The Media Marches off to War

by Deck Deckert

October 15, 2001

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The sight of a TV newsman reporting on America's newest war while he shares the screen with a pretty graphic slogan proclaiming "America Strikes Back" is enough to make me gag. The once proud news profession valued its honesty, integrity and objectivity and would have viewed such a cheerleader approach as dangerous and unethical.

Today, the media marches in lockstep, lap dogs for power, content with producing a stenographic recording of government propaganda and calling it news.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

Forty years ago I started my first newspaper job at the Orlando Sentinel, filled with optimism and proud of my chosen profession, which I believed was a bulwark of freedom, protecting the public's 'right to know.' I was quickly disillusioned.

It was the start of the Civil Rights Revolution, and the 'Sit-ins' had begun. Courageous young black children and a smattering of black adults had begun sitting at 'whites-only' counters in restaurants, politely waiting to be served. Restaurant workers and white patrons were outraged at this breach of social custom and assaulted the blacks with angry words, scalding coffee and beatings.

It was a dramatic story, and one that had begun tugging at the nation's conscience.

But in Orlando, Florida, the order came down from above – no sit-in stories were to be carried on page 1. Scuttlebutt had it that the order was accompanied by the verbal comment that we weren't going to give the protesters any more "publicity" than we absolutely had to. Actually, the word used wasn't "protesters."

My next job was at the Palm Beach Times in West Palm Beach where, as the lowliest of reporters, I was put to work writing obits. I was to look at all the death notices sent in from the funeral homes and pick a few people who appeared to have lived interesting lives and write a full obit. I soon discovered that there was another factor that could override 'interesting.'

"Here's a guy who was aboard an aircraft carrier at the Battle of Midway," I might call out to the city editor.

"White or black?"

"Unh, black."

"Forget it."

When I rose slightly in the ranks and was in charge of putting out the final edition, I led the June 12, 1963 paper with the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. When the first papers off the press arrived in the newsroom, one of the old timers took one look at the photo of Evers that I had included with the story and exploded: "That's the first time we've ever had a picture of a nigger on Page 1!"

I never confirmed that he was right, but I've always hoped he was and that I had made one tiny contribution to civil rights.

With experiences like this, you might think that I was completely disillusioned with journalism. But I wasn't. As the civil rights revolution continued, the media, both TV and newspapers, began doing a credible job of covering the story in depth. I was proud of that.

At the same time, the Vietnam War was heating up, along with the opposition to it. The media was rather pro-war in the beginning, quite sympathetic to the expressed aims, and this was reflected in the coverage.

But as the anti-war movement grew, it was thoroughly and professionally covered. The media's sympathies might have been more in line with those of President Lyndon Johnson and his supporters than the protesters, but the story was covered honestly.

I was proud of that, too.

The situation took a dramatic turn for the worse just about the time I left newspapering 20 years ago. And no, it wasn't because I left the business, or because I am a crotchety old fool who thinks everything is always worse than it was.

Things went bad with the printed and electronic media after the White House and Congress relaxed enforcement of the anti-trust laws that had been used more or less successfully to keep a great deal of diversity in the media. Newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, TV networks and individual TV stations were gobbled up by conglomerates who were interested only in one thing, the sacred bottom line. Staffs were reduced, bureaus eliminated, foreign coverage became an endangered species, and infotainment was, if not invented, refined. All these things were done because it was a cheaper way of covering the news, thus producing more profits for the shareholders.

Within a few years, the concentration of the media had reached the point that only five giant corporations filtered the news heard, seen or read by nearly all Americans, and at that point, the danger of this kind of concentration became apparent:

The media, once a watchdog, became the lapdog of power.

