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Media Are Out of Step With Democracy, Acting as a Branch of Government


22 October 2001

Without even being drafted into the armed forces, many journalists have saluted sharply and reported for duty in the nation's "war on terrorism." Rather than acting as the Fourth Estate, monitoring and balancing the power of the state, much of the media have instead been performing as the fourth branch of government.

In some ways, that's understandable; the American people reacted with shock, rage and patriotism in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the media pretty much reflected the public mood. The initial coverage of the terrifying events showcased the media in all their glory. In short order, we learned the what, when, where and how of the story. Reporters and photographers captured the horror and drama of that historic day with the kind of professional dedication and personal courage that exemplifies the best in American journalism.

But the media have been deficient in explaining the why of the tragedy. And in a society with a representative government bound by constitutional principles, the media must provide a context for events, not simply serve up discrete bits of unconnected data and state-sponsored innuendo.

In this first salvo of this first war of the 21st Century, the government hasn't even offered proof that the enemy it has named is indeed the culprit in the attack. And while journalists have been meticulous in their nuts-and-bolts accounts of the World Trade Center's tumbling towers and the heartrending human stories connected to the tragedy, they have been negligent in seeking the why of the story.

American people remain largely uninformed about the many foreign policy decisions (including aiding in the overthrow of leaders in Iran and bombing Lebanon, Afghanistan, Sudan and Libya) that have inflamed much of the Islamic world. We instead are told that we are hated because we are rich, free and angelic.

Nor are most Americans aware that Central Asia, according to the Oil and World Journal, will account for 80 percent of our oil by 2050, and that some people with connections to the Bush administration have commercial interests in that exploration. This issue may not be earthshaking, but it certainly is a part of the overall context of our war in the Central Asian nation of Afghanistan. Surely, Americans should have some contextual understanding of the conflict before sending their youth into harm's way.

But much of the major media's energy is being spent showcasing their symbolic patriotism. The news networks have saturated their sets with red, white and blue motifs and their commentators with assorted lapel pins. Some newspapers have featured stick-on flags and "wanted" posters of Osama bin Laden. News coverage of the president seemingly has become one continuous press release, lauding his performance as commander in chief.

The media have decided to postpone completion of a study commissioned to recount the ballots cast in Florida in the 2000 election. The consortium behind the study includes major U.S. news organizations such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. It has been "postponed indefinitely," according to Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communication at The New York Times. She said the decision was made because of a lack of resources.

To many Americans it may seem like a no-brainer; why wouldn't U.S. journalists reflect the war passions of the American public? Some believe that since unity is necessary during wartime, any attempt to sow disunity is akin to treason; a skeptical media is a luxury we can't afford. Government officials and military analysts often point to the contentious war in Vietnam as an example of a skeptical media gone awry.

But the contrary is actually true. The passions of war unleash demons that must be scrupulously monitored. Had American media been more conscientious during World War II, thousands of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent wouldn't have been interned. The German press, though originally suspicious and critical of the Nazi party, began falling in line after the 1933 Reichstag Fire convinced them that external threats were a potent danger. And were the pretexts for our entry into the Vietnam War more thoroughly analyzed, millions of Vietnamese and thousands of Americans may not have died.

The drums of war always drown out rational discourse. The news media should be the venue where citizens can turn to find reliable information, not data deployed as an adjunct to government policy or flag-festooned journalists performing as war mongering cheerleaders.

Salim Muwakkil.
Published in the Chicago Tribune.
2001, Chicago Tribune.



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