Lucky for me, I have smart friends. As several of us were mourning
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
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
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
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.