2002 Media Follies in Review
This is the seventh year that I've compiled lists of the most overhyped and underreported stories of the year. For the last several years, my talented colleague (and co-editor at the local newspaper Eat the State!), Maria Tomchick, has helped. When I started the list in 1996, it was with the perception that the U.S, public, instead of getting the information it needed to make informed decisions in a democracy, was being distracted with an endless barrage of feel-good trivia.
Ah, the good old days. Now, that same trivia is mixed in with active disinformation being cynically fed out by politicians from the White House down, self-interested corporations, and media that could know better if it only dared rock a boat now and then. As a result, two-thirds of Americans in a recent poll were reported to believe that Iraq was responsible for 9/11. That's a combination of a cynical and extraordinarily effective propaganda campaign, and corporate reporters not doing their job -- or at least, not the job they're supposed to be doing. Instead, network news gives us 45 second standups in front of the State Department followed by ten minutes promoting some new movie or TV series put out by the same corporate octopus. Then you'll see the same entertainment footage on local news, right after the car wreck and the sports, and before Super-Double-Doppler� 14-day weather.
The Most Overrated Stories of the Year
Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction
Nobody -- except the Bush Administration and Tony Blair -- believes they exist. Seldom have so many words been wasted on weapons that, if they did exist, would be few in number, poorly made, and impossible to deliver more than a couple hundred miles. Instead, Bush's obsession becomes our obsession. Worse, constant repetition of "Iraq = Saddam = Terrorist" has successfully shifted post-9/11 focus -- and blame -- away from the very real threat posed by Islamic terrorists, most of whom seem to come from countries we consider allies.
Axis of Evil
News Flash!! Iraq, Iran, and North Korea are three different countries. Iraq's and Iran's governments loathe each other, and neither has any connection with North Korea. They are radically different in politics, history, religion, and culture, linked only by the rhetorical flourishes of George Bush's marketers -- er, speechwriters. Apparently that's enough.
The Economic Recovery
It's coming, remember? And coming, and coming. It's just around the corner. Who'd have guessed this funhouse had so damned many corners?
John Walker Lindh
Amazing how a dirty filthy traitor can become a confused kid with a heart of gold when Dad can afford good lawyers.
Catholic Sex Scandals
Yes, they were horrific crimes. But media coverage routinely failed to distinguish between the recent priestly crimes and coverups and the ones that happened two or three decades ago. How come we can care so much about someone who committed sex crimes in the '70s, but a documented war criminal in the '70s or '80s can completely avoid criticism for engineering mass murder, even when nominated to a high-profile national position? That would be Mr. Kissinger. Come to think of it, it could also be any of a dozen other people in the Bush Administration.
Or amber, or chartreuse, or whatever other attempt to transform routine risk into public fear Bush's administration trotted out this week. As warnings, they're pointless; nobody pays attention. But as attempts to make the White House look good and prop up its other policies, they work like a charm.
Internet is media, and this is a media phenomenon -- an embarrassing one in which Someone, usually Bush or the CIA or Israel, either Knew And Did Nothing or Planned It All Themselves. It's an alternate universe in which circumstance is proof, every connection has meaning, every action is intentional and perfectly executed, and the thousands of people in on it are either too craven or scared to Tell What They Know. "Who Killed Paul Wellstone?" is a perfect example. It's an impulse for order. Life isn't random: whatever happens must have an intentional cause. This is religion, not news. And it's horsehooey.
The Smallpox Threat
The chances of a terrorist group getting its hands on smallpox and being able to effectively store, transport, and disperse it in a biological attack are vanishingly small. Even the suicidal smallpox terrorist who coughs on folks at the shopping mall would infect maybe one or two people before he died (and their chances of surviving are pretty good). We have better drugs and better sanitation nowadays. But media loves a scare tactic and they've seized on this one. Vaccine manufacturers love it, too.
As if smallpox wasn't a big enough scare, the Bush administration and US media want you to forget about arsenic in your water and nuclear waste being trucked through your town on its way to Yucca Mountain. Instead, we're supposed to worry about dirty bombs that don't exist.
So often the story started with "little Suzy disappeared yesterday..." and ended with "Suzy was found early this morning. She had wandered away from her backyard to visit the neighbors..." It was pointless, horrible, and pandered to parents' worst fears. And the "epidemic" of high-profile cases masked the fact that abduction rates were normal this year, and that most real cases involve custody disputes, not strangers.
The Most Important Underreported Stories of 2002
White House Propaganda
Particularly while justifying its Iraq obsession, the Bush Administration told one whopper after another this year -- exaggerations or outright lies not even consistent with each other, let alone reality. The individual statements are rarely challenged, and the Bush Administration's overall pro-war propaganda campaign -- one of the most effective in a half-century -- is itself rarely acknowledged by media that instead willingly participate.
America's Weapons of Mass Destruction
While Iraq's weapons got the attention, it's America's that still could wipe out life on earth. Yet abolition of the ABM treaty and the world's arms control structure got very little attention, the obscene cost and (after abolition of ABM) global first-strike potential of Star Wars remained invisible, and the potential for terrorist attacks against our own vulnerable facilities was simply verboten.
