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War Dances and Media Complaints

Gore Vidal, the American essayist and novelist who lives in Rome was in the U.S. recently where he overdosed on homeland media coverage of the coming war. It made him indignant.

"The media [have] never been more disgusting ... Every lie out of Washington -- they're out there doing war dances."

War dances or not, there clearly is a pattern of coverage that is beginning to attract more dissection and complaint. Andrew Tyndall, who analyzes every U.S. TV newscast, has been keeping track of the tilt in the coverage. USA Today found his research newsworthy, reporting:

"Of 414 stories on the Iraqi question that aired on NBC, ABC and CBS from Sept. 14 to Feb. 7, Tyndall says that the vast majority originated from the White House, Pentagon and State Department. Only 34 stories originated from elsewhere in the country, he says.

"Similarly, a check of major newspapers around the country from September to February found only 268 stories devoted to peace initiatives or to opposition to the war, a small fraction of the total number. Most editors and reporters think the diplomatic story -- the great power narrative -- is more 'real,' New York University's [Jay] Rosen says. 'And people who move into the White House know how to dominate the news agenda.'"

But could they dominate the agenda without media complicity and the promotion of what most media pundits see as the "inevitable." Village Voice media critic Cynthia Cotts, who follows coverage closely, notes, "Last week, journalists were still using phrases like 'a possible war,' 'in the event of war,' 'if war breaks out,' and 'assuming there is a war.' Events were unfolding so quickly behind the scenes that results were impossible to predict. But by press time, the subtext that was previously embedded in every newspaper, Internet, and TV war story had become the main thesis: The U.S. is going to attack Iraq. Case closed."

The case seems to be closing against the quality of journalism we are seeing and reading as well. More than two dozen journalism school deans and professors, independent editors, journalists and authors, major media editors, publishers, producers and reporters have signed a letter to the major media indicting the tendency of many media organizations to become a megaphone for the Bush Administration. Their letter cites six specific complaints over the nature of the coverage:

1. "The Horserace Syndrome & Highlighting Tactics Over Political Analysis: Endlessly repeated news features with titles like 'Showdown with Saddam' present a grave matter as though it were a high-stakes sports contest," the letter says. It goes on to highlight major news stories the media has failed to cover adequately as they obsess over military tactics."

2. "Failing to Protest Government Control of Information: The government has frozen out the media and carefully controlled their access to information. Newspapers and TV news have underreported this freeze out, and failed to contest it aggressively."

3. "Failing to Maintain an Arms-Length Relationship with Government: State-controlled media comes in many garbs," warns the letter, noting the over-reliance of TV news in particular on government-approved retired military and intelligence consultants."

4. "Failing to Question the Official Story: The media should never confuse patriotism with obeisance and a rubber-stamp mentality."

5. "Failing to Present a Diversity of Viewpoints: There is a duty to seek out and quote the many experts who express skepticism about claims by the state, rather than simply to rely on the same pundits repeatedly," the letter states. It calls as well on editors, publishers and producers to see that their op-ed pages, letters-to-the-editor sections and talk shows are "open to a vigorous diversity of viewpoints."

6. Radio: "Years ago, radio actually acknowledged the concept of orderly debates with widely varying viewpoints," the letter states. "It should do so again."

Influential newspapers like the Washington Post seem to be leading the charge to war. Columnists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman surveyed Post coverage, concluding: "We would say that the Post editorial pages have become an outpost of the Defense Department -- except that there is probably more dissent about the pending war in Iraq in the Pentagon than there is on the Post editorial pages."

"In February alone," they observe, "the Post editorialized nine times in favor of war, the last of those a full two columns of text, arguing against the considerable critical reader response the page had received for pounding the drums of war. Over the six-month period from September through February, the leading newspaper in the nation's capital has editorialized 26 times in favor of war. It has sometimes been critical of the Bush administration, it has sometimes commented on developments in the drive to war without offering an opinion on the case for war itself, but it has never offered a peep against military action in Iraq ...The op-ed page, which might offer some balance, has also been heavily slanted in favor of war."

Even as it appears the bulk of the coverage has joined the march towards war, the public still has not fully enlisted. This points to a growing gap between what the polls are showing about popular attitudes, and even support for anti-war views, and the mainstream media's enchantment with the spin of the Washington consensus. In an intensifying media war, alternative sources flood the internet as anti war articles from European media circulate in the American heartland.

This battle within the media, between new media and old, alternative and independent voices and mainstream pundits, is also heating up. A culture war is erupting as well as popular musicians, actors and even athletes take sides. It's 'Law and Order' versus 'West Wing' is how one commentator put it.

Stay tuned.

"News Dissector" Danny Schechter writes a daily weblog on media coverage on mediachannel.org. His latest book, "Mediawars" is out this month from Rowman and Littlefield.

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