When the boardroom took over the newsroom sometime in the 80s we lost an (the?) essential safeguard to our democracy and freedom. Where is the fearless journalism that brought down Nixon? Where are today’s campaigns against flagrant abuses of power? Iraq War? Illegal wiretaps? Wall Street piracy?
If our leaders can operate without rigorous public scrutiny we leave ourselves horribly exposed and hostage to a predictably foreboding fortune.
We live in an age in which the media wields immense power. We see increasing consolidation in the media, most recently with Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal. And yet, we are also deep in what many call a “crisis of journalism.” Newspapers are folding. News bureaus around the globe are being shuttered. The internet has long promised to be the great equalizer, yet, as we saw in Egypt, in perhaps the most extraordinary case, when the people use the internet to too great an advantage, the state can simply shut it down.
What about the media? We are not a part of the state. My brother David and I have written several books together. One was called Static. The reason we called it that is that in this high-tech digital age, with high-definition television and digital radio, still all we ever get is static, that veil of distortion and lies and misrepresentations and half-truths that obscure reality, when what we need is for the media to give us the dictionary definition of static. That’s criticism, opposition, unwanted interference. We need a media that covers power, not covers for power. We need a media that is the fourth estate, not for the state. And we need a media that covers the movements that create static and make history.
As an example, one of many, where the media failed the public, let’s look at the health care debate.
FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, fair.org, a media watch group in New York, did a study of the week leading up to the March 2009 White House health care summit, looking at the major television networks and the major national newspapers. There were hundreds of stories on health care in that week leading up to the summit. There was not one piece on television that included a single-payer advocate. If single-payer was included, it was only mentioned to be attacked.
This is amazing, since most people are for it if it’s explained to them. You can explain it easily. Their argument can even be packaged into a media-friendly, 8-second sound bite (if you take longer, you’re just not ready for prime time). Actually, it’s much easier to explain single-payer than the thousand-page bills that were being debated in Congress. Think about it. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand: “Single-payer is Medicare, just dropping the age of eligibility to the day you’re born.” This is something that everyone understands. It’s something we already have. It’s not radically changing the system; it’s just expanding it to include everyone. Medicare has its problems, but it’s a basic system that at least everyone would be guaranteed a basic form of health care.
And yet, if you wonder why the media doesn’t bring us this, aside from just continually echoing the establishment, just follow the money. How many Viagra ads can you see in an hour? The advertisements, the corporate backers of these corporate networks, big Pharma, the insurance industry. This is why community radio is so important, this is why public broadcasting, public access channels on cable, are all so important. Independent media is critical to any discussion about these vital issues.
I interviewed Dr. Steffie Woolhandler on Democracy Now!, from Harvard Medical School. She is one of the founders of Physicians for a National Health Plan, an organization of doctors who advocate for a national, single-payer health plan. PNHP released a study that estimated four times as many U.S. Army veterans died in 2008 because they lacked health insurance than the total number of U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period. The Harvard Medical School team says more than 2200 veterans under the age of 65 died in 2008 because they were uninsured. This is astounding. Most Americans would be shocked to hear this. Yet, Dr. Woolhandler and the PNHP study received virtually no mainstream media coverage. Remember the health care reform uproar during the Summer of 2009? Again, no meaningful coverage of single-payer, but endless televised loops of the angry participants shouting at Congressmembers’ meetings with constituents.
Let’s move from health care to war.
President George W. Bush getting it so wrong on weapons of mass destruction exposed more than him. It exposed the entire press corps, and that has opened up a huge media landscape to people. People across the political spectrum – conservative Republicans, progressives, independents, Democrats – people care about war, about corporate control, about privacy, and I think the media getting it all so wrong in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq made people look other places, and that’s why independent media is so important right now. I think it’s why Democracy Now! has grown so much, from a few dozen community radio stations in 1996, the first daily election show in public broadcasting, to over 900 stations now.
Because there is so much static out there, because we need to break the sound barrier, we are building an independent media network, linking up with independent stations all over the world, and they are coming from every different sector. Independent media’s time has come, because people, young and old, see what it means when the media has a corporate agenda, how dangerous it is when our image is projected to the rest of the world through a corporate lens.
