by Pat Holt
Monday, March 31, 2003
WHY AMERICANS ARE GIVING UP ON THE NEWS
1. WE DON'T BELIEVE THE MEDIA ANYMORE
I didn't think it would happen in my (or Ben Bagdikian's) lifetime, but these days everybody seems to distrust the mainstream media.
Even the latest issue of American Journalism Review, which generally tries to support the American press, criticizes US journalists for "a cacophony of naive reportage" during the "go-go '90s" of the dot.com era. The AJR points to stories about Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com in particular as the epitome of "fawning profiles of CEOs." Thank you, Time Magazine, for its kiss-up "Person of the Year" story in 1999.
But that was then. By all accounts, the press is doing far more poorly now.
After it came out that President Bush was conducting a "scripted" press conference in which he pretended to call on reporters spontaneously but instead consulted a list of approved names and questions, the Taint of Press Collusion spread like a stain on everybody in the profession.
Now we know that to be a White House correspondent, you can't ask critical questions, you can't speak out of turn, you can't write anything negative and you have to wave your hand like an idiot so the American viewer will think the President is capable of answering any question thrown at him by a responsible press.
It just astounds me that the more corporate, the more powerful, the more familiar, the more famous, the more wealthy, the more ubiquitous you are as a member of the press, the more suspicious you become.
And all it took was a war - well, all it took was a rotten economy - excuse me, all it took was a really dumb guy in charge - and the curtain lifted.
Today, blaming the media for giving us propaganda rather than real news has become a favorite pastime. I do it, because Ben Bagdikian in his scathing book, "Media Monopoly," was right: When corporations own the press, we're not going to get a diversity of opinion. Conformity of thought - so much cheaper, more efficient, less alienating to the majority - is the key.
According to the Washington Post, McVay Media, which calls itself the largest radio consultant in the world, is now advising its many clients on what to broadcast during wartime: "Patriotic music that makes you cry, salute, get cold chills! Go for the emotion!"
And don't, whatever you do, start believing that people want to hear a good debate on the war in Iraq.. "Polarizing discussions" are "shaky ground," says McVay - too risky at a time "when our young men and women are 'in harm's way.' "
Of course, the big bully in radio, Clear Channel, which has silently bought up hundreds of stations across the country, has not only been sponsoring pro-war rallies in its quietly Orwellian way - causing some observers to worry that the company is creating and then reporting "the news" - it also has "put the word out not to air songs that are in opposition to the war and in support of peace," according to hiphop artist Michael Franti.
Interviewed by Amy Goodman, a reporter for Democracy Now, Franti tells a chilling story about what happened when his band, "Spearhead," began to perform a song they wrote called "Bomb da World."
"Everywhere we go it gets standing ovations; people begin to cry," Franti explains. "People are just very grateful to hear any voice out there right now who is speaking in support of peace and human rights."
Not everyone, though. The day after Franti's group performed at a San Francisco rally, the mother of a band member "who prefers to go unnamed received a visit [at her home on the East Coast] from two plainclothesmen from the military Ð and this band member of mine has a sibling who is in the Gulf.
"And they came in and talked to her and said, You have a child who's in the Gulf and you have a child who's in this band Spearhead who's part of the 'resistance' (in their words)."
The plainclothes military police (if that's what they were) had the band member's flight records for the past several months, his checking account records, photos of the band and the names of everyone who worked in the band's management office. "They told [the bandmember's mother] which members of the press she could talk to and which members of the press she should not speak to."
Franti feels the episode is part of a larger effort to silence musicians, an effort in which the media are cooperating fully. Last week, he told Goodman, MTV sent out a "mass email instructing [bands] that no videos could be shown that mentioned the words 'bombing' or 'war.' No videos could be shown that had protesters in it...
"Yet MTV has aired videos that show troops saying goodbye to their loved ones and going off to war in a very heroic fashion and troops which are gonna be coming home traumatized, wounded and dead and then be treated and thrown onto the scrap heap of veterans, as we've seen veterans treated in this country."
It could be that MTV and other TV channels, as well as TV news groups, are listening to Frank N. Magid Associates, another top consulting firm. Magid is telling its clients, says the Washington Post, that "covering war protests may be harmful to a station's bottom line." The way to get around the problem is to "be seen as pro-military, if not necessarily pro-war," a media executive explains.
