Could the Iraq war have been prevented had the American media asked the right questions? How do conservative media commentators frame the actions of different religious communities? Does the media pay due attention to history? Mike Ghouse reflects on the political impact of mainstream media decisions.
INCREASINGLY FOCUSED ON competitiveness and profits, the mainstream American media is under pressure for its own survival. Indeed, it is at a critical juncture of having to choose between fulfilling its societal responsibility or succumbing to the political compulsions of our times. As a society we need to evaluate the importance of the media in our American system of governance. Does it still play the crucial role the founding fathers of our nation had envisioned for it?
Thomas Jefferson made a strong statement about the role of the media in a democracy when he noted, “If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Describing the role of the press, George A. Krimsky, the former head of news for the Associated Press’ World Services and co-author of Hold the Press, writes, “In the wake of America’s successful revolution, it was decided there should indeed be government, but only if it were accountable to the people. The people, in turn, could only hold the government accountable if they knew what it was doing and could intercede as necessary, using their ballot, for example. This role of public ‘watchdog’ was thus assumed by a citizen press, and as a consequence, the government in the United States has been kept out of the news business.”
Could one say that the government in the United States was kept out of the news business in the past, but not any more?
In the recent past, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams told host Howard Kurtz that the Bush administration had “the right” to pay a columnist to tout its views in his column. As this article notes, Kurtz spoke of the “Pentagon planting positive stories, in some cases paying for positive stories in Iraqi newspapers.” The administration also paid journalist Armstrong Williams to promote its No Child Left Behind education policy. The Government Accountability Office, however, determined that the Bush Administration was wrong in promoting its educational policy through Armstrong’s column.
The essence of democracy is the ability to question everything in fairness and without worrying about censure against such inquiry. How many journalists from the mainstream media have failed this test in recent times? Let us examine a few situations and see the specific failures of the American media in each case.
The qualities of a commander-in-chief
As we speak, the airwaves are saturated with coverage of the presidential nominees in both parties. Why aren’t journalists questioning the rhetoric from McCain and Clinton that they are fit to be the commander-in-chief of the nation? We are a democracy, and it is not essential that our government should be run by a military expert. That was not the intent of our system.
I do not expect my president to be an expert in nuclear, biological, botanical, or other sciences and certainly not a military expert. I want a judicious person who can call on real experts as the situation demands and make the right decision in each case.
Journalists can still ask the candidates this question. Will they?
Precedent and patterns in the Rev. Wright controversy
The second week of March 2008 witnessed relentless coverage of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermon, “God Damn America,” in the American media. It was all one could hear on the cable channels. The pundits were suggesting that this might indicate the end of presidential candiate Barack Obama’s political aspirations, given that Wright was Obama’s pastor.
In the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Ralph Luker pointed out that “the quotation comes not from Wright, but from the Rev Martin Luther King Jr’s first address to the Montgomery Improvement Association on December 5, 1955. Both African-American preachers have understood prophetic biblical preaching far better than those who feign shock at and condemn Wright’s words.”
“Obama’s Minister ‘Hates America’ But When My Father Said the Same Sort of Things He Became a Hero To The Republicans” wrote Frank Schaeffer in the OpEdNews. Schaeffer quoted his father, religious right leader, Francis Schaeffer, expressing similar sentiments. “Take Dad’s words” Frank Schaeffer went on to say, “and put them in the mouth of Obama’s preacher (or in the mouth of any black American preacher) and people would be accusing that preacher of treason. Yet, when we the white Religious Right denounced America, the white conservative Americans and top political leaders, called our words ‘godly’ and ‘prophetic’ and a ‘call to repentance.’”
The mainstream media largely failed to investigate if there was a precedent, if some one else had used this kind of language, if the reaction had been different, and why that might have been the case.
The burning of the US embassy in Kosovo
While driving around on Friday, February 22 earlier this year, I listened to every news channel. Our embassy was torched in Kosovo by radicals on that day. The media did not describe the violence as religiously motivated nor name any religious community as the culprit. I believe that was the right approach on the part of the media.
But I wondered: had those radicals been Muslims, what kind of demonization would mainstream conservative commentators like O’Reilly, Hannity, Beck, and Limbaugh have engaged in?
The war in Iraq
As the Bill Moyers Journal’s special edition program, “Buying the War,” compellingly demonstrated, the mainstream American media uncritically accepted the administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons and his links to Al-Qaeda. The five chapter report speaks for itself.
Had the media stood their ground, perhaps our administration would not have engaged in policies that have resulted in the deaths of over half a million Iraqis as per the figures provided by the medical journal Lancet estimate, 4,000 of our men and women, and a cost of anywhere from 1 to 2 trillion dollars.
Was their inability to ask the right questions of the administration not a colossal blunder on the part of the mainstream media?
Mike Ghouse is a writer and activist based in Dallas. He runs the blogs Foundation for Pluralism and World Muslim Congress.