Majority of Americans Are Not Fooled
Surveys have shown, time and again, that U.S. citizens think that war with Iraq will increase our chances of being attacked by terrorists, yet the U.S. media continues to call it The War on Terrorism. Go figure. And the "broad public support" consistently reported in polls appears only when respondents are given the conditions of international support for war and few American casualties -- both highly unlikely.
Revitalized U.S. and World Peace Movement
Half a million people marched in Florence, Italy. Hundreds of thousands participated in various marches and rallies in U.S. But where was the U.S. media? Missing the key story: a peace movement organized to prevent a war. That's not just news, it's historic.
And if we're to instigate "regime change" and democracy in Iraq, how about looking at the country where we promised exactly the same thing only a year ago? Afghan democracy American-style has been a disaster, with a puppet regime in Kabul and new U.N. offices sucking up the foreign aid, while women suffer just as much and Afghanistan remains impoverished and terrorized by many of the same warlords, who are committing many of the same crimes that turned the wretched country into the killing fields during the Northern Alliance's first reign of terror. And those warlords are being funded with U.S. dollars, via the Pentagon, who's been paying them to hunt the Taliban. Oh, and it was a record harvest for poppies this year.
Meanwhile, the one country in the Middle East with confirmed nukes, a track record of defying international law and UN resolutions, and a consistent refusal to allow outside inspection remains our closest ally and biggest aid recipient. Moreover, Israel has committed systematic, horrific abuses against civilians within its militarily-occupied lands all year. Excepting a brief flurry during the Easter Offensive, it's mostly been media background noise, second fiddle to suicide bombings. And this, remember, is the one issue above all others motivating the people who did and would attack America.
Then there's our other war -- well, the biggest of them, since the U.S. military is now in 60 countries. Colombia's new far-right government and its paramilitary thug friends are getting not just Pentagon help, but a whole crew of private armies, mercenaries, arms dealers, and other American corporations making good money from dead Colombian peasants. That Saddam sure is a menace.
While rigged tribunals pardoned Indonesian officers for their role in the East Timor election massacres, the Bush administration quietly sought to reestablish ties and provide training, money, and weapons to the worst and bloodiest military in the world. The Indonesian military is responsible for massacres in Irian Jaya and Aceh provinces, plus the arming and training of Islamic fundamentalists that have been responsible for massive sectarian killings. In short, they're perfect candidates for a White House dinner.
Military Corporate Welfare
It all adds up to the post-9/11 conversion, without media attention or public debate, of the United States into a country built on permanent war. It's most evident in the budget, which gives blank checks to the Pentagon and to a dozen other agencies -- and that's just the overt ones -- with war as part of their mission. Most of the money is going into hardware, not personnel, meaning food stamps on base and juicy new contracts for triply redundant hi-tech kill toys. Combined with tax cuts, it means all war, all the time, and tremendous fortunes for the people least likely to get caught in the crossfire.
The Rest of the Corporate Scandals... and What Happened to Corporate Reform?
Enron was a star. WorldCom got some ink (although not much discussion of why its debt tripled from $3 billion to $9 billion), and Harken and Halliburton even put in (too) brief appearances. But the long, long list of other corporate scandals this year almost never made past the business section. And the systemic reasons why such "scandals" are the norm, or slight variations on the norm, were almost never discussed. Neither, after 20 years of deregulation and privatizing, was the complicity of most major figures in both political parties, or the total cost to consumers and taxpayers. Reform? With one SEC Chairman down and one head of the new Accounting Oversight Board resigning before his term even began, you can bet "reform" is a lost cause.
White House Power Grab
Occasional flurries, like Dick Cheney's noisy refusal to release information on who wrote his energy policy, made the news. But on endless fronts, this White House and its Congressional allies have reserved for themselves an unthinkable array of powers -- everything from keeping details of legislation secret until the last moment to imprisoning Americans without charges or counsel on nothing more than the President's say. A full list of the ways in which our unelected president is becoming emperor would be useful. We're still waiting.
Why aren't Democrats rocking the boat? Because they've got their own yachts. At every level from Congress to dogcatcher, 2002 saw a record low in the number of close elections. For Congress, fewer than 10% of the races were ever in doubt. Why? Money, of course -- campaigns are more expensive and candidates are richer than ever -- but factor in toothless campaign finance reform and 2000 Census redistricting, which, in state after state, saw the two parties agree on plans that maximized the number of incumbents with permanent sinecures.
Bush's Foxes, Our Henhouses
Turns out our emperor put a stop to the revolving door between corporate America and the White House -- by appointing people who never used the door, and never stopped working for the industries they came from. Particularly at the Undersecretary level, almost every conceivable segment of America's corporate economy now has a friend on the inside looking for ways to maximize its profits. Food safety, media ownership, land use, bankruptcy law, tort reform, pollution, tax law, anti-trust protection, and on, and on. Any one of these is a scandal. Three are a trend. Several dozen and you've got a looting spree of historic proportions.
