Letâ€™s start with four basic observations. First, by the widely accepted and often passionately embraced description of its own citizens, media and elected officials, the United States is a democracy. Second, a functioning democracy depends to no small extent on wide, intensive and unbiased media coverage of important contemporary political developments at home and abroad. Third, few such developments could be more worthy of such coverage than millions of Americans taking to the streets to resist their governmentâ€™s plans to attack a weak and impoverished nation in a "powder-keg" region full of terrible danger for Americans and others. The newsworthiness would only be enhanced if the largest protest were to occur in a city that had already experienced horrible attack by terrorists from that region. Fourth, mass protest to prevent an action that will kill hundreds of thousands of people is at least as important as an accident that already occurred and cost seven lives.
Asleep at the Camera
On the basis of these observations, one might expect that Saturdayâ€™s mass American protests against the Bush administrations planned attack on Iraq would receive in-depth, blow-by blow live coverage from broadcast media. Many hundreds of thousands of Americans hit the pavement Saturday to protest the deadly, dangerous and imperial plans of the White House - expected by the United Nations to kill as many as 500,000 Iraqis. Three hundred and seventy-five thousand braved freezing temperatures to protest in New York City, site of the terrible jetliner attacks on the World Trade Center. The numbers would have been considerably higher but for the efforts of city and local media authorities to repress attendance.
The expectation would have gone unfulfilled. I was homebound yesterday but made use of my time by monitoring two different forms of media coverage. The first was Pacifica Radio through WBAI in New York City, available via the Internet. The second was my television. Thanks to a cable hook up that costs me $50 a month, I have access to 57 seven stations. Itâ€™s an exact numerical match to Bruce Springsteenâ€™s song about the nothingness of American television, titled "Fifty Seven Channels/Nothing On."
The contrast was remarkable. Thanks to the comprehensive, in-depth "you are there" coverage provided by Pacifica/WBAI, it was clear that history was being made in New York City. The energy was unmistakable in the chants and cheers of the protestors, the passionate and articulate statements of the speakers and the comments of demonstrators. Pacifica reportersâ€™ support for the protest was clear, but the events they related were so clearly momentous they would have struck even a reactionary listener as historically significant.
Things were different on the television. It would have been absurd, of course, to expect any kind of demonstration coverage on most of the stations. The preponderant majority of the broadcast spectrum is ceded to diverse demographic and cultural segments of the entertainment market.
But even on the seven or so stations where one might realistically expect live coverage of the momentous developments - the three major networks plus C-SPAN and the cable news channels - there was no ongoing live coverage. There was nothing on the big four networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox). The protests were the number one story, unavoidably, at CNN, which provided some remarkable protest footage from Europe and a poignant interview with a New York demonstrator who lost a relative in 9-11. The story was covered somewhat grudgingly at the Fox News Channel, a veritable broadcast arm of the White House, along with reminders from former US military analysts and weapons inspectors turned Fox commentators that the White House "does not require consensus" to attack Iraq.
C-SPAN, the most progressive spot on the national broadcast spectrum, was asleep at the camera. As millions marched, it broadcast old tape from CIA Director George Tenetâ€™s recent Senate testimony on the supposed link between Saddam and al Qaeda.
Particularly at Fox News, the coverage downplayed American-specific dissent, giving considerably more attention to protests in Rome, Berlin, Paris and London than to those occurring right in the imperial stateâ€™s homeland. Fox made sure to tie it all to Saddam, linking American and European protests to suggestive clips of rifle-waving Iraqis carrying posters of their evil leader.
Mass Protest Versus The Exploding Space Shuttle and Johnâ€™s Johnâ€™s Cessna
None of this is meant to discount the antiwar movementâ€™s success in making their story number one on the evening news and in the next dayâ€™s newspapers. Still, it was hard not to notice the contrast between yesterdayâ€™s non-coverage of live American protest and the corporate mediaâ€™s response to the space-shuttle tragedy just two Saturdays before. The latter was an essentially nationalist episode involving no real political controversy. It elicited an orgy of intensive "you are there" coverage, replete with exhausted anchors, a bevy of expert commentators, and all the latest developments. Film and photos of the disintegrating shuttle were played over and over. All the major networks and news cable stations stayed with the terrible story from morning until well into the evening and the next day.
