by Pat Holt
Tuesday, October 9, 2001
THE MEDIA, CENSORSHIP AND THE WAR
THE MEDIA, CENSORSHIP AND THE WAR
Like many people watching coverage of the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan from Sunday on, I was stunned at how quickly this awesome and awful news began to sound repetitious and dull, no matter what channel I turned to.
Peter Jennings to me is among the best at making technical and historical material accessible through his erudite conversational style. But instead of covering the war's beginning with professional scrutiny and a questioning eye, he seemed consigned to telling us what the government was telling him.
It's not that I expected to hear opposition to stopping terrorism. It was rather that the public's right to know includes differences of opinion as to what the news should be. When many different newsrooms offer many different versions of the news, we come close to a true freedom of the press, even and especially in wartime.
At CBS, it didn't inspire much confidence that Dan Rather had appeared on David Letterman's show to say that "George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, [if] he wants me to line up, just tell me where."
I'm sure he meant there was a distinction between Dan Rather as an average American and Dan Rather as CBS News' anchor. But that didn't matter since he, too, reported the news in exactly the same way as did Peter Jennings and Dan Brokaw.
At least CNN had Christiane Amanpour, who seemed determined to examine every bit of news she gathered on her beat in the Middle East. (For a good background piece, see her absorbing report from a women's hospital in Kabul - from 1997, no less - in Time magazine at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/1997/dom/971013/world.tyrany_of_the.html).
But overall, perhaps the lesson here is that it's extremely difficult for the traditional media to subject the news to critical analysis or open debate. As mentioned in #270, the silencing of Bill Maher (see also Letters, below) indicated a resistance (if not intolerance) spreading throughout the press to any voice that does not support the president and the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
A key example is what happened to Dan Guthrie, a popular columnist for the last 8 years at the Grants Pass, Oregon, newspaper, The Daily Courier. On September 15, Guthrie wrote that President Bush "skedaddled" after the 9/11 attacks, and that "against their courage [that of the passengers on the airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania] the picture of Bush hiding in a Nebraska hole becomes an embarrassment."
When hundreds of people protested, the publisher fired Guthrie. Dennis Roler, the editor, was told to apologize to readers He wrote: "Criticism of our chief executive and those around him needs to be responsible and appropriate. Labeling him and the nation's other top leaders as cowards as the United States tries to unite after its bloodiest terrorist attack ever isn't responsible or appropriate."
This was seen by many as quite an about-face of the Courier's mission, in part that "truth will emerge from free discussion."
As Adair Lara of the San Francisco Chronicle put it, "Criticism of our chief executive and those around him needs to be responsible and appropriate? Since when? Did the Daily Courier sleep through the Monica feeding frenzy?"
Lara reminded readers that a free press cannot exist without free discussion. "When we let terrorists scare us into relinquishing freedoms that define our society - such as getting to take potshots at the president even at inappropriate times - then they truly undermine us."
The problem is, I think, we're going to see a lot of suppression in the news - or if we don't see it, there's going to be a lot of self-censoring in the name of patriotism. It's been a fact of life for years that most newspapers, magazines, television channels and radio stations are owned by conglomerates that answer to stockholders' interests, not to principles of free speech. The big guys (Maher) and the little guys (Guthrie) are going to learn that lesson or else.
But it would be too easy - and a mistake - to dismiss conglomerate journalism. The mainstream press, after all, has the capacity to act fast, sort out the news efficiently and explain the nuances of the government's point of view very clearly. If something big happens, the first thing most of us do is turn on the TV.
And for in-depth coverage the next day, many look to the traditional newspapers and magazines of record. They do offer well-researched reporting. They just don't offer many points of view.
(How irritating that the New York Times, instead of treating voices of dissent and protest with attention and respect, last Saturday (10/6) preferred to offer, in a flourish of condescension, a summary of alternate views, ranging from the "sober, refined and thoughtful statements" it approves of to "the higher silliness" it does not.)
In any case, we're the audience for all of it, so we get to make the decisions. Today we have the unprecedented choice of treating the mainstream press as one source of news, and the vast (and unfettered) resources of the Internet as another.
After all, the big, big difference between the Gulf War of 10 years ago and the Afghan War today is that average readers have an arsenal of news sources right at our cyberspace disposal. Only five years ago, you often couldn't trust where these news sources were coming from; but now they, too, have organized into efficient and credible services that offer diverse angles on every issue.
So to the question many were asking yesterday and Sunday: Where is the U.S. media in the Middle East? Will they be able to cover the war independently, or will they be consigned to the press-pool arrangement of the Gulf War?
