Media and the Politics of Empathy

The day after America's tax deadline, President Bush signed a $79 billion spending bill to cover military actions in Iraq. Then he visited a Boeing factory in St. Louis, where employees make Super Hornet F/A-18s. While some union leaders, Democratic politicians and pundits took the opportunity to complain that Bush had opposed extending unemployment benefits for aviation workers, the criticisms didn't question the use of such warplanes, which flew many missions over Iraq this spring.

American media consumers have caught only glimpses of the carnage. National networks sanitized their war coverage. News magazines provided some grisly pictures. A few print reporters, notably Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post and Ian Fisher of the New York Times, wrote vivid accounts of what the Pentagon's firepower did to Iraqi people on the ground; only a closed heart could be unmoved by those stories.

But our country is largely numb. Media depictions of human tragedies may have momentary impact, but the nation's anesthetic flood of nonstop media leads us to sense that we're somehow above or beyond the human fray: Some lives, including ours of course, matter a great deal. Others, while perhaps touching, are decidedly secondary. The official directives needn't be explicit to be well understood: Do not let too much empathy move in unauthorized directions.

As always, on television, the enthusiasm for war has been rabid on Fox News Channel. After a recent makeover, the fashion is the same for MSNBC. At the other end of the narrow cable-news spectrum, CNN has cranked up its own militaristic fervor. In contrast, millions of radio listeners take refuge in the more soothing reportage from NPR News.

But NPR has its own style of numbing. Consider the spirit of discourse, in the midst of the war, as two of the network's mainstays held forth on Saturday morning's "Weekend Edition." During an April 5 discussion with host Scott Simon, the NPR news analyst Daniel Schorr exclaimed: "It really is quite amazing, whether one likes the plan of the Pentagon or not, it certainly, as of now, has been a most roaring success."

Simon replied: "And let's remind ourselves today, of course, there have been casualties. So far, according to NPR's estimate, 67 U.S. troops have died, 16 are missing, seven captured; 27 British troops dead, none missing or captured. Recognizing that these are all sacred souls that have been lost, at the same time the casualties seem to be standing a good deal lower than some people had projected."

The response from Schorr: "That's right. And, you know, an interesting thing is one of the great successes of the week is what has not happened. One is that there have not been very major casualties. Another is they have not been able to devastate the oil fields. Another is that they have not been able to cow the American Marines and the troops by sending in suicide bombers. They've managed to cope with that. There've been some unfortunate deaths of civilians there. But whatever was the strategy of resistance has not worked, and whatever is the strategy for marching to Baghdad seems to be working pretty well."

Such media assessments are guided by overarching PC sensibilities -- Pentagon Correctness. The homage is to victory. Americans and their allies are the sacred people. And accolades go to iron fists in the White House. "If real leadership means leading people where they don't want to go," Michael Kinsley writes in the April 21 edition of Time magazine, "George W. Bush has shown himself to be a real leader."

In 2003, militarism in America is a runaway train on a death track. Kinsley observes: "The president's ability to decide when and where to use America's military power is now absolute. Congress cannot stop him. That's not what the Constitution says, and it's not what the War Powers Act says, but that's how it works in practice."

Mostly, it works that way in practice because countless journalists -- whether they're flag-wavers at Fox News or liberal sophisticates at NPR News -- keep letting authorities define the bounds of appropriate empathy and moral concern. I know of very few mainstream American journalists who have pointed out that President Bush has the blood of many Iraqi children on his hands after launching an aggressive war in violation of the U.N. Charter and the Nuremberg principles established more than half a century ago.

"The character of our military reflects the character of our country," Bush told the Boeing workers in St. Louis. But "our military" is not supposed to let any unauthorized empathy get in the way of following orders. When the commander in chief says it's time to kill, then it's time to kill.

If that reflects the character of our country, then our country must change.

Norman Solomon is co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You."

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