This semester, I'm teaching a course that examines U.S. press performance during the Iraq War. We've been using books -- such as Michael Massing's eminently readable, if deeply disturbing, Now They Tell Us -- that document the extent to which American journalists uncritically accepted the Bush administration's rationale for war with Iraq.
My students are bright, and they certainly appreciate the importance of critical thinking. Nonetheless, they have had a hard time accepting the awful truth that the U.S. press corps was complicit in the administration's propaganda campaign to secure popular support for the war.
As we revisit the press failures of 2002-2003, and consider the role the U.S. news media played in amplifying and legitimating the Bush administration's lies and deceptions, I can't help but notice that reporting of the Wall Street bailout scheme bears a striking resemblance to press coverage during the lead up to the Iraq War.
"During the Iraq War, media coverage was dominated by "official sources": administration officials, war planners and a parade of retired military personnel making the case for war."
Fear mongering was a common tactic then, as it is today. Back in 2003, it was fear of weapons of mass destruction that fueled media hysteria and played a crucial role in manufacturing consent for war with Iraq.
Today, fear mongers don't talk about bio-terrorism and mushroom clouds. Instead, they talk about economic collapse, financial ruin and invoke memories of the Great Depression.
The perversion of language is another common feature of press coverage then and now. Sanitized language like "collateral damage" and "precision-guided missiles" used by official sources, and echoed by U.S. journalists, help make the horror of modern warfare palatable to the American public.
Similarly, the phrase "bailout" -- with its connotation that the government is letting Wall Street off the hook for questionable business practices -- has given way to a far more agreeable term -- "rescue plan." This phrasing appeals to the basic decency of the American people and suggests that we're all in this thing together.
During the Iraq War, media coverage was dominated by "official sources": administration officials, war planners and a parade of retired military personnel making the case for war.
Today, it's Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke and a phalanx of financial analysts warning us of the dire consequences if the government doesn't act -- and act fast. The haste to bail out Wall Street today is akin to the rush to war some five years ago.
Indeed, there is an eerie familiarity between the "trust us, we're experts" tone that the hawks used in 2003 and the dire but unsubstantiated claims of Wall Street insiders who can't wait another minute to get their hands on $700 billion.
More critically, mainstream media ignore or marginalize opinions and perspectives that do not reflect, or rather adhere to, so-called "conventional wisdom." Alternative solutions to the economic crisis -- especially those that call for structural reform of the financial sector -- rarely enter into the media discourse.
Indeed, press coverage of the Iraq War and the crisis on Wall Street share a common news frame: "There is no alternative." For instance, during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, the debate was framed in terms of a stark choice: we either go to war or we live with the consequences of inaction.
Likewise, the Wall Street bailout scheme is depicted as an either-or proposition. There is no middle ground in the media debate: if we don't save Wall Street from its own excesses, economic calamity will ensue.
Over the past two weeks, the press has glibly informed us that desperate times call for desperate measures. However, it wasn't that long ago that mainstream media was content to uncritically echo the Bush administration's claims that the fundamentals of the U.S. economy are sound: a perspective presidential candidate John McCain shared with Mr. Bush until late last week!
Of course, such pronouncements flew in the face of "the facts on the ground." Working Americans have been facing financial ruin for years now -- from skyrocketing costs of fuel, food and health care, to astronomical credit card debt, job loss and the explosion of home foreclosures.
"Likewise, the Wall Street bailout scheme is depicted as an either-or proposition"
And yet, it wasn't until the banks and financial services industry were on the ropes before the Bush administration, Congress, and the mainstream media acknowledged the existence, let alone the severity, of the economic crisis.
Finally, there's a discernible lack of historical context and analysis in press coverage of both the Wall Street bailout scheme and the Iraq War. In the lead up to the invasion, the press suddenly discovered Saddam Hussein's atrocities against his own people, conveniently avoiding the unpleasant fact that the U.S. supported Hussein with arms and intelligence during the 1980s.
Today, the press is keen to cover the "he said, she said" of partisan bickering over responsibility for the economic crisis. But the press rarely acknowledges the history of industry lobbying and bipartisan legislation that has brought us to this place.
According to Robin Hahnel, professor emeritus of economics at American University, "Eighty years ago ... New Deal legislation ushered in an unprecedented era of financial stability. But over the past 30 years the U.S. financial industry, Republican free market ideologues and 'New Democrats' have conspired to eliminate necessary safeguards."
As I write this, the House of Representatives have joined their Senate colleagues and passed the "rescue" bill. Congress has done this despite overwhelming public opposition to the bailout scheme.
It remains to be seen if this action will solve, or merely forestall, an economic meltdown of historic proportions. What is clear is that press will never acknowledge this latest crisis of democracy for what it is: business as usual.
Kevin Howley is Associate Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at email@example.com