For all of our concern with safety and security -- in our homes, at the airport, and on the border -- our way of life is threatened as never before.
According to national security experts, the threat comes from Islamic extremists, and, to a lesser extent, popular democratic movements in Latin America. For the Tea Party movement, Big Government threatens traditional American values and individual liberties. White supremacist and anti-immigration groups perceive undocumented workers from south of the border as threats to American national identity and culture. Meanwhile, U.S. business interests point to labor and environmental regulations that threaten our competitive advantage in the global marketplace.
And that's just the short list -- the one that plays out on a regular basis in the American news media.
"From Enron to Bernie Madoff, the dominant media narrative typically fixes blame on 'a few bad apples.'"
It's a list that narrowly defines the nature and extent of an existential threat to the United States: a threat posed by corporate power that undermines democratic practices and institutions -- most notably the Fourth Estate. For example, despite round-the-clock press coverage of the BP oil disaster, there's been precious little attention paid to the pernicious effect of corporate lobbying and influence peddling on American political processes, labor and economic standards, and economic well-being.
From Enron to Bernie Madoff, the dominant media narrative typically fixes blame on "a few bad apples." Doing so studiously avoids any mention of the structural arrangements that lead to corruption and abuses of power in the first place. For instance, these days BP CEO Tony Hayward makes a convenient whipping boy for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the ongoing environmental calamity in the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, however, BP's dismal record of worker and environmental safety receives far less press scrutiny.
Similarly, Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas) is singled out for his sycophantic apology to BP executives for the Obama administration's demand that the oil giant establish a $20 billion escrow account to cover damages in the Gulf. When Barton characterized the plan as a "shakedown" the American press corps milked it for all it was worth.
However, other leading GOP figures, including U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Mississippi Gov. Haley Barber and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh were just as critical of the fund. For instance, Bachmann referred to the idea as a "redistribution of wealth" scheme; and for his part, Limbaugh called the plan a "slush fund" that would go to ACORN and union activists. Significantly, their comments -- standard issue GOP hyperbole -- haven't garnered much press coverage.
"While individual gaffes -- and the inevitable apologies that follow -- generate considerable press coverage, these media spectacles tend to obscure larger truths."
Likewise, a statement issued by the Republican Study Committee -- a group of conservative House members -- was harshly critical of the fund. According to Talking Points Memo, committee chairman, U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) said, "BP's reported willingness to go along with the White House's new fund suggests that the Obama Administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics. These actions are emblematic of a politicization of our economy that has been borne out of this Administration's drive for greater power and control."
Absurd as they are revealing, this sort of criticism demonstrates the GOP's willingness to bend over backwards to defend corporate interests. Nevertheless, the U.S. press corps refuses to interrogate these comments -- and what they might say about the power and influence of corporate interests in American politics.
In short, while individual gaffes -- and the inevitable apologies that follow -- generate considerable press coverage, these media spectacles tend to obscure larger truths. In the case of the BP oil disaster, or the Massey coalmine explosion for that matter, the enormous influence that the oil, natural gas and coal industry exert over the U.S. political economy.
The media frenzy surrounding General Stanley McChrystal's interview with Rolling Stone -- and his subsequent dismissal -- is another case in point.
"In essence, by focusing on McChrystal's insubordination, the press corps has turned a blind eye to the failure of a military solution to the situation in Afghanistan."
For days, the news cycle was dominated by talking heads debating whether or not McChrystal's derisive comments regarding senior administration officials amounted to insubordination. Obama's ensuing decision to sack McChrystal has likewise focused on the need to have discipline within the ranks of the military.
Despite all the press coverage of McChrystal's comments and his subsequent dismissal, the mainstream media has all but ignored the substantive questions raised by Michael Hastings profile of McChrystal. While not inconsequential, the press corps' emphasis on the tension between McChrystal and his team and the U.S. civilian leadership overshadows the fundamental problems with America's military strategy in Afghanistan.
Writing for AlterNet, Josh Holland nailed it when he observed the following: "Ultimately, what the Rolling Stone story tells us is that even those tasked with carrying out Obama's Afghanistan policy know it's an exercise in futility. McChrystal and his aides are protecting his legacy against history's harsh judgment of what will prove an incoherent policy from its inception."
In essence, by focusing on McChrystal's insubordination, the press corps has turned a blind eye to the failure of a military solution to the situation in Afghanistan. This is not the first time that American press corps has conveniently avoided indications of a failed Afghan policy.
In March of this year, McChrystal acknowledged the toll his counterinsurgency strategy is having on Afghan civilians. In a videoconference, McChrystal said: "We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat." Talk about a sound bite! And yet, this remarkable acknowledgement received little press coverage, let alone criticism or condemnation.
"Despite every indication that the surge strategy is an unmitigated disaster, American news outlets refuse to consider any option other than military action."
Press reaction to Obama's decision to fire McChrystal followed a similar pattern. Uncritically following the White House lead, the U.S. press corps dutifully repeated the president's claim that the problem here was one of personnel, not policy. And so, despite every indication that the surge strategy is an unmitigated disaster, American news outlets refuse to consider any option other than military action.
Put bluntly, the U.S. press corps is doing a lousy job of informing the American people of the consequences of nine years of war and occupation. In doing so, news workers are complicit in legitimating a failed policy: a policy that has this country mired in a protracted conflict that threatens our credibility abroad, saps our resources at home and continues to exact a horrendous toll on the lives of Afghan civilians, American armed forces, and our NATO allies.
Now doesn't that make you feel safe?
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University and can be reached at email@example.com. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.