Welcome to the eleventh year of selecting my annual list of the year's most overhyped and underreported stories. As usual, there's plenty to unravel: stories that should never have been stories, stories whose reporting largely missed the point, and stories barely told at all in mainstream US media.
But mainstream media is no longer the last word in journalism. One of the year's biggest underreported stories involved the media itself: how a critical corporate-friendly communications "reform" bill was stopped dead entirely through New Media activism. On international stories, foreign media -- universally available in English on the Internet -- often tells a completely different (and usually more accurate) story than what we see, read, and hear here. At home, independent media -- which has been way ahead of corporate media on any number of issues -- has repeatedly shown its relevance, to the point where Internet sites have become the preferred news sources for many Americans.
But it's the big corporate outlets that still have the largest audiences, online as well as in their original formats, and so it's the stories that do and don't appear there that require our attention. This is by definition an incomplete list. If you have suggestions for additions to the list, for either overhyped stories (I tend to tune the dumbest of them out, so I usually miss at least one whopper) or underreported ones, send them to email@example.com and we'll run the best ones in another column.
The Year's Most Overhyped Stories:
The Democrats Will Make Everything Better: Few people actually said this, of course, but amongst liberal and progressive media and activists, a narrative emerged during the 2006 election which told us that once Democrats controlled Congress, all our problems would be solved and we could move on to the 2008 presidential race. The problem, of course, is that in the intervening two years, most evidence points to Congressional Democrats taking few risks and not accomplishing much. Granted, it's at minimum an improvement in the sense that we'll never know what further horrors of one-party rule might have been perpetrated with different results in November. But our Denier-in-Chief still has two years with a Congress that will pick and choose what to confront him on. That could exclude not only the steadily worsening Middle East conflagration, but another Supreme Court appointment, among many other things. We're not out of the woods yet. Speaking of which:
November's electoral tsunami was a triumph of Democratic conservatism: So-called "Blue Dog" Democrats, in this widely accepted narrative, are what America embraced when it rejected Republicanism. Alas, it's horse hockey. To the extent the Democratic triumph was anything other than a massive repudiation of neoconservatism, the wave was just as much due to an energized progressive party base and the much-maligned Howard Dean's 50-state strategy.
John Kerry's bad joke: In the runup to that tsunami, it was not shocking that Republicans would latch onto a poorly told joke by John Kerry (a man running for nothing) and try to use it to indict all Democrats as troop-haters, traitors, or worse. (Why not? Swiftboating Kerry worked once.) What was astonishing was that the media establishment seized on this ridiculously naked ploy and ran with it. If malapropisms should indict a whole political party, not only should Kerry have become president in 2004, but Dubya's constantly ludicrous verbal stumbles should have destroyed his party by then. (Instead, he's doing it now, with deeds.)
Barack Obama: He's black! And many white people like him! What does this say about America!? Less than it says about media's ability to create celebrities out of near-thin air.
Speaking of potential presidential candidates, Russ Feingold's censure resolution of George Bush, and the fact that it generated far more media heat than actual impact on anything (or even co-sponsors), probably in the end helped convince Feingold that he could never win his party's presidential nomination. Are you listening, Dennis?
Electronic Voting Machines: Sure, they can be hacked. This is important. But in most places where they've been used, there's no evidence that they have been hacked or otherwise abused. Meanwhile, potential abuse overshadowed two much larger stories: the public's loss of confidence in the entire voting process, and the numerous other, more traditional ways candidates, especially Republicans, were purging or preventing voter registration, suppressing voter turnout, and committing other widespread dirty tricks tainting the voting process now.
JonBenet Ramsey: She's Hot! She's Sexy! She Was Six! She's Dead! How many years (and crackpot confessions) can corporate media stretch out its JonBenet necrophilia?
American Idol: This. Is. Not. News. Ever.
It's hard to believe, but on Feb. 22, 2006, the biggest story of the day was the Dubai Port Scandal. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the news, the anonymous bombing of the Ankari mosque in Samarra, Iraq, was busily touching off full-scale sectarian civil war. Which story had the greater long-term impact?
