The Un-American Media

Ana Marie Cox

There was a time you could safely assume that anyone calling skeptical coverage of the war in Iraq un-American” was probably also speed-dialing Rush Limbaugh. Now it seems that calling skeptical coverage of the war un- American” is probably correct, if only in the most literal sense. With the American press largely distracted or enraptured with the spectacle of combat, the duty of examining the motives behind the war has fallen to the world’s other media outlets.

The audience for these un-American stories is becoming more and more American. In the past month, foreign news Web sites have seen large volumes of traffic from computers in the United States. Wired reported that almost half of the visitors to the Guardian Web site were Americans. Americans have also been flocking to Arab news sources, particularly the Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera. The channel reaches 150,000 households in the United States via satellite, but a newly launched English-language Web site reaches anyone with a modem. During the first week of the war, Al Jazeera” rounded out the top three terms searched for on Google​.com (along with CNN” and Iraq.”).

This trend has been building steadily since the New Year, but the war has brought it to new heights. A media metric called Blogdex,” developed by MIT’s Media Lab ranks Web sites by the number of independent-and mostly American-web diarists, or bloggers,” linking to them. (Full disclosure: I am now a recreational blogger myself, at http://​thean​tic​muse​.blogspot​.com.) It’s a fairly reliable indication of what people on the Internet are reading. Since the war began, almost every other site has been a foreign news source.

What kind of stories have the bloggers pointed to? The Financial Times reporting on the invasion of Umm Qsar, a small but politically significant battle that has become an embarrassment for the invasion force.” And the BBC reporting on a British jet downed by a friendly fire” Patriot missile. One doesn’t have to rely on professional news sources to hear about Iraq, either: Salam Pax” blogs from Baghdad itself.

It’s heartening to find that Americans in large numbers thirst for alternatives to the narrow spectrum presented by our native news outlets. It’s even more heartening to discover that these alternatives exist. Want to read an A-section article about who supplied Iraq with its arsenal of weapons? Canada’s Globe and Mail will have your answer (the United States, of course). What about an investigation that builds upon Seymour Hersh’s reporting on the individuals likely to make a profit off the war? The Guardian linked Bush hawk Richard Perle to a software company selling terror alert software.

The relative tenacity of the foreign press was clear, of course, before the war began. The Globe and Mail broke the story regarding the falsified documents used in Colin Powell’s U.N. testimony on the Iraqi regime’s alleged bid to purchase nuclear materials from Niger. The Guardian took the lead in following up on allegations that the United States had bugged offices of several E.U. delegations to the United Nations. (There’s a special irony here, since the U.S. press largely reported without comment President Bush’s citation of Iraqi surveillance of U.N. inspectors as an 11th-hour casus belli.)

And if you’re still stuck in the past, wondering how we got into this mess, you would have to be reading the British papers to hear anything about the TelePrompTer error that lured President Bush into a fatal ad-lib. London’s Telegraph quoted a senior British official” on Bush’s September speech before the United Nations: For us the key phrase was Bush’s commitment to seeking a new U.N. resolution to disarm Iraq. We were only sure we had it 24 hours before the speech. … For some reason this was left out of the text on the TelePrompTer as Bush was reading it, and he had to improvise.”

The President vamped, and instead of saying resolution’ he said resolutions’ in the plural. That’s how we got stuck with the French idea of two resolutions.” Only in America would the failure of diplomacy” stem from an incident properly relegated to a Presidential blooper reel.

The mere existence of these articles illustrates that the true story of this war continues to be choreographed as much in the boardrooms and the backrooms as it is on the battlefield. The American press in Iraq enjoys unprecedented access to military personnel and actual battles and can’t stop crowing about it. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer continues to stonewall inquiries into the president’s own views and opinions on the war, and gently chides his flock in the West Wing that the best place to go get operational information about the war is not from the White House.” Only in America would this disavowal of executive involvement in national defense be a comfort.

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The Internet’s audience can hardly said to be representative of the nation as a whole. Yet increased interest in foreign coverage of domestic matters sparks some hope that the Chicago investors intent on starting a liberal radio news network have an audience waiting for them. Whether the network will succeed in reaching that audience is another matter.

Radio has the most concentrated ownership of all broadcast media: Just four companies take in 90 percent of all ad revenue. The largest company, Clear Channel, owns more than 1,000 stations, takes in 20 percent of all radio advertising dollars, and every day reaches 54 percent of all people in the United States ages 18 to 49. This is hardly, as one of the Chicago backers put it, a hole in the market you could drive a truck through.”

Clear Channel maintains its stranglehold on the American market in large part due to the willful deregulatory campaign waged by FCC Chairman Michael Powell. For Clear Channel, the corporation behind Rush Limbaugh, the series of support our troops” rallies it sponsored across the country might have just been a way of saying thank you” to the administration that has helped them so much. Then again, it might be just more buttering up. Regulations on media ownership are under review this year, and ginning up support for the administration’s war is a good way to sweeten the $100,000 the company donated to Republican candidates in 2002.

Speakers at the Clear Channel rallies have a word for people who make such speculations. At a rally in Richmond, Virginia, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) called them un-American.”

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Ana Marie Cox is the brains behind Wonkette, one of the most popular political blogs on the web. She is also the former editor of the dearly departed suck​.com and has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mother Jones, Wired and Spin.
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