The Myth of the American Free Press

In an article posted on TomDispatch, Michael Massing discusses the impotence of the US Media in covering the conflict in Iraq. It is a good solid read, and should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been closely following the war in the "liberal" media.

The problem that this story highlights is that of the increasing lack of editorial control held by reporters themselves. The traditional view of the media has been one of an activist reporter selling a story on its merits to an editorial group. This group grasps that the sources are good and the story is important, and runs with it, damn the fallout.

Today, it is naive to hold that view of the media. For the Wal-Mart generation, news is only good and worthy if it:

  • Involves superstars
  • Embarasses and/or humiliates a person
  • Is a morality play
  • Shows the superiority of the American way of life

The lip service paid to the "free press" is becoming a worldwide laughingstock. Aljazeera and Alarabiya, the upstart Arabic news networks sneered at by the US Government and the mainstream media, provide more in-depth coverage of the conflict than the entire Baghdad press corps combined.

This extends to the homefront as well. The lack of critical coverage of the real reason the 9/11 Intelligence Reform bill died (it was killed by Rumsfeld and the Bush Cabal as a result of neglect) shocked me. Why would a bill that is so widely supported be killed?

This act did serve a political purpose, namely allowing the White House to tag the current session as lame duck, and allowing them to spin this bill (that they don’t want anyway) out into a session of Congress that they have more direct control over. But has this been covered or touched on in the mainstream media?

In its history, I would argue that only for the period from 1960-1980 was there any semblance of a free press in the United States. The humbling of Vietnam and Watergate, the Civil Rights battle, and the Iranian Hostage Crisis were the primary highlights of this period. These all served as embarassments to the United States, and helped galvanize and mobilize what is now termed the neo-conservative movement.

The shrieking, jingoistic, neo-conservative outsider of 1980 has become the rational, experienced commentator of 2004. Tempered by the humiliation of the free press, the neo-cons used their superior morality and deep pockets to create (by purchase or bullying) a media that would present the United States to the world as a simplified version of its own myth. The neo-con media agenda feeds a patriotic highlight film, not a critical analysis of American policy, foreign and domestic.

As was often argued on the campaign trail, John Kerry’s message was one that many Americans found complex, lumbering and tempered by the shades of grey found so often in the real world. The media, wrapped up in its new mandate to deliver news as quickly as possible, has lost the ability to delve into the subtlety necessary to handle complex issues. They want the instant gratification that comes with quick-change, sound-bite, easy-think MTV generation.

The coverage of the conflict in Iraq is a symbol for the decline of the American mainstream media. Television news is no better than the entertainment programs that bracket it. And when someone does question the coverage that they see, their patriotism is questioned.

Questioning the media — and the President — is succinctly summed up by Theodore Roosevelt.

"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else."

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