06 July 2006

Making Excuses for the "Liberal" Media, I

[As the title suggests, this is the first of a two-part post; the second installment will appear tomorrow.]

On a single day last month (Monday, 5 June) The New York Times ran not one but two stories on war photography - Michael Kimmelman "Photographs of Vietnam: Bringing the War Back Home" (B1,7) and David Carr. "Show Me The Bodies" (C1,5). Both authors draw parallels between the way the American press is depicting (or, actually, not depicting) the current war in Iraq and how it portrayed the War in Vietnam. Kimmelman’s story appeared in the Arts section, Carr’s in the Business pages. The two stories are, in different ways, a mess; they reflect, I think, the authors’ effort to absolve our largely supine mainstream press for the irresponsibility it has shown in covering the war. I will use this post to discuss Carr and another to address Kimmelman.

Carr takes as his point of departure a story in The Los Angeles Times by James Rainey entitled "Portraits of War: Unseen Pictures, Untold Stories" (21 May 2005). Rainey reports that during a six month period (1 September 04 through 28 February 05) a significant number (559) of American and allied troops died in Iraq. During that same period a systematic review of six major newspapers and two news magazines discovered precisely one photograph of a dead American solider. Now, this is a pecculiar pattern and Rainey's analysis is actually quite nuanced. By contrast Carr is concerned to explain it or, more precisely, to explain it away. In the process he ties himself into knots.

Carr is especially concerned to dismiss the possibility that a there might be a political explanation for the pattern that Rainey discloses. He insists that "it is practical, not political realities that dictate what we see" in the nation's mainstream press. In making this claim he derides un-named "conspiracy theorists" who "suggest that a sanitized visual narrative is being constructed for an increasingly unpopular war." Two things are important about Carr's claim. First, there is the inconvenient matter of timing. Rainey's study covers a period before public support for the war really started to deterioriate. We were getting a sanitized visual narrative even when the administration enjoyed considerable support. Second, and more importantly, one need not be a conspiracy theorist to identify political sources for the way the mainstream meedia cover the war. Consider what Rainey actually wrote: "Journalists attribute the reltively bloodless portrayal of the war to a variety of caauses - some in their control, others in the hands of the US Military, and the most important related to the far-flung nature of the conflict and the way Americana news outlets perceive their role."

It is not difficult to find politics lurking here and to do so with no hint whatsoever of conspiracy. Consider the first factor. Iraq is a big country (compared,, say, to Vietnam) and the relatively few reporters and photojournalists who are assigned there not only operate in a highly dangerous environment but remain hostage to the vagaries of where fighting (and so casualties) might occur. You cannot, after all, photograph events if you are not present. Let's think now. Why is Iraq so dangerous? Perhaps because the administration did not feel the need to plan for what might happen in the aftermath of the US invasion. Why are there so few reporters and photojournalists assigned there? Perhaps because the Pentagon is trying very, very hard to maintain control over information. Or, perhaps because the major media deem it unpatriotic or commercially inconvenient to focus too much on the war and especially on its real human costs (Of course the mainstream press does regularly show Iraqi war dead, but do Americans care about that?). And what about getting access to actual fighting? Well, since most (not all, but most) reporters and photographers in Iraq are "embedded" they really are at the mercy of their miltary hosts. So the problem is not just the size of Iraq and geographically dispersed nature of the conflict. The problem in very large measure is with political decisions that limit access or make it too dangerous.

Consider the second factor. Editors and publishers back home in the States have many things to worry about. Commercial considerations for one thing. Public reaction for another. Advertisers may not like pictures of war dead. And not just wacky right wing bloggers but the families of the dead or of those still serving in Iraq might object. Well, all of that seems to me to be directly political. Are newspapers supposed to follow public opnion or lead it? Are they supposed to report the news or remain supine in the face of commercial interests? Carr seems to think such things are outside the realm of politics. But when editors, as he says, "leave germane but grisly photographs ... on the darkroom floor" out of obesiance to "commercial considerations" or "a squeaamish public aesthetic" (for the alleged existence of which Carr humself offers considerable counter-evidence), they are quite simply making political decisions. They are deciding that reporting the costs of war is less important than some other aim. No conspiracy needed. We are getting a sanitized view of war and the "liberal" media is giving it to us.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I very much appreciate your comments here. Linking this post to your previous questions about patriotism, you might appreciate the comments of Glen Greenwald the author of a new book "How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok."

Describing why he chose to go with an independent publisher, Greenwald writes:

"It has been clear for some time that our national media -- the entity which has as its function informing citizens about what the Government is doing -- is largely dysfunctional. Due to innumerable factors, it simply does not and cannot perform that critical role any longer."

Greenwald has a blog called "unclaimed territory".

Touching on another theme from your earlier post about reasons for hope - Greenwald's book is being promoted along with the work of his namesake Robert Greenwald by many members of a new consortium of outlets for independent journalism - The Media Consortium (find them on the web at http://themediaconsortium.org/.)

Robert Greenwald and the consortium's latest project is "Show Us The War" that promotes stories about the war from independent and unembedded journalists as well as soldiers themselves. You can see what you think - http://www.showusthewar.com

07 July, 2006 13:45  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for you rcomments and for your suggestions. I looked quickly at the media consortium page and noticed that a siginificant number of the outlets taking part in it are on my list in the sidebar to the left (no pun intended) on my blog. I will add a post direccting attention to the show us the war site too.

07 July, 2006 16:02  

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