A kind of answer came from the New York Times: "The networks have not had an easy time stationing people in Taliban-held Afghanistan, so reports from the ground there were hard to come by."
Well, no quarrel there, but what a namby pamby statement. The Times also reported on on a tussle between CNN and the other networks about who had exclusive rights to the Al-Jazeera, the only TV news service with a satellite uplink in Kabul, Afghanistan.
According to the Times, CNN gave up its exclusivity "in the national interest" so that other networks could use the Al-Jazeera feed. But this only meant that all the networks were using a single source. Here is where we saw a single view of antiaircraft fire, and where we viewed Osama bin Laden's carefully worded video statement. Again, no diversity, no difference in coverage.
By contrast the question about media access to the Afghan War has been treated with immense energy and information all over the Internet. Here are three examples I found particularly compelling. I don't believe all that each has to say; but I find many points worth consideration.
Perhaps the most outspoken and authoritative voice to weigh in about the media's role during the Afghan War is that of John MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine and author of "Second Front," a book about censorship in the Gulf War.
Interviewed by Gerti Schoen for Media Channel at http://www.mediachannel.org/views/interviews/macarthur.shtml, MacArthur contends that the major networks and newspapers will again find themselves corralled into a common media pool, denied access to most military operations, restrained or arrested if they try to act independently and reliant on direction from the same leaders - Colin Powell and Dick Cheney - who kept the lid on last time.
That's why today "the press has absolutely no leverage," says MacArthur, against government censorship that's been building up for years.
"In WWII, Korea and Vietnam, it was understood that reporters were allowed to accompany units into action," says MacArthur. "It's just that in Vietnam we lost." Since then, the goal has been "to fight the war in secret. That's the whole point to permitting the generals to fail . . ." Censorship for the sake of "national security" is thus used as "an excuse to crack down to the point where it seems there will be no reporters at all. It won't just be censorship, but silence."
Look how constraining the "pool coverage" was during the Gulf War, where "public relations officers read all pool reports," says MacArthur.
"The pool reporters were from the news organizations, the networks, and the big newspapers. The pool would go out, draw straws, and one reporter would go on the action. He'd come back and share all this information, so there is no competition allowed, and each version of the pool report would have to pass censorship before it could be sent back to the news bureaus in Dahrain. It was very effective censorship."
MacArthur has been interviewed about the role of the press in the Gulf War and in Afghanistan on CNN, Fox News and other networks, "but that's very little time being devoted [to the issue]," he says. "You're not seeing big articles about the Pentagon's press policy," nor, he says, is the press aggressively pursuing an independent role.
"The press has lost the habit of independence in this country...There is still some balance, but in terms of fighting for the right to cover the war on behalf of the American people, it is finished. The battle was lost in the Gulf War and the press is in a hopeless position. I am not even sure they want to cover it. There isn't even the spirit any more that was in Vietnam, of skepticism, and the sense that the patriotic thing to do is to tell the American people the truth and to try to be as impartial as possible and not to be the cats paw of the government. But when I say this on TV, the reaction is overwhelming. There is tremendous hostility to the free press in this country."
MacArthur says he watches the BBC on C-Span and believes the difference in coverage is "like night and day. I read Le Monde every day. Both news organizations are absolutely pro-American but there is a real debate going on." You may not believe MacArthur's brash and one-sided opinions, but his passion and blunt honesty are a refreshing change from the usual middle-of-the-roaditis we usually see.
One of the most thorough explanations of how the government tried to control the news media during military actions in the Gulf War, Grenada and Panama is a scathing 1991 document published by the Center for Public Integrity.
[Here again there is a different way of reading the "new media" on the Internet. Like using a dictionary to read an essay or story with many unknown words, using Yahoo, Google or other search engine helps to identify places like the Center for Public Integrity, which (who knows?) could be somebody's chat room. In this case, go to http://www.publicintegrity.org where you find out the Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan political watchdog (Bill Moyers spoke at its 10-year anniversary) which the New Yorker has called "a journalistic utopia" and the president of the National Press Club has described the as "a significant force in the nation's capital."]
This study is discussed by University of Arizona journalism professor and author Jacqueline Sharkley for "The Public i," an investigative journal published by the Center, reprinted by TomPaine.com and again reprinted by AlterNet at http://www.alternet.org/print.html?StoryID=11606.
[What a fascinating procedure. Three websites looked at this article and passed it on to a larger audience, each giving credit to the other. This new way of searching for and disseminating stories from diverse sources is the kind of Internet practice that helps establish credibility where only a few years ago there was none. It's not failproof, but then, traditional news procedures ain't either.]
According to Sharkley, the study shows "a disturbing pattern of escalating control over media access to information on and off the battlefield" that has led to "distorted accounts of what occurred," especially if government sources " 'doctored' statistics about the success rates of weapons systems."
Some examples from the past to watch out for during the Afghan War, says Sharkley:
While I don't like the strident tone ("the government is probably lying to us. Here's how to cut through the propaganda to find the truth") of "Wartime Lies: A Consumer's Guide to the Bombing" by Paul Bass of the New Haven Advocate (reprinted at http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=11668), I do think there is much for the informed reader to consider.
Remember the time Sam Donaldson of ABC shouted "Bulls eye!" when a videotape seemed to show a Patriot Missile shattering an Iraqi Scud missile?
"Such media accounts," Bass reports - plus those that reflected "government claims that Patriot missiles hit almost every Scud they aimed at - led to a public celebration of the Patriot missile." Believing the U.S. could stop enemy weapons with consistent accuracy, "Congress boosted the budget for the 'Star Wars' anti-missile shield from $3.1 billion to $4.15 billion."
However the following year, Bass explains, quoting a Columbia Journalism Review article, "that film clip showed up at a Congressional hearing concerning inflated military claims. Pointing to the same clip Donaldson had narrated, a former nuclear weapons analyst pointed out that the Scud passed through whatever explosion appeared on the screen -- and that Patriots were a 'total failure' in the Gulf War."
Bass advises today's readers: "While we rely on government and CNN, CBS, et al for our first torrent of war news, history gives us some advice in filtering the noise:
This last is the best idea the Internet has to offer yet. Withhold belief from everybody! Keep your guard up and pursue as many different points of view as you can. War is a horrible time to test the "new media" for its resourcefulness and credibility. Yet what better time than now for Americans to pursue their own independence as critical listeners, readers and viewers.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The September 11 tragedy is an opportunity for citizens of the world to unite on higher ground. I wish that those like Bill Maher of "Politically Incorrect" on ABC, who get off by seeing how far they can take their Constitutional Rights and by being "bad boys," would wake up one step higher. This may be humanity's last chance to respond from a smarter, saner place. We're all in this together, including Sears and other sponsors who are concerned about good taste. Too bad the bad boy pundits can't transcend themselves and use their pulpits and soapboxes toward a higher common good. That's where responsibility lies these days.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About the Maher controversy: We have to be careful what we call censorship. When FedEx and others withdraw support from a program, they are exercising their right of association, not censoring Maher. They have every right to place ads (buy programming) that they agree with and to pull the ads when the program hurts their corporate image. That is, after all, why corporations buy air time: to sell their products with ads and association. FedEx has as much right to freedom as ABC does.
But the problem goes beyond that, as well. ABC schedules programs that boost ratings (and therefore bring in dollars) and that enhance the corporate image. When Maher undermines those goals, they have every right (and responsibility, since the company is owned by investors) to insist that the program fit the corporate goals. That is their freedom.
Maher doesn't have a constitutional right to a nationally broadcast forum for his ideas; he does have a constitutional right to voice his opinions, and when his voice is silenced, that's censorship. Taking him off the air wouldn't be silencing him; he could syndicate, write a column, start an e-mail newsletter, stand on a soapbox in Central Park, or fly paper airplanes out of a tall building. Only when a person is silenced or an idea is silenced are we talking about censorship.
If that isn't true, every letter that you do not publish in your newsletter is evidence of your censorship of our ideas, not merely judgment calls about what makes your newsletter better, more interesting, more provocative, and more Pat-Holtish.
Holt responds: What an unPat-Holtish letter! I never take the time to split hairs as you do - I come in with my baseball bats so everyone knows how to disagree. In this case: I just think if companies like Sears are going to sponsor a show called "Politically Incorrect," they know it's going to be pretty free-ranging, and remarks like Maher's are going to come out. Sears admitted that the 50 or so people who complained didn't know the name of Maher's program and were simply following the directive of a radio talkshow host. And speaking of being silenced, just because Maher's back on the air doesn't mean he won't censor himself. Can you imagine that he'll ever make a comment that could jeopardize his show again?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm trying to find in the Holt archives the pieces you must have written about being outraged that sponsors wanted to withdraw support after hearing from groups about Dr. Laura's programs.
