Revisiting our imperial media

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Sometime toward the end of our recent little war, I suddenly discovered that at 7 pm in New York on some obscure cable channel I could get subtitled news off French television. Their war coverage was startling. They weren’t simply embedded with the American troops. Their reporters were actually were racing around Baghdad among other places sticking microphones in the faces of brace yourself, actual Iraqis, more Iraqis in one night than I think I had seen talking on American television in the three weeks of war — even, brace yourself again, Iraqis with differing points of view.

Somehow on our news, the Big Picture was already agreed upon. Yet watching TV news on whatever channel each day was like watching some unknown picture being smashed into a thousand fragments (and then on TV the visual fragments, often bearing not the slightest relation to each other would be put in little differently sized frames, one next to or above the other, leaving you guessing as to why). Here’s what was so curious about the French newscasts — they were actually trying to put together some kind of narrative for each day. It was so old-fashioned. It was, quite honestly, like stumbling into another war on another planet. I thought, with that in mind, I might revisit our imperial media today, now that killer tornadoes, murderous moms, maddened shooters in Frank Gehry buildings, and the like have slowly begun to replace Iraq as the stories du jour.

If you’re simply reading the elite press — the New York and LA Times, the Washington Post — on the other hand, there’s been a sudden burst of actual coverage of the postwar disaster that is now occupied Iraq. (Perhaps my favorite recent first paragraph on the subject, however, came from the British Times and went, “The fastest regime change in Iraqi history occurred at Baghdad airport yesterday when Paul Bremer, Washington’s new proconsul, took over running the country from Jay Garner, the much-criticised retired US Army general.” [Garner surrenders control of Baghdad in bloodless coup])

As the angry yakking heads, wise pundits from right-wing think tanks, and nattering generals tiptoe elsewhere, I thought it might be worth bringing back an oldie but goodie to remind us of what we’ve just been through — here’s a passage from a Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (Fair) two-week study of on-camera network news sources that came out on March 18 — in our world of 24/7 “coverage” and screaming entertainment wallpaper, that’s the Neolithic Age — on the eve our second Iraq war (In Iraq Crisis, Networks are Megaphones for Official Views):

“Seventy-six percent of all sources were current or former officials, leaving little room for independent and grassroots views. Similarly, 75 percent of U.S. sources (199/267) were current or former officials.

“At a time when 61 percent of U.S. respondents were telling pollsters that more time was needed for diplomacy and inspections (2/6/03), only 6 percent of U.S. sources on the four networks were skeptics regarding the need for war.

“Sources affiliated with anti-war activism were nearly non-existent. On the four networks combined, just three of 393 sources were identified as being affiliated with anti-war activism– less than 1 percent. Just one of 267 U.S. sources was affiliated with anti-war activism– less than half a percent.”

“At a time when 61 percent of U.S. respondents were telling pollsters that more time was needed for diplomacy and inspections (2/6/03), only 6 percent of U.S. sources on the four networks were skeptics regarding the need for war.

“Sources affiliated with anti-war activism were nearly non-existent. On the four networks combined, just three of 393 sources were identified as being affiliated with anti-war activism– less than 1 percent. Just one of 267 U.S. sources was affiliated with anti-war activism– less than half a percent.”

And then, of course, there was the war and things only got worse — or have you already forgotten (as the mind likes to do with the painful past) those retired generals married to high-tech maps and the little video tanks that looked like so many froggers racing up the screen toward “Baghdad,” while svelt cameras flew us, like laser-guided bombs or Predator drones over contour maps of the country? The very interesting New York Times reporter, Chris Hedges, who has covered many wars of our time but is now on the Metropolitan desk of the paper, recently gave an interview to Barbara Bedway of Editor & Publisher magazine on his views of Iraq coverage (Press Not Ready to Cover Our Own Gaza). Here are a few passages that begin with his observation that the real reporting on postwar Iraq will now fall to only a “handful” of newspapers:

“‘Now that the feel-good, flag-waving part of war is over, the real culprits, the commercial-broadcast media, are going to pack up and leave. What they’ve done is a huge disservice to the nation. They have no sense of responsibility to continue reporting as the story gets more complicated and difficult to report.’