The language of this kind of thinking tells the tale: "I think there's just political correctness to waving the flag right now," says a McVay news-talk specialist. "If you were the upstart station in town, you might conceivably come at this from a peacenik angle by going on the air with the body count, by pointing out we haven't got Osama bin Laden or Saddam yet, by saying we should end the madness."
Gad, the peacenik "angle"? Using "end the madness" as a marketing ploy? That's so cynical and manipulative you'd think nobody would fall for it. Yet perhaps it's an approach that has become so routine, we don't even notice.
But observers from other countries notice such ploys - particularly the current wave-the-flag-for-patriotism model that has become part of the "news" in American media. Rami Khouri, editor of the Daily Star in Beirut, explains that he watches and compares "20 different Arab and American TV news services" every day, and while both are obviously biased, "American television tends to go heavy on the symbols of patriotism," he writes in Pacific New Service.
"American flags flutter as part of on-screen logos or backdrops, while emotional collages of war photos are used liberally," Khouri says. "American TV tends to reflect the pro-war sentiments of the government and many in society. You see and hear it in the tone of most anchors and hosts; the endless showcasing of America's weapons technology; the preponderance of ex-military men and women guests; the choice to rarely show Iraqi civilian casualties, but highlight U.S. troops' humanitarian assistance to Iraqis..."
But Khouri says "the most unfortunate and professionally disgraceful aspect of U.S. television coverage, in my view, has been the widespread double assumption that Iraqis would offer no resistance and would welcome the American army with open arms. Some Iraqis will surely do so, but most people in this region now see the Americans as an invading force that will become an occupying force. The American media reflect widespread American ignorance about what it means to have your country invaded, occupied, administered and retooled in someone else's image."
That's what is so embarrassing about these disclosures: US journalists so "ignorant" they are seen as "professionally disgraceful" around the world. It's just one more nail in the coffin of American audiences' flagging belief in the news media. When you hear Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw and Matt Lauer and Bob Edwards and many other once-respected journalists parrot what the military tells them (see below), without checking the facts until it's too late, you never want to believe what they way again.
As a result, "people are turning to us," writes Faisal Bodi of the Arabic satellite news channel, Al-Jazeera, "simply because the Western media coverage has been so poor."
Bodi says that "while Western channels were celebrating a Basra [Iraq] 'uprising,' which none of them could have witnessed since they don't have reporters in the city, [the Al-Jazeera] correspondent in the Sheraton there returned a rather flat verdict of 'uneventful' - a view confirmed shortly afterwards by a spokesman for the opposition Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq." (By last Friday 3/28, Western newspapers were quoting British military sources that said "reports of a civilian uprising in Basra were exaggerated.")
In another example, Bodi writes that "only hours before the Basra nonevent, one of Iraq's most esteemed Shia authoriies, Ayatollah Sistani, had dented coalition hopes of a southern uprising by reiterating a fatwa calling on all Muslims to resist the US-led forces. This real, and highly significant, event went unreported in the West."
Further, it is "not truthful reporting," Bodi believes, for US reporters to create the impression that American troops are steadily advancing toward Baghdad. In fact, he says, the US military has been slowed and often stopped by "debilitating sandstorms" and armed Iraqi attacks in the West and South on "the exposed rearguard of coalition positions."
One could shrug at all this - perhaps it's "normal" to make things look good for our side during wartime, perhaps. But the mistakes on the American side of news reporting are by now too rampant to ignore.
As the media watchdog FAIR reports, on the second day of the American invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military announced that Iraq had launched "Scud" missiles - the very kind of weapon that is prohibited by the 1991 ceasefire agreement. So this was a crucial statement.
Instead of checking on the story, American broadcasters - including NBC's Matt Lauer, NPR's Bob Edwards, ABC's Ted Koppel, cable TV's Tim Russert, Fox's William La Jeunesse and others - reported that Scud missiles had been fired. And all had egg on their faces when, two days later, the military announced at a Pentagon news conference that "the Iraqis have not fired any Scuds."
FAIR mentions other mistakes. Many newspaper and broadcast reporters ran the story that Fox News Channel headlined, "Huge Chemical Weapons Factory Found in So. Iraq." As Tom Brokaw and others announced, "soldiers found huge amounts of chemicals" in this "factory," which meant the Iraqis were creating chemical warfare that was in violation of the 1991 ceasefire agreement.
