Years of prewar comfort and lax government oversight of the consolidation of media owners, like the 1996 deregulatory Telecommunications Act, have led to this. The entertainment business has teamed up with news outlets, which are often owned by corporations who make billions dealing weapons. Advertisers are more powerful and influential than ever before and government and corporate policy have become increasingly institutionalized as a sort of perspective-template for the reporter/editor to plug each story into.
Though American media is not under the direct control of the government as in some other countries and does provide limited coverage of oppositional beliefs on issues, it is under direct corporate control and often gives one-sided preferential treatment of arguments and debates. Considering the power American opinion has over the world due to periodicals and broadcasts that span the globe, it could be argued that American mainstream media is by far the most important and should be the most scrutinized of any.
The most Orwellian aspect of all is that possibly the only defenders of objectivity in American mainstream media are the media employees themselves, the very definition of subjectivity. Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News proclaims the media is biased towards liberals. The book that took over Goldberg’s for the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list in April was Stupid White Men by Michael Moore, which also criticizes the media, this time as being too closely aligned with conservatives and corporations.
Certainly, mainstream news in America is not dictated by the millions of Americans, black, white, Hispanic and so on that work at the local McDonalds or Taco Bell for minimum wage. And what about the millions left without health insurance and even more millions that live below the government’s conservative definition of the poverty line. It doesn’t cater to the hundreds of thousands that protested in Seattle in 1999 or Washington D.C. recently. And it doesn’t model its subject matter in the interests of labor and unionists around the country.
Noam Chomsky’s highly influential book Manufacturing Consent provides quite an argument in its thesis that the news and the media can influence and mold the conscience and beliefs of the masses. If this Frankfurt School premise stands true, which hardly a media watchdog or professor would deny, then looking at American media’s influencers, those who influence influence, uncovers quite a scandal. Yet, it’s hardly debated. Of course, no self-serving media outlet would lend airtime for such an investigative report. Symbolically, across universities all over the United States, Public Relations, the practice of molding and influencing minds, and Journalism stand side by side in the same department of Mass Communications in equal standing.
No other issue unveils American mainstream media bias than does the Middle East conflict. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog, offered an interesting report aptly titled; “In U.S. Media, Palestinians Attack, Israel Retaliates” where a study took place that reveals details of how the U.S. media portrays the conflict in the Middle East.
“Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict routinely present their attacks as being retaliation for previous attacks or actions. Both sides portray their struggle as essentially defensive (American) network news shows have characterized Israeli violence as “retaliation” almost nine times more often than Palestinian violence” (April 4, 2002).
The impact of the word “terrorism” in the linguistics of mainstream media automatically vilifies a population of peoples. The sheer weight of the word discredits the supposed “terrorist” to the point that they are not worthy of fighting back or even defending themselves in many cases. When weapons were smuggled into Palestinian territories on the ship KarinA for the weaker of the two nations it is called “weapons for terrorism.” But when the United States gives almost $2 billion annually to the stronger of the two nations simply to buy weapons it is called “defense” or “security.”
Whereas the rest of the world’s media has sympathy for the plight of a stateless and desperate people, Americans identify with the oppressive occupiers who break international law. American politicians, and American culture, no longer identify with the historical aspect of struggling against foreign occupiers for independence, such as the British colonial empire in its own history. Instead, the historical aspect that Americans identify with is of conquest and submission, such as the ethnic cleansing of American Indians (as evidenced by the recent bills S. 2194 and H.R. 1795) for a clear statehood. But the fact that the media willingly streamlines this degenerative strategy into its own print and broadcast policy is counterproductive and completely undermines the necessity of dissent in a democratic nation.
Courageously, the Minneapolis Star Tribune took a bold stance in avoiding the usage of the word “terrorism” in its pages, preferring to allow their readers “to come to their own judgments about individuals and organizations,” Roger Buoen, assistant managing editor said (Feb. 3) U.S. Senators and politicians including Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura then attacked the Star Tribune. But in the end, the Star Tribune planned to employ a double standard by allowing the tag to hold on al-Qaeda because it is a “non-governmental group.”
Another debatable usage in the linguistic repertoire of American media is “massacre,” particularly pertaining to the city of Jenin in the Palestinian territories. The Israeli Defense Force had already admitted that some civilian deaths occurred. Reports from Israeli soldiers surfaced later that military personnel were ordered to shoot in every window of every home. Also, the IDF has been blamed for using Palestinians as human shields and handicapped Palestinians were not allowed extra time to be removed from their homes before they were bulldozed, smashing them to death. But the IDF denied from the onset that a “massacre” ever occurred. A term even Israeli foreign minister Shimon Perez used to describe what passed in the city.
In the meantime, 16 people were slaughtered at a German school. Many newspapers around the United States ran as a headline in big bold letters “Massacre” describing the incident.
On April 29, Cox News Service reported that the IDF had moved into Hebron in response to a Palestinian “terrorist” attack that killed four Israelis. The terrorist attack was described as a “cruel massacre” which justified the Israeli reaction.
In both cases, the media described a relatively small amount of deaths as “massacres.” Leading a reader to believe that a massacre does not have as much to do with large numbers of dead as it does with the cruelty of their murderers. Yet cruel is not a word that typically describes the IDF in the American media. This then can lead a reader to believe that the word “massacre” only describes scenarios where certain types of people (U.S. allies) are killed by other certain types of people (enemies of the U.S.).
It is not a new tactic for a state to try and belittle an enemy. But the complete demoralization of a tiny group of peoples fighting against one of the world’s largest military powers, with help from its media to render this “enemy” defenseless is pure politics, not objective reporting.
