Pushing the Media Right

With kind permission, the following article which appeared on the AlterNet online newspaper web site, on November 12, 2001, has been reposted here. It is an article by Laura Flanders of workingforchange.com on how poor the quality of the media is in reporting on the war on terrorism due to various pressures. You can see the original article at http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=118991

Pushing the Media Right
Laura Flanders, WorkingForChange.com
November 12, 2001

Some media critics got attention from the New York Times last week. But only some.

"As television news networks cover the war, they are increasingly coming under criticism from conservatives who say they exhibit a lack of patriotism or are overly negative toward the government," Jim Rutenberg and Bill Carter reported in the NYT on Wednesday. The story made no mention whatsoever of any criticism coming from any other source (like for example, the progressive outfit FAIR, which has published data-based critiques on an almost weekly basis since Sept. 11.)

Two days later, another Times' media reporter, Alessandra Stanley declared, "It is not true that antiwar speakers are unwelcome on television news and talk shows." It's just that, in her words, "just as television news programs are careful to filter Taliban propaganda and omit the most wrenching images of bombing victims, they do not dwell on criticism of the United States' effort; mostly, the small pools of dissent are absent from American television. Most viewers, still aching over the attacks of Sept. 11, are in no mood to listen to views they dismiss as either loopy or treasonous."

In no mood, huh? Further down the very same page, Times readers are told that since Sept. 11, ratings have gone up 50 percent for ITN's "World News For Public Television," a British production that provides what the Times calls a "blunter" alternative to the US made-for-TV news. "World News without the sugar coating," James calls the British version, and provides strong, clear examples of how the Brits are telling truths U.S. reporters would rather sweeten up.

James concludes that the British reporter's version, "May not be pleasant to hear, but it does something American television usually does not: it assumes that the public is smart and grown-up enough to handle what the rest of the world thinks."

When it comes to news then, the Times is willing to acknowledge that viewers may be missing something critical when war coverage is done to please. When it comes to opinion-givers, however, the lack of anti-war voices is seen as more or less academic.

Brit Hume, the Fox News Channel anchor, told Rutenberg and Carter that in this conflict, traditional rules no longer applied:

"Look, neutrality as a general principle is an appropriate concept for journalists who are covering institutions of some comparable quality," Hume said. "This is a conflict between the United States and murdering barbarians."

Moreover, airing views that are critical of the war could get networks in trouble. As quoted by Stanley, Walter Isaacson, the president of CNN, told 500 people at a lawyers' association dinner that, "If you get on the wrong side of public opinion, you are going to get into trouble."

Apparently it's just fine to make news choices driven by public pressure groups, if they're loud and perceived as "powerful" enough. Organized right-wing "patriot police" have been hounding network executives since Sept. 11, reports the Times. The president of ABC News, David Westin, apologized after he was criticized by Rush Limbaugh. News executives at CNN, ABC and MSNBC all say they are "conscious" of the conservatives' criticism while making their day-to-day news decisions.

And news folks apparently hate to get hatemail. Jim Romenesko's MediaNews Extra! has posted an October 31 memo sent to staffers by the chief copy editor of the Panama City (Florida) News Herald.

"DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like ...

"DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only exception is if the U.S. hits an orphanage, school or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children."

While some consciousness of imbalance seems to be sneaking into the papers, no one even mentions the fact that ad-driven news might be at fault: Outlets like the BBC are state-funded. America's big broadcasters and newspapers are not.

"Mainstream news programs are squeamish about broadcasting the dissenting views of Americans who are admittedly on the margin of mainstream opinion," summarizes Stanley.

Huh! Opinions that mainstream media restrict to the margins are "marginalized" opinions. How surprising. Is it possible there might be a link?

Laura Flanders is the host of Working Assets Radio and author of "Real Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting."

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