-tipped bunker buster missiles, the Bush administration’s urge for renewed atomic testing and renewed research on every sort of horrific weapon, to take two examples. A flurry of attention was paid to the administration’s nuclear posture statement; another modest flurry to its recent implicit threat to use nuclear weapons in Iraq, should WMD be used against American troops. But I’ve seen not a single major, mainstream piece that focused on the fate of and state of America’s nuclear forces, rescued by this administration from the post-Cold War doldrums; nor any attempt to put together the urge to make nuclear weapons a functional part of the new American war-fighting arsenal, the urge to shred nonproliferation treaties, and the desire to fight, in Jonathan Schell’s apt phrase, “proliferation wars” against the Axis of Evil. There’s been next to nothing, by the way, on the American use of depleted uranium munitions in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and soon assumedly in Iraq again. DU weaponry should, it seems to me, qualify cumulatively as weapons of mass destruction, since their effect is to create a radioactive battlefield — harmful not only to troops but to civilians for, assumedly, eons to come.

(Note: A similar point could be made about reportage on the missile defense system that the “high frontiersmen” riddling this administration are rushing into production. There has been almost no reporting of any substance that I’ve seen on one of the main forces behind the multibillions in r&d going into missile defense — to weaponize space, the last place in our vicinity other than Antarctica that’s demilitarized, and so, in the dreams of high frontiersmen at least, control the earth from afar.)

3) US global basing policy: The American military is like the proverbial guest who comes to dinner and then refuses to leave. This has been true in an arc of lands that stretch from the former Yugoslavia to Pakistan, most of which were once within what used to be called “the Soviet orbit.” Everywhere that we’ve made war recently, we’ve stayed on for the duration in bases ever more permanent, ever more elaborate, ever more high-tech. The post 9/11 period has, in fact, been a banner period for new bases in new places, in the various ‘stans of Central Asia, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, as well as for the redoubling and tripling of bases in Qatar, and elsewhere in the Gulf area. In addition, we now have a base in Djibouti with more of suddenly oil-strategic Africa undoubtedly soon to be garrisoned. Though I’ve seen articles in the mainstream press on individual bases, I’ve seen nothing, or next to nothing on the overall basing picture, on the way we are garrisoning vast strategic areas of the planet — dare I say, the planet’s oil lands? — and what we’re to make of this imperial stretch or overstretch. This is such an obvious case of connecting the dots, it seems remarkable that no paper of note (that I’ve seen at least) has bothered to do so.

4) Oil: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: this is the 800-pound gorilla planted in our midst that just about no one in the media cares to notice. It’s evidently too vulgar and simpleminded a thought. Elsewhere in the world, oil looks like an explanation or at least a partial explanation for much that the Bush administration is doing. Here, most of the time, the media is too polite even to remind us that the President, VP, and various members of the administration came straight out of a world where oil was king, queen, and crown prince. I’ve been continually staggered by the amount of writing on the Middle East/Iraq/Iran/Saudi Arabia over the past year — whole forests have undoubtedly been felled for this — while writing about oil in the mainstream press hasn’t added up to a forest of toothpicks. Oil, after all, is the gold of our world. Just think, for a minute, about the fantasies of gold that, in part, drove Europeans to dominate the globe centuries ago. Why should we assume that this administration, whatever its denials, isn’t driven by its fantasies and dreams about liquid gold and what its control might mean? I have not the slightest doubt that if the Middle East’s main product were video games, there would by now have been endless front page stories all over America about the dependency of American children on Arab video games etc. But oil

5) The Bush agenda: Paul Krugman, the splendid born-again columnist for the New York Times and a rare journalistic agenda-setter in his own right, recently wrote in a column (“Lumps of Coal”) on our economic nonrecovery, “The administration clearly still believes that problems aren’t challenges to be met, they’re opportunities to push a pre-existing agenda.” This might seem a simple principle for reporting, if the essence of reporting were actually to decode reality for us. Every news editor in America could simply stick a sign over his or her desk that said, “It’s the agenda, stupid,” and be immensely better off for it. It drives me crazy that I have yet to see a single series anywhere on the Bush domestic agenda, or on the way this administration leapt upon the events of September 11th and used them to promote an endless series of issues that had little or nothing to do with the event. This seems blindingly obvious to me in areas ranging from energy policy to national security. Is there no major paper ready to put together a team of reporters and set them loose on a series about the Bush domestic agenda? Has anyone noticed how few series are even being written these days?