“The message put out by the Bush administration and the commercial media portraying Americans only as ‘liberators’ ill equips the country to understand why that is not the perception of many Iraqis or much of the rest of the world. Hedges compared the situation to Israel’s taking over Gaza in 1967, and operating among a hostile population: ‘For occupation troops, everyone becomes the enemy.’

“It is similar to the end of the Roman Republic, when the spectacle of the arena replaced real political debate and participation in political life. And when that happens, you end up with a Nero.”

Below, Danny Schechter, the famed “news dissector,” who edits www.mediachannel.org where he writes an invaluable daily blog on the media, considers the slow postwar return to some semblance of critical sanity of at least a few of our modern gladiators — or rather mainstream reporters. We need more Schechters these days. If you want to check out his latest book, you can click here on the title, Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror. I’ve also included Paul Krugman’s smart column in yesterday’s New York Times which picked up the question of how close we actually are to having an official state-run media.

Here’s a comment on the same subject from Geneva Overholser, a former ombudsperson at the Washington Post, now with the Poynter Institute:

“The comments I’ve been hearing about U.S. media becoming ever more like state-run media seem to me to evoke something deeper than partisanship or ideology. What I sense is a narrowing of the discussion, a ‘ruttedness’ — call it an echo chamber of conventionalism. Sure, we have the appearance of controversy, what with our shouting heads and sneering pundits. But real debate — substantive representation of viewpoints not currently in vogue, of people not currently in power, of issues not currently appearing in our narrowly-focused eye — is almost absent.”

Then again, there’s not a lot of time for conversation or debate when you’re a gladiator and you’ve just been thrown in the arena.

Of course, the charm of our media is that, unlike the former Soviet Union’s, none of the key people in it think of themselves faintly as propagandists. It all works so much better that way. In fact, we’re so used to our media world that, while we might critique it, we no longer have a sense of quite how strange it is. So I found my final choice of the day amusing. A piece from the interesting www.openDemocracy.net website that offers a feeling for what our media world looks like to a visiting Martian — or rather European. Tom

Now That the War Is Over, the Media’s Shame Surfaces
By Danny Schecter
Global Vision News Network
May 9, 2003

NEW YORK — “Disgusting” is a strong word to apply to the Iraq war coverage, but that’s the epithet author Russell Smith invokes in the new issue of The New York Review of Books in a column about “new newspeak” that indicts “patriotic lapses in objectivity.”

Even as NBC rushes out a new book lionizing its war coverage, a small undercurrent of criticism from within the news industry threatens to turn into a flood of denunciation as the shock and awe wears off, and journalists realize how badly they have been had.

This tends to follow a rule first enunciated by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who wrote: “All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as self-evident.”

Stage One: Ridicule. In the aftermath of President Bush’s flight to an aircraft carrier for a heavily-staged photo-op, questions, comments, sneers and jeers are slowly rising up from a press corps that heretofore has been compliant, complicit and in the words of James Wolcott in Vanity Fair, easily bullied.

Stage Two: Violent Opposition. We have witnessed a mild dissent on coverage, from the lips of MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield who questioned the media’s accuracy during a lecture at Kansas State University, for which she was savaged as a traitor by media bores on the right. Michael Savage, her right-wing MSNBC talk show colleague, denounced her as a “slut.”

Stage Three: Accepted as Self-Evident. We’re getting there. As politicians question the Victory at Sea setting for Bush’s photo-op, Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune questioned the lack of hard reporting about the man’s own efforts to dodge active service during the Vietnam War, the event and its significance:

“There was no relentless examination [of Bush’s military record] on cable news outlets, no interviewing the commanders who swear Bush didn’t show up where he was supposed to, no sit-downs with the veterans who have offered still-unclaimed cash rewards to anyone who can prove that Bush did anything at all in the Guard during his last months before discharge.

“So much for the cynical distortion that has become conventional wisdom in many circles. So much for the myth of the ‘liberal media.'”

There is a deeper cultural dimension to this problem, this patriotic lapse in objectivity, claims Wolcott: “If the press has given Bush and his Cabinet a horsey ride it isn’t because they are paid submissives. They are not prostitutes. They are pushovers.”

He also argues that the political damage done is incalculable:

“The American press sniffs at the cult of personality that once plastered the walls and billboards of Iraq with portraits of Saddam Hussein while remaining oblivious to the cult of personality that has cowed most of them. The press in this country has never identified less with the underdog and more to the top pedigrees. The arrogance of the Bush Administration is mirrored in the arrogance of the elite media.”