If you look at the way the rest of the world sees us and the way we see ourselves, it is very telling. If you ask someone what they think is the most famous image of the invasion of Iraq, someone in the U.S. would probably say the image of the statue of Saddam Hussein going down, because we saw it thousands of times. It was April 9th, 2003, in Firdos Square in Baghdad. You see that rope around his neck. Just outside the frame, the US Marines were pulling it down. It goes down and then, up, down, up, down, thousands of times. We all remember it because the media showed it. The rest of the world was seeing something different, or at least something additional. The Wall Street Journal did a piece on this, comparing two news outlets. No, not CNN versus Al Jazeera. They compared CNN with itself, because CNN has two channels, CNN Domestic and CNN International, both of which pull from the same pool of video footage. CNN Domestic just kept showing that statue going up and down, up and down, but CNN International knew they couldn’t get away with that, because the rest of the world’s media were showing the casualties of war. So, they showed a split screen: on one side the statue going up and down, on the other, the casualties of war.
We need a media that tells the truth, because when there is so much media, so many channels out there, you somehow get the feeling that if something is happening you would know about it. Yet, it actually makes us less informed. If we were to see for one week the images of war, if we saw the babies dead on the ground in Iraq, the women with their legs blown off by cluster bombs from Iraq to Afghanistan to Lebanon, if we saw the soldiers dead and dying, for just one week, if we saw it on the front page of our newspapers, all the photographs, we saw at the top stories of our newscasts, then Americans would say no, that war is not the answer to conflict in the 21st century. The Bush administration knew the power of these images, which is why one of their first acts was to impose an executive order prohibiting photographs or videos of the flag-draped coffins of soldiers coming home.
Back then, I interviewed Nadia McCaffrey, a mourning mother. Her son Patrick, when he was called up to go to war, sat with her for hours. He didn’t think the war was a right response to the September 11th attacks. His mother encouraged him not to go but he felt that he would be deserting his buddies and so he went to Iraq and he was killed there. When his body was sent back to the Sacramento International Airport in California, Nadia McCaffrey engaged in a defiant act. She invited the videographers, the filmmakers, the reporters, to come to the airport, to film the casket of her son as it was offloaded from the plane. She encouraged the camera people to snap away, the filmmakers to turn on their cameras, the reporters to take note. She said, “my son did not go to Iraq in darkness, I don’t want him coming home in darkness.” It is our responsibility to go to where the silence is. To record those images.
President Obama reversed the order banning the photography of those returning caskets, and took criticism form the Right for doing so – but still, the images remain almost entirely absent from the corporate media in this country.
Democracy Now! began fifteen years ago, as a daily, grassroots, global, unembedded, independent, international, investigative news hour. We deeply believe that the mission of a journalist is to go to where the silence is, that the responsibility of a journalist is to give a voice to those who have been forgotten, forsaken, beaten down by the powerful – it’s the best reason I know for us to pick up our pens, our microphones, and our cameras both into our own communities and out to the wider world. The media can be, must be, a major force for peace.
As we interview Palestinian children and Israeli grandmothers, Iraqi aunts and Afghani uncles, and children from Somalia to the South Bronx, the media can build bridges between communities because you say “that sounds like my baby, it sounds like my grandma, that sounds like my aunt or my uncle, it sounds like family – even if we disagree – it sounds like someone I want to protect, who has a right to exist.” The media can build bridges between communities, not advocate the bombing of bridges.
I will end back in World War II, with the White Rose collective, started by a brother and sister named Hans and Sophie Scholl. Hans and Sophie were not Jewish, they were German Christians, but together with their professor and other workers they asked, “What can we do in the face of the Nazi atrocity?” They thought the best they could do was get information out. And so they published a series of pamphlets. And they got them out any way they could through Germany. Hans and Sophie were captured, they were tried, they were found guilty, and they were beheaded. But their philosophy, which they printed across the front of one of the pamphlets, said “We will not be silent!” This should be the hypocratic oath of the media today.
We will not be silent.