5) The Bush environmental agenda: Call this my own pet peeve, but this administration’s almost daily assault on our American land and on the planet calls out for some decent reporting. Global warming, at least, gets a little attention and certainly each individual assault on environmental laws, regulations, and policies established in the years since the Nixon administration set up the Environmental Protection Agency is covered to one degree or another, but always as a discrete event. No one in the mainstream seems faintly interested in compiling anything like a record of this assault, no less an analysis of what’s going on. Our land, the earth, its skies, its waters, its natural resources, its species, these are the bedrock of what must matter to us, these in the end are really all we’ve got. If we lose our rights, perhaps at some future point we can get them back; if we lose our democracy, there’s still always hope; if we lose species, the world is simply an emptier, less valuable place. We’ll never get them back, not in human time anyway. It seems to me that the environment simply has an essential importance that outweighs everything else.

6) Cold War history: History has never been a media strong point, but I think this might be a reasonable moment to return to the Cold War era and think a bit about what exactly emerged from that almost half-century-long superpower confrontation. Right now, the dangers in our world — Osama Bin Laden, smallpox, North Korea’s bomb, Iraq’s chemical weapons, and so on — are always portrayed as so “out there,” so dangerous to but unrelated to us. But so much that now seems to endanger us (like al Qaeda) arose originally in the context of the Cold War superpower confrontation or, like the weaponized anthrax that was used here or the smallpox strains that we fear might be used, fell out of various secret Russian or American Cold War weapons labs. Wouldn’t it make sense to trace the various dangers in our world back to their origins and then think a little about what this might mean to us?

7) The new language of our brave new world: How about a language piece from someone in the journalistic world? After all, we’ve been run over (or is it over-run?) by strange new phrases in recent months, which have almost immediately come to seem second nature to us all. How, to take just one example, did “homeland,” so redolent of the German heimat, sweep over us without a peep from anyone. The Department of Homeland Security? Ye gods! To me it feels positively (though I hesitate to use the word), un-American. But my own curiosity is piqued by a term that seemed in a space of about thirty minutes to take up daily residence in every paper, on every prime-time news show, and in all our brains: “regime change.” It was as if a coup d’etat had just been performed on the language and a new phrase installed in power. Where did it come from? What’s its history? How did it come to be on everyone’s lips? “Regimes,” we know, are statist and nasty, and “change,” well that’s inevitable and undoubtedly good. The term, a clever euphemism, sweeps those good old terms, coup d’etat, assassination, and overthrow — whatever it takes — into a basket and wraps them all decorously in the ribbon of change. Is no one curious about its origins?

8) Connecting the dots: Finally, it’s not the specific subjects, which could be multiplied endlessly, but the general urge to connect the dots that seems so thoroughly absent from our media at the moment. Take, for instance, that assassination by Hellfire missile in Yemen the other week carried out by the CIA under presidential fiat. That was certainly news. And then the other day the Washington Post in a fine front-page piece reported that the CIA and the military were employing methods of interrogation and imprisonment that were essentially torture — and when these methods still didn’t break their captives, they were simply turned over to governments in countries like Jordan and Pakistan whose operatives had no compunctions about doing whatever they thought it took to get information out of prisoners. There was a small flurry of news about this news. As discrete acts, each of these have been described and editorialized about (however weakly). But, of course, assassination and torture aren’t just discrete policy acts in the world. They are two points on a policy continuum that extends from various legalized “disappearances” in the U.S. and the careful decision to imprison suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners from Afghanistan in Guantanamo, Cuba (by a strange fluke of treaty beyond any US court’s legal oversight) to the ways in which the intelligence services have been loosed in the world — the FBI has become a full-scale global policing operation and the CIA a domestic one, while the lines between domestic and foreign surveillance, the FBI and CIA, military and civilian are all being blurred. These are not simply discrete acts, they are part of a developing way of life, of being and ruling in the world. If you deal with them as discrete acts, then you argue about whether in the war against terrorism we’ve gone too far or not. Looked at as part of a pattern, you realize that this country is being transformed from the inside via fear into a leviathan.

I’m sure I’ll hear from people who will point out the many pieces I’ve missed over the last year, the papers I’ve never even looked at, and so on. And it’s all true. What I take in is reasonably wide, but hardly encyclopedic. Still, I think my description fits a certain general picture, and I’m afraid it’s of a cowed press — the part that gives a damn to begin with — in denial about, and so denying us, the larger picture of this administration’s assault on us, our rights, our land, and the planet. Read the papers, turn on the TV and you can examine some of the trees (those not being felled by this administration) but catch hardly a glimpse of the forest. Tom