Oedipus in Manhattan

The blind report to the blind.

Susan J. Douglas

Lucky for me, I have smart friends. As several of us were mourning and trying to make sense of the catastrophe of September 11 on the following Sunday, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, the feminist historian, said, It’s really like a Greek tragedy, isn’t it?”

We had been talking about aspects of the disaster rarely, if ever, mentioned on the news channels: the role of American hubris, Americans’ ignorance of why we are so hated in other parts of the world, and the media’s role in perpetuating that blindness about our government’s often brutal actions and their tragic repercussions. So Carroll thought of Sophocles and, in the process, offered a powerful framework, barely whispered elsewhere, for thinking about how our blindered media have in turn helped blind the country. But unlike Oedipus, who gouged his own eyes out in self-punishment for his crimes, our dimness, inflicted by the media, may be the source, not the result, of tragic consequences.

Left-liberal critics have been warning for years about the threats to democracy posed by media mergers that concentrate the control over television, movies and print media into fewer and fewer conservative hands. In addition to severely delimiting the range of political discourse on television (try to find the progressive equivalent of The McLaughlin Group, Meet the Press or Fox News) they emphasize entertainment that they hope will garner ratings, quality fare like Temptation Island and Survivor. The assumption is that many Americans are not interested in foreign affairs (which is true enough, but a self-fulfilling prophecy), so why waste time and money on international news when you’ve got Gary Condit right here at home?

Thus the networks have, over the years, shut down foreign bureaus, cut back coverage and exasperated many decent journalists who feel it’s madness for Americans to be so willfully ignorant about everything except the Madonna tour. The shutting down of foreign bureaus has also reinforced ethnocentrism and institutional racism at the networkssure, you’d still have a bureau in London, but why have one in Africa? Stories about foreign affairs, and especially stories about the consequences of U.S. policy, have been deemed unprofitable and irrelevant.

As a result, how many Americans know about the deadly consequences of U.S. economic sanctions that have been in place against Iraq since August 1990? How frequently have the networks told viewers that medicines and materials for water purification are included in these sanctions? Various international agencies estimate that more than 1 million people have died as a result of the sanctions, more than 600,000 of them children. The leading cause of death of children under five in Iraq is dehydration caused by diarrhea, with malnutrition and pneumonia running closely behind.

But the networks have looked the other way, allowing Americans to bask in the myth that we are a good and decent people led by a good and decent government. Coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli crisis has been equally superficial. Most Americans know that the United States supports” Israel. Do they also know that bombs and missiles that kill Palestinians are often U.S.-made? It is utterly forbidden in the newly patriotic, flag-lapeled news media to even explore how U.S. policy may have gotten us to this tragic pass in the road.

Journalists could actually be quite clear here: Nothing justifies these horrific attacks, but we ignore anti-American hatred at our peril. Of course, as we hear the phrase wake-up call” ad nauseum, we would like to think this catastrophe might be a wake-up call to the news media, too, reminding them of the importance of coverageand not just from government sourcesof international affairs in this era of globalization. One would like to think that as a global power we can no longer sit here, admiring our reflections in the mirror, while actions done in our name immiserate millions.

But I have bad news. Two days after the attacks, when the media gaze was naturally elsewhere, the FCC, under Colin Powell’s son Michael, took advantage of the cover provided and initiated proceedings to further solidify oligopoly control of the media. (For those of you who haven’t been following Michael Powell, he intends to do everything in his power to shred the few pathetic remains of media regulation.) First, the FCC (under Rupert Murdoch’s directive) is seeking to eliminate the rule that prohibits an entity from owning a daily newspaper and a broadcast outlet in the same market. In asking for comments on the proposed changes, the FCC suggested that the Internet provides new diversity, so why not let someone own both a paper and a TV station in the same town? It wondered, disingenuously, whether the rule continues to be necessary to protect a diversity of viewpoints.”

The very same day, the FCC announced that it would also review previously established limits on the vertical and horizontal integration of cable companies and the limits on how many subscribers a cable operator can serve. Now I ask you, what kind of a sleazy, craven opportunist chooses this moment, with the entire nation in shock and grief, to slip through the initial stages of two huge corporate giveaways? 

With the help of the FCC, the media conglomerates have forced their news divisions to make large profits, which in turn has prompted bureau closings, staff cuts, the virtual elimination of documentaries and investigative reporting, and verbal food-fights passing for political discourse. Murdoch, who brings us right-wing propaganda under the guise of reporting on Fox News, may soon be able to bring us even more helpful commentary such as this offered by Bill O’Reilly about Afghanistan: The Afghans are responsible for the Taliban. We should not target civilians. But if they don’t rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period.”

This is typical of what now passes for analysis of Middle East affairs. Recommended homework assignment for O’Reilly: Watch the courageous documentary Beyond the Veil reported by Saira Shah and aired on CNN, which gruesomely documents what happens to people who defy the Taliban. For several years feminists have circulated information and petitions about the inhumane repression of women under the Taliban. But who cared? They were only poor Muslim women. Beyond the Veil has only aired twice, once at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, when it should be pre-empting everything from The Weakest Link to Entertainment Tonight. This documentary does, of course, support in many ways the administration’s attacks on the Taliban. But it also shows the enormous devastation already suffered by the civilian population and is a powerful argument against the bomb them back to rubble” and collateral damage” talk so favored by O’Reilly and friends.

But let’s return to the FCC’s speculation about the Internet now relieving the government’s obligation to preserve diversity in media markets.” On the Net are accounts of anti-war demonstrations around the country, anti-war petitions, media criticism pieces by left-liberal writers, and pleas for moderation and understanding from relatives of the victims, Afghani-Americans and international journalists. We hear none of these voices on television, see no coverage of the demonstrations, no evidence at all that there are millions of us, despite what the polls say, opposed to air strikes, the killing of civilians, the perpetuation of the cycle of violence.

We move between the cyber-world of peace and reconciliation, and the TV world of war and vengeance. The Internet gives us a way to communicate with each other that we didn’t have before, but it also allows our hopes and fears to be marginalized, stuck in a realm where we all talk to each other, reiterating calls and responses within our own Greek chorus.

So here is our nation blinded, like Oedipus, reassured by our media that hubris has no consequences, completely unable to see that character is fate. It has been, at times, a crucial part of our national character to have a free, active and critical press. When that is suppressed, it may shape our relations with the rest of the world in deeply destructive ways. In a sane world, the news media would do all it could in this time of ignorance, hatred and insecurity to help the scales fall away from our eyes. But my friend Carroll is right. The mainstream media are simply driving the stakes further into our eyes.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. Her forthcoming book is In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead..
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