A CURTAIN of prescribed patriotism has dropped over our TV news screens, obscuring all but the most ratings-driven stories.
That sounds mighty like business as usual, as if the war on terrorism were the O.J. trial, the Monica/impeachment process or the travails of Gary Condit. Even the barely readable and often dissonant crawl of "other news" (Paula Jones remarries in Little Rock as bombs fall on Kabul) across the bottom of our screens is not reporting what's going on backstage of the red- white-and-blue curtain of war and national unity.
Three media-related factors are converging to produce the gap-toothed smile of self-satisfaction we now see on the screen. First, the ratings climb of Fox News, a blatantly biased, conservative news service that is challenging the long-time supremacy of the more balanced news networks. Fox News is gaining viewers and, consequently, ground in the all-important revenue race.
That's not because there is a larger conservative audience. It is because Fox is more passionate, less inhibited and deliberately more dissident, especially to the mainstream press. The Fox formula provokes, engages - entertains, if you will. It's not a signal to imitation or a press pass to the Right, as some less imaginative media executives appear to think. It's more an incentive for other news outlets to find the missing voices and fresher formulas, without betraying their bedrock journalistic principles.
Also behind the "seens" are business interests that ceaselessly seek to advance their own ends, in shameful exploitation of the national mood of generosity of spirit and muted politics.
Coincident with them are their media colleagues and cronies, including Fox, who themselves, war or no, are lobbying to get rid of the remnants of broadcast regulation. Despite ongoing giveaways to them, the media industry wants more: relaxation of cross-ownership rules, tax rebates and final burial rites for the requirement - some would say the patriotic requirement - that it serve the public interest, convenience and necessity in exchange for the license to broadcast. In other words, the corporate owners of the news networks are looking for favors from an administration they are covering. In journalistic circles, this is known as conflict of interest and a breach of ethics.
Finally, there's the right-wing media watchdog, the Media Research Center, which states, "We are training our guns on any media outlet or reporter interfering with America's war on terrorism or [trying] to undermine President Bush." It has already targeted the presidents of CBS and ABC, both of whom flinched in the face of its attack.
But even if the news reports are focusing on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the fallen Taliban, the politics of Washington go on. What's not being covered are the previously debated policies of President George W. Bush and his administration and the wheelings and dealings of lobbyists that are going on in the dark wings of our threatened national security. There are issues and actions deserving of daylight and debate. There are decisions being made that could - that will - have as profound an impact on the future as an international web of terrorists.
The budget surplus has disappeared down a rabbit hole of tax cuts and post-Sept. 11 emergencies that sprung the lock on the lockbox of Social Security. This matters to a lot of citizens dependent on Social Security benefits in the future, who will find they are as poor as the Enron employees whose retirement funds were tied up in a politically well-connected company engaging in deceptive accounting processes.
Then there is the falsely labeled "economic stimulus package," aimed not at temporary measures to get the economy going again but at long-term and retroactive tax giveaways to corporations and the wealthiest Americans - gifts that come without any quid-pro-quo requirements that could connect legislative intent to the desired outcome. Even news organizations could not ignore the recession that made the stimulus debate so urgent, but anyone looking for facts or genuine philosophical disagreement about how to get the good years rolling again would not have heard anything but headlines or the blame game from television news.
Not to mention energy policy, campaign finance reform, setbacks for anti-trust laws, defense spending, the health-care crisis, the impending states' deficit crisis and many other issues that comprise the serious and essential side of informing the public.
It appears the news media, no less than the politicians, have been swayed by the Bush ultimatum "either you're with us or for terrorism" - which is more a non-sequitur than a syllogism. It's not just Dick Cheney, our fearless vice president, who is hiding in a secure location because of the terrorist threat. The entire government, aided by the shield of the press, is concealing itself in the cave of crisis and war.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.