by Paul Street
Z magazine, March 2003
Let's start with four basic observations.
First, by the widely accepted and often passionately embraced
description of its own citizens, media, and elected officials,
the United States is a democracy. Second, a functioning democracy
depends to no small extent on wide, intensive, and unbiased media
coverage of important contemporary political developments at home
and abroad. Third, few such developments could be more worthy
of such coverage than millions of Americans taking to the streets
to resist their government's plans to attack a weak and impoverished
nation in a "powder-keg" world region full of danger
for Americans and others. The newsworthiness would only be enhanced
if the largest protest were to occur in a city that had already
experienced terrible attack by terrorists from that region. Fourth,
mass protest to prevent an action that will kill hundreds of thousands
of people is at least as important as an accident costing seven
Protest vs. Columbia
On the basis of these observations, one
might expect the February 15 mass protests to receive blow-by
blow coverage from America's broadcast media. The expectation
would have gone unfulfilled. I was homebound, but made use of
my time by monitoring two different forms of media coverage. The
first was Pacifica Radio through WBAI in New York City, available
via the Internet. The second was my television. Thanks to a cable
hook up that costs me $50 a month, I have access to 57 seven stations.
The contrast was remarkable. Thanks to
the comprehensive, in-depth "you are there" coverage
provided by Pacifica/WBAI, it was clear that history was being
made in New York City. The energy was unmistakable in the chants
and cheers of the protestors, the passionate and articulate statements
of the speakers, and the comments of demonstrators.
Things were different on my 57 channels.
It would have been absurd, of course, to expect any kind of demonstration
coverage on most of the stations. The preponderant majority of
the broadcast spectrum is ceded to diverse demographic and cultural
segments of the entertainment market.
But even on the seven or so stations where
one might realistically expect live coverage of the momentous
developments-the three major networks plus C-SPAN and the cable
news channels-there was no ongoing live coverage. There was nothing
on the big four networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox). The protests
were the number one story, unavoidably, at CNN, which provided
some remarkable protest footage from Europe and a poignant interview
from a New York demonstrator who lost a relative in 9-11. The
story was covered somewhat grudgingly at the "Fox News"
channel, a veritable broadcast arm of the White House, along with
reminders from former U.S. military analysts, and weapons inspectors
turned Fox commentators, that the White House "does not require
consensus" to attack Iraq.
C-SPAN, the most progressive spot on the
national broadcast spectrum, was asleep at the camera. As millions
marched, it broadcast old tape from CIA Director George Tenet's
recent Senate testimony on the supposed link between Saddam and
Particularly at "Fox News,"
the coverage downplayed American-specific dissent, giving considerably
more attention to protests in Rome, Berlin, Paris, and London.
Fox made sure to tie it all to Saddam, linking American and European
protests to suggestive clips of rifle-waving Iraqis carrying posters
of their evil leader.
None of this is meant to discount the
antiwar movement's success in making their story number one on
the evening news and in the next day's newspapers. Still, it was
hard not to notice the contrast between yesterday's non-coverage
of live American protest and the corporate media's response to
the spaceshuttle tragedy just two Saturdays before. The latter
was an essentially nationalist episode involving no real political
controversy. It elicited an orgy of intensive "you are there"
coverage, replete with exhausted anchors, a bevy of specialized
expert commentators, and all the latest developments. Film and
photos of the disintegrating shuttle were played over and over.
All the major networks and news cable stations stayed with the
terrible story from morning until well into the evening and the
The contrast is reminiscent of the corporate
media's response to the historic mass demonstrations against corporate
globalization that occurred in Seattle during November 1999. You
could follow that remarkable event live on alternative Internet
media. When you searched your "57 channels" for live
Seattle footage, however, you found anchorpeople still obsessed
with John F. Kennedy Jr. 's demise.
Further proof of the "mainstream"
(corporate) media's reluctance to give the demonstrations their
due came later that night, when I resumed my position in front
of the TV at 1:30 AM. A story on CNN informed watchers that the
basic factor determining the timing of an apparently inevitable
U.S. attack on Iraq is climate. We heard from CNN Military Analyst
and Brigadier General David Grange. Grange reassured his audience
that "the US military can attack in any weather." Still,
he noted, U.S. planners are concerned about the coming Iraqi heat,
which will complicate the Army's "Mission Oriented Protective
Posture" (military speak for special troop gear to guard
against chemical and biological weapons). Another issue is sandstorms,
which make it difficult "to engage targets with your optics"-tough,
that is, to see the people you are trying to destroy.
I flipped to the "Fox News"
channel, where a panel of media experts was analyzing the media's
"Pre-war Coverage." This segment was labeled "The
Media Braces for War." Panel member, and onetime Guggenheim
fellow, Neal Gabler argued that it would be a "tragedy"
if the inevitable "war" becomes "the new reality
TV." Gabler also worried about "a real possibility we
won't get the whole [war] story" from "our media."
Someone should look into that.
The panel's host suggested that the leading
news channels, including Fox, will drop commercials during the
war's initial days, a temporary cost media corporations will gladly
pay in pursuit of increased "market share."
Just half a day old, the historic mass
demonstrations of 2- l 5 -03 were already fading into history's
ashcan, as far as CNN and Fox's experts were concerned. Perhaps
Fox should run a segment labeled "The Media Helps Generate
By Assuming That It Is Inevitable and
Discounting the Massive Opposition of the Irrelevant People. "
Things didn't get much better when I continued
my deepening engagement with corporate television after some well-deserved
sleep. On the 15 minutes of NBC's "Meet the Press" I
caught Sunday morning, Saturday's demonstrations had already been
swept into the Orwellian dustbin. Tim Russert's discussions about
the latest "War on Terrorism" developments with National
Security Adviser Condaleeza Rice and former U. S. General Wesley
Clark focused on strategic questions relating to Saddam's behavior,
the official statements of European policymakers, the UN Security
Council and al Qaeda. Yesterday's outpouring of citizen opposition
to U.S. plans at home and abroad was apparently irrelevant.
It was the same everywhere: Wolf Blitzer
on CNN (interviewing Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge on the
likelihood of domestic terror attacks), a PBS foreign policy expert
panel, and an NBC media panel headed by Chris Matthews on NBC.
None of the talking heads I encountered in my bleary-eyed television
meanderings found the previous day's historic popular dissent
worth mentioning as they discussed future U.S. policy in the Middle
Perhaps I missed the standard comment
from Rice on how fortunate the American people are to possess
the right of popular assembly. It's a favorite line from Rumsfeld
and Rice, who seem to think Americans should be grateful they
are permitted to protest without the fear of being shot or thrown
into concentration camps. Saddam, the Bush gang loves to remind
us, permits no domestic opposition. The idiotic implication, which
never receives proper mockery from corporate media, is clear:
Saddam is somehow a risk to bring dictatorship to the United States,
along with his weapons of mass destruction.
It has become common to note the growing
disconnection between American public opinion and Bush domestic
and foreign policy. Less commonly noted, but equally relevant
and also growing, is the mismatch between that opinion and American
corporate media. The second gap reflects the deep incorporation
of America's "private" media oligarchy into an imperial
state-capitalist project that seeks to advance a process of authoritarian
corporate globalization that is richly favored by America's leading
multinational media firms-giant publicly sponsored corporate hierarchies
that fail to fulfill their duty to supply Americans with the information
required for responsible democratic citizenship.
After we stop this horrible war, let's
take up the cause of democratic media reform, helping thereby
to prevent future murderous campaigns by Bush and his noxious
Paul Street is an urban social policy
researcher and political essayist in Chicago, Illinois.
Broadcast Media watch