Can media criticism again form the basis of a “movement”? I remember meetings of the now-defunct “New York City Free Media Alliance,” or feeling the fleeting buzz at big media conferences like the “Media and Democracy Congress” that were held at places like the Great Hall at Cooper Union in the 1990s. At the time, a focus on “the media” seemed like it could galvanize myriad progressive groups. These days various media-themed conferences still take place, of course. But perhaps because the very nature of media criticism (at least on the progressive side) is notoriously porous and interdisciplinary, a new movement hasn’t yet gelled.
But no matter what media criticism has done or where it will go, some analyses will always serve as a reminder—often through a concentrated display of past “reporting” around a big event—illustrating huge problems in the mainstream media. A case in point is War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, a DVD narrated by Sean Penn and based on the book of the same name by longtime media critic Norman Solomon, an associate of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the stalwart organization in the media criticism landscape. In War Made Easy, Solomon provides a compendium of archival footage and news reports from U.S. wars in order to show that government deception, wholly aided by media spin, has been the driving force that has snookered the public and repeatedly brought America to war in the last 50 years.
To those familiar with the media criticism of the ’80s and ’90s, the analysis may not come as much of a surprise. The main idea is that, ever since Spiro Agnew declared his disdain for the “nattering nabobs of negativism” otherwise known as the media, politicians (especially those in the GOP) have taken an aggressive and dismissive tone towards the media while also working to manipulate news coverage. Even so, it’s still shocking to see a concentrated dose of pandering and sycophant-laden journalism that arises in the build-up to war. Many look back to the reporting on the Vietnam War as a stark contrast to the reporting on war thereafter. Walter Cronkite’s famous on-air remark that the U.S. was in a “stalemate” was surely in the minds of the politicians and military as they figured out how to control media in the field in the following decades. Solomon, though, also points out that the lionized era of reporting on Vietnam was more of an exception than the rule. After the perceived U.S. successes in Granada, Panama, and then the first Gulf War, generals and politicians alike congratulated themselves for their victory in overcoming the “Vietnam Syndrome,” or public reluctance to go to war. How much that syndrome diminished is debatable, but it’s clear that whatever elements of it lingered in the mainstream media were wiped out.
Revisiting the reporting leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (that many journalists now self-flagellate over) is nothing less than sickening. While seeing the likes of O’Reilly and Hannity spew their toxic mix of jingoism and factual inaccuracy is not surprising, the content on those so-called “liberal” outlets like CNN (a network that War Made Easy takes aim at as well) was, at times, not much better. This was especially true in the months leading up to the invasion when “military experts” were prominent and, as in all the mainstream news, U.S. weaponry was practically a fetish. In the Iraq War, just as in the first Gulf War, critical voices were seen as “biased,” while “objectivity” meant agreeing with the military and administration. But post-9/11, the stakes for being perceived as anti-war were much higher and, as War Made Easy illustrates, it was common practice that any TV news reports of bombings in Afghanistan or Iraq would also include images of 9/11 or the smoldering ruins at Ground Zero, just to make sure the viewer had “balance.”
In many ways, progressive media criticism has suffered in recent years from the proliferation of media, since it’s harder to focus on what was once a hegemonic broadcast and newspaper system and point out the structural ills and biases. Now, critics of the media critics can always say “but you can find whatever you want online!” Of course, such sources are no match for the major media outlets, which drive the headlines and set the tone of reporting. The leading print and broadcast outlets rely on close connections to the military and the government (or, as some would call it, the military-industrial-media complex). Unfortunately, the “other side” of media criticism— which includes outlets such as Accuracy in Media and pundits with huge exposure like Limbaugh and Coulter—has quite successfully convinced its audiences that CNN and the New York Times have been and are the dominant “liberal bastions,” thus making Fox the “alternative media.”
There remains plenty of vibrant progressive media criticism, as seen in the films of Robert Greenwald; the work of Danny Schechter (“The News Dissector”), Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; annual events like the National Conference for Media Reform; and in the work of organizations like FAIR, freepress.net and many others. But it’s still a world of dispersed agendas dealing with everything from copyright struggles to battles with the FCC, from public access media to questions of corporate ownership. If you doubt there’s a need for a movement, you should review the incredible inaccuracy, jingoism, and lack of skepticism present in most media before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Those well-paid journalists who were cozy with powerful officials, as well as the on-air reporters with nice hair and make-up surrounded by flashy graphics, all got it just as wrong as the Bush administration—with disastrous consequences.