The contrast is reminiscent of the corporate mediaâ€™s response to the historic mass demonstration against corporate globalization that occurred in Seattle during November 1999. You could follow that remarkable development live on alternative Internet media. When you searched your "57 channels" for live Seattle footage, however, you found anchormen still obsessed with John F. Kennedy Juniorâ€™s demise. The nationâ€™s televisions had been "turned into fishbowls" (left media critic Robert McChesney quipped) as network cameras descended into the Atlantic for John Johnâ€™s sunken Cessna.
Down the Memory Hole in Just 12 Hours
Further proof of the "mainstream" (corporate) mediaâ€™s reluctance to give Saturdayâ€™s demonstrations their due came at 1:30 Sunday morning, when I resumed my position in front of the idiot box. A story on CNN informed late- night watchers that the basic factor determining the timing of an apparently inevitable US attack on Iraq is climate. We heard from "CNN Military Analyst" and "Brigadier General" David Grange, who reassured his audience that "the US military can attack in any weather." Still, he noted, US planners are concerned about the coming Iraqi heat, which will complicate the Armyâ€™s "Mission Oriented Protective Posture" (military speak for special troop gear to guard against chemical and biological weapons). Another issue is sandstorms, which make it difficult "to engage targets with your optics" - tough, that is, to see the people you are trying to destroy.
I flipped to the Fox News Channel, where a panel of media experts was analyzing the mediaâ€™s "Pre-war Coverage." This segment was labeled "The Media Braces for War." Panel member and onetime Guggenheim fellow Neal Gabler argued that it would be a "tragedy" if the inevitable "war" becomes "the new reality tv." Gabler also worried about "a real possibility we wonâ€™t get the whole [war] story" from "our media." Someone should look into that.
The panelâ€™s host suggested that the leading news channels, including Fox, will drop commercials during the warâ€™s initial days - a temporary cost media corporations will gladly pay in pursuit of increased "market share."
Just half a day old, the historic mass demonstrations of 2-15-03 were already fading into historyâ€™s ashcan, as far as CNN and Foxâ€™s experts were concerned. Perhaps Fox should run a segment labeled "The Media Helps Generate â€˜Warâ€™ [the graphic inequality of the supposed combatants requires quote marks] By Assuming That It Is Inevitable and Discounting the Massive Opposition of the Irrelevant People."
Things didnâ€™t get much better when I continued my deepening engagement with corporate television after some well-deserved sleep. On the fifteen minutes of NBCâ€™s "Meet the Press" I caught Sunday morning, yesterdayâ€™s demonstrations had already been swept into the Orwellian memory hole. Tim Russert â€™s discussions about the latest "War on Terrorism" developments with National Security Adviser Condaleeza Rice and former US General Wesley Clark focused on strategic questions relating to Saddamâ€™s behavior, top European policymakers, the UN Security Council and al Qaeda. Saturdayâ€™s outpouring of citizen opposition to US plans at home at and abroad was apparently irrelevant - a non-factor in serious discussion of current events.
It was the same everywhere I turned: Wolf Blitzer on CNN (interviewing Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge on the likelihood of domestic terror attacks), a PBS foreign policy expert panel, and an NBC media panel headed by Chris Matthews on NBC. None of the talking heads I encountered in my bleary-eyed television meanderings found the previous dayâ€™s historic popular dissent worth mentioning as they discussed future US policy in the Middle East.
Perhaps I missed the standard obligatory comment on domestic protest from Rice - the one where the White House notes how incredibly fortunate the American people are to possess the right of popular assembly. Itâ€™s a favorite line from Rumsfeld and Rice, who seem to think Americans should be grateful that their masters permit them to protest without the fear of being thrown into concentration camps. Saddam, the Bush gang loves to remind us, permits no domestic opposition. The idiotic implication, never questioned by corporate media, is that Saddam is somehow a risk to bring dictatorship to the United States along with his weapons of mass destruction.
Towards Media Reform
It has become common to note the growing disconnection between American public opinion and Bush domestic and foreign policy. Less commonly noted but equally relevant and also growing is the mismatch between that opinion and American corporate media. The second gap reflects the deep incorporation of Americaâ€™s "private" media oligarchy into an imperial state-capitalist project that seeks to advance a process of authoritarian corporate globalization that is richly favored by Americaâ€™s leading multinational media firms - giant publicly sponsored corporate hierarchies that fail to fulfill their duty to supply Americans with the information required for responsible democratic citizenship.
After we stop this horrible war, letâ€™s take up the cause of democratic media reform, helping thereby to prevent future murderous campaigns by Bush and his noxious imperial ilk.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an urban social policy researcher and political essayist in Chicago, Illinois.