March 31, 2003

TV nation…

Richard Blow says the anti-war left is upset with the “mainstream” media for not telling “the truth” about the war in Iraq. Their growing hostility is, he claims, proof of cultural marginality and their anger is more about cultural struggle than media practice. Blow quotes Harvard professor Brian Palmer speaking at a recent rally at the university:

The press won’t tell the truth about this war, Palmer declared. “CNN will show Iraqis dancing in the streets, but it won’t show burned and crushed and obliterated bodies.” The line brought a huge cheer.

Hostility to the American media has become an emerging theme of the anti-war movement. Protesters are giving voice to a feeling of betrayal, a sense that the media ought to be sympathetic to liberals but isn’t–and as a result, we’re getting more propaganda than truth.

The news media should not be sympathetic to any political ideology. It is, by its very practice in an American context, liberal in the sense that journalists see themselves as a check on power and as defenders of underdogs. That function ought to operate just as well during times of war and times of peace. And, for the most part, I think it does–in print.

Truth, balance, fairness, depth, complexity, etc….from TV? The lack of “truth” Palmer decries is not the fault of a conservative media that shuts out liberal thought or marginalizes progressives (although these may be consequences). And it’s not about the media eschewing liberal roots.

It’s about pictures of things blowing up. It’s about patriotic music and fancy logos with shimmering American flags and soaring bald eagles. It’s about the pathos of news tickers and the ethos of retired generals. It’s about embedded reporters who do more coverage of their own embedding than taking a hard look at what that tank just hit.

Sadly, most American’s get their news from television. And television feeds them what the medium will allow (see the structural biases of journalism). And this, I think, offers a better explanation of the source of the problem the progressives have with TV news and, by extension, the news media. Also see “How TV messes with your head…”

(Yes, I’m making several fat assumptions that are difficult–but not impossible–to support in the media environment of 2003. But I think it’s a good thing to take the ol’ idealism out for a walk now and then.)

UPDATE (12:45 p.m.): Sanders LaMont says readers of his paper see the war in black and white.

UPDATE (12:47 p.m.): Michael Getler thinks the Washington Post’s coverage is first rate.

UPDATE (12:55 p.m.): Mike Fancher understands the pathos of TV and its structural biases. Here’s the opening of his Sunday column (emphasis mine):

At some point last week I turned off the television and stopped watching the war with Iraq in real time.

It wasn’t easy and I felt guilty doing it. Combatants are fighting and dying, some of them on my behalf. Innocents are dying. Journalists are dying. The outcome is unknown. How could I look away?

The answer is that television’s relentless sense of urgency was working a hardship on me without giving me much knowledge or understanding in return. Channel surfing to see the latest was doing me more harm than good.

This isn’t a knock on the hard work and dedication of the television journalists covering the war, especially the bravery of those on the battlefield. It’s about the medium they serve. Television’s need to fill every second of every minute of every hour was more than I could take and the progress of this war could offer.

UPDATE (1:00 p.m.): Romensko has a lot of media/war coverage today. I thank him for several of my links. Be sure to check out the critiques of FOX News, the leader in the cable ratings race. This page does not use permalinks. Instead, you’ll need to enter a Quicklink number at the bottom of the page…unless you like scrolling. The number is: A27647

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  1. Lola 

    Why was I troubled to hear Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks tell reporters at this morning’s U.S. Central Command briefing in Qatar that the embedment practice is working out very well? Specifically, he mentioned that embedded reporters and their employers have provided additional resources (I assume he meant communication technology, although he didn’t say that) that have helped the military accomplish tasks they could not have otherwise accomplished. If I were embedded, I would put my duty as an American over my duty as a journalist–and help in any way I could. But it’s just that kind of coziness that makes the embedment strategy the best propaganda machine in modern history. Whenever we hear the U.S. government–especially the military!–complimenting and thanking journalists, we should be very worried.

  2. Rebecca 

    All good points, but what are the alternatives? Sitting through interminal briefings at CENTCOM? Going out on your own with the possibility of being shot by friendly fire or captured by paramilitary units? It’s all very well to criticize the “embedded”, but what would you -realistically – do instead?

  3. Alexander 

    The embedded media coverage is essentially worthless. They should cover this war like they did Vietnam. Instead the media is being handed so much nonsense that it is difficult to sift through it all to get at important facts. Not that the media is particularly worried about whether or not they are getting reality… they seem happy to trade embedded journalists for silence or at the very least significantly moderated reporting. The tough questions are not getting asked. Journalists’ responsibility is not to be an American, it is to report the truth as best as they can. They have a responsibility greater than patriotism, they have a responsibility to humanity. It is a pity that so many fall so far short of this responsibility.

  4. Rebecca 

    Why aren’t they reporting the war like they did in Viet Nam is the question, then Alexander. What is the answer?

  5. Well, if CNN has to distort the news, at least they respect their audience enough to make it incredibly obvious.

    The headline tonight on cnn.com? “Pentagon: Some Iraqi elite forces cut in half.”

    Need I point out the lunacy of this sentence?

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