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Posted by aaron at 05:01AM, Sunday, December 07th, 2003

On the Media

A lot of things have been bouncing around in my head since my husband and I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 this weekend, but I think the most persistent and important is what this movie, and the vague and frequently inaccurate reviews of it, say about the role of the media in 2004.

The portrayal is not flattering. I had, idealistically, always thought that the role of the press was to report on local, national and world events; to present the arguments of the protagonists in these events; and to investigate and report both on the veracity of their arguments, and, as importantly, on what the protagonists *don't* say. Clearly, we don't live in an ideal -- or even an idealistic -- society, but it seems that the press isn't even trying any more.

On the first weekend of its release, this movie has set records for documentary box-office grosses, and beaten every other movie in theaters right now -- even though it was shown in fewer than 900 movie theaters, versus the 3000-some that showed the traditional blockbusters. I like to think that this demonstrates an American populace ravenous for a more balanced portrayal of what's going on in this country than that we get from mainstream news.

Why do I call the media unbalanced? The AP, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, both in the run-up to war, and since then, have repeatedly published stories accepting quotes from the administration as fact, which have turned out to be untrue. When called on this, writers are defensive, and, ironically, imply that whether a statement is a lie depends on what how much you want to ignore the definition of a word -- in one case, your definition of "everyone" (http://www.fair.org/extra/0308/bush-lies.html). I seem to remember our last elected president getting pounded for equivocating like that before Congress.

When media outlets are not outright lying, they are affecting the terms of the debate by setting tone. They set tone by failing to make links that provide more insight into stories. The Boston Globe chronically fails to mention the word "gay," even when events making the news in gay circles clarify issues the Globe is attempting to cover. For example, Illinois GOP candidate for U.S. Senate Jack Ryan slammed not just same-sex marriage, but "civil unions and registries" (http://www.365gay.com/newscon04/06/062504ryanOut.htm) shortly before allegations surfaced about him pressing his then-wife to perform in sex clubs. This sort of hypocrisy -- publicly damning a whole group of people for allegedly performing certain acts, which you practice at home -- is relevant when it pertains to any politician. Tone is set by failing to cover major stories -- like the sizable anti-war protests I attended in Boston, or like the New York Times omitting Bush's lie from its coverage of his July 14, 2003 speech, where he claimed Saddam had refused to allow weapons inspectors into the country. Tone is set, at the Times, by misinterpreting polls and misstating figures' positions to support your premise (http://www.fair.org/extra/0304/nyt-doves.html). Tone is also set by vocabulary. I remember the long years of press describing the Clinton Administration as embattled or troubled, even though Bill Clinton's poll numbers towered above Bush's current ones. The media often refer to themselves as "liberal." Media watchdogs such as mediamatters.org and fair.org publish reports demonstrating the absurdity of any claims that the media are liberal: even NPR, "liberal" bastion, when interviewing partisan sources, interviews 61% Republicans, compared to 38% Democrats (http://www.fair.org/extra/0405/npr-study.html). I guess it depends what your definition of "liberal" is.

MSNBC publishes screeds against Bill Clinton's book. Remember Bill Clinton, the president who pursued antitrust suits against the "Microsoft" in MSNBC? I wish I could be sure it was coincidence that Microsoft was a major donor to the Bush campaign in 2000, and that corporate politics did not in any way influence editorial stances at NBC or any of the MSNBC websites. These venues publish editorials damning Fahrenheit 9/11, and vaguely accusing it of distortion and innacuracies (without actually pointing to any factual errors), and yet on opening night, the theaters are filled with audiences who, as one, stand up and cheer when the movie ends.

What does that say about the state of journalism in this country? We need to go to the cinema, or Amazon.com, to get something approaching fair and balanced coverage. Books like Al Franken's, Michael Moore's, and Bill Clinton's fly off the shelves; former true believers like Richard Clarke rail against the corruption of this administration; Fahrenheit 9/11 sells out in theater after theater; and still "they" try to tell us that it's all lies. Don't look behind the mirror. Major operations in Iraq finished last Summer. The Iraqis love us and see us as liberators. It's just a few bad apples. The administration never tried to connect 9/11 and Al Qaeda, but wait, look! - there's new evidence linking 9/11 and Al Qaeda, even though it's already been debunked, so instead look at how much John Kerry's wife is worth! And the press publicizes the propaganda without so much as a timid question. Does it ask how much the Bush family has made on oil and defense contractor investments since 9/11? Does it ask where Justice Kennedy, who wrote on June 24th of the "paramount necessity of protecting the executive branch from vexatious litigation that might distract it from the energetic performance of its constitutional duties," was during the Clinton impeachment?

Television news, even on public TV, is so editorialized I won't even watch it. What's the point, when any primary source you see that's critical of a figure left of center may just be fabricated, like the spliced Nightline video of Hillary Clinton from April, 1994? Meanwhile, on the Today show, we get nuanced coverage such as "Navy SEALs rock!"

