Broadcast Priorities

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 lives.

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 al Qaeda.

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 next day.

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 'War'

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 East.

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 imperial ilk.


Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher and political essayist in Chicago, Illinois.

Broadcast Media watch

Index of Website

Home Page