Broadcast Priorities




L

et’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 government’s plans to
attack a weak and impoverished nation in a “powder-keg”
world region full of 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 terrible 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 costing seven lives.





Protest
vs. Columbia





O

n
the basis of these observations, one might expect the February 15
mass protests to receive blow-by blow coverage from America’s
broadcast media. The expectation would have gone unfulfilled. I
was homebound, 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.


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.


Things
were different on my 57 channels. 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 from 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 U.S. 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 Tenet’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. 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.


None
of this is meant to discount the antiwar movement’s success
in making their story number one on the evening news and in the
next day’s newspapers. Still, it was hard not to notice the
contrast between yesterday’s non-coverage of live American
protest and the corporate media’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 specialized 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 media’s response to
the historic mass demonstrations against corporate globalization
that occurred in Seattle during November 1999. You could follow
that remarkable event live on alternative Internet media. When you
searched your “57 channels” for live Seattle footage,
however, you found anchorpeople still obsessed with John F. Kennedy
Jr.’s demise.


Further
proof of the “mainstream” (corporate) media’s reluctance
to give the demonstrations their due came later that night, when
I resumed my position in front of the TV at 1:30 AM. A story on
CNN informed watchers that the basic factor determining the timing
of an apparently inevitable U.S. attack on Iraq is climate. We heard
from CNN Military Analyst and Brigadier General David Grange. Grange
reassured his audience that “the US military can attack in
any weather.” Still, he noted, U.S. planners are concerned
about the coming Iraqi heat, which will complicate the Army’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 media’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 won’t get the whole [war] story”
from “our media.” Someone should look into that.


The
panel’s host suggested that the leading news channels, including
Fox, will drop commercials during the war’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 history’s ashcan, as far as CNN and Fox’s
experts were concerned. Perhaps Fox should run a segment labeled
“The Media Helps Generate ‘War’ By Assuming That
It Is Inevitable and Discounting the Massive Opposition of the Irrelevant
People.”


Things
didn’t get much better when I continued my deepening engagement
with corporate television after some well-deserved sleep. On the
15 minutes of NBC’s “Meet the Press” I caught Sunday
morning, Saturday’s demonstrations had already been swept into
the Orwellian dustbin. Tim Russert’s discussions about the
latest “War on Terrorism” developments with National Security
Adviser Condaleeza Rice and former U.S. General Wesley Clark focused
on strategic questions relating to Saddam’s behavior, the official
statements of European policymakers, the UN Security Council and
al Qaeda. Yesterday’s outpouring of citizen opposition to U.S.
plans at home and abroad was apparently irrelevant.


It
was the same everywhere: 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 day’s
historic popular dissent worth mentioning as they discussed future
U.S. policy in the Middle East.


Perhaps
I missed the standard comment from Rice on how fortunate the American
people are to possess the right of popular assembly. It’s a
favorite line from Rumsfeld and Rice, who seem to think Americans
should be grateful they are permitted to protest without the fear
of being shot or thrown into concentration camps. Saddam, the Bush
gang loves to remind us, permits no domestic opposition. The idiotic
implication, which never receives proper mockery from corporate
media, is clear: Saddam is somehow a risk to bring dictatorship
to the United States, along with his weapons of mass destruction.



I

t
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 America’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 America’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, let’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 is an urban social policy researcher and political essayist
in Chicago, Illinois.