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America’s Parochial Press

 

Is it really possible for the average citizen to learn that much about international affairs after just a day or two of following the news? The answer to this question clearly depends on what sources you choose to follow. Americans understandably complain that the quality of their national news is of a noticeably low order. The Pew Research Center’s succession of polls conducted from 1997 through 2005 shows that between 45-63% of Americans (depending on the year) feel the stories in the news are “often inaccurate.” The same poll shows that, by a 3-to-1 ratio, Americans feel that the news media is “often influenced by powerful people and organizations,” rather than serving as an independent medium for evaluating government policy. According to the 2004 “State of the News Media” report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the public is “increasingly distrustful of giant [media] corporations”–“Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes, and generally more harmful to democracy” than they were in the past.

Such skepticism of corporate media has not necessarily been followed by a decline in its power, however. Nearly half of Americans polled state that they feel the power and influence of the mass media has increased in recent years; importantly, more than 6 in 10 still report following network news programs either “every day” or “several times per week.”

While daily national newspapers have seen their circulations fall off somewhat in recent years, elite newspapers and wire services still serve as part of the “agenda setting” press, as their reporting is picked up and circulated across the U.S. by regional television and print news outlets that cannot afford to pursue extensive international reporting on their own. Newspapers are still considered spectacularly profitable as well, despite the complaints of media owners about minor declines in audience size and advertising dollars.

A review of public distrust of media power is important, if for no other reason, than to show that there is considerable desire amongst Americans for alternative sources of information. While there is plenty of information out there that challenges the propagandistic coverage in the mainstream press, most people have failed to take advantage. That’s a shame, considering the extraordinary range of opinions that is expressed throughout English-speaking media outlets throughout the world (which are easily accessible by any American with a computer and Internet access).

A review of only two days worth of English-language stories throughout the globe shows the extent to which critical views of U.S. foreign policy are available in national mainstream news outlets, should one choose to look. Concerning the British press, one can turn to a recent story by the Independent (July 12, 2007), titled “A Dead Iraqi is Just Another Dead IraqiYou Know, so What?” The story featured interviews with American war veterans (originally published in the Nation magazine) who revealed “for the first time the pattern of brutality in Iraq.” A short excerpt from the story stands in stark contrast to the ways in which the American corporate press has sanitized coverage of Iraqi civilian deaths:

“Through a combination of gung-ho recklessness and criminal behaviour born of panic, a narrative emerges of an army that frequently commits acts of cold-blooded violence. A number of interviewees revealed that the military will attempt to frame innocent bystanders as insurgents, often after panicked American troops have fired into groups of unarmed Iraqis. The veterans said the troops involved would round up any survivors and accuse them of being in the resistance while planting Kalashnikov AK47 rifles beside corpses to make it appear that they had died in combat.”

Another story by Rupert Cornwell in the Independent sets the context of the atrocities in light of the Bush administration’s historically low approval ratings: “Bush Finds No Way Out of Iraq as Approval Ratings Plunge.” In a third story, “The Impossible Task Set for an Embattled Government,” Patrick Cockburn (July 11) reports that “the benchmarks the Iraqi government is meant to achieve in exchange for US support were never realisticThe weak and embattled Iraqi government is supposed to make changes which the US at the height of its power in Iraq failed to make stick. At stake are policies deeply divisive among Iraqis that are to be introduced at the behest of a foreign power, the US, in a way that makes the Iraqi government look as if it is a client of America.”

In the Guardian of London, readers can follow commentary condemning the “disgusting story” of the Bush administration effort to “write off disabled children,” as seen in the testimony of former US Surgeon General Richard Carmona (“A New Low,” by Michael Tomasky, July 12). Carmona was prohibited from attending a Special Olympics medal pinning ceremony due to concerns that doing so would aid the Kennedy family (which has longstanding ties with the charity).

One could also look to an editorial in the Guardian by Tony Greenstein (“A War on Rationality,” July 11), denigrating those who highlight the “new anti-Semitism” –anti-Semitism in this case being defined erroneously as “opposition to the Israeli state.” Greenstein takes aim at those who condemn legitimate criticisms of Israeli racism (against Palestinians in specific, and Arabs in general), arguing that “If you oppose a state where, in an opinion poll, 75% of Jews don’t want to live next to an Arab, why is that anti-Semitic?” Criticisms of Israeli aggression are widely available in other English news outlets, as the Daily Star (Lebanon) provides a viewpoint on the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon unseen in the American press. In an editorial titled “Remembering the War, and the Decades of Israeli Aggression that Preceded it,” the paper’s editors deride Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for having “ordered a disproportionate military response that constituted an irreversible escalation into a war” in which “many Israeli lives –and far more Lebanese ones –were lost as a result” (July 12). Even the Israeli press is more open than the American press when it comes to criticizing Israel’s suppression of the Palestinian people. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, for example, reports on the warnings from the World Bank that the “Gaza Strip May Face ‘Irreversible’ Economic Collapse” (July 12). Such a possibility (considered little more than an inconvenient for American leaders) is omitted from the headlines of major papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.

