Why the Corporate Media Ducked the Real Story of Those Flying Shoes

Once there was a time when a viral video hit didn't have to star the president of the United States ducking a shoe, and in those days it went something like this:

"Hamster on a Piano (Eating Popcorn)" is #4 on Time magazine's Top 10 Viral Videos for the year, but if the people could vote, it would surely be pushed down to #5 in the wake of the George Bush shoe-dodging video. Or even lower, if one of the Bush mash-ups--Curly missing W and hitting Larry with a pie gets my vote--joins the original up there in desktop heaven.

I won't take up any more pixels analyzing the meaning of the original video, because Bush's loss of face was painfully obvious from the start (Robert Dreyfuss and Robert Scheer have laid it out really well in these pages). But what also jumped out during the first few days of coverage, when cable and even network news were running the vid as if were, well, "Hamster on a Piano," were the frivolous frames the newscasts constructed for every viewing.

Though there were scads of storylines to follow on shoe-thrower Muntander al-Zaidi's motivation--from the deaths and destruction during the occupation that he had covered as a journalist to his own kidnapping and release by insurgents--most TV news anchors treated the incident as goofball comedy (that they'd toss around puns was a shoo-in) and/or gushed over Bush's athleticism ("This guy has no physical cowardice at all!" enthused Chris Matthews). I half-expected to see a panel discussion somewhere on "Why do they hit us?," but even that might have been too introspective.

Eerily enough, that tone echoes the way Bush himself sees the incident. In post-trip interviews Bush has said being shoe-d was "one of the most weird moments of my presidency," expressed befuddlement as to why it happened ("I don't know what his beef was"), and dismissed Zaidi as just another lone shoe-man, a wee Harvey Oswald, doing the typical 15-minutes-of-fame thing: "Here's a person that obviously was longing for notoriety, and he achieved it."

Which is fine for W--after all, denying the obvious is his life. But the media's habit of self-censorship has to be very deeply ingrained for it to parrot this agit prop. The flying shoe did not reveal how reviled George Bush is--everyone but George already knew that. What it really revealed was how much the corporate media considers itself to be the superego of the popular consciousness, and just how much it needs to contain that irrepressible Id called the internets.

As long as we're talking about irrepressible Ids, let's get back to Chris Matthews, whose first Hardball after the Wingtip of Mass Distraction hit the airwaves was a virtual X-ray of American media anxiety.

"From our culture, we sort of liked the way the president was nimble enough to duck it," Matthews patiently explained to his guests, al Hayat columnist Raghida Dergham and Washington Post national editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Matthews went on to decry, in a U.S.A! U.S.A! version of hurling shoes, those crazy Muslim hippies. "What is it in the Arab world where there's so many people available for demonstrations on a weekday?" Chris queried, as his guests blanched.

I mean...these guys all look like they got a two-day growth of beard. They're always available for demonstrations and they're always yelling in the same passionate way. Are they always ready sitting on benches ready to hit the streets with attitude? I mean, I'm kidding, but it is to us a cartoon. They put a shoe at the top of that flag pole--we laugh at this! You want to know our Western attitude? That's a joke. These guys sit around with nothing to do, drinking sweet tea, waiting for something to happen? I mean, why don't they work, why aren't they doing something?

Chandrasekaran tried to say something about "dire unemployment," but Chris big-footed on, saying over film of Iraqis at a demo: "Look, they're dancing over a shoe! ....Here's a guy who can't find the words to express his criticism of our policy, he can only speak with his shoes. Why can't he say something?"

(Zaidi did say something, of course, and rather succinctly: "This is a farewell kiss, you dog" for the first thrown shoe, and "This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq" for the second. But those are the thoughts the fig-leaves are pasted over.)

On Wednesday, a New York Times op-ed by James Kenney fine-tuned Chris's point about the absurdity of other countries' insults (as Kenney imagined them), especially when they're based on picking up dirt from the ground: "In France, of course, it's a waffle....the target is even lower than a waffle, which is sometimes on the ground if it happens to fall off a plate, and the ground could be dirty, depending on the ground."

Foreigners! What will they think of next? Mika Brzezinski, cohost of MSNBC's Morning Joe, was far more gracious in diminishing the whole insult situation, saying, "I thought the president handled that so beautifully."

Other talking heads picked up on the shoes' dark undercurrents. Juan Williams told Bill O'Reilly that, yeah yeah, he gets the puns and jokes, "But on a serious level, how many American lives have been sacrificed to the cause of liberating Iraq? How much money has been spent while they're not spending their own profits from their oil? American money. So I just think it's absolutely the act of an ingrate for them to behave in this way."

I must admit, I never saw the ingrate argument coming. When CNN's Candy Crowley gingerly asked George Bush, "Was there ever a part of you that, in reflection, went, wait a second"--and here I thought she'd surely complete the sentence with "I understand why the Iraqi people are angry at me"--but instead she said, with perplexity, "We have poured billions of dollars, not to mention U.S. blood and treasure into this country, how dare this guy, even if he is a single guy?" ("Single" meaning not Zaidi's marital status but that, in Candy's eyes, his act didn't represent a group opinion, merely his own.)

Certainly, some MSM commentators got the video's message right and connected the glaring dots, but prominent instances have been hard to find. Overall, the mainstream media's inability to follow thoughts to their logical conclusion has been perfected during the Bush years. Nothing illustrates that better than the fact that after he was grabbed and beaten by security guards, Zaidi was dragged into the next room and presumably beaten again--his "cries could be heard from a nearby room," wrote the New York Times--but Western and Iraqi journalists stood by and went on with the press conference. If any of them crowded the door, tried to get a camera inside, or asked what all the screaming was about, we haven't seen or read about it.

It happens all the time, and in plain sight. When Jonathan Karl of ABC asked Dick Cheney earlier this week whether he thought that waterboarding prisoners in American custody was appropriate, and the veep answered, "I do," Karl got a scoop but he didn't follow it to its logical end by striking a comparison between Cheney and the Japanese, as well as the American, military men whom the U.S. sentenced to death for using that same form of torture. Instead, he went on with the interview.

Corporate media: It wants to know how much the hamster likes its popcorn, not why it's upside down and on its back.

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