The corporations that control the media and the corporations that control the government share common interests. An adversarial relationship benefits neither, and the media has all but abandoned the position it once proudly held as protector of the public's right to know.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the coverage of war since Vietnam. When President Reagan ordered the invasion of the tiny island of Granada, the Pentagon and White House put in place a series of media control measures that made honest coverage impossible. Journalists were barred from the island during the first two days of fighting. Reporters who tried to reach the island by boat were detained by U.S. forces. Journalists who tried to fly in were buzzed by a Navy jet and turned back. The 'news' about the invasion was all filtered through official sources.

When President Bush Sr. invaded Panama, journalists were restricted to a U.S. base for several hours, listening to a lecture on Panamanian history and watching CNN television war reports from the Pentagon.

By the time President Bush Sr. ordered a war against Iraq, the media control measures were so effective that the American people saw nothing but what the White House and Pentagon wanted them to see -- e.g. Patriot Missiles streaking to success and surgically precise radar-guided bombs. But the Patriots frequently missed and may have done more harm than good, and the radar smart bombs represented less than 9 percent of the bombs dropped by the U.S. on Iraq. The remaining 91 percent of the 84,200 tons of bombs dropped by the United States during the war were plain old dumb bombs, the kind that are as likely to hit a church or a shelter filled with civilians as a military target.

The media restrictions are not unimportant, but they matter less than the routine self censorship. During the build up to the Gulf War, there was a sophisticated public relations campaign by private organizations and foreign groups to support for White House policies. The PR firm of Hill and Knowlton was hired by representatives of the Kuwaiti government to help sell the American people on the need for war.

A series of stories about the utter depravity of the Iraqis soon appeared in the print and electronic media. One of the most sensational stories of supposed Iraqi atrocities was the report that Iraqi troops who marched into Kuwait had taken 312 babies out of incubators at a Kuwait hospital and left them on the floor to die. A 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only by her first name of Nayirah, sobbed as she testified that she had witnessed first-hand the Iraqi soldiers yanking babies out of incubators. This testimony was used to sway public opinion at a time when there was strong opposition to a war against Iraq.

Nayirah, as any competent reporter could easily have discovered, was actually the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the U.S. and her story was a hoax. She had been coached in her story by a Hill and Knowlton official.

The Gulf War restrictions were imposed on the media, but the bleats of protest were so muted they couldn't be heard over a whisper in church. The media moguls have no stomach for, nor any real interest in presenting an honest look at the Gulf War or any other war. Too often, such a presentation would unveil their own fingers in the pie, the way that they profit from war. One such profit, of course, was the tremendous boost in ratings by the networks as they presented war as a video game. Another, was the changes in law that led to further consolidation of the media industry, culminating in the 1996 Telecommunications Act that gave away the public airways to a few media giants, changes that came only after the media fell in line behind the war.

Today the media has embraced the ill defined "War on Terrorism" with a reformed drunk's fervor. Since the 9-ll disaster, the media has led the way in promoting war as the only answer to terrorism. Dissent is presented as unpatriotic, un-American.

And when President Bush unleashed the dogs of war again, the newsmen's joy and excitement could hardly be restrained. "The American people have been patiently awaiting this day," an unctuous anchorman said to one of a parade of government officials who were brought out to explain how wise and necessary and good it was for the richest and most militarily powerful nation on earth to be attacking one of the poorest and weakest.

There is no hope that the corporate media will ever again be the guard dog of power, no hope that it will provide the range of news and opinion that democracy needs to survive.

The first casualty in this new war, as in all wars, may be truth; its last may be democracy.


       Deck Deckert has spent nearly two decades as copy editor, wire editor and news editor at several metropolitan newspapers, including the Miami Herald and Miami News, before becoming a freelance writer. His articles and stories on everything from alligator farming to UFOs have appeared in numerous U.S. publications. He has written two young adult novels under a pen name, and co-authored a novel about the NATO war on Yugoslavia, Letters from the Fire, with Alma Hromic, who he met in an Internet discussion group. Deckert and Hromic subsequently married and are writing a book about their experience with Internet romance, Cyberdance.

         Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Deck Deckert 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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