I’ve said it myself many times. I need a break from this awful business I can’t watch any more news about Iraq or Palestine. I’m dreading this bloody war and want an escape. Spare me the euphemisms and lies, the blasÃ© manner with which our leaders and their collective media mouthpieces talk about killing and death, the intellectualizing over war costs and causes by people who have never seen or heard an F-16 drop a bomb on a civilian building. There are people –with families, lives, histories, hopes and dreams for the future– in that building. Get me out of here. I want to forget. Please, turn off the war.
Those who have the luxury escape to the internet, to sites like ZNet, Indymedia, FAIR, and medialens.org, to find something other than ‘euphemisms and lies’, ‘intellectualizing over war costs and causes by people who have never seen or heard an F-16 drop a bomb on a civilian building.’ But most Americans-on whom stopping this war, in the final analysis, depends-don’t have the luxury to escape to the internet. Instead, they get their news from television and the radio, and as a result believe that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 and adopt the assumptions that Saddam is the world’s biggest danger, that Iraq is the only country that ought to be inspected, that the US is in the business of ousting dictators and installing democracies.
So it is time to direct more of our protests toward the media. What we want is for mainstream media to include peace and justice programming, prepared by the peace and justice movement, in their daily reports. If they do not agree to this demand, we picket their offices, occupy them if necessary, and shut them down.
What on earth is the justification for their continued existence? There is no moral, ethical, or humanitarian reason for them to continue giving us casualty estimates (from 500 to 1,000,000), as if they were discussing the weather; or for them to debate calmly whether to assassinate the head of a sovereign country, and then to take a poll on it, for Christ sakes; or for them to act as if peace and justice are weird, idiosyncratic concepts that they can’t quite grasp. (And, by the way, for ease of local organizing, mainstream media outlets are everywhere, in every city, every town, every campus, and every locale).
Let us stop and think about how much fun this would be.
Picture this. The next major convergence called by United for Peace with Justice is, instead of big marches in Washington, New York, and San Francisco, a convergence on CNN (or Fox News, or MSNBC, or any other war cheerleading mainstream media outlet) headquarters in Atlanta. It is announced with great fanfare, and calls for people from all over the country for a massive convergence, a program of teach-ins on war and the role of media, and finally a march on CNN with the intention of taking it over.
As part of the call-out, a group of journalists of integrity present evidence that the mainstream media is in fact systematically censoring itself, showing how civilian deaths were ‘not news’ during the Afghan war and how CNN reporters have to have all their stories approved by a ‘censor’ before going out.
Activists emphasize the hundreds of cases in which CNN suppresses free speech, prevents views from being heard, and acts as a propaganda arm of a warlike regime. There are local teach-ins preparing for the convergence and then teach-ins on site, all of which emphasize the ownership structure of the media, the way news and analysis is produced and filtered systematically in order to benefit the interests of the rich and powerful. Activists prepare examples of the kinds of programming we would like to see, the kinds of debates we would like to take place. These examples are disseminated in the alternative media and submitted to CNN with a demand that they be broadcast.
When the demand is refused, mobilization begins. As always occurs with such large convergences in which direct action (taking CNN over) is planned, the US government prepares. It refuses to permit the demonstration. It creates funnels and pens, brings in thousands of riot police armed with tear gas and pepper spray. It militarizes the city. It disrupts international protesters who try to get into the US at the borders. And it does all this in order to protect CNN.
On the day of the major march, speeches link the war and the role of the media to the war at home, to the role of the media in perpetuating racist stereotypes against black people in the city of Atlanta and in the country itself, to the role of militarization in treating young people of colour as cannon fodder, to the role of police brutality, prisons, and repression in cutting short the lives of so many people in the US and in Atlanta itself. Speeches remember Martin Luther King and Atlanta. They recall the proximity of the School of the Americas, its role in spreading violence and dictatorship (as opposed to democracy and human rights as the media claims) and the growing movement to shut down the SOA. And then the march happens.
The activists arrive at CNN headquarters-militarized, policed, surrounded by a fence, with lines of riot police. A nonviolent confrontation takes place as activists try to enter the compound to take the headquarters over. How will the CNN respond? Will journalists film the demonstration against them? Will they interview activists, ask them: “Why do you want to take CNN over?” Will they film the answer? “We demand that CNN show peace and justice programming. We feel that the CNN ought not to be a tool for the rich and powerful, but a truly democratic media. We feel the CNN shouldn’t be lying to encourage war, but telling the truth. The United States bombed television stations in Belgrade in 1999 for broadcasting ‘war propaganda’, and the al-Jazeera station in Afghanistan in 2001 for the same reasons. We do not want to bomb CNN, but it is broadcasting war propaganda and we will take it over and ensure that it broadcasts news that represents the majority of people. “ How will they handle the confrontation taking place outside their headquarters?
However disgracefully they handle it-and when activists did something similar in Venezuela the television media handled it quite disgracefully-several things are certain:
1) They will be forced to react, and forced to provide coverage of something other than war propaganda, for the duration of the demonstration and
2) Their reaction will make their biases, their structures, and the interests they serve, much clearer to the public. It will be much more difficult for them to pretend to be an objective news outlet. If the Venezuelan experience is relevant, the media will demonize the protesters, cry that their freedom of speech is being violated, and then proceed to applaud the state’s repression of the protesters’ freedom of speech.
When the convergence ends, the protesters go home to their communities and tell the firsthand story of the protest, which will inevitably be vastly different from what was shown on the mainstream media. Because there is so much firsthand testimony from people from the communities, many members of the public will stop believing the television news, and-as in Venezuela-simply turn it off. The next set of demonstrations are similar local actions against local outlets, occurring concurrently with growing popular-education and independent media efforts.
A month ago in Brazil, Arundhati Roy said:
If we look at this conflict as a straightforward eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation between “Empire” and those of us who are resisting it, it might seem that we are losing. But there is another way of looking at it. We, all of us gathered here, have, each in our own way, laid siege to “Empire.”
We may not have stopped it in its tracks – yet – but we have stripped it down. We have made it drop its mask. We have forced it into the open. It now stands before us on the world’s stage in all it’s brutish, iniquitous nakedness.
It’s time to make the media drop its mask too, to force it into the open. What follows won’t be pretty, but it will be educational. In Venezuela, psychologists are studying a new mental illness they’re calling ‘infophrenia’. The illness occurs when what you see on television is the exact diametric opposite of what you know from your own experience to be the reality. If we start a campaign for media democracy, we will be exposing ourselves to infophrenia, because they won’t stop lying. But we could make it more and more difficult for them to pretend they are telling the truth.