“What did you report in the war, Daddy?”
“Why, I reported what a great country this is, sweetie pie. I reported what fine men and women we have serving in our armed forces, how Saddam Hussein was a monster who may have had weapons of mass destruction and how President Bush uses prayer to formulate foreign policy, or something.”
The troops at the battlefronts are worthy of pride, and so are most of the journalistic troops, TV and print, who reported the war on Iraq from the war zone itself. But back on the home front there was much not to be proud of-the demagogic flag waving, the maudlin “human interest” stories about relatives of relatives of soldiers and the deferential fawning accorded military and political leaders. Suddenly, the airwaves were glutted with mawkish hawks-not demonstrators or congressmen but anchors and correspondents.
Obviously, the age of irony is not over, after all. This was to a large degree a parody of a war and of war coverage. We go for nostalgia in music and movies and TV shows, why not nostalgia in war coverage? Why not approach Gulf War II with the same sense of moral absolutism with which journalists of another time reported on World War II? Embedment, the practice of letting journalists ride along with military units and report from wherever they alighted, turned out to be not a tool for truth but a clever public relations device by the Pentagon.
But the bitter aftertaste of this war isn’t just a matter of people doing their jobs badly or marching along as if the press were a branch of the armed forces. The most disturbing allegation around is that the war coverage was one-sided, gung-ho and even deceptive not just on Fox News Channel but on all the networks for one main reason: Because it was good for business, because a station or a network risked suffering at the box office (the Nielsen ratings) if it aired too much that was negative about the conduct of the war and the propriety of the war.
Bill Moyers covered these troubling issues during the war in a public TV special that, unfortunately, nobody saw. Bob Edwards, bravely outspoken anchor of NPR’s Morning Edition, dealt with them even more persuasively in a speech he gave in Louisville April 8 upon being inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. Like Moyers, Edwards views the lopsided war coverage as a natural if perverse result of increasingly monopolistic media ownership in America. The fewer the number of corporations that own American media and the larger those corporations become the less chance that any news upsetting to Big Business will make its way onto the TV screens of the nation.
Big Business likes George W. Bush; the Iraq Attack is George W. Bush’s war; Big Business likes the Iraq Attack. Woe unto those who disagree. Edwards cites the not insignificant example of the Dixie Chicks, a popular country music group trashed and trounced in the media after one of its members made an anti-Bush remark while on a concert tour. It wasn’t a case of, in showbiz lingo, Hix Nix Dix Chix. The Chicks were ostracized and threatened with career meltdown not because the public was incensed but because a big media corporation was incensed-Clear Channel Radio, loyal supporter of Bush and owner of more than 1,000 American radio stations.
“Clear Channel would like the administration of George W. Bush to remove all remaining restrictions on the ownership of media properties,” Edwards said in his speech (reprinted in the Louisville Courier-Journal). “That is exactly what the Bush administration is considering.” They’re not just considering it, they’re doing it. Thus did Rupert Murdoch recently acquire, with a big kiss from the Justice Department, the satellite service DirecTV. Murdoch controls more media now than any human in the history of the universe.
With concentration of media ownership a major threat to freedom of expression in this country, it’s only natural that the Washington establishment is going to help bring about … more concentration of media ownership! Somewhere in the air I hear lyrics from the theme song to Stanley Kramer’s uber-comedy It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a moral fable about greed …
“Our traffic is so congested/Mass confusion on wheels/But Detroit is adroit, what they’ll do in Detroit/Is make bigger automobiles. …”
In his speech Edwards had evidence more upsetting than the plight of the Dixie Chicks. He quoted from a survey by the media consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates that sounded a warning bell to networks and stations about the proper way to cover the Iraqi war. Magid’s warning, said Edwards, was simple: “Covering war protests may be harmful to a station’s bottom line.” A survey released just before the war “found that war protests were the topic that tested lowest among 6,400 viewers across the nation.”
Then there’s the war coverage guidebook issued by another group of consultants, McVay Media, and quoted by Edwards. The memo urged stations to haul out all their “patriotic music” to make listeners “cry, salute, get cold chills! Go for the emotion … Air the National Anthem at a specified time each day as long as the USA is at war”; that’s the way to big fat profits. Paying attention to the anti-war movement, on the other hand, could prove “counterproductive.”
And that’s the way it is: We now get news, even news about a war, reported on the basis of opinion polls, on the basis of what the audience says it wants to hear. Never mind video-on-demand; news-on-demand is already here, a whole new way of painting the clouds with sunshine. The idea of a nation lulling itself numb by consuming only good (or trivial) news stories has incredibly scary implications.
Thank God the war went well and casualties were relatively, repeat relatively, light. But if it hadn’t gone well, if it had veered toward debacle, would the news givers have had the courage to break it to us? Or would it have been too “counterproductive” to our morale-and, more important of course, to the industry’s bottom line?
At least things are getting back to normal. Headline from CNN: “Doggone Miracle-Pup Defies Death Three Times.” Now that’s the kind of news we really want to hear!