When stars are shot down
The mainstream US media's reaction to Hollywood artists protesting war against Iraq is a typical exercise in insulating American public opinion from the world around it, writes Aziza Sami
On 10 December around 104 Hollywood actors and producers calling themselves "Artists United to Win Without War" revealed that they had sent an open letter to United States President George W Bush entitled "Not in our Name". In the letter, the artists voiced their opposition to unilateral US military intervention in Iraq as well as their support for the United Nations weapons inspections, and resolving the situation through legal diplomatic means as opposed to "preemptive military strikes".
The artists, led by two respected veteran actors, Mike Farrel and Martin Sheen, held a press conference in Los Angeles. Farrel starred in the television production of the war satire, M.A.S.H, and initiated the campaign along with director Robert Greenwald. Martin Sheen plays the American president in the acclaimed television series "The West Wing".
The long list of artists who signed the anti-war petition reads like a who's who of Hollywood's brightest and greatest, including names such as Robert Redford, Barbara Streisand, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Samuel L Jackson, to name but a few. The petition was also signed by retired Admiral Euegene Carrol Jr and the Former US ambassador to Iraq, Richard Peck.
"A preemptive military invasion of Iraq will harm America's national interests," said Sheen. "Such a war will increase human suffering, arouse animosity towards our country, increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, damage the economy and undermine our moral standing in the world." Sheen alleged that President Bush's campaign against Iraq was a "personal feud", alluding to the 1991 Gulf War waged by his father, George Bush senior.
Actor-producer Sean Penn -- who in October had posted a strongly-worded, full page open letter to the US president in The Washington Post -- visited Iraq on 15 December. Although he was careful not to attack the US administration, he said that one purpose of his visit was "to find alternative channels" of information other than those offered by the traditional media inside the US. He urged other US citizens to do the same.
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Protesters Skye-Laurel Riggs and Daniel O'Neil Ortiz chant slogans against possible US military action against Iraq as they march through the streets of downtown Boston with several hundred other demonstrators
The artists' campaign has so far been the highest profile manifestation of a national anti-war movement which is slowly gaining momentum inside the US, and which represents millions of Americans. The broad- based movement comprises not only actors, but civil society groups such the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the National Council of Churches, Black Voices for Peace and several labour and civil society groups.
Notable, however, is the manner in which mainstream US media reacted to its traditional icons, by turning its heroes into pariahs overnight. The actors' LA press conference was given minimal coverage on the major networks such as CNN, Fox News and NBC, save for a couple of interrogatory and rather hostile interviews with the protagonists. Penn's Iraq visit was almost completely ignored, and the actor became the butt of several derisory jokes by countless media pundits and hosts on late night talk shows.
Barbara Streisand, for her part, was cautioned by Jay Leno on the Tonight Show to shut her mouth -- which, he said, is as big as a crocodile's -- and was chided for having "no brains".
A day after the LA press conference, CNN's Connie Chung interviewed actors Mike Farrel and Jeanine Garofalo. This coincided with International Human Rights Day, on which American anti-war activists had organised marches and vigils across 40 states. Chung alluded to the event saying that "a few, not many" had turned up for these vigils. Garofalo, however, refused to let this pass and countered by saying that the vigils had been attended by thousands of demonstrators. The actress said that "the mainstream [US] media is consistently misrepresenting the real numbers of people who are against the war and stifling the voices of dissent." She asked why the media appeared so keen on building up the war rhetoric, by repeating mottoes such as "Showdown Iraq" (CNN's favourite). Chung then asked the actress if she thought it was "un-American" to question the war. The host also wondered what type of signal this message would send to the young men and women in the army who are risking their lives to fight overseas for their country.
The actress responded by saying that she did not understand what was "un-American" about wanting to save the lives of both Americans and innocent Iraqis. She also spoke of the negative repercussions "on Israelis and Palestinians" and the Middle East. When Chung asked her if a war against Iraq is something "actors" should involve themselves in, Garofalo countered that actors, like other people, are actually citizens. As such, they wanted to express their position and tell thousands of other Americans who felt the same way about the war that they are "not alone".
The producers of the programme opted to end it on a more "patriotic" and less "un-American" note which would resonate longer with the audience. After grilling the actors on their nationalism, Chung then introduced an "all American family" whose two sons and daughters had enthusiastically enlisted to fight in Iraq. Congratulations were sent by the anchor to the two middle-aged parents who clearly had little knowledge of world affairs or where Iraq might be. She sent her best wishes to all of the young men and women who are ready to give their lives up for their country.
The propaganda propagated by CNN and others, which has the capacity to isolate American public opinion and desensitise it from events in the 'outside world' is not a new phenomenon. The aim seems to be to force public opinion to toe the line as well as selling the idea of war. In an insulated society such as this, any criticism of the war may be construed as being partisan in nature (Streisand and Redford are Democratic Party supporters), and may well result in Macarthyistic accusations that doubts about war in Iraq emanate from an "extreme, ultra-liberal, leftist fringe movement".
The American anti-war movement is neither marginal nor isolated and is part of an international anti- war movement. The control being exercised on the US media by the US administration seems to be working towards marginalising all high-profile figures who have the potential to influence public opinion and who offer alternative views to those propounded by the administration.