Over at Al Jazeera English, we can find a more nuanced portrayal of the situation on the ground in Iraq than seen in the elite American press. Reports from Al Jazeera and the Daily Star conclude that “progress” in Iraq under the occupation is highly uncertain, rather than a certainty (Al Jazeera, “US admits ‘Iraq progress mixed,'” July 12, and Daily Star, “Bush Assessment of Iraq a Mixed Review,” July 12).

Such framing is significantly different from that of American mainstream papers and Internet outlets, which suggest a far more optimistic scenario. CNN.com boasts that the “Mixed Iraq report” was “a ‘Cause for Optimism,’ Bush says” (July 12), while FoxNews.com reports that “Officials say 8 of 18 Benchmarks Met” (July 12).

The New York Times July 12 headlines read quite favorably to the Bush administration: “Report on Iraq Sees Progress; Bush Rejects Troop Pullout” (Christine Hauser), and “Bush to Declare Gains in Iraq on Some Fronts” (David Cloud and John Burns). The Los Angeles Times lead story declares that “Bush Sees ‘Measurable Progress’ in Iraq Report” (Johanna Neuman, July 12), while the paper continues its deferential reports of the Bush administration’s long debunked claims that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda before the U.S. invasion (“Bush Again Links Iraq War to Al Qaeda,” Times Staff Writer, July 11).

While the Washington Post’s July 12 edition did report the Iraq “progress” as a bit more uncertain (“White House Gives Iraq Mixed Marks in Report”), that initial questioning is largely contradicted and overshadowed by optimistic stories. The following story, “Progress is Seen on Half of Iraq Goals” (Karen DeYoung, July 12) suggests modest success in Iraq, whereas another story, “U.S. Military Calls Al-Qaeda in Iraq ‘Principled Threat'” (Sudarsan Raghavan, July 12) implies that to pull out of Iraq would be tantamount to conceding defeat against a primary terrorist threat.

The Post’s editorials and op-eds hardly fair better, as they reinforce a long trend of uncritical administration support. In “A Consensus Waiting to Happen” (July 12), David Ignatius argues cautiously for gradual withdrawal, claiming that “getting out of Iraq is now partly in the hands of the Democrats who control both houses of Congress. History will be equally unforgiving if their agitation for withdrawal results in a pell-mell retreat that causes lasting damage.” In “Go Deep or Get Out” (July 11), Stephen Biddle argues that, while “Many would like to reduce the U.S. commitment to something like half of today’s troop presence thereit is much harder to find a mission for the remaining 60,000 to 80,000 soldiers that makes any sense militarily.” The Post’s editors themselves chastise those who support ending the Iraq war for trying to “minimize the chances of disaster following a U.S. withdrawal: of full-blown civil war; conflicts spreading beyond Iraq’s borders, or genocide” (Wishful Thinking on Iraq, July 12).

For a more critical analysis of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, we can again turn abroad. In the Guardian, political “progress” in Iraq was anything but. The paper’s lead story on July 12 cites that the White House’s attempted Iraq reforms have “stalled” (Mark Tran, Iraq Civilian Deaths Down but Political Reforms Stalled, says White House”). Subsequent stories of the day focus on the tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers killed during the U.S. occupation (“Iraqi Death Toll,” July 12), and portray the threat from Al Qaeda as originating primarily from the Afghan-Pakistan border, not from within Iraq, as the Washington Post had suggested above (Guardian, “Al Qaeda Gaining Strength, Report Says,” Haroon Siddique, July 12).

Although Americans are growing increasingly tired of the poor state of the American news media, we have yet to see the emergence of powerful countervailing alternative news sources able to compete on the level of corporate newspapers and networks in terms of finances and audience sizes. This may be blamed in part on the vicious cycle that the corporate media holds over the public. Americans do not read alternative sources they are not aware of, and as a result, such sources fail to grow due to lack of public knowledge of them. This explanation seems at least a bit superficial, however, in that we cannot expect corporate news organizations to sow the seeds of their own destruction. It has always been the responsibility of the general citizenry, not America’s political and economic elite, to challenge government and corporate propaganda by seeking new sources of information. The facts are in: Americans have plenty of alternative news sources to turn to outside of the corporate press. But we have major challenge ahead of us if we are to effectively break the monopoly corporate media exacts over the American public.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO has taught Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University. He is the author of the forthcoming work: Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding the News in the “War on Terror” (December 2007). He can be reached at adimag2@uic.edu

 

 

 

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Anthony DiMaggio is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in political communication, and is the author of the newly released: The Politics of Persuasion: Economic Policy and Media Bias in the Modern Era (Paperback, 2018), and Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Paperback: 2016). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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