Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
My uncle LB used to say, "Never believe anything you hear and only half of what you see."
That was probably good advice in the 1930s when LB was growing up. The electronic media revolution, however, has made it obsolete: it's now unlikely that you can believe anything you read, hear, or see in the news.
Of course, it's long been common for people to see a point of view other than their own and call it "a bunch of lies." If I had a nickel for every time I'd heard "the liberal media" accused of "making stuff up," for example, I could afford to pay my cable TV bill.
Like many Americans, I turned into a news-junkie this fall. However, after a few weeks of incessant surfing between the cable news channels and constant checking of the online wire services, I soon became disenchanted with my ability to get to the truth about the war.
Watching the cable news channels, I would see a similar scene played over and over: Rumsfeld, or some other government spokesperson, would hold a press conference for a few dozen TV correspondents. The conference would begin with a short statement, which would include something like, "I'm not going to tell you where the troops are or how we got them there."
A Q&A session would follow the statement. The first question, invariably, would be, "Where are the troops, and how did they get there?" The speaker would remind the correspondent that he or she wasn't going to answer that question. Another question or two would follow, usually requiring the speaker to restate something obvious. Then a "gutsy" reporter would ask, "Did the troops get there by ship, or by bus?" The speaker would again remind the journalist that question wouldn't be answered, so another reporter would ask, "Are they in a cave in Kabul, or at a McDonald's in Turkmenistan?" At which time the frustrated spokesperson would leave.
Since the war began in Afghanistan, I've heard a lot about government propaganda and control of information. No doubt the "gutsy journalists" trying to trick Rumsfield into revealing national-security-threatening information would fall back on that excuse. Watching such a scene unfold, however, would infuriate me. Of course Rumsfield isn't going to fall for such a dumb trick! And so what? We don't need to know where they are or how they got there--we need to know the stuff he's not mentioning at all, the stuff reporters will learn if they go and see for themselves, if they ask questions of people other than government spokespersons.
I might buy the notion that our government's constraint of information about the war has limited our ability to get information, except for one thing: some journalists--a few progressive freelancers and those attached to British and other foreign publications--have managed to get stories that differ substantially from those available from mainstream American sources. Sites like the British Guardian Unlimited, offer a very different picture than the patriotic displays constantly flowing through the American mainstream media.
While American news services like CNN, Reuters, and the Associated Press hailed the first crumbling of the Taliban's façade, for example, the Guardian reported the "return to business-as-usual" in Afghanistan's cities, including the return to opium distribution and prostitution. British news services began reporting Afghan civilian casualties weeks before the issue became controversial news-to-be-avoided in the U.S.
And as I write, the American media reports that our forces are "still hunting"bin Laden, while the Guardian reports that our special forces are going cave-to-cave with DNA testing equipment, trying to determine whether one of the fingers or toes strewn randomly among the wreckage may have belonged to bin Laden or Mullah Omar, an image from which CNN will surely spare us.
I have concluded that the insufficiency of truth in news reporting does not come from "the liberal media," nor does it come from government control over information. I blame it on the CNN syndrome.
Several years ago, I got involved as a volunteer with a program to help addicts and alcoholics with their recovery. Within the group, there were a couple of former crack-heads. One evening, they started telling me what it was like to be addicted to crack.
"That first hit is a great rush,"one said. "It's the most amazing rush you've ever felt, but it's gone in just a minute. It leaves you feeling unsatisfied--like there's a void in you that you must fill immediately, so you want another. Then another. And each hit has a less satisfying rush than the last. You're forever trying to get that first, big rush again.²
CNN syndrome is a little like crack addiction. That first newsbreak is a great rush--it leaves you feeling like you're in on something new, in touch with events "as they develop." That feeling soon wanes, however, as you realize all the things you don't know. "There must be something else happening," you think. There is an information void, an existential nothingness that must be filled with the next newsbreak. And the next. And the one after that, until you finally realize there will never be a newsbreak as "big" as the first one.
The purveyors of TV news, then, have become the electronic media equivalent of a dope dealer. Each knows it absolutely must deliver the next big news break as soon as it occurs, if not before. If they don't, the viewers will quickly tune in to a dealer with higher-grade dope.
That's how stupid shit like the premature reporting of Gore's victory in the election happened, and was followed by the premature reporting of Bush's victory.
That's also why there's so much crappy journalism on television news shows. Television news has to report "on its feet" the news "as it occurs," and the proliferation of 24-hour news channels requires a steady stream of information.
Unfortunately, much of that information is flawed, and much of what passes for journalism is pretty lame.
The press, unfortunately, is not immune to the CNN syndrome.
There is a ton of news produced; often, none of it seems to convey the "real story." News has always been slanted. It has to be--no one would take the time to read, for example, a word-for-word transcript of a high-profile criminal trial, so the journalist covering it must pare down several hours and many pages of notes into a manageable, readable report.
The problem, all too often, is that a story is reported and re-reported over and over, and often compiled from wire service reports. The slant, along with any inaccuracies, moves along from one story to the next with only minor variations that, if anything, make each re-telling less accurate than the last.
For example, during the transition from Clinton's presidency to Bush's, Fox News began reporting that outgoing Clinton staffers had trashed and vandalized the White House. The story was picked up and repeated elsewhere, until what may have been a few pranks turned into rumors of cut computer cables and artifacts stolen from Air Force One.
The truth didn't come out until months later, when pressured Bush Administration officials admitted that there was no evidence any of the vandalism had happened. Of course, the truth went under-reported--it was less interesting news than the fiction it corrected.
Progressive publications and media watchdogs have been guilty of similar truth-stretching. For example, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting ) perpetuated an unfair and inaccurate attack against Attorney General John Ashcroft using his interview in a Confederacy-sympathizing magazine, Southern Partisan, to accuse him of "endorsing a publication that defends slavery, white separatism, apartheid and David Duke.²
Ashcroft is, no doubt, a pretty conservative guy. He's probably no less racist than the average white Republican and it was foolish for him to associate with that magazine.
However, a little adjusting of the context puts Ashcroft in a better light. The interview had meandered onto the topic of political-correctness and historical revisionism, and his so-called racist-sympathizing comments were actually on that particular topic: "...when we see George Washington, the founder of our country, called a racist, that is just total revisionist nonsense...[Southern Partisan] helps set the record straight..."
The list of unfair, inaccurate, and insufficient reporting could go on endlessly. There will, no doubt, continue to be inaccurately slanted reports filed by correspondents on both the right and left sides of the press, and you can be sure the mainstream will continue to underreport important news about the war. However, most of the mainstream misinformation comes less from a conservative, pro-Bush agenda than from the CNN syndrome and its imperative to constantly crank out the news mainstream America wants to see and hear.
That does not include the news that civilian casualties in Afghanistan exceed that of American casualties on September 11. It does not include the news, as published in France, that Bush may have threatened the Taliban with bombs before September 11, during negotiations over a cross-Afghanistan oil pipeline.
In other words, for the moment anyway, mainstream America does not want to hear the whole story. Instead, we want to hear that God blesses America--and that we're fighting, and winning, a just war.
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