What Makes the Media Tic?

Random Lengths News | May 19, 2006
Like it or not, much of life is a matter of routines -- and that’s certainly true of news coverage. When media outlets provide a daily focus on repetitive events and chronic situations, the results are often journalistic grooves that turn into ruts. And so it has been with the war in Iraq.

For a while, the war stories were mainly euphoric: during the triumphal phase, which peaked at the time of President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on an aircraft carrier. The media cheerleading overwhelmed more sober voices.

A minority of journalists in mainstream media did try to put the hoopla in a realistic perspective. For instance, on the first day of May 2003, just hours before Bush’s top-gun performance off the southern California coast, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an insightful piece by TV columnist Jonathan Storm. “Television could not resist using breathless, scattershot dispatches from ‘embedded’ reporters to produce The TV War,” he wrote. “It was a show that sanitized the horror and death of combat, invited savvy veterans to provide commentary, and produced an entertaining combination of sports-style action and drama.”

Anticipating the imminent photo-op salvo, Storm added: “All is quiet on the tube now, as President Bush prepares to stand on an aircraft carrier tonight -- no chance for TV imagery is wasted on this administration -- and tell the nation that the major combat is over.”

If the major combat had actually ended then, the vast majority of American journalists would have continued to render a favorable verdict on the war. Most of the criticism since that time has been centered on the U.S. military’s failure to vanquish the insurgency. The downbeat media groove has cut deeply into Bush’s political standing.

Over the past couple of years, much of the coverage has reflexively portrayed the war in Iraq as mostly an American matter of political setbacks, diminished leverage and tarnished image. “As rebellion flares up across Iraq, the U.S. faces its toughest test yet,” Time magazine’s cover proclaimed in mid-April 2004. Seen through a media window tinted red-white-and-blue, the test facing Iraq was of secondary importance.

When the Wall Street Journal front page reported on a surge of violent counterinsurgency as the second week of November 2004 began, the news summary conveyed more concern about images of the USA than about lives of Iraqis -- explaining that “some worry of the blow to U.S. prestige if the civilian casualties are high.”

Yet, in human terms, when you see through the media smoke and mirrors, war is not about political fortunes of presidents or geopolitical positioning of governments. “The only way to understand war is to see it from the perspective of the victims,” war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote in The Nation magazine two years ago. He pointed out: “We prefer the myth of war, the myth of glory, honor, patriotism and heroism, abstract words that in the terror and brutality of combat are empty and meaningless, abstract words that mask the plague of war, abstract words that are obscene to those ravaged by war.”

A tic is defined as “a habitual spasmodic muscular contraction” -- and that’s not a bad description of what seems to happen with American media coverage of protracted U.S. warfare. Overall, by jingo-narcissistic definition, the people who matter most in any conflict are the Americans.

“Approval of Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq has fallen 10 points over the past year” among Americans nationwide, the Pew Research Center for the People & Press reported a few days ago, “and fully 70 percent say he lacks a clear plan for bringing the situation to a successful conclusion, up from 61 percent last February. This erosion of confidence reflects changing views of the situation in Iraq now, not a reevaluation of Bush’s original decision to get involved.”

In war, it seems, nothing fails like failure. But before anyone gets too pleased that the president’s party faces the growing likelihood of comeuppance in the congressional election this November, we should recognize that the war has become unpopular mostly because of the president’s failure to bring it to what the Pew Research Center calls “a successful conclusion.”

If the U.S. military had been able to crush resistance to the occupation, the fact that the war was based on fundamental deceptions from the outset -- and has caused vast carnage and suffering for Iraqi people -- wouldn’t have done much to mitigate a thumbs-up verdict from most of the American media. For journalists, no self-congratulations are in order.
Norman Solomon’s latest book is War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. For information, go to: www.WarMadeEasy.com.

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