Sun Ra - Column for 10/11

The Abandoned Fourth Estate

The state of the American news media has been getting me down lately.

What set me off most recently was this major headline over at CNN. Have a look. Apparently, someone in Iraq who was involved in setting up schools had a CD with some Internet-available information about U.S. schools on it, and the U.S. government doesn't feel that there is any threat.

What the fuck sort of story is that? Talk about the lowest sort of unimportant fear-mongering! The media today is a pack of amoral marketers fronted by airbrushed imbeciles, who care nothing about what is real and/or important and only about what things will get the public to pay attention to their eternally flapping lips for just one more second. They're the worst sort of ambulance-chasing pablum-shoveling troglodytes - the difference between CNN and those folks selling fat reduction cream on teevee at midnight has dropped to damn near nothing.

This is, of course, to say nothing about the agenda-driven people at Fox news and suchlike mouthpieces, who exist simply to sell a point of view. That's not news, either, but it's so blatant about being nothing more than propaganda - no, nothing, not one iota - that intelligent people readily dismiss it. Okay, or watch it, given that their ideology is the same as the one behind the propaganda. If their lies are the lies you like to hear, that's fine. As long as you know.

But shouldn't there exist in this country a news media that actually informs the public about important things? That presents a picture of the world from an impartial frame of reference? Not to say that the people presenting the media should not be biased - Americans should take the part of America - but they should let their viewers know how the other side feels, and why. The press is supposed to inform.

But they don't, not in America. In my household we read the Economist and watch the BBC world news, because we have to if we're to get any legitimate picture of world events. American news is, when it is not navel-gazingly narcissistic ("tonight: conch farming in Delaware") or sensationally irrelevant ("tonight: a really impressive house fire in Austin"), entirely pre-planned and unconcerned with any real level of importance or perspective.

Moreover, it all moves in a pack - there is not one news outlet (excepting, perhaps and rarely, print) that considers stories on their merits. They all merely rush to cover whatever everyone else is covering - a fact that the conservative propagandists ave exploited to the fullest, by creating a slippery slope from the foaming nutcases (Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh) through the outwardly-respectable propaganda outlets (the Washington Times) on through the legitimately conservative press (George *shudder* Will) and into the mainstream, who rush to feed on whatever garbage has so excited their troughmates.

You remember how Al Gore was prone to telling grandiose lies about himself? Yeah? Well, he didn't. That was all made up. Invented the Internet? Try "took the initiative in creating the Internet", which he did by championing government funding for it in the Senate. Makes more sense in context, eh? But the zealots twisted it into a humorous soundbite and slid it right up into the public consciousness, along with hundreds of similar gems - most of which failed, but none of which were questioned by the reporters who were handed them.

You remember the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad? Iconic, right? It was on the covers of all the news magazines, replayed endlessly on teevee.

Well, I hate to disillusion you, but it was a staged media event. Those of us who watched the BBC could see that the statue was being pulled down not by the small crowd of perhaps one hundred Iraqis, but by a U.S. Marine crane vehicle. More tellingly, the whole square was surrounded by U.S. tanks, keeping everyone but that small crowd of Iraqis - who turned out not to have been from Baghdad, who had in fact been brought in for the purpose - away from the "spontaneous" event.

It was a propaganda stunt, and it worked perfectly. The U.S. news media worshipped at its feet.

I went and watched the film "Control Room" recently, which is about the Al-Jazeera news network and its coverage of the war in Iraq. The footage of the war from Al-Jazeera's perspective was all maimed civilians and war atrocities, many of which were pretty obviously exaggerated or falsified outright. But war is a horrible business, and the wards of bomb victims weren't just put there for Al-Jazeera. On American teevee, we never saw any of that. Any of it. None.

And behind the mutilated children and widows and orphans was a relentless drumbeat of U.S. malevolance. It was disturbing to witness the constant vilification of my country, and more disturbing to realize that the hundreds of millions who watch Al-Jazeera believe it. Believe that I and my countrymen actively mean them harm. That we are evil.

I'm not evil. My countrymen aren't evil. The president comes close to it, true, but his hands are at least partially tied by public opinion. But to Al-Jazeera, everything we do or stand for is either quietly treacherous or outright villainous. It was frightening and angering to watch them slander us.

But I realized, startled by the BBC's wide-angle photo of the empty square and the small, photogenic group of people "helping" the Marines pull the statue down - a shot that no American news outlet ever featured - that just as Al-Jazeera baldly distorts the truth to cast the U.S. in the least favorable light, the American media does the exact same thing, distorting the truth to present us in the most favorable light. All at once, all in lockstep.

There is not a single major American news outlet that focuses on telling the truth. The propaganda stations - uniformly conservative thus far, although I hold out hope for liberal media one day - want to advance their agenda, and the "mainstream" media just wants viewers. That's it. They no longer even try to maintain more than a figleaf of performing an important - extremely important - role in the preservation of our democracy and our values. They don't give us real news, because real news is often boring and always requires thought. They give us news entertainment. It's exciting because it's "really happening", but CNN today is just as much a planned teevee program as "Friends" or "the Real World".

Why does the Arab world hate us? In part because we don't know why they hate us. If we did, if we understood what our actions - almost all of them done out of mild self-interest - meant to the lives of these people, then because Americans are generally a moral folk we would seek to ameliorate the problems. But we don't. No one tells us. The problems we cause are boring and require thought and, worst of all, may cast us in an unfavorable light.

And that's bad for ratings.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra