Al-Ahram Weekly Online
13 - 19 December 2001
Issue No.564
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The bottom line

It's highly sophisticated, but is it truly free? As the mainstream US media continues to beat the drums of America's "war on terror" Fatemah Farag investigates the implications for press freedom and finds islands of dissent

Fatemah Farag"When the day is done, access [and the freedom of the media in the United States are] still light years ahead of other countries. I have to remind myself of that every time I get frustrated," Lucie Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Al- Ahram Weekly late last week. Across the long-distance phone line, the discomfort Dalglish felt answering questions about the shackling of dissent in the US media was palpable. "I have been getting phone calls every day asking about this and I think that perceptions, [for example] that the First Amendment is under attack, are sharply different from the truth."

Her discomfort is not surprising. The US media sees itself as free, provocative and intelligent. We in the region share that perception: "They may not be objective in their reporting," we tell ourselves, but "what information, what scope of coverage, what technology." We are left gaping in awe.

And, of course, they are more "democratic" and more "sophisticated," (though too often we fail to ask "as compared to what?"). But all that has not stopped the questions from rolling in -- and for good reason.

According to Rory O'Connor, president and chief executive officer of Globalvision, New Media, Inc., an independent news Website, "Journalists have been fired for writing opinion columns about recent events that fall outside the mainstream viewpoint. A prominent ABC network television host (Bill Maher), almost lost his programme (for referring to US cruise missile attacks as cowardly); he did lose advertisers and affiliated station distribution, for saying 'politically incorrect' things on his show." Maher's show, ironically, is titled "Politically Incorrect."

National Public Radio (NPR) journalist Sandy Tolan described the current environment to Al-Ahram Weekly. "Since 11 September it has become more and more unpatriotic to question any of the president's actions or those of the Pentagon." Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), an independent news watchdog, has reported that self-appointed right- wing "patriot police" have hounded network executives. The group quoted ABC news as saying they received a "torrent of complaints" when they aired an interview with a PLO spokesman. AlterNet, another independent news Website, recorded that columnists for the Texas City Sun and Oregon's Grant's Pass Daily Courier were fired "after they criticised Bush for cowardice in not immediately returning to Washington after the 11 September attacks."

Corey Robin, a professor at Brooklyn College, is currently writing a book on the cultural history of fear and political repression in the US. She told the Weekly that prominent critics of US foreign policy, like Edward Said, Noam Chomsky (both columnists in this newspaper) or Susan Sontag, have received virtually no air- time or column space in the US. "The kind of open discussion about the war in Afghanistan and US foreign policy that one finds in the European press is pretty much absent here," she says.

Those who have spoken out have been forced to face the music. Renowned feminist author Susan Sontag wrote an article in the New Yorker calling the 11 September incidents "a consequence of specific American alliances and actions." Tate Hausman, managing editor of AlterNet, described to the Weekly the reaction to her article as a "classic example" of how it has become dangerous to criticise the establishment, and foreign policy in particular: "She [Sontag] was lambasted by the establishment in an almost horrifying way -- just for speaking a sentiment held by a small but significant minority of the American public."

Robin also indicated that, since 11 September, "the few media people/ intellectuals who have spoken out have been pilloried with hate-mail and condemnation from American pundits and other intellectuals. This kind of pillory inevitably makes it harder for other, less prominent, intellectuals or media people, who are less secure in their jobs, to speak out."

This is especially true in a market where, according to veteran anchor Walter Cronkite, the "pressure to go along, get along, or to place the needs of advertisers or companies above the public's need for reliable information, distorts the free press and threatens democracy itself." He argued, "Journalists shouldn't have to check their consciences in at the door when they go to work for a media company. It ought to be just the reverse." But in an America at war, professional standards and human integrity in the workplace become politically dangerous luxuries. There seems little room left for "conscience." Not even for far right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, who argued that "we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them (the enemies of the US) to Christianity." Coulter, whose column was terminated by National Review Online after she briefly criticised her editors, told Leslie Bennetts in this month's Vanity Fair, "This hysteria is sweeping the nation, and people are jumping on everything everyone is saying. It's having the effect of repealing the First Amendment without a law. If you see your friends being fired for what they've said, you will start engaging in self- censorship."

O'Connor completed the picture for the Weekly: "The head of CNN warned in a public speech that it was dangerous to get 'too much in front of public opinion;' the president's national security adviser called the network news chiefs and 'suggested' they stop carrying Al-Jazeera videos of Bin Laden (which they did); the president's press-secretary publicly urged people to 'watch what they say and watch what they do;' teachers and professors have been censored in academia, etc. So, yes, this is a dangerous time to espouse non-mainstream views."







A corporatist media + patriotic zeal = minds behind bars: (above ) a World War II poster; contemporary images of war mobilisation; the front page of democracynow.org

In his column in The Nation on 29 October, Eric Alterman succinctly summed up the situation. "The potential for politically motivated official censorship -- beyond that which is genuinely necessary to protect the safety and security of our troops -- is never far away in wartime," he wrote.

But perhaps most alarming is the self- censorship that those in the press are applying to themselves. While the Freedom Forum's Dalglish told the Weekly that although she did not think the government had taken any direct action against the press, she felt that in current circumstances journalists are "not inclined" to be critical. "This is a very sophisticated system," explained Dalglish, "No one in the government is actively trying to prevent [publication]. The basic disincentive to any reporter is public opinion. It is a self- imposed reluctance."

Part of that may derive from the unprecedented nature of the times (for Americans). In the words of writer, actor and director Shawn Wallace, speaking to the Weekly, "We never thought it could happen here. Americans are absolutely in shock about having been physically attacked on 11 September, and the editors of newspapers are no exception. I know for a fact that a varied and thoughtful response is considered in the privacy of people's homes and the privacy of their own minds, but in public there is a consensus from which most people don't depart. The consensus goes something like this: 'We are in immediate danger. People want to kill us. So we have to kill them first.'"

Robin agreed. "The newness of this experience," she told the Weekly, "the unprecedented shock to American sensibilities that this experience [11 September] has posed, suggests to me that what we are seeing now might only be the beginning of a far more draconian wave of repression." More draconian, even, than other waves of repression such as those associated with the detention and deportation of hundreds of immigrants during the "Red Scare" or with McCarthyism, Robin believes.

But in any case, though the horrific events of 11 September seared Americans, public opinion is surely not enough to explain the unquestioning war-drum banging and patriotic zealotry exhibited by the US media since then. "The television networks seem to be hiding behind the notion that Americans support the war and that anything critical would not be tolerated by Joe Sixpack," remarks NPR's Tolan, adding, "However true this may be, it does not explain meetings with the national security adviser and agreeing not to run substantive, newsworthy pieces of Bin Laden's videos. Nor does it explain the shameful near silence in the US media when their supposed Al-Jazeera colleagues (who, after all, are following in the best tradition of international journalism and telling the story from the ground) had their offices in Kabul bombed by American forces. Evidently, the Other is still the Other."

Silence from government is, of course, to be expected. Asked at a press conference whether he would lie to the media about the war, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quoted Winston Churchill who spread disinformation before the D-Day invasion. "Sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies," he said. And so the US military continues to argue that smart bombings minimise civilian casualties, even as international investigative reporter Phillip Knightley writes in a Center for Public Integrity (CPI) commentary that, "Bloody TV footage or grim still photographs of civilian bomb victims threaten this most outrageous piece of propaganda, so an essential part of the Western alliance's strategy has been not only to bomb in the dark but, as far as possible, to keep the public in the dark as well." And the entourage of bodyguards increases by the day.

One reason for this seems to lie in the lessons learned by both the US government and corporate media from the experience of the Vietnam war. Then, the military blamed the media for turning public opinion against the war. Stephen Pittman, writing in AlterNet, cites a US Naval War College publication which "indicated that to maintain public support, a government should sanitise the visual images of war; control media access; censor information that could upset readers or viewers; and exclude journalists who would not write favourable stories." According Pittman, the US applied this model in Grenada and Panama and the Gulf War.

A Center for Public Integrity (CPI) report on Gulf War coverage noted gross exaggerations of the effectiveness of Patriot missiles and smart bombs and of the success rates for bombing missions. The 1991 report concluded, "Information about Defence Department activities ... [was] restricted or manipulated not for national security purposes, but for political purposes: to protect the image and priorities of the Defence Department and its civilian leaders, including the president." According to a University of Oregon political science professor, Jerry Medler, "No one has stood up to say, wait a minute... and the reason is we have very little information."

The cumulative effect of all this, AlterNet's Hausman told the Weekly, is that "The mainstream media is adhering to the establishment's line like I've never before seen in my lifetime. In fact, many journalists are so closely toeing the Pentagon's line, they seem more like cheerleaders for war than objective reporters." Tolan went as far as to describe the networks and cable outlets as "bearing a chilling resemblance to state television."

In the same vein, reporting on domestic incursions into the civil rights of non-US citizens, has also been severely curtailed. After the media complained that the Justice Department refused to provide the names and charges for 1,200 people it detained after the terrorist attacks, the department announced that it would no longer release even the total number of detainees.

But with "patriotism" running high no one is ready to call the government to task. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 59 per cent of respondents want more military control over war reporting. And it all feeds into a media structure that, in the words of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, is a "propaganda model that serves to defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate domestic society and the state." Herman and Chomsky spelled it all out in great detail in 1988 with the publication of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. In page after damning page, Chomsky documents how small a clique owns the US media. Of 25,000 media outlets in 1986, half were owned by 24 media groups. He goes on to expose who the owners are (multi-national corporations such as General Electric who own ABC, for example), how profit-making governs their activities, how they rely almost exclusively on corporate advertising for income and how they are fed information provided by the government and business and the "experts" these two "sponsor." Chomsky concludes that their setting up of a "common enemy" (at the time communism) amounts to systematic propaganda.

Others, even media industry insiders, agree. Danny Schechter, former ABC and CNN news director, current executive editor of Mediachannel.org and author of The More you Read the Less you Know, told the Weekly that the US media was mainly corporate-controlled. And on the scope of that corporate- influenced journalism, he says, "I have been arguing that America is increasingly ruled by a 'Media-ocracy' that sets the agenda."

It should come as no surprise, then, that Pittman reports that "the Bush administration doesn't need to do anything to censor media outlets; they do it themselves." The Washington Post, for example, reported that CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson ordered news staff to limit reports of Afghan war casualties and use World Trade Center deaths to justify the killing of Afghan civilians by the US military. After the deaths in the US, it "seems perverse to focus too much on casualties or hardship in Afghanistan," Isaacson wrote in a memo quoted by WorkingForChange, which also quoted Brit Hume, anchor for the conservative Fox News Channel, saying that neutrality is inappropriate in covering this war because the enemy are "murderous barbarians."

Such stories abound. FAIR quotes a warning memo sent to staff by the chief copy editor of the Florida News Herald. "DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the US war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e- mails. DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the US war on Afghanistan. They (the casualties) should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT."

Some media outlets don't seem to need much prompting to toe the "party line". "If you get on the wrong side of public opinion, you are going to get into trouble," CNN's Isaacson has been quoted by WorkingForChange as having directed.

And what of the not-so-thin line that divides between a journalist's sense of national responsibility and his/her professional and human integrity? This line, "is far behind many mainstream journalists," Hausman told the Weekly, adding, "in times of war, the government and the mainstream press always become best buddies."

For New York-based writer Shawn Wallace the complicity between government and corporate media is both highly effective and pernicious. "Personally, I have never owned a television because I've always been afraid of being brainwashed. I don't think education, beliefs, books, intelligence, sophistication, vigilance or anything else can really protect you against that. American television brainwashing consists mainly in a constant reiteration of the idea that America and Americans are decent, well-meaning, and good-hearted. It is sincere. The people who make the programmes believe that, and basically (with the rarest exceptions) they don't allow it to be questioned. If facts seem to contradict this point of view, the assumption is that those apparent facts must actually not be true or must have an innocent explanation. The consequence of this is that most Americans have no information available to them which would lead them to doubt that the behaviour of the United States in the world is benevolent. And that means that someone who may hate America or want to kill Americans is simply assumed to be crazy, a dangerous animal, and that the problem he presents will be solved if he is killed."

It's not that there are no dissenting voices within the American media community. Tolan explains: "It is not as if there are absolutely no critical voices or coverage of atrocities or the devastating effects of the bombing. Rather, it is in the tone of the coverage, placement and, in some cases, the headlines written." He refers to an article run by the New York Times last week titled "US bombs hit three towns, Afghans say; Pentagon Denies it." The article makes it clear that hundreds were indeed killed in the US bombing of Tora Bora. "Yet the story reports that and the Pentagon denials with equal weight," says Tolan, adding, "The story quotes an admiral saying 'a village was targeted improperly.' Did anyone bother then to ask him if they (the military) purposely targeted the village? This is a glaring omission in the story." Tolan cites the example to illustrate how "objective" reporting easily slithers into bias. "The story is there. The story is often there, in shadow; but in a country at war you have to squint to see the facts."

Another obstacle to understanding is the absence of context. As Schechter pointed out to the Weekly, "We live in an age of missing information, where information only has meaning when it is contextualised by an appropriate background. The irony is that, even in an age of globalisation, global news spending (in the US) has been cut back by as much as 80 per cent over the last 15 years. In its place, we have been treated to one sensationalist story after another."

But is the American public to blame? Is it true that Americans are not interested in learning about the outside world. Not true, according to AlterNet's Hausman. He told the Weekly, "Since 11 September, I think most Americans want to know more about the Middle East and Central Asia. The problem is that the mainstream media are very bad at explaining the context of world events. Most Americans get their news from evening television broadcasts or drive-time radio broadcasts. These broadcasts report the headlines of the day's news -- the who, what, where, how and when of a story -- but never explain why. And so the majority of the American public does not have the background of knowledge to put world events in their proper context."

Dalglish admits that "not many journalists are very sophisticated in dealing with foreign news. There is a steep learning curve that is needed here for both the media and public opinion." Anyone who has worked with foreign correspondents in our part of the world will agree that "not at all sophisticated" might be a more accurate description. Many US "foreign correspondents" have used the services of a local "fixer" (or "babysitter" as the "locals" now have it), who tells the correspondents who to talk to, gives them basic facts and translates to the best of their ability an otherwise indecipherable language, culture, society and economic/political context. There are, of course, the exceptions; they merely prove the rule.

O'Connor told the Weekly that such shoddiness was because "Mainstream media executives say Americans don't care, which really means that the executives don't care. In my opinion, the real issue is the cost of covering international news, which those executives do not want to pay. Their excuse is that their audience doesn't care, which, in my experience, is not true at all." After 15 years of running Globalvision, O'Connor can comfortably argue that "most Americans are interested in the news of the rest of the world, and will watch it, read it, and listen to it with great interest, provided it is packaged in an appealing and professional manner, and that the news producer explains clearly how international news and information is relevant to their lives."

And so why do US news stories constantly prefer images of war to peace, business to work and celebrities over everything? In the words of Schechter to the Weekly, "News executives argue that 'we are only giving people what they want' as if they do not shape tastes and interests." Schechter goes as far as to compare their logic to that of a drug dealer: "We only give people what they want." As he puts it, "It is nonsense, and they know it."

It seems to be somewhat different, however, with respect to the American media's treatment of local news. Dalglish points out that American media people are "very sophisticated and completely equipped" to cover the domestic scene, which might explain the rumblings of discontent that have surfaced of late with respect to the ramifications of the "war against terror" for the home front. Last week's Sunday New York Times editorial, for example, cried out, "Justice Deformed: War and the Constitution." Time magazine has observed that "war is hell on your civil liberties."

Also, the New York Times has begun running big news stories lambasting Attorney General John Ashcroft's attacks on civil liberties. On 15 November, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post discarded his earlier defence of Ashcroft, and declared him "the scariest man in government."