In the same spirit, let us pause for a moment to remember the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which by White House and press accounts was to be a major turning point in ending the violence in Iraq. One minor problem: they were completely wrong, as anyone who'd been paying attention could have and did point out.
And some terrorists simply aren't terrorists at all. Remember those British guys foiled at the last possible moment who were planning to make bombs out of toothpaste (or whatever) on Trans-Atlantic flights? Or all those Canadians busted for plotting to blow up every significant building in Canada on a long weekend? Or those hapless clowns set up in Miami? Don't believe the hype. Speaking of which...
The Iraq Study Group: Never has so much ink and air time been devoted to a powerless panel whose sole contribution was to tell us what anyone with a brain cell already knew (i.e., Iraq is a disaster), and to suggest policies nobody intended to adopt.
Tests Confirm! George Bush Has a Brain Cell!: True, this was never actually a story. But if it had been, it would've been overhyped.
The Year's Most Underreported Stories
Siberia's permafrost is melting: Why is this an important story? Because Arctic permafrost, which in Siberia covers endless miles, contains massive amounts of methane. The melting soil releases the methane into the air, where it is now expected to massively and irrevocably accelerate global warming. It's a process that has already begun, but just. This massive climate bomb literally has the potential to end civilization. Its discovery should have not only been the year's top story, but an impetus for all humanity to unite in a common struggle for survival. Maybe in 2007. Or 2009, when someone who believes in science occupies the White House.
Massive Grass Roots Win on Net Neutrality: The telecommunications lobby, the most powerful in Washington, spent $200 million in the 109th Congress to ram through a communications "reform" bill that would have given giant providers preferential access to the Internet, fundamentally changing how media in the 21st Century will be used and crippling the Internet's remarkably democratic culture. The slam-dunk bill miraculously failed -- due to a massive grass roots lobbying campaign on an issue that got almost no corporate media coverage. Millions of American responded on an arcane issue publicized solely through New Media, marking as milestones not only the victory but how the victory was achieved. Activists need to claim more of their triumphs, and this was one of the biggest in memory.
It's hard to believe that the year's biggest story was also badly underreported, but most Americans really do have no idea how bad things have gotten in Iraq. The proper debate as of late December is not over whether to call what's happening a civil war, but whether to call it ethnic cleansing or genocide. The scale with which America's unprovoked, illegal invasion has ripped this country apart molecule by molecule is simply unimaginable to most Americans. And American media doesn't even try to report the big picture, focusing instead on the numbing drumbeat of daily death totals. The armed thugs and death squads now ruling Iraq are fully capable of driving America out of Iraq militarily in the next two years.
On the other hand, we might be driven out of Afghanistan very, very soon. As in Iraq, the puppet American-installed "government" is irrelevant and Washington has made endless boneheaded decisions that are adding up to the Taliban retaking the country, steadily, province by province, month by month. Unlike Iraq, few Americans realize we're also losing Afghanistan badly, and in some ways more quickly. If only Afghans had oil, they could at least make the news. Maybe.
There's other major crises afoot in the Middle East, too, and the U.S. has a hand in all of them: Israel's attacks on Palestine . Palestine itself now on the verge of civil war. Israel's attack on Lebanon . Lebanon itself now on the verge of civil war, too. The threat that Israel or the U.S. could attack Iran or Syria, or both. Saudi Arabia's threat to intervene on the side of the Sunnis in Iraq, while Iran supports the Shiites. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States announcing plans to develop their own nuclear weapon program to counter Iran . What a mess. One name links all these stories: George W. Bush.
India, Pakistan, and nukes: India and Pakistan have hated each other for nearly 60 years. That's why in the late '90s they both exploded nuclear devices, which is why the Clinton administration slapped sanctions (later lifted by Dubya) on both. So what happened in 2006? Bush signs a massive deal to expand India's nuclear program, and continues to reward both Pakistan's Musharraf dictatorship and the Pakistani intelligence elements that developed Pakistan's nuclear program (and shopped it to North Korea, Iran, and Libya, among others) -- while at the same time undercutting the Musharraf regime, especially in the country's northwest, a Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold. Confusing, sure, but the upshot is that in turn this has increased the chances that, with an Islamist coup, Pakistan's nukes would fall into the hands of America's enemies. A real lose-lose, except for America's enemies. And at ground zero, the people of Pakistan and India, innocents in the crossfire of a conflict where we've rewarded the nuclear armament of both sides.