So this news was a big, big deal - until military officials announced that the same building turned out to have "no chemicals at all." It had been "abandoned long ago by the Iraqis."
How many examples of mistakes, exaggerations, manipulations, "scripted" press conferences and the worst flag-waving crammed down our throats does it take before Americans stop believing the news? I think we've all had it with mainstream American media. They're not stupid, but they're forced to behave stupidly by owners who routinely underestimate the intelligence of American audiences.
Wait, I take it back: The result of all this is the emergence of a new breed of "cowboy" journalists - the kind who make the decision all on their own to act increasingly dumb and dumber.
WHY AMERICANS ARE GIVING UP ON THE NEWS
2. WE'RE EMBARRASSED BY 'COWBOY' JOURNALISTS
I admit that if I were a journalist in Iraq, I would not want to be "embedded" in U.S. military troops for fear of "reporting" little more than Pentagon-based and soldier-fed propaganda. I would want to be free to roam about and find my own sources, my own stories.
And I agree that some of the best writing from wars like the current one in Iraq came from independent reporters such as Michael Herr, who crisscrossed Vietnam by hitching rides on Military Air Transport planes and interviewing soldiers and civilians on his own. Herr's book, "Dispatches," became a contemporary classic on war reporting.
But something has been lost in the journalists who are Herr's descendants - some principle or standard of reporting that has traditionally kept writers focused on their job of informing the public about what goes on in their own country and in various locations throughout the world.
Today what we hear about independent reporters - or "unilaterals," as they're called - is a cowboy mentality, a self-heroicism that puts themselves in front of the stories they're assigned to cover, even if that story endangers American troops in the process.
In his first-person article, "I Was Sure I Was Dead" (read: Look at me! Look at me!) Scott Johnson of Newsweek says that he and a photographer crossed the Iraqi border "on our own" and streaked across the desert in two Pajeros ("basically, gas-guzzling SUVs"), seeking combat action on the way to Baghdad.
Ordered by Marines to "go back south" (they didn't), the two came upon "a lot of U.S. military." Many soldiers were "hostile about our not being embedded," and Johnson understood why: To the military, "unilaterals are a distraction and a potential problem" in this war.
Nevertheless, on they go, heaven knows why. They aren't trained to spot land mines so they tag onto American convoys for protection and "stay in the tracks others had made."
And what is their motivation for breaking away from the "embeds" in the first place? To find the untold story they alone can tell? To bring in-depth reporting to this white hot desert terrain, which requires a stretching of the vocabulary and a gift for the telling detail to even begin to describe it?
Maybe that was Johnson's hope - the kind of scoop that would inspire Pulitzer Prize-winning prose. "There were no landmarks," he writes, "just long convoys, snakelike things that shimmered across the desert. Sometimes, in the distance, we saw shepherds. Sometimes, a massive bombing campaign. There were mines and lots of unexploded ordnance." Such eloquence is everywhere in the article.
Finally Johnson and the photographer come upon a giant traffic jam in the middle of the desert - "hundreds of coalition tanks, Humvees - massive convoys of U.S. military equipment" - and instead of waiting their turn or stopping to interview personnel, they of course hit the accelerator.
Like a couple of bozos "cutting in and out of the convoy, we raced to the head" of the convoy, and bingo: They hit a pocket of Iraqi soldiers who began firing. Gee, what a surprise. Johnson, hearing the Iraqis "pepper my car with bullets," makes the brilliant decision to duck below the dashboard where he can't see a thing *and* to "put my foot on the gas and [speed] as fast as I could."
The result was not good. By the time Johnson "popped my head out," the car has fishtailed around and is "going in the wrong direction" as though in a Keystone Kops movie, whereupon it hits an island in the middle of the road, flips over and "slammed into a light post."
The Iraqis advance, still firing at the car. Johnson kicks his way through the windshield and crawls about 75 feet, bullets "nicking the dust near me." And then, just when all seems hopeless, voila!
The same U.S. convoy Johnson once roared past is heard approaching. The Iraqis stop firing, and Johnson lies there holding up his hand "to every single truck that passed, trying to tell the advancing Americans where the Iraqis were hiding out. Trying to get them to stop and pick me up."
