There's been a lot of news coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq in recent weeks, and none of it has been good. Last weekend, a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan's Farah province killed scores of civilians. Predictably, Pentagon officials greeted this latest in a series of reports of civilian casualties with a flurry of denials and obfuscations.
Lapdogs that they are, the corporate media ran with the Pentagon spin. Taking their lead from military spokesmen, pundits and TV talking heads lamented the detrimental impact this latest atrocity might have on public opinion at home and abroad. As for civilian casualties, the chattering classes were uncharacteristically reticent. For the "inside the Beltway" crowd, the less said about the human costs of the air war in Afghanistan, the better.
This past week offered abject lessons in media responsibility. Addressing the outbreak of swine flu at his primetime press conference on Wednesday night, President Obama told reporters that the situation was "cause for deep concern, not panic." Sound advice, to be sure. Too bad the U.S. press corps didn't take heed. The media frenzy over this story is hard to ignore -- but you might live longer if you did just that.
It should go without saying that the press has the responsibility to relay critical health issues to the public in a timely and accurate fashion. But there's a fine line between responsible reporting and fear mongering -- and based on the wall-to-wall coverage this episode is receiving, a great many news outlets have crossed that line repeatedly.
And why not? After all, fear is a great motivator; like sex, fear sells. If you ignite fear in the body politic you are certain to keep audiences coming back for more, and that's good for business. The rolling cable news channels discovered this long ago. In recent years, they've turned fear mongering into an art form.
In my media criticism course this semester we’ve been looking at the rise of “infotainment” or the blurring of news and entertainment. As you might imagine, the work of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert figures prominently in our conversations. Drawing on work in communication, cultural studies and political science, we’ve been debating the merits and shortcomings of political humor.
On the whole, humor is good for democracy. But it all depends upon what kind of humor we’re talking about, and who or what is the target of such humor. For instance, the humor of the legendary Bob Hope certainly poked fun at political figures and institutions. But for the most part, Hope’s humor was “all in good fun” and rarely challenged political authority or legitimacy. On that score, Hope’s humor was a useful “release valve” for a polity buffeted by economic crisis, protracted war and a morally bankrupt political culture. Politicians appreciate humor in this vein -- It’s non-threatening.
On the other hand, people like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Chris Rock are far more incisive in their social commentary and cultural critique. That is, these comics challenge institutions and deeply held assumptions about the American legal system, institutionalized racism and such. In doing so, these humorists observe the contradictions of American democracy in ways that not only provoke laughter but thought and reflection as well.
"Outrageous." That's the word on everyone's lips these days.
At a White House press conference last Wednesday, President Barack Obama told reporters "Obviously, the whole issue of AIG and these bonuses that have been paid out have been consuming a lot of attention ... But what I think is also important and just as outrageous is the fact that we find ourselves in a situation where we're having to clean up after AIG's mess."
Making the rounds on the television yak shows last week, Lawrence Summers, the director of the National Economic Council said, "There are a lot of terrible things that have happened in the last 18 months, but what's happened at AIG is the most outrageous."
Three cheers for C-SPAN. Were it not for the cable network's coverage, I would have missed out on the thoughtful, incisive conversations at the 10th annual State of the Black Union (SOBU) on Feb. 28 in Los Angeles.
C-SPAN was also on hand to cover the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington D.C. This three-day meeting wrapped up this past weekend as well. Thing is, I didn't have to be a cable subscriber -- or a news and public affairs geek, for that matter -- to hear about it.
CPAC received extensive coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Times, CNN, Fox and NPR. In contrast, the State of the Black Union barely got a mention in the mainstream press. I did manage to find a 593-word write up in the Metro section of The Los Angeles Times, but not much else.
So much for the afterglow. Scarcely a month has gone by since Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, and all that talk about the progress we've made and the need for national unity in the face of adversity seems like ancient history.
When Obama made history on that frigid day in January, there was a palpable sense of possibility and promise. Now, it seems, any prospect for consensus, collaboration and bipartisan leadership is gone with the wind.
Partisan politics reasserted itself within days of the inauguration. The talk of the town in Washington turned on a dime from self-congratulation and genuine social progress to the "business as usual" brinksmanship and political maneuvering that breeds gridlock and corruption.
In its front page report on former Senator Tom Daschle's decision to withdraw his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services, the New York Times observed: “It was the rockiest day yet for the new White House.” Most news outlets, including public radio and television, presented the story along similar lines.
Framing the story in terms of a public uproar over Daschle's unpaid taxes, and President Barack Obama’s subsequent admission that he “screwed up” his ethics reform initiative, is a great way to generate controversy and attract audiences.
But like so much that passes for vigorous reporting these days, this story generates more heat than light. Despite all the bluster, this latest episode exemplifies one of the fundamental problems with American journalism.
In a week marked by historic firsts and flubs, an editorial appearing in the Jan. 20 edition of the Los Angeles Times stopped me in my tracks. For a minute I thought I had inadvertently stumbled across the pages of The Onion.
Writing on the occasion of Barack Obama's inauguration, the editorial staff of the LA Times celebrated the first African American elected to the presidency but cautioned, without a hint of irony, that this is "a moment in which we must pledge vigilance, not unqualified encouragement."
Perhaps the editorial staff was feeling guilty. After all, like the rest of the corporate media, the LA Times has been anything but vigilant these past eight years. Instead of serving as watchdogs, the U.S. press corps behaved like lapdogs for one of the most secretive and deceptive administrations in American history.
In a spate of exit interviews with reporters, George W. Bush has been uncharacteristically coy on the subject of how history will judge his time in office. "The Decider" prefers to leave such judgments to future generations.
Of course, this hasn't prevented W. from running his presidency through one last spin cycle before he leaves office on Jan. 20. While the Bush administration spent the better part of the past eight years doing (self-inflicted) damage control, the past few months have been devoted to a historical whitewash.
On Dec. 30, 2008, Bloomington Alternative editor Steven Higgs and Branches publisher and Alternative contributor Thomas P. Healy appeared on WFHB's public affairs program Interchange for a year-in-review discussion with guest host Andy Mahler. Listen to this hour-long discussion through the link below.