Major twenty-four hour cable news networks in the United States have failed to bring to their audience a balanced view of the world. Focusing on trivial domestic issues, the same repetitive hodgepodge broadcast every fifteen minutes make viewers assume a slow news day when in the reality of a global context there is more than enough to report.
Al-Jazeera is a middle eastern news network that has been criticized by Donald Rumsfeld as “perfectly willing to lie to the world” and has “a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again for its 50 million viewers, most of them in the Arab world.” Bill O’Reilly referred to it as a “propaganda network … bent on encouraging violence and sympathetic to terrorists1“ It was quite a surprise when Josh Rushing, a former US Marine Captain who was the press officer for the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, started working for Al-Jazeera after leaving the Marine Corps.
Josh Rushing described his coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting which, at the time, was the top story for many American news networks. He said, “On that same day, there were two hundred twenty-five people who died from six car bombings in Baghdad, the Nigerian presidential elections were getting started and there was fighting in Mogadishu…that’s a real difference in how Al-Jazeera reports the news2.”
I was flying out to Chicago the weekend OJ Simpson dominated the screens of every monitor in the airport. He seemed to be the top story of the day. However during this time U.S troops found out that the Senate voted down a measure that would have insured all soldiers would be given a year off between deployments to Iraq, seven soldiers were killed in Iraq, over nine billion dollars had gone missing in a twelve billion dollar shipment to the Federal Reserve of Baghdad and a new survey suggested the civilian death toll for the war in Iraq could be over one million3.
The effects are not limited to American media. The British Broadcasting Corporation, during their September 11th coverage in 2001, reported that the Saloman Brother’s Building (World Trade Center Tower 7) had collapsed twenty minutes before the building actually fell. During the broadcast the building can actually be seen in the background behind reporter Jane Stanley as she reported on the possible cause of the collapse. The BBC’s response was that their original 9/11 footage had been lost4.
There is also the “fake news” including programs such as The Daily Show hosted by John Stewart. There is a concern that people may get their news form comedic satire rather than watching the real journalists. Stewart addressed that point at a Newhouse Press Breakfast where he said, “I’m not worried that they’re getting their news from me. The truth is, I know they’re not. Because you can’t…We assume so much knowledge on our show…I’m very impressed with most young peoples’ base of knowledge. The only study that I had heard that validated any of it was an Annenberg study that our viewers were better informed than people who actually watch the news. So, they’re not getting their news from us, they’re coming to us to find out what the funny is on it5.”
Shows like The Daily show and The Colbert Report make satirical humor on some very serious and disturbing topics. At times, it seems that some of these topics are so heinous that laughing at them is the only way to truly deal with the harsh reality of the world. As Stephen Colbert said during his speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, “But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they’re super-depressing. And if that’s your goal, well, misery accomplished6.”
In more recent times I really do think these shows may be counter productive in some ways. Take for example the following line from an episode of the Daily Show in which John Stewart is addressing Musharraf’s election victory in Pakistan with a supposed 98% voter approval:
Actually the election was boycotted by much of Musharraf’s opposition, um, in particular Pakistan’s radical Islamist for whom the main problem with his military dictatorship was that it’s too, er what do you call it there, lenient. So on the downside Musharraf has subverted the will of the Pakistani people but on the upside, the will of the Pakistani people has been subverted7
The audience laughs at this statement which suggests the will of the Pakistani people is that of radicalism. In reality journalists, students and lawyers held protests and rallies around the North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan to protest Musharraf’s recent imposition of the state of emergency, some of them even going as far as to organize hunger strikes8.
One of the more troubling comparisons comes from the fictional film V for Vendetta based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. In the film adaptation, the setting is an alternative history where the United Kingdom is controlled by a fascist government. The government censors and controls the news organizations who in turn, broadcast news reports about famous actors and frivolous topics to distract the public from the antics of the main character V. Even in US run independent media, the twenty-four hour news networks seem to take an obsessive amount of interest in similar trivial matters. To quote Josh Rushing, “On a week when the news mentions hardly anything but Anna Nicole Smith, there are events happening all around the world2.”
Sadly for Americans who truly wish to know what’s going on in our world the US mainstream media is unreliable. Although given freedoms by our constitution many countries do not have, it is still a massive corporate enterprise and is heavily controlled by market value and ratings. If the current trend of reporting is any indication of the marketability of broadcasts, it shows that the majority of American would rather be more informed about domestic problems and entertainment icons than they would be about global issues and international policy.
People who wish to stay informed are looking more towards independent media such as The Guardian along with trying independent blogs such as Michael Yon or Baghdad Burning. One of the more fascinating recent newcomers to independent news is The Real News which is supported entirely by donations from its viewers and accepts no government subsidies or advertising funds.
Technology invented within the past two to three decades has created communication that is faster, more interactive and with a lower cost of entry than ever before. The Internet has allowed people to express speech and publish opinions in a uncontrolled medium. It scares the larger media giants as it should. Now people are finally able to “watch the movie you wanted to the minute you wanted to9“ and it’s not AT&T that brought it to you as their 1993 commercials claim.
It was and is independent developers and researchers at universities that make much of the technology and standards that powers modern networks. And it is the people who must take advantage of this medium to publish, to read and to intelligently discern a massive amount of independently produced information. But for this to work people must chose to listen to each other on this large medium and unlearn the behavior of a corporately funded attention span. We must learn as a people to both publish and listen to each other and to discriminate the information we see and hear from all sources and choose our conclusions based on thoughtful inductive judgment. For the first time, we are truly a generation that has the ability to listen and speak to the people.
1 Former Marine in media glare as he joins Al-Jazeera. USA Today. November 28, 2006
2 Interview with Josh Rushing. The Daily Show. July 16, 2007.
3 While FOX News Obsesses About the MoveOn.org Ad and O. J.‘s Arrest, Here Is What Was Taking Place in the Iraq War NewsHounds.us Retrieved on November 15, 2007
4 911 and the British Broadcasting Conspiracy. (Film 2007) Adrian Connock.
5 Newhouse Press Breakfast. October 14, 2004. New York City. Broadcast live on C-Span
6 Transcript from Stephen Colbert’s Speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner CommonDreams.org. April 29, 2006.
7 The Daily Show. October 8, 2007.
8 Journalists, students hold rallies AsiaMedia. November 15, 2007.
9 You Will advertising campaign. AT&T. 1993