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'Monomedia' and the First Amendment
28 June 2002
Speaking with grace and ease, a pensive network anchor compared the America of today with the one of a year ago. His script had the ring of media truth at the start of a new season. "How different the summer is going to be for all of us," CNN's Aaron Brown told viewers. A minute later, he added: "Summer life is going on. It's just different. Everything is."
Such assertions have repeated endlessly in media circles. They make sense if dictionaries are now obsolete and words don't really need to mean anything in particular. "Everything" is "different" for "all of us" only when the preposterous can be rendered plausible.
As a practical matter, virtually closed loops often dominate major news outlets. The result is what we could call 'monomedia'. When similar noises keep filling echo chambers, they tend to drown out other sounds.
July Fourth gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect. This holiday commemorates a revolution that made possible the extraordinarily important First Amendment. These days, in theory, just about everyone in the country has freedom to speak. But freedom to be heard is another matter.
Varied sources of information and genuine diversity of viewpoints should reach the public on an ongoing basis. But they don't.
"The war on terrorism" is a case in point. All kinds of claims - including the media-fueled notion that everything has changed for everyone since Sept. 11 - can take hold while rarely undergoing direct challenge. Newsrooms and studios, filled with hot-air balloons, are apt to harmonize with the pronouncements of official Washington as long as sharp pins don't get through the door.
The huge gap between freedom of speech and freedom to be heard also helps to explain how fervent belief in Uncle Sam's intended benevolence remains so widespread among Americans. Laid on thick by the dominant voices of mass communication, the latest conventional wisdom swiftly hardens and calcifies.
Beginning early last fall, a function of monomedia was to let us know that massive U.S. bombing of Afghanistan was wise, prudent and just. After all, it was a necessary safety measure to protect ourselves as a nation!
But on June 16 a front-page New York Times article, citing "senior government officials," reported that the Pentagon's killing spree in Afghanistan did not make Americans any safer: "Classified investigations of the (Al) Qaeda threat now under way at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States, the officials said. Instead, the war might have complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area."
Such a flat-out conclusion - about 180 degrees from the trumpeted rationale for spending billions of our tax dollars to kill thousands of people in Afghanistan - might seem to merit more than a few dozen words. But the Times did not belabor the point. The assessment, while prominent, was brief and fleeting. It seemed to cause little stir in American news media.
Some European outlets were a bit more interested in mulling over the implications. Agence France Presse immediately put out a story with this lead: "Classified U.S. investigations of the threat posed by Al Qaeda have concluded that the war in Afghanistan has failed to diminish the threat to the United States and may have increased it, U.S. officials told the New York Times." A week later, in the London-based Guardian, journalist Jonathan Steele noted the Times report and went on to reconsider the U.S. assault on Afghanistan.
"Forget, for a moment, the hundreds of civilians killed by bombs and the thousands who died of hunger during the disruption of aid supplies," Steele wrote. "Ignore the dangerous precedent of accepting one nation's right to overthrow a foreign government, however brutal, by bombing another country. The crude test of the operation depends on whether the fall of the Taliban outweighs the high costs. In the euphoria of last December many people felt it did. Can they feel so sure six months down the line?"
Of course they can - especially if those kinds of pointed questions don't get asked very often. In monomedia, who needs the hassle?
Inked onto parchment and chiseled into stone, the First Amendment is not really a guarantee. It's a promissory ideal that can be redeemed only by our own vitality in the present. If freedom of speech can be augmented by freedom to be heard, then Americans may hear enough divergent voices to disabuse themselves of easy and deadly cliches.