Media Coverage Helps Ahmajadinejad, Harms Us Public: How the Media is Selling Us Another War

Mike Wallace was not in the best shape. He was wheezing and his eyes looked like saucers as accepted his umpteenth Emmy award at the TV Academy dinner in New York on Monday night for his 60 Minutes interview with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmajadinejad, an almost unpronounceable name to most Americans.

“Before that interview,” he boasted. “none of us knew who this man was or what he believed.” There was incredulity in his voice as if he was some modern explorer who went into the wilds and brought back the elusive monster Bigfoot. The audience of nearly l000 TV journalists applauded as if he had accomplished a daring feat by getting a big bad guy on camera.

Sitting at my table in the Sheraton ballroom, three producers from overseas marveled at all the international stories that were winning recognition as if to say ‘you Americans are lucky to get so much coverage of the world.” They of course didn’t know that most of the networks have long closed most of their foreign bureaus, cut back on documentaries, and were deeply complicit in uncritically doing more selling than telling in the run-up to the Iraq war.

They didn’t know that PBS, which swept the awards won honors for a few programs that have been on the air for 25 years, not for their news, and that don’t have a big audience relative to the commercial channels. They don’t know that, in fact, analytical and investigative reporting is at an all time low. Surveys show most Americans know little about the world despite TV’s theoretical global reach.

They also don’t know that many bloggers and progressive activists spend more time bashing right-wing outlets like Fox (Example: all the hype around Bill O’ Reilly’s convoluted comments about dining in Harlem) than in supporting independent media (like Mediachannel or Link TV’s Mosaic program) Like the commercial channels, they focus on backing celebrity politicians and partisan attacks on conservative talk show polarizers.

The UN General Assembly is meeting in New York. A high-powered conference on global climate change with the top scientists in the world rated almost no coverage. But the presence of the Iranian President became THE story because of the controversy his visit generated and the chance to show the monster in their midst.

Broadcasting & Cable uses a military metaphor in describing how local news “deployed” for his visit, “Despite the limited access, stations are deploying heavily around the city. WNBC senior vice president of news Dan Forman said the channel has put 30% more bodies on the street, thanks to the Iranian’s presence, than it typically would for the United Nations assembly

Getting close to the controversial leader isn’t feasible, so the stations are relying on pool footage while deploying reporters to where he’s speaking for standups, commentary from protestors and passers-by and brief glimpses at his passing car.”

But of course this “pasing car” reportage ” is not about reporting the visit in a thoughtful way, or assessing developments but, rather, inflaming public opinion. More darkly, it’s a case of demonization-a process that Ahmajadinejad participates in happily for his own reasons—and is being used just like all the Saddam Hitler bashing was several years ago to prepare public opinion for war.

The more outrageous his comments appear, whether they are or not, the more public his smiling and taunting appears, the more the Bush Administration wins over public opinion. Any efforts he makes to show another image-as in wanting to visit Ground Zero-is, of course forbidden.

The tabloids set the inflammatory tone in New York: “”WIPE THAT SMIRK OFF YOUR EVIL FACE,” chastises the Daily News who calls him a “madman” and worse. Not to be outdone Rupert’s NY Post slams him as a “petty, cruel, dictator” and writes about “MAD-MOUD’S WASCKY WORLD.” His talk at Columbia University is headlined “Cuckoo at Columbia.” Fox News’s Greg Gutfiield opens up both barrels, saying, “so the fould-smelling fruitbat Ahmajadinejad spoke at that crack-house know as Columbia University today. ” No language is off-limits, no ridicule out of bounds.

This suits the the Iranian leader who TIME has called “a dark genius at mobilizing Iranian public opinion.” Now he is the victim of a rude College president and an even ruder press. Down in the polls at home, the US media coverage has played right into his hands with the effect of also keeping the US public ever more ignorant about the country we may be the next to bomb.

Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post also scolds the self-styled responsible press for giving more exposure to Neo-con know nothings and less visibility for people who we can learn from.

“Reporters should be seeking out experts who actually understand the Middle East – because the vast majority of them think that attacking Iran would be a huge mistake,” he writes on Niemanwatchdog, ” A small group of neoconservatives is ever-more-loudly beating the drums for military action against Iran – and getting a lot of attention….They are more or less the same so-called “experts” who enthusiastically advocated the invasion of Iraq, making similarly authoritative-sounding declarations about the uselessness of diplomacy and the easy triumph of military might.”

Juan Cole, the leading academic expert on the region writes:

There is, in fact, remarkably little substance to the debates now raging in the United States about Ahmadinejad. His quirky personality, penchant for outrageous one-liners, and combative populism are hardly serious concerns for foreign policy. Taking potshots at a bantam cock of a populist like Ahmadinejad is actually a way of expressing another, deeper anxiety: fear of Iran’s rising position as a regional power and its challenge to the American and Israeli status quo. The real reason his visit is controversial is that the American right has decided the United States needs to go to war against Iran. Ahmadinejad is therefore being configured as an enemy head of state.

And who is doing the “configuring?” The very same media that seems to have learned nothing from its cheerleading for war with Iraq.

Here we go again: Jingoism, not journalism.

Isn’t this something we ought to care about and do something about?

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. He wrote “When News Lies” and made the film WMD about media complicity iin the Iraq War. Comments to [email protected]

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