In any mainstream media outlet, the only mention of “massacre” describing what happened in Jenin is earmarked with the necessary disclaimer “Palestinians claim” It takes a United Nations inquiry, at the approval of Israel, to determine if it actually was a massacre. Even then, the Israelis protested certain U.N. representatives for the inquiry and demanded that retired U.S. military experts be added to the group. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan complied, and still the investigation was cancelled. American media, backed in a corner, didn’t question why the inquiry was cancelled; instead it blamed Palestinian officials for sending “disinformation” about the numbers of dead and questioned their “integrity” because of it.
One case in point is MSNBC’s show Making Sense with host Alan Keyes, a former government policy planner during the Reagan administration and a two-time Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate. Keyes opened the show (May 1) with a seven-minute castigation (reminiscent of a fiery preacher preaching to the converted) of Palestinians sending “lies of propaganda” about the numbers of dead in Jenin. Yet, as we have learned, it is not numbers that matter in describing what the media calls a “massacre.”
As of May 3, Human Rights Watch confirmed 22 Palestinian civilians had been killed in Jenin, almost half of the total dead and more than the 16 in Germany and the four Israeli’s, but not considered a “massacre” by the media.
Rise of the New Media
Complete submission of all Palestinian arguments in mainstream media is the goal of American conservatives and Jewish-Americans who support Israel and for the large part, since Sept. 11 and even before, that has been accomplished.
In reaction, the American left has picked up the Palestinian plight where the American conscience and its belief in sympathy for the oppressed began to wane after World War II when the United States became a world power and a corporate colonizer. The left’s response to the themes Attorney General John Ashcroft sent after Sept. 11 were typical and empowering to the left in the long-term chess game of American opinion. “Aiding terrorists” by questioning authority is fodder for conspiracy theorists, which use these quotes to plant seeds in the heads of apathetic Americans who would normally spend their lives on the fence.
No other symbolic example personifies the new information battle being waged between the mainstream and New Media than do the events that passed in the fateful city of Jenin. Even as CNN and Associated Press reporters were being shot at with live rounds by the IDF for trying to enter Jenin, mainstream media support continued without wavering.
“Despite Israel’s effort to restrict coverage of its destructive invasion of the West Bank’s Palestinian towns and refugee camps,” explains Edward Said in The Nation (May 6) “Information and images have nevertheless seeped through. The internet has provided hundreds of verbal as well as pictorial eyewitness reports most of it unavailable or blocked or spun out of existence from the mainstream U.S. media.”
Just a few weeks before the Israeli invasion of the West Bank, the Independent Media Centre (IMC), part of http://indymedia.org, opened a website in Jerusalem where millions of people, not just Americans, can receive first hand reports from families and victims of the Israeli assault.
The nationally syndicated Pacifica radio program Democracy Now!, which features the boisterous and viral voice of host Amy Goodman, has also led the charge and has teamed up with the International Solidarity Movement to boldly challenge the dominance of mainstream information and reporting.
The proof of the effect of this New Media appeared in Washington D.C. on April 20 when nearly 100,000 protesters marched on Washington in support of Palestine, against the “war on terrorism” and demonstrating against the IMF/World Bank meeting. Organizers of the event used New Media websites and radio programs to bring protesters from far and wide.
Media Activism and Growth
Some call it “New Media,” others “Independent Media.” Yet, it could be argued that it is “Product Media” because of its reaction to mainstream media’s defense of status quo and security of the state, a product of a docile and complicit media. It is often called bias and a simple opposite of mainstream media. Even if that be true, Americans deserve to hear opposing perspectives on issues if mainstream media will not provide or give those perspectives due credit. Particularly during wartime and the consolidation of nationwide conservative opinion since Sept. 11, opposing views need to be heard.
“Since we have no political parties and opposition media, there is always a semblance of ‘consensus’ for these wars.” Gore Vidal said before the beginning of the New Media’s revolution.
Whatever it is called, it’s opposition to abuse of power, corporate greed, war and racism characterizes it as “media activism.” It does not claim to be objective, but because of its small comparative size to mainstream media, its goal is to be a voice of dissent and to even out perspectives of issues of great importance.
Because of the success of Democracy Now!, indymedia.org as well as many other websites on the Internet and progressive magazines, the next logical step for the “New Media” is a nationally circulated daily newspaper that, in its beginning, reaches America’s biggest cities.
Considering computer technology and the cheap price of newsprint paper, such an excursion wouldn’t seem too far off. The only thing needed would be a national organization of qualified reporters, editors and outgoing volunteers to get it off the ground.
Funding is always a problem, but if successful New Media outlets help, donations and fundraisers could easily produce enough money to publish a first issue to create interest and excitement in New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles. Small businesses could also advertise, but advertising should be limited to the local level and a strict adherence to avoid large chain stores or powerful corporations should always be adhered to at all costs. Even the slightest perception of advertiser influence should be avoided.
Columnists for the opinion pages should begin with some of the most experienced intellectuals and activists including the likes of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Nat Hentoff, Alexander Cockburn, Cornel West, Gore Vidal and many others. This would counter nicely conservative columnists that dominate the mainstream media like Thomas Friedman, Charles Krauthammer and William Safire.
Critical reporting, Groundbreaking investigative reporting and intelligent feature stories should be a mainstay and experimental forms of journalism like “New Journalism,” which combines reporting and narrative together, should also be considered.
Most countries of the world have a well-organized dissent media and the necessity for such a media in the most powerful country in this uni-polar world is incredibly important.
It only takes a few well-informed volunteers to begin what could turn into an extremely important activist forum and a periodical dedicated to reason and the balancing of American opinion.
Whose ready to begin?
Alex Lynch is Editor of THE SHANACHIE Alternative Campus Newspaper at the University of South Florida and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.