I love that part, "trying to tell the Americans where the Iraqis were hiding out." Yes, this is the kind of invaluable intelligence our Armed Forces depend on in the midst of war, some joy-riding adolescent who gets into trouble and expects passing soldiers to save him.
But for a good five minutes, nobody stops for Johnson. "At least 15 tanks, Bradleys and Humvees rolled by me in the dust." Finally he hauls himself up and runs after the convoy, begging to be let on. "I said, breathlessly, 'My car flipped and they were shooting at me and I need help.' " Lucky for him a soldier named Jesse picks him up.
Johnson makes it appear that he alone got the convoy to stop and investigate the matter of his being shot at. Soldiers take "some Bradleys and armored cars" back to the scene and find seven Iraqis with AK-47s and two RPGs; they had been lying in wait for the convoy."
Seven Iraqi soldiers, captured by a convoy of hundreds. Johnson knows the Americans \ had planned "to bypass towns, engaging only major targets," leaving these "pockets of Iraqi soldiers behind." Stopping the entire convoy to round up seven soldiers "who'd shot at me!" - Me, Me, Me! - must have cost the U.S. military a bundle.
I go into this at length because Johnson is not the only "unilateral" - he simply sets the template. Chris Hondros, a former Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer photographer, was also in a speeding car passing trucks and tanks in the same convoy, also found himself fired upon and also escaped, hiding out in a field for hours until he, too, was rescued by an American military truck around 2 a.m.
Then word comes of CBS reporter Scott Pelley, who seems to have enlisted New York Daily News writer Richard Huff - not a reporter but a *television writer* - in a bit of myth-making. Pelley, who also refused to be "embedded" with military personnel, had decided to take "the solo route" as an independent, writes Huff, "which is equally, if not more, dangerous for those willing to take the job."
So true, says Pelley: "I'm navigating a narrow path between the good guys and the bandits. We're really in a no man's land [southern Iraq]. The towns are a free-for-all...There's no food, no water, no electricity."
And here Huff, with all the sensitivity his vast TV experience has provided, adds this insight: "Such conditions make it difficult for the Iraqi people, and add to the stress of reporters trying to cover the story outside of the embed program." Aw! Give that reporter a drink, for pete's sake. The Iraqi people don't need it; they live in the desert.
Perhaps the most vivid example of "unembeds" running amok is the story of NBC News reporter Brian Williams, who with NBC consultant Ret. Gen. Wayne Dowling, "went on a helicopter mission to an Iraq site where troops were building a bridge," the New York Daily News reports.
"However, during the trip, a man on the ground pulled a tarp off of his pickup truck and launched a rocket-fired grenade. The first chopper was hit and forced to land. Then the one carrying Williams and Dowling landed.
"The incident occurred near a U.S. tank division, which quickly surrounded the helicopters and held off Iraqi forces throughout the night." An entire division.
Journalists throughout the country refer to these American "unilaterals" as "cowboys," and for once the reference is not to the Bush administration.
"Cowboys" in this context are reporters who see the war in Iraq as a launching pad for their careers - though only up to a point. As a chagrined Scott Johnson writes at the end of his piece in Newsweek: "I'm basically embedded now. I don't have much chance of going independent again and, to be honest, I don't know if I want to."
There you have it - mealy-mouthed journalism at its finest.
What to do? See next week's column for a list of new (and proven) news websites on the Internet that offer a welcome antidote to the shenanigans of American journalists.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About your editing, and your review, of "A Mouthful of Air" by Amy Koppelman: I don't mind, if someone who hires you for your Manuscript Express program, then gets reviewed by you. But I would want to know up front and center, did you get paid for the review? Was (Is) it part of the Manuscript Express Program? If it isn't, then besides pointing out the obvious conflicts of interest, making it extremely clear that you are doing this for nothing other than the love of the book should be the first thing to be stated.
Holt responds: I was not paid for the review, and thank you for asking. In case other readers wonder, I'm never paid for reviews and I'm grateful to have the chance to make this clear. It was an obvious point I should have made at the beginning of the piece.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I've enjoyed your newsletter for over a year. I was a little dismayed by your commercializing of what seemed like a journalistic enterprise ("Manuscript Express"), but whatever...