Holt responds: What an unPat-Holtish letter! And touche to you, reader Olson: Of course I didn't write about Dr. Laura's sponsors. They were fools to think the (to me hate-mongering) show was worth sponsoring from the start, especially considering the pilot (purty dreary) and ratings that went into instant decline. But if they did cave to public pressure, just so they wouldn't look bad, it's still worrisome.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your interview with Pat Schroeder: Actually, before Linton Weeks made fun of it in the Washington Post, librarians and Pat Schroeder were at odds over the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This new copyright law has problems. For example, it affirmed (after hard lobbying from librarians and scholars) fair use principles, but if a publisher puts an electronic protection around a text, it's against the law to exercise those rights.
The issue is complicated by the fact that academic institutions are tired of ransoming back the work that their own professors give publishers for
free. Subscriptions to scholarly journals - which don't pay authors and own copyright to authors' work - increase at rates way above inflation. They've lessened increases to around 10% a year now, an improvement, but it's still high. And so are their profit margins - much higher than in trade book publishing. These are the journals with the most to lose if libraries get fed up because libraries are a major market - but copyright law only allows an institution to request five articles a year (published within the most recent five years), so I'm not sure what they're so worried about. Unless it's the fact that the creators of their free content - the scholars and
researchers - are starting to grasp the issues and agitate for letting the world have more access to their own intellectual capital that they want circulated (even though the way this kind of publishing works, they've given it away as property to get it out there - which it won't be if libraries can't afford it).
The dynamics of scholarly journal publishing are quite different than those involved in trade book publishing, though laws governing copyright apply to both. Publishers, libraries, authors and readers have common ground. All of us will lose if we can't get in synch.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In a message dated 10/5/01 2:58:33 PM, email@example.com writes:
<< 'We,' says Schroeder, 'have a very serious issue with librarians.' " >>
In that case, I have a very serious issue with Pat Schroeder.
When Canadian authors successfully lobbied for public lending rights legislation a decade or so ago - - this is the arrangement that pays royalties to authors based on library use - - it was done without demonizing libraries. (And it was authors who made it happen, not the publishers.) I cannot understand how anyone who cares deeply about readers and reading can attack librarians. Motherhood and apple pie are also-rans as far as I'm concerned.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You quote Pat Schroeder as stating, "The problem is that so many different platforms are out there.... We have tried very hard to create universal standards for digital publishing, but that's how we get into trouble with software makers. These companies are duking it out as to which one will control the market.... We want one standard, and then we want to tell the software makers to work to our standard. They say, 'No, we won't accept yours...."
If the publishing community got together and chose one existing standard, then there would be one standard. Besides, any publisher can publish in as many standards as they feel necessary. Stating that publishers don't want to get involved in technology or DRM creation is like stating that music companies wouldn't want to get involved in recording engineering and mastering.
Publishers don't manufacture books to one standard - there are many different formats, sizes, paper qualities, etc. E-books don't need to be manufactured to one standard either, as long as the differences are relatively invisible or intuitive to the end user.
Libraries aren't the problem in any case, because just as one can purchase a legit CD today and then make illegal (although inferior) copies available for distribution, one can purchase a legal book copy today, scan it, and make illegal copies available for distribution. The fact that a library happens to also be lending an electronic version that they purchased from the publisher won't change the illegal copying from other sources more commonly available one iota.
The publishing community needs to keep it more convenient to own a product legitimately than to make an illegal copy. Judging by the sales of e-books so far, it seems that most users would rather read a print version and at least for the foreseeable future, it is not very efficient for an end-user to print from an electronic copy.
Dear Holt Uncensored: I read your column about the book "Underground" [regarding the gassing of Tokyo's subway system] twice but could not get the point you were striving to make except perhaps you are cautioning us, via Murakami's study, not to simplify this crisis into good vs. evil, us against them.
I, however, do see this in simple terms. Terrorism is evil and we are seeing the beginning of a battle between a new form of totalitarianism versus civilized society. What is there to understand about the terrorists who spread sarin gas in Tokyo's subways or who committed mass murder last September 11? What I understand is how much in common they have with each other and previous totalitarian forces in history such as Nazism and Communism. Murakami points to some of the features of the cult in Japan: a "dictatorial guru" who promises "an intense, perfect utopia." And what if most of the rest of us do not want that utopia? It will nevertheless be enforced through terror, the means by which the few can control the many. Terrorism and Totalitarianism are two sides of the same coin and it is impossible for totalitarianism to be other than evil. Ilze Choi
Holt responds: I think the firing of Ann Coulter by National Review, after she used the term "swarthy males," has much to do with the matter - more about this on Friday.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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