And still the media sets the tone. Tone like referring to the most popular administration in American history as "embattled" as the president underwent an overwhelmingly unpopular impeachment. Or like painting Reagan as an enormously popular president, and a loving man, while those of us who trust our memories more than the press recount his sneering tone and contempt for homosexuals and the constitutional limits of executive power, and those of us with a grasp of the facts point out that he wasn't in fact enormously popular at all. Tone becomes lies, as the Times claims Reagan's presidency included "the largest economic expansion in history," which is simply untrue. The lies are outlets like Newsweek and The New York Times repeatedly publishing repeatedly-refuted allegations by the administration and its mouthpieces (see "Judith Miller", or the May 29 Times claim that "there have been no accusations of serious prisoner abuse in connection with interrogations at Guantanamo"). Lies like administration apologists claiming no members of the bin Laden family flew out of the U.S. before air travel restrictions were lifted. That's just not true. Lies like saying Bush was elected. Lies like saying the Florida recount favored him. Lies like not covering the 14, mostly black, Representatives' attempt to file an objection to the electoral college vote -- an attempt thwarted because no (white) U.S. Senator would sign their objection. (Seeing it on film, one is reminded of the blatantly racist nature of the vote dispute in Florida. Why wasn't this, and the subsequent walkout of the Congressional Black Caucus from the bogus electoral vote, front-page news on every paper in the country?) Lies like administration apologists claiming Bush never said Saddam was capable of attacking the U.S. Never mind that we have administration officials on film warning us that Saddam's attack might come in the form of a mushroom cloud over an American city. Lies like Condi Rice claiming no one ever thought terrorists might fly airplanes into buildings, when in reality, no one with authority to do anything ever bothered to read a report, before 9/11, warning that al Qaeda planned to do just that. Lies like claiming that 9/11 happened because *Clinton* had been soft on terror -- never mind that outgoing Clinton officials urged the Bush administration to read their reports on bin Laden. Had the Bushies read and acted on them, they might have helped prevent 9/11. Anyone who suggests an impeachment might be appropriate, given such evidence of dereliction of duty, is branded a nutcase by our fair and balanced media. Lies like saying the Abu Ghraib scandal was the work of "a few bad apples," as we find out that Bush consulted with lawyers about how to circumvent the Geneva Conventions by redefining "torture," before he invaded Iraq.

"Don't believe the facts unless we tell you to believe them," the media say, as everything else they utter is contradicted by the evidence before our eyes, every Bush lie repeated and amplified, every equivocation and contradiction hushed and ignored. What's that old saw about repeating lies until they become truth? That was written by some liberal, wasn't it? Wasn't it? Wasn't it? Wasn't it?

Some of us, though, notice the patterns -- as whenever someone like Moore or Clinton stands up for us underdogs against big-money interests, and gets accused of doing exactly that which the media excuses again and again in people like Bush and Reagan. The right wing mouthpieces assemble compendiums of factual errors and inaccuracies in Clinton's book -- the most serious of which seem to amount to Bill forgetting the exact date of something he did 15 years ago. Clearly, that's more important than lying to Congress and the American people to build support for a war which has permanently tarnished America's international reputation. Clearly, it's more important than failing to protect against the 9/11 attacks, even though Bush administration officials had reports detailing al Qaeda plans to fly commercial jetliners into buildings weeks before 9/11. Isn't it? Isn't it? Isn't it?

I've long had a couple of suspicions. One is that things aren't quite as bad as they seem, because even though the news would have you believe that everyone out there is screaming "United We Stand," the overwhelming majority of people I talk to loathe this illegitimate president, his administration, and its policies. The other suspicion is that those with fascistic tendencies on the right make a lot more noise, by definition, than us leftists, so, even though most of the noise we're hearing is pro-evil, that's no indication that most of the people in the U.S. actually are.

One relevant example, I think, is gay marriage. We all know that Bush is dead-set against this threat to families everywhere. We all know that it's Extremely Controversial. I also know that, in over a month since my husband and I went to Cambridge City Hall to apply for our marriage license, I have yet to speak to anyone who has had a problem with us getting married. In fact, people -- friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers alike -- have universally been not just supportive, but overjoyed at the overdue expansion of this right to same-sex couples. It's difficult to communicate the gap between media portrayal of this, and our experience of hearing a seemingly endless stream of straight men and women tell us how they were so touched by our story that they cried. There's a huge gulf between the Brazil-like vision one acquires from reading the news every day, of a country whose citizens are happy to tear down civil liberties, and too dumb to understand the Bill of Rights, and would drop dead from shock if they were forced to "accept" gay marriage, and the warm, spontaneous outpourings of love and kindness we've actually witnessed.

So take heart. I think things are far far more hopeful than "they" want us to believe; we need to remember that hope is a powerful weapon, and one "they" fear. I also think that "they" are on their way out, having become surrealistically irrelevant to the real world. Remember, for every Hannity and Colmes that penetrates Middle America, there's also a Queer Eye, and a Fahrenheit 9/11 -- and there's a ravenous appetite for them, all across the land.

This is no time for rest and reflection. Broadly, progressives, libertarians, liberals, and true conservatives must still band together to defeat the political careers of everyone in this administration, and the erroneous judicial activists in the supreme court majority which placed it in power. These individuals have demonstrated again and again that they do not stand for a nation of laws that apply equally to all people, but instead for media manipulation to distract the citizenry from the laws-as-the-right-deems-appropriate reality that is the fascist state of the union in 2004, where those in power worship at the feet of the dollar and nothing else. We need to work to replace the outmoded and increasingly inaccurate media with a more relevant and useful model. More immediately, I think it's imperative that talking heads in the center and left come up with a coherent response plan for when Bush unveils a captured Osama bin Laden as the October Surprise. Mark my words.
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