After reading your b.s. praising of "A Mouthful of Air" (how many journalistic taboos can you break in one "newsletter"?) I would like to unsubscribe.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Wired News has published a piece on Texas Rep. John Carter at http://www.house.gov/carter/
Carter believes that college students should be jailed for downloading MP3 music files.
"What these kids don't realize is that every time they pull up music and movies and make a copy, they are committing a felony under the United States code," Carter said in an interview. "If you were to prosecute someone and give them three years, I think this would act as a deterrent."
As an author, I am just as liable to suffer from illegal copying and distribution as a musician - there are many examples of whole novels being scanned and offered on the Internet. But to throw students in the slammer for doing so, is the idea of a raving lunatic.
And this guy represents the people of Round Rock, Texas, in the land of the free? Is this what things are coming to in the United States? Or perhaps I have fallen down a rabbit hole. Now where, oh where, is that white rabbit . . .
Clive Warner, author of "Appointment in Samara"
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm writing not in response to something you have written but in response to something you might write, sort of like the movie "Minority Report." I just have an idea you're going to give Michael Moore the Courage award for what he said at the Academy Awards. Below is a slightly different take on that.
BreakPoint with Charles Colson Commentary #030326 - 03/26/2003 A Shield's Story: Face-to-Face with Saddam's Iraq
"[In] those forty-five seconds, what's he going to say?" one reporter anticipated eagerly.
Michael Moore, a filmmaker with a reputation for inflammatory oratory, had just been announced as winner of this year's "Best Documentary Feature" Oscar. And reporters looking for fiery words were not disappointed. Moore began, "We like non-fiction, . . . and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time when we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in the time when we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it's the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of an Orange Alert. We are against this war. Mr. Bush, shame on you . . . "
This year's Academy Awards drew the smallest audience in its televised history. Perhaps Americans felt as I did, not wanting to sit and listen to Moore and others rant about things they do not understand.
Of course, Moore has not been in Iraq, but other anti-war protesters like Daniel Pepper have.
The London TELEGRAPH recently ran an article written by Pepper, a young American photographer who had gone to Iraq as a "human shield," believing that "it was direct action which had a chance of bringing the anti-war movement to the forefront."
Pepper and his fellow shields planned to travel around Iraq telling people, "Bush bad, war bad, Iraq good." But the first time he said this to an Iraqi, the man looked at him as if he had lost his mind.
As the human shields talked with the people of Iraq, they were "scared," "concerned," and "shocked" by stories of Saddam Hussein's atrocities. After five weeks in Baghdad, Pepper concluded, "Anyone with half a brain must see that Saddam has to be taken out. It is extraordinarily ironic that the anti-war protesters are marching to defend a government which stops its people exercising that freedom."
Columnist Thomas Sowell cited a young minister who also went to Iraq to protest. "Some . . . Iraqis 'told me that they would commit suicide if American bombing didn't start.' Then they told him of sadistic tortures 'that made me ill' just to hear about," he wrote.
I have to wonder: Why did it take a trip halfway around the world to teach people this truth? Anyone in America or Europe can pick up a newspaper and read stories of government-sponsored torture and murder in Iraq. But as Pepper points out, the fashionable view is that, while Saddam isn't the nicest guy, the American and British governments are the true villains.
That is the mindset at work in Michael Moore and other protesters, like those carrying signs comparing Bush to Hitler -- and even, in a few cases, those who assault people in the name of "peace." As Daniel Pepper writes of his first days in Iraq, "The group was less interested in standing up for [Iraqis'] rights than protesting against the U.S. and U.K. governments" -- in other words, against anything that interfered with their own view of the way the world should be run.
Pepper and his companions had a head-on collision with reality and, in the process, learned a lesson that has been lost on much of Hollywood and on the anti-war movement. Maybe, come to think of it, we just should send Mr. Moore and his friends tickets to visit Iraq. There is nothing quite like looking evil straight in the face to make a person see reality.
Holt responds: And what a sophisticated message it was! "Bush bad, war bad, Iraq good" makes Tarzan the Ape sound positively articulate, I'm surprised the Iraqi people didn't nominate these "human shields" - another effective strategy! - for the Nobel Peace Prize. Michael Moore can be preachy (I should know), but speaking against the war onstage with all the the competing nominees behind him was, I thought, both informative and classy. All the other stars who won Oscars got to say a few words, and some at least mentioned the war in Iraq. Why not Moore?
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.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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