Change is in the air. Some of this is welcome change: the grassroots democracy movement across the Middle East and North Africa comes to mind. As does the worker uprising in Madison, Wis., and cities and towns across these United States.
More often than not, however, this change has been catastrophic. Weather-related disasters of historic proportions are wreaking havoc on the people and the land across the American South. Overseas, the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues to threaten public health and safety in northeast Japan and beyond.
In the era of 24/7 news, it seems we’re witnessing world historic events unfolding in real time. And yet, despite all of this upheaval, lately I’m reminded of the old proverb: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Consider the following.
Killing bin Laden
On May 1, 2011, President Barack Obama made what was arguably the most dramatic address of his presidency: Osama bin Laden, the elusive leader of al-Qaeda, was killed by U.S. forces in a secretive compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. While some Americans took to the streets to celebrate Bin Laden’s death, others wondered if -- after a decade’s long manhunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist -- the United States could finally end the war in Afghanistan.
"As Kathy Kelly, of Voices for Creative Non-violence noted recently, 'Extrajudicial killings by U.S. military forces have become the new norm.'"
Within a matter of hours, such talk was virtually off limits in the U.S. news media. Instead, the “consensus” in official Washington was clear: Bin Laden’s death is a battle victory in the never-ending “war on terror.” In the days since Bin Laden’s killing, the United States continues its program of targeted assassination with Predator drone strikes in Pakistan. As Kathy Kelly, of Voices for Creative Non-violence noted recently, “Extrajudicial killings by U.S. military forces have become the new norm.”
Whatever opportunity Bin Laden’s death might have presented for ending America’s wars in the Muslim world is being squandered. The handwriting is on the wall: Bin Laden’s death is nothing more than Obama’s attempt to reboot the war on terror -- just in time for election season. So much for “change we can believe in.”
Weapons of Mass Distraction
U.S. news coverage of Bin Laden’s assassination followed a predictable pattern: a compliant press corps dutifully recorded the White House’s account of the military operation -- no matter how many times the narrative changed.
Subsequent press accounts have focused on the inevitable political gamesmanship that passes for deliberation and debate. Rather than pursue the troubling legal questions raised by Bin Laden’s assassination, the U.S. press corps took the low road.
"The handwriting is on the wall: Bin Laden’s death is nothing more than Obama’s attempt to reboot the war on terror -- just in time for election season."
Among the “tough questions” American news workers asked were the following. “Would Obama get a ‘Bin Laden’ bump in public opinion polls?” “Should Obama take all the credit for taking out bin Laden? After all Bush era ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ provided actionable intelligence on Osama’s whereabouts.” And my personal favorite: “What’s next for al Qaeda?”
Inane questions like these distract the American people from far more substantive issues. For instance, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that 10 years ago the United States and Pakistan made a secret deal that permitted a military operation of the sort that took out Bin Laden. The Guardian notes that under the terms of the agreement, “Pakistan would allow U.S. forces to conduct a unilateral raid inside Pakistan in search of Bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the al-Qaida No 3. Afterwards, both sides agreed, Pakistan would vociferously protest the incursion.”
Thus far, both governments are keeping close to the script. And yet, despite the news value of this revelation, this item that hasn’t received much attention in the U.S. media.
Nor has much been made of the sensitive nature of the American helicopter that was lost during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound. And yet, a handful of press accounts suggest that this “modified Blackhawk” was the first-of-its-kind “stealth copter.” For instance, an item in, of all places, Investor’s Business Daily notes, “Pakistan has expressed an interest in keeping and studying the wreckage that we want back, but they do not have the capability to exploit any knowledge gained. The Chinese do, however, and they too have expressed an interest in taking a peek at the wreckage.”
As usual, the U.S. press corps plays up the more spectacular aspects of the story -- all the better to subject the American people to the mushroom treatment: keep us in the dark and feed us plenty of sh*t.
Business (as usual) news
In non-Bin Laden news, two items that have enormous implications for the American people were buried in the business pages of the New York Times. On May 13, 2011, Matthew Wald reported on the findings of a review conducted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
"Rather than pursue the troubling legal questions raised by Bin Laden’s assassination, the U.S. press corps took the low road."
Wald’s story opens with a sobering lead: “Despite repeated assurances that American nuclear plants are better equipped to deal with natural disasters than their counterparts in Japan,” NRC regulators found “serious problems with some emergency equipment that would have made it unusable in an accident.”
The Times is especially fond of framing public interest stories as business news. But this item takes the cake. In the wake of the unfolding Japanese nuclear catastrophe, such a damning federal review ought to be a major news item. Instead, the Times chooses to present this alarming story in all too familiar neo-liberal terms: business interests doing their best to avoid (onerous) government oversight.
Earlier in the week, Federal Communications Commissioner Meredith Atwell Baker announced that she was leaving the commission to take a lobbying position with the telecommunication giant Comcast. Of course, there’s nothing new in any of this. For years now, there’s been a revolving door between federal regulatory agencies and the industries they oversee.
Nonetheless, Baker’s announcement was breathtaking in its audacity. As Edward Wyatt notes in the Times media blog -- apparently this item wasn’t “fit to print” -- Baker is taking up her new job in Comcast’s Washington lobbying office “four months after the Federal Communications Commission approved a hotly contested merger of Comcast and NBC Universal.”
For all of their talk about professional integrity, it seems U.S. newsworkers couldn’t find a conflict of interest if they tripped over it. When it comes to news of the ethically challenged, news stories of this sort are strictly “business as usual.”
To paraphrase the Talking Heads, at times like this, we may ask ourselves, how did we get here?
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010) and the forthcoming Media Interventions (Peter Lang). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.