For more insights on elite media, jump past the Versace ad at the end of Wolcott’s scathing piece and you arrive in Dominick Dunne’s high-tone gossip country. Vanity Fair’s man about town admits to getting upset with himself for breaking away from the war coverage to put on a tux in order to slip out to the next party.

He tells us about all the celebs who turned St. Patrick’s Cathedral into a citadel of luminaries for the funeral of NBC’s Embed-in-Chief David Bloom. In his last e-mail, read at this grand event, Bloom seemed to have a premonition of his own demise.

Enthuses Dunne: “The all white flowers were perfect. The music triumphal. A head of state couldn’t have gotten a better send off. I never saw so many priests on one altar.”

While the greater glory of God was invoked in New York, up at Yale a senior editor of Newsweek was spilling his guts. The New Haven Register reports: “A senior editor at Newsweek, Michael Hirsh, told a Yale audience that he was ‘fairly appalled’ by television’s coverage of the Iraq war.

“This has not been the media’s finest hour,” said Hirsh, who won the Overseas Press Club Award in 2001. He said war broadcasts from Great Britain and Canada were so different from American broadcasts that one might have thought the reporters were covering two different wars.

He called American TV “self- absorbed” and “jingoistic” and said, “The natural skepticism of the media was lost after 9/11.”

We are only now beginning to hear first-hand what really transpired in the briefing rooms and embed posts, even if the scale of civilian casualties is still unknown.

Michael Massing reports in The New York Review of Books about those CENTCOM sessions that spun the story of the day complete with military video and lots of map pointing. He charges that many of the colleagues he was imprisoned with in that bunker in the Doha desert knew nothing about the region, the culture or the context. They were functioning as stenographers, not critical journalists, he said.

Russell Smith says he was more peeved by CNN, “The voice of CENTCOM”, as he called it, than Fox News, which one satirist describes as “the Official News Channel of the Homeland. (“Ein Volk. Ein Reich. Ein Fuhrer. Ein News Channel.”)

“CNN was more irritating than the gleefully patriotic Fox News channel because CNN has a pretense of objectivity,” Smith writes. “It pretends to be run by journalists. And yet it dutifully uses all the language chosen by people in charge of ‘media relations’ at the Pentagon.”

Clearly there is much we still don’t know about what happened on the ground in Iraq and the details of why the media covered it the way it did. Unfortunately too, the growing chorus of criticism is still too little, too late.

Mark the words of a media monitoring news dissector: Observations like these and even shaper criticisms to come will move soon from the margins to the mainstream on their way to becoming the conventional wisdom, “self-evident” truth, as per the very late Dr. Schopenhauer.

In the end, with hindsight and reflection, all of journalism will look back in shame.

To read Schechter at the original site click here

The China Syndrome
By Paul Krugman
The New York Times
May 13, 2003

A funny thing happened during the Iraq war: many Americans turned to the BBC for their TV news. They were looking for an alternative point of view – something they couldn’t find on domestic networks, which, in the words of the BBC’s director general, “wrapped themselves in the American flag and substituted patriotism for impartiality.”

Leave aside the rights and wrongs of the war itself, and consider the paradox. The BBC is owned by the British government, and one might have expected it to support that government’s policies. In fact, however, it tried hard – too hard, its critics say – to stay impartial. America’s TV networks are privately owned, yet they behaved like state-run media.

What explains this paradox? It may have something to do with the China syndrome.

To read more Krugman click here

As some others see us: Reading America
By Stefan Straub
May 2, 2003

As America sets out to craft the world in its own image and according to its self-interests, we non-Americans often scramble to find out what’s really going on.

What are Americans thinking? Who said what? What is happening over there? We try to find out not only what issue (or what country) will be next on the agenda of the Bush administration, but also about those significant others that influence our lives in so many ways, be it with bombs or movies.

To do so, we turn to the Internet, which enables us to read what Americans read, see what they see, and hopefully understand more of their understanding. Dutifully, we read parts of the New York Times and Washington Post. The more adventurous of us will look into magazines like the New Yorker, New Criterion, Salon or Atlantic Monthly. Interesting, without a doubt: but there is one problem.

To read more Straub click here