Bush Flunks the Economy Test
His tax cut was supposed to bear fruit by stimulating the economy this year. It didn't, and next year's cut won't, either. He's a "supply-sider" -- and the Reagan administration should have proved long ago that supply-side economics is a joke.
High Consumer Debt Drags Down the Economy
All those years of taking out second mortgages, home improvement loans, and racking up credit card debt are starting to tell on the U.S. public and the economy. Bankruptcies are up, way up. Consumer spending, the engine that really drives the economy, is way, way down. A tax cut for a few rich guys isn't gonna help.
The Bush Administration's abolition-by-decree of numerous major protections could have been the story of the year, and served as the basis for other important stories: global warming (and the increasing isolation of America as Atmospheric Enemy No. 1), the Spanish oil tanker disaster, the impending final plunder of remaining Northwest old growth forests, the Klamath River fish kill, massive (and needless) forest fires, and the potentially enormous disaster if the Gulf War's Kuwaiti oil fires are replicated in Iraq.
The Rest of The World Goes Ahead with Kyoto
The Europeans are trading carbon credits, the Japanese are cutting emissions, and Canada has ratified the Kyoto Protocol. In January, when Russia ratifies it, it'll go into effect as international law -- for everyone except us. Oink.
The natural resource in greatest demand this century won't be oil -- it'll be potable water, already in desperately short supply in much of the world. And throughout it, access is being privatized. Anyone who thinks Bechtel will make that water affordable just because millions of people need it to survive hasn't been paying attention to the pharmaceutical industry, AIDS, and Africa. But how could they? That's underreported, too -- as is the health care crisis in this country, which makes this list for the seventh consecutive year.
The Collapse of the Neoliberal Consensus
While most governments still salute the IMF flag -- caught between the debt squeeze and loyalty to their own countries' elites -- all over the world, the public isn't buying it. In South America's two biggest countries, Brazil and Argentina, popular outrage threw such governments out. In Venezuela, a coup attempt backed by the business elite and the U.S. (another underreported story) was undone by popular demonstrations. Salvadorans just defied free trade. Mexico's much-vaunted maquiladoras are shutting their doors, as companies flee for China and other still cheaper labor markets. The rich get richer, the poor get more desperate, and around the world, the free market model now presented as inevitable in this country is anything but. And lots of people hate our genetically engineered food, too.
Meanwhile, back in D.C., far-reaching legislation giving the president virtually total authority to commit the US to neoliberal trade agreements was whisked through Congress -- in the dead of night, with no congressional, let alone public, debate.
The Smallpox Vaccine Scandal
It's a tale of contractors sucking up taxpayer money to make an unnecessary product that will do more harm than good. The vaccine program was stopped 40 years ago for a reason: more people were killed and permanently injured by the shots than would ever get the disease. Nothing has changed, except the Bush PR/Terrorism campaign. And with a large population of HIV-positive people and immuno-suppressed people with organ transplants, it's sheer murder to set a live vaccine loose. Meanwhile, flu vaccine shortages are an annual ritual, while 20,000 people per year die of influenza.
The Whole World Doesn't Hate Us
Sure, much of the world does (for good reason), but a substantial number simply think our government is run by certifiable lunatics. That perspective almost never shows up in US media.
Shredded Safety Nets
Beyond all the false cheerleading and Greenspan-worship, the one piece of the rotten economy that did, in fact, make news -- beyond tanking 401(k)s -- was budget crises. But these were inevitably painted as local stories. As their legislatures convene in January, forty-six states -- almost all of them -- face severe budget shortfalls. The feds send less money to the states, the states send less to the counties and cities, and at every level revenues suffer as politicians (or Eyman figures) rail against taxes. The first thing to get cut, at every level, is the safety net. The much-vaunted welfare-to-work programs mean there's even less help for people who work full time (sometimes two or even three jobs) but still can't make ends meet. And thanks to the aforementioned global warming, the winters will get colder on the street, too.
Every state features at least some prisons that are truly horror stories, notoriously uninhabitable -- too hot, cold, drafty, or otherwise intentionally miserable. Isolation cells, and other practices routinely condemned as torture by groups like Amnesty International, are the norm. And inmate populations, despite dropping crime rates and the enormous costs of incarceration, continue to rise. Meanwhile, in a conundrum that virtually defines "penny wise, pound foolish," education and job training get cut instead.
Highlighted by the first presidential use of the Taft- Hartley Act in 31 years (in the West Coast dockworkers dispute), a number of companies were hit with labor disputes triggered, in some or large measure, by a corporate desire to crush the union. It happened in the public sector, too, especially at the local level. But unions aren't news. Nor is the failure of John Sweeney's AFL-CIO tenure to deliver on its promise to emphasize organizing revitalize the labor movement -- but then, the highly effective door-to-door electoral outreach by labor this year didn't get covered, either.
There's more; there always is. The lesson -- beyond the fact that it's a big and complicated world -- is that in such a climate, it's more important than ever to seek out -- and create! -- alternative media; to take in more than one source; to decide for yourself; and to not believe everything you read. We've already been told this administration will lie to us; at least give them points for honesty on that score. Pity that's the only time most media outlets didn't believe them.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange.