SOLOMON: Down the Media Rabbit Hole in 1999

When Alice returned from her journey, she was visibly shaken. "Frightful," she said."You were going to visit Medialand for all of 1999," I reminded her, "so why....""Forget it," Alice interrupted. "When I was a kid, I found Wonderland to be strange -- but Medialand is something else. I was lucky to get through half of January.""What happened?""The first day set the tone." She sighed. "I saw more than a dozen Tweedledums and Tweedledees -- news anchors on competing TV networks. When they opened their mouths, I couldn't tell them apart. And the longer I was in Medialand, the weirder I felt.""Did you go through that 'Drink Me, Eat Me' thing?" I asked.Alice looked offended. "Certainly not. And there wasn't a hookah-smoking caterpillar in sight." She paused. "But I did pick up the Jan. 11 edition of Time magazine.""What about it?""The special issue on 'The Future of Medicine.' Maybe you didn't notice that all the ads in the entire magazine -- 38 pages of advertising -- were for Pfizer pharmaceutical drugs.""No," I admitted. "Hadn't noticed.""There were a lot of articles about 'The Biotech Century,' concluding with an essay headlined 'All for the Good: Why Genetic Engineering Must Soldier On.' When I called Time editors to complain, they assured me that advertising doesn't affect content."Alice lowered her voice before continuing. "Overall, in comparison to America's leading journalists, I'd say the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts were models of sanity.""Perhaps you're exaggerating," I said."No way. I watched TV news. I saw Brokaw, Jennings and Rather. Woodruff and Shaw. Cokie and Sam. Walters and Downs. Shields and Gigot. Not to mention Koppel, Lehrer, King, Snow, Geraldo, McLaughlin..." Her eyes were glazing."So, what's the problem?""Let's start with the most powerful senator right now, Trent Lott. During this decade, he's been cozy with a blatantly white- racist organization, the Council of Conservative Citizens. Lott endorsed and praised the group -- and spoke at its meetings. But the scandal-crazed press corps has been very slow to cover the story -- with a few notable exceptions, such as Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall and some columnists.""Any other concerns?""Plenty," Alice replied grimly. "For instance, take a look at this." She handed me a clipping from the front page of the New York Times, dated Jan. 7, 1999.The first sentence read: "United States officials said today that American spies had worked undercover on teams of United Nations arms inspectors ferreting out secret Iraqi weapons programs.""What's your point?"Alice was incensed. "Don't you remember what happened last year? The U.S. government and news media kept insisting that the U.N. weapons inspectors weren't spies and had to be given full access to all sites in Iraq. Last December, the U.S. and Britain fired hundreds of cruise missiles at Iraq for several nights -- with the rationale that the regime in Baghdad hadn't cooperated enough with the inspectors."Now, it turns out that some of the inspectors were spies for the United States -- but when the news broke, it was a one- day story! The vaunted Washington press corps, supposed seekers of truth, just yawned."Alice's eyes were flashing. "Medialand is a vast expanse of illusion and duplicity," she went on. "Take all the concern about 'terrorism.' The first Sunday of the new year, I was listening to 'Weekend Edition' on National Public Radio. The host, Margot Adler, did an interview about terrorism with former CIA official Vincent Cannistraro.""So what?"Alice exhaled with exasperation. "Don't you understand? Cannistraro was in charge of the CIA's Contra activities during the early 1980s, when they were killing civilians all over Nicaragua. In other words, he helped run a terrorist operation. But in 1999, NPR News is interviewing him -- at length -- as an expert on how to stop terrorism. No mention of his bloody background.""Maybe you should stay away from Medialand," I commented."The news coverage of 'terrorism' reminds me of a discussion I had with Humpty Dumpty a long time ago," Alice declared. She grabbed a book, turned some pages and read aloud: "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.""The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things.""The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all."Norman Solomon is co-author of "Wizards of Media Oz." His new book "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media" will be published in March.


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