There’s plenty of news these days -- gas prices are down, the Republican presidential field is shaping up, and U.S. troops will soon be leaving Afghanistan. But despite all the political and media spin to the contrary, there’s not much good news in any of this.
While we can all breathe a little easier now that Anthony Weiner has lost his texting privileges, every silver lining has a dark cloud. Here are a few stories behind the news stories making headlines this summer.
Afghanistan: Pullout or permanence
Last Wednesday evening, President Barack Obama announced his decision to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The president described his plan as a significant step toward ending the nearly 10-year war. “This is the beginning, but not the end, of our effort to wind down this war,” Obama said. A dutiful U.S. press corps reported the story accordingly -- headlines and analyses emphasized the president’s timeline and the number of troops that would be leaving Afghanistan by September 2012.
"With few exceptions, the U.S. press is uncritically echoing the administration’s preferred (i.e., campaign season) narrative -- the war is winding down."
But as the media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted in a June 23, 2011, advisory, the U.S. news media neglected to “accurately explain the pace of escalation that has happened under his [Obama’s] watch.” The press’s focus on what the New York Times called the “Afghan surge pullout” fails to account for full extent of Obama’s escalation of the war.
The FAIR advisory continues, “When Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. had about 34,000 troops in Afghanistan. Obama has initiated two major troop increases in Afghanistan: about 20,000 additional troops were announced in February 2009, followed by the December 2009 announcement that an another 33,000 would be deployed as well; other smaller increases have brought the total to 100,000.”
Talk about fuzzy math. With few exceptions, the U.S. press is uncritically echoing the administration’s preferred (i.e., campaign season) narrative -- the war is winding down. But the facts on the ground suggest otherwise. As investigative journalist and historian Gareth Porter observes, “The historic pattern of the Bush and Obama administrations is that the military and the Pentagon seek to turn what is supposed to be a temporary 'surge' of troops into a permanent presence. That's what happened in Iraq, and the military is pushing for the same thing in Afghanistan.”
By the same token, mainstream media accounts routinely fail to acknowledge the presence of private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to David Swanson, author of War is a Lie, “The United States has about 200,000 military personnel in Afghanistan, half of them troops, half of them contractors."
What is remarkable about recent U.S. press coverage is how often public opinion against the war is actually making news. The public has been out in front of Congress on this issue for years. But public opposition to the war rarely gets much attention. Now that elite consensus on the war is breaking down, it seems news workers don’t mind mentioning a war-weary American public.
Nevertheless, don’t expect much (sympathetic) coverage of the antiwar movement anytime soon. Despite recent Congressional “debate” on the economic consequences of the war in Afghanistan, there’s been no mention of the upcoming protests planned by the New National Assembly to Bring Troops Home Now -- a coalition of antiwar groups who recently called on the labor movement to join massive demonstrations scheduled for October.
Michele Bachmann: One less wingnut?
An otherwise uneventful Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire earlier this month turned out to be Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann’s coming out party.
"In the aftermath of an otherwise unremarkable Republican debate, the U.S. press corps seems intent on rehabilitating Bachmann’s image -- the facts be damned."
A tea party favorite with a reputation for inflammatory rhetoric -- and a less than solid grasp of U.S. history -- Bachmann’s performance was a hit with the mainstream media. USA Today’s headline was typical of the coverage: “Debate showing elevates Bachmann to higher tier.” The USA Today story continued, “On a crowded stage, Bachmann was lively, confident, personable … against other contenders with longer resumes and more experience, she emerged from the pack.”
Elite media analysis followed suit. For instance, speaking on NPR’s June 18, 2011, All Things Considered James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, opined, “Michele Bachmann did herself the most good by seeming more centrist, more moderate, more composed than some of her critics might have suggested in the preceding weeks.” The New York Times's coverage of Bachmann’s performance took up this same storyline -- despite Bachmann’s suspect claims about the economic impact of Obama’s health care reform measures. In the aftermath of an otherwise unremarkable Republican debate, the U.S. press corps seems intent on rehabilitating Bachmann’s image -- the facts be damned.
But as Peter Hart noted in a recent blog post, at least the Times editorial page got it right. “Michele Bachmann had the strangest, most simplistic economic solution of all: simply close down the Environmental Protection Agency, which she said ‘should really be renamed the Job-Killing Organization of America.’”
Desperate for a bare-knuckled fight for the GOP nomination, American news workers are depicting Bachmann as a rising star on the national stage. After all, what’s a little extremism and misstatement of fact between friends?
No news is good news?
On June 9, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a 475-page report titled “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.” Among other sobering findings, the FCC warned of a precipitous decline in the quality of local news.
"Among other sobering findings, the FCC warned of a precipitous decline in the quality of local news."
While this may not be news for many of us, the mainstream media’s response to the FCC findings is predictable enough: Keep quiet.
I ran across this news flash in a blog post in the LA Times. As usual, the Times account was framed as a business story. Revealingly, the LA Times business blog is called “Company Town.”
It should come as no surprise that the FCC’s study didn’t get picked up by very many local, let alone national news outlets. After all, news workers were busy following public
interest titillation stories like Anthony Weiner’s sexting and the Casey Anthony trial.
Call it what you will -- dumbing down or just plain old distraction. Either way, the current media system doesn’t serve the “information needs” of local communities. Not by a long shot.
Nuclear news that’s isn’t
The catastrophic failure of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant gave journalists one heck of a news peg for investigative reports on the state of the U.S. nuclear power industry. However, nearly four months after an earthquake crippled the Fukushima facility, American news media are doing their best to avoid such reporting.
"Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation's aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them."
Case in point: last week, the Associated Press released an investigative series titled “Aging Nukes.” The report reveals disturbing conditions at nuclear facilities across the country, including numerous health and safety issues, and an alarming lack of effective federal oversight. Nevertheless, the AP story isn’t getting picked up by American news outlets.
In the first story in the series, the AP reported, "Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation's aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them.”
Part two of the series describes the prevalence of radioactive tritium leaks at “three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear sites.” The result of aging and corroded piping, the AP reports tritium is leaching into groundwater. The AP further notes that, “The number and severity of the leaks has been escalating, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more and more reactors across the nation."
Talk about a blockbuster! Despite obvious public health and safety concerns, not to mention damning evidence of a captive federal regulatory agency, the AP series can’t seem to get much traction with American news workers.
What are we to make of the failure of the U.S. press corps on this and other vital public interest stories? Willful ignorance, perhaps. Mass deception, no doubt. Either way you look at it, this much is clear: in the annals of censorship, this summer is fast becoming one for the record books.
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