Say, where is Osama bin Laden, anyway?
We know who lost Iraq and Afghanistan . But who lost Russia ? In 1949 conservatives were asking this about China after the Soviet-allied Mao seized power, but in 2006 Vladimir Putin took countless additional steps to move what in the 20th Century was America's biggest rival for global power back to being an authoritarian state. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, nonviolent revolutions swept communist tyrants from power from Russia throughout the Soviet bloc, and it was all supposed to be better. And conservatives claimed that Reagan and America were responsible for this triumph of democracy. Who, then, is responsible for its failure? And more importantly, what does this mean for what is still the world's largest country and a major holder of oil and gas reserves?
Similarly, since when did torture, suspension of habeas corpus, and domestic warrantless spying become America's status quo? Since 2006, that's when. Three terrifying, textbook examples of how, in short progression, the unthinkable becomes the hotly debated becomes The Way We Do Things. As we enter 2007, all the elements for a fully "constitutional" dictatorship have quietly fallen into place. All it now takes is someone smarter or more ruthless than George Bush to exploit them.
Much of the so-called "Global War on Terror" is all about power and profiteering: Neocons wanted an empire abroad and expanded state power at home, sure. But wherever the U.S. military has gone in the last five years, which pretty much resembles a map of Planet Earth, privatization and lucrative contracts for well-connected companies have followed. Much of the logic of this so-called war is economic and intended to benefit only a very, very select few. While the threat posed by terror is real (especially in the wake of post-9-11 American policy), there are other far larger threats to the country's national security. Global warming, for one.
America's massive budget and foreign trade deficits, for another. Media has done little to enlighten us on just how badly the Bush regime has bankrupted our country's treasury for generations to come, and left out economy in the hands of foreign creditors like China and Japan . As 2006 closes, the housing bubble has burst, the flow of U.S. jobs overseas now resembles whitewater rapids, and the value of the dollar against foreign currency is plummeting. This is just the beginning. Thank the "terrorists" in the White House.
Amazingly, given how much it came up during the midterm elections, Republican corruption wasn't covered well at all in 2006. Media never followed the Abramoff scandal through to the dozens of lawmakers who traded his money for their votes. More broadly, there were almost daily stories of executive and legislative branch sleaze that never made waves beyond the Beltway and legislators' home constituencies. But cumulatively, they formed a damning indictment of how Washington does business. And almost no outlets covered the story as leaders of both parties buried attempts at meaningful post-Abramoff congressional ethics reforms in early 2006.
As with most labor news, The National Labor Relation Board's ruling disqualifying up to eight million Americans from union membership got almost no play. But this was no ordinary labor news; it was, by the AFL-CIO's reckoning, the worst government decision on labor in nearly 60 years. It was ignored anyway.
Even as the gap between the well-connected rich and everyone else continued to widen in 2006, class went back to being a forbidden word in corporate American media. A year after Katrina ripped away the thin veneer hiding race and class issues in America, and with Katrina's victims still being victimized by government agencies and insurance companies, with middle class jobs evaporating, privatization and government corruption endemic, health care and education costs still skyrocketing, class mobility in America decreasing, and levels of homelessness and hunger continuing to increase, the media veneer was firmly back in place. In America's increasingly vicious class war, one reason the wealthy are winning is corporate media's insistence (all evidence to the contrary) that no such war exists.
On the brighter side of that equation, though, the stranglehold of Big Money on American politics is ending. The 2006 elections showed that activist and especially Internet campaign fundraising can go dollar-for-dollar against corporate-friendly candidates. The technology is now in place to make it far easier for many little donations o match a few big special interest ones. It's no substitute for public financing of campaigns -- which would allow some of that money to be invested in meeting real needs instead -- but it's still a powerful democratizing force. As we enter 2007, we need all of those we can get.
Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter.
(c) 2006, WorkingForChange.com