At the Democratic convention this week and the coming Republican fest, rest assured of one thing: No one will mention a crux issue -- how patriotism supplanted journalism in America.
For its coverage of Iraq, The New York Times has publicly expressed its regret for being a conduit of White House propaganda. Dan Rather of CBS has lamented how "patriotism run amok" sabotaged his country's media freedoms. Some others have honorably done the same.
The current edition of Foreign Affairs has an article that raises a hot question: whether the war that was waged to disarm a dictator who was already disarmed would have happened if the media had done their job. The analysis by George Lopez and David Cartwright charts how Western sanctions and inspections throughout the 1990s had turned Iraq into a sickly wimp about as daunting as Denmark.
Its collapse into obsolescence, the sheering of its defense budget from $15-billion to $1-billion, were all on the public record. But the American media, jingoized by 9/11, largely ignored it. They went, instead, with the "gathering threat" tales the Bush White House fed them, a diet of disinformation that gave the President the needed support for a war that led to the slaughter of thousands of civilians. Had the media dug, had they consistently countered the Bush hyperbole with known fact, that support probably would have been lacking.
Perspective is a ghost in American journalism. History is forgotten as soon as it happens. You would think that given the presidential record of duplicity -- Bill Clinton on Monica, Ronald Reagan on Iran contra, Richard Nixon on Watergate, Lyndon Johnson on the Gulf of Tonkin, John Kennedy on the missile gap -- the journalists might catch on one day. Not in America.
In his speech at the Democratic convention, Jimmy Carter noted how the Bush administration had willfully generated public panic over terrorism. Statistics show that, last year, acts of terrorism killed 300 to 400 people, ranking it so far down the list of dangers to livelihood that it is barely visible. The threat of terrorism certainly shouldn't be minimized; but it also shouldn't be exaggerated by a cowed media to fit the White House agenda. For anyone who looks at some of history's worst threats -- the German military machine that killed tens of millions, the Soviet Union with a nuclear arsenal that could have turned this continent into rubble -- the terrorism of today, though George Bush has seeded so much more of it in Iraq, isn't anywhere close.
But how often does the media carry this context? The toll from weapons of mass destruction, which played no part in 9/11, has been trifling over the past decade, but the White House, playing the media as puppets, has made WMD a momentous issue of our times.
If it weren't so politically useful to Mr. Bush -- check the midterm elections -- and media buttons weren't so easy to push, it's safe a bet that the terrorism threat wouldn't get half the air time.
As journalists have been duped so often, admittedly duped, how can anyone say the media system in America is working? In times of foreign crises, the press doesn't report. It is politically exploited. It is supposed to reflect truth and reality but, by treating politically motivated White House words with face-value reverence, it is distorting that truth and reality and succumbing to patriot games.
It was encouraging to see The New York Times, which, despite all, still ranks high in the journalistic firmament, as well as other media admit to their folly on Iraq. But will it change anything?
When the Bush administration faced a bad news week with the announcement of John Edwards as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, it issued another one of its regular terrorist alerts. None of these alerts have amounted to anything, but each, like this one, seemed conveniently timed to divert the news cycle.
How did American journalists respond? Rather than view this announcement with cynicism, they ran the story right up there on the top of Page 1. Like it was the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help them God.
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