Journalists have also complained about administration efforts to fight the right to know under the Freedom of Information Act, subpoena the phone records of a reporter, and withhold presidential records from George Bush Senior's administration that could embarrass officials in Bush Junior's White House. Pittman reported that the presidents of 20 media groups issued a statement expressing concern "over the increasing restrictions by the United States government that limit news gathering and inhibit the free flow of information in the wake of the 11 September attack. We believe that these restrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need."

Some critics of the media establishment are sceptical about this "awakening", however. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, in their article Where Were They When It Counted?, published in Counterpunch, recall that, "It was not as though publication on 13 November of Bush's presidential order on military courts for Al-Qa'eda members and sympathisers launched the onslaught on civil liberties. Recall that the terrorism bill was sent to Congress on 19 September." But at the time the "major papers were spiritless."

Perhaps the major papers are a lost cause (see related article); some are turning to other sources for their news. "A grass-roots effort to counter the centralised corporate control of conglomerates is under way," observes Globalvision's O'Connor.

Dalglish admits that "not many journalists are very sophisticated in dealing with foreign news. There is a steep learning curve that is needed here for both the media and public opinion." Anyone who has worked with foreign correspondents in our part of the world will agree that "not at all sophisticated" might be a more accurate description. Many US "foreign correspondents" have used the services of a local "fixer" (or "babysitter" as the "locals" now have it), who tells the correspondents who to talk to, gives them basic facts and translates to the best of their ability an otherwise indecipherable language, culture, society and economic/political context. There are, of course, the exceptions; they merely prove the rule.

O'Connor told the Weekly that such shoddiness was because "Mainstream media executives say Americans don't care, which really means that the executives don't care. In my opinion, the real issue is the cost of covering international news, which those executives do not want to pay. Their excuse is that their audience doesn't care, which, in my experience, is not true at all." After 15 years of running Globalvision, O'Connor can comfortably argue that "most Americans are interested in the news of the rest of the world, and will watch it, read it, and listen to it with great interest, provided it is packaged in an appealing and professional manner, and that the news producer explains clearly how international news and information is relevant to their lives."

And so why do US news stories constantly prefer images of war to peace, business to work and celebrities over everything? In the words of Schechter to the Weekly, "News executives argue that 'we are only giving people what they want' as if they do not shape tastes and interests." Schechter goes as far as to compare their logic to that of a drug dealer: "We only give people what they want." As he puts it, "It is nonsense, and they know it."

It seems to be somewhat different, however, with respect to the American media's treatment of local news. Dalglish points out that American media people are "very sophisticated and completely equipped" to cover the domestic scene, which might explain the rumblings of discontent that have surfaced of late with respect to the ramifications of the "war against terror" for the home front. Last week's Sunday New York Times editorial, for example, cried out, "Justice Deformed: War and the Constitution." Time magazine has observed that "war is hell on your civil liberties."

Also, the New York Times has begun running big news stories lambasting Attorney General John Ashcroft's attacks on civil liberties. On 15 November, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post discarded his earlier defence of Ashcroft, and declared him "the scariest man in government."

Journalists have also complained about administration efforts to fight the right to know under the Freedom of Information Act, subpoena the phone records of a reporter, and withhold presidential records from George Bush Senior's administration that could embarrass officials in Bush Junior's White House. Pittman reported that the presidents of 20 media groups issued a statement expressing concern "over the increasing restrictions by the United States government that limit news gathering and inhibit the free flow of information in the wake of the 11 September attack. We believe that these restrictions pose dangers to American democracy and prevent American citizens from obtaining the information they need."

Some critics of the media establishment are sceptical about this "awakening", however. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, in their article Where Were They When It Counted?, published in Counterpunch, recall that, "It was not as though publication on 13 November of Bush's presidential order on military courts for Al-Qa'eda members and sympathisers launched the onslaught on civil liberties. Recall that the terrorism bill was sent to Congress on 19 September." But at the time the "major papers were spiritless."

Perhaps the major papers are a lost cause (see related article); some are turning to other sources for their news. "A grass-roots effort to counter the centralised corporate control of conglomerates is under way," observes Globalvision's O'Connor.

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