Freedom of Speech/Freedom of the Press

The Farce Estate

American Media Laps Up
US Government Propaganda
and Likes It

by Geov Parrish WorkingForChange October 9, 2001

It's a well established tradition in American media that any adversarial, or even mildly skeptical, role that reporters and editors and news anchors might have toward authority evaporates in time of war. The increasing post-Vietnam Pentagon tendency to stage-manage its wars has gotten enthusiastic cooperation from our faithful infotainment watchpuppies.

In the Gulf War, government disinformation was happily passed along to a wavering public. We entered Somalia with Marines wading ashore (a completely unnecessary maneuver) at a ridiculous wee hour, local time, so that it could be broadcast live on the evening network news on the East Coast. Weapons are now designed in part so that the built-in cameras can enhance the video-game style propaganda value. Press pools and military censorship are accepted with little fuss. And so on.

It's hard to tell which is more ridiculous: that the Pentagon sees fit to give fatuous names to its wars, or that our "free" Pravdaesque media uses them. Except when they use their own trademarked names, complete with distinctive ten second theme music.

Enter this week's enduring freedom of the press. I'm not sure how much more of it I can endure. Portions of network and big newspaper coverage of our assault upon Afghanistan in the last 48 hours have been ludicrous -- as when CBS, on radio and television alike, balanced two major "stories" all day Sunday with approximately equal weight: that we were dropping bombs somewhere or another, and that the crisis had cancelled CBS's telecast of the Emmy awards that night. ("Coverage" of the latter, among other things, included a press conference and interviews with scheduled presenters on what they might have said.) It's good to know that even in a time of grave national crisis, network news doesn't lose sight of its prime reason for existence: to cross-promote the entertainment division as somehow critical in the scheme of global affairs.

In this week's mixture of ludicrousness, mindless conversation, and the endless repetition of the same bare-bones information, however, more notable is what hasn't made the news. The list is lengthy, going far beyond the usual reluctance to discuss operational details. For example, "collateral damage" (another enthusiastic use of a Pentagon-born euphemism; for those wondering, it means "dead civilians") was occasionally mentioned in the abstract, as in, an annoying Public Relations problem if Islamic countries get wind of it; the actual mention of dead or dying people, let alone actual reports of them, was basically verboten.

As was dissent, of almost any kind. In the enormous blend of on- site reporters, press briefing questions, in-studio experts, and the like, the more puzzling and salient questions a carbon-based life form might ask about the operation were almost never raised. Such questions range from the niggling (isn't the value of dropping propaganda leaflets in rural Afghanistan kind of negated by the near-total illiteracy?) to the critical (if we're attacking the Taliban so we can get at bin Laden, is there any proof he and/or his associates are currently in Afghanistan? Or are now likely to stay there? Or are even the people directly responsible for the September 11 attack in the first place?).

In the absence of useful information, information that should have been rejected as outright propaganda was endlessly repeated, just like Pentagon and White House spinmeisters planned. Most notable was the phenomenon of our military's "humanitarian aid." As I noted yesterday, 37,000 packages (that's assuming they all survive high- altitude drops -- they certainly didn't in Kosovo) of one day's worth of food hardly makes a dent when at least two million people are in serious danger of starving to death. The supposed "good will value" of this gesture was never, in any media account I saw or heard, contrasted with U.S. actions that cut off the food supply lines and sealed the borders for hundreds of thousands of desperate Afghan refugees -- a "gesture" far more likely to be noticed in the Islamic world.

Foreign media, notably, have had no trouble raising these questions. And many others. The problem with "Operation Enduring Freedom" is that a strong case can be made that it will make the threat of future terrorism bigger, not smaller. That's not "just" a sentiment of pacifists or the left; many people in the military, intelligence, and counter-terrorism communities share that concern. But for some reason, in our free, open democracy, it's not considered newsworthy. More commonly, among some right-wingers, it's considered a treasonous sentiment.

Nonsense. If anybody's betraying this country and the freedoms past generations have fought and died for, it's our blow-dry stenographers and the powers they answer to. "Use it or lose it" is not, in this case, exercise advice or the motto of a sex columnist or Pentagon budget office. It refers to freedom (endured or otherwise), including freedom of the press, the freedom to dissent, and the need for citizens to get full and fair information essential to making knowledgeable decisions in a democracy. Those freedoms. And if this week's media coverage of our latest war is any indication, we're losing them.


TRUE DEMOCRACY     Winter 2002     Copyright © 2002 by News Sourse, Inc.