Yesterday, the Department hosted Robert Jensen, associate professor at the University of Texas – Austin, for a conversation about media, war and politics. He is promoting a new book, Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim our Humanity. I found the title intriguing, given former Sen. Gary Hart’s admonition yesterday that election 2004 will signal whether America wishes to be an empire or a republic.
Jensen suggested that there are three criteria to evaluate when organizing a critique of media coverage — coverage which should provide information that citizens need to actively participate in civic matters:
- Provide an independent source of factual information
- Provide historical and political context
- Expose citizens to the widest possible range of information
By any of these measures, mainstream American media (the avenues by which the majority of Americans get their information) have failed miserably in reporting about Iraq over the course of the past 18 months.
1. Independent Source
Jensen asserts that most information about the war has come from the government (official sources). He further asserts that corporate media’s “ideology of neutrality” and embedded reporting have further devolved independence. [Somewhere I have read how many news articles were run in x-weeks before the war and the percentage — extremely high — that cited only government officials, but I can’t find the source. Molly Ivans? Help?]
There’s a song by Alan Jackson with lyrics that include “… I watch CNN and I still can’t tell the difference between Iraq and Iran.” To Jensen, this song symbolizes the need for media to provide context. Americans have an abysmal understanding not only of world geography but world history and religious beliefs other than our own. We are an insular people, in the main.
As an example of the failure to provide context, Jensen noted that the photo of Vice President Cheney and Saddam Hussein ran in the alternative media months before it hit the mainstream press.
3. Wide range of opinion
First, Jensen joked about the “analysts” that are interviewed by the mainstream press. They run from “A-B”, he said, a reference to the tendency to talk to government officials and former government officials. In my view, this includes the (in my opinion, appalling) practice of reporters serving as sources (see Sunday morning TV).
There is a core, structural issue at work, he said. “News” serves as a means to sell advertising. One corporate entity (the advertiser) trades money with another (the media channel) that promises to provide eyeballs. More eyeballs are “better” in this scenario, leading to lowest common denominator reporting.
He cited the “norms of objective reporting” as another reason that wide ranging points of view are missing from mainstream news. Last year, Brent Cunningham penned an essay on objectivity in Columbia Journalism Review, writing:
In a world of spin, our awkward embrace of an ideal can make us passive recipients of the news.
Finally, he said, there is American ideology itself: the belief that capitalism is so “right” that no alternative can be discussed (even though our economic system makes a joke of Smith’s philosophy) and the belief that America/Americans exist outside the normal course of history — that we are the first “real” democracy and are destined to bring this democracy to the rest of the world.
And there is no understanding or recognition of how to live “in the empire.” (This topic is covered this week in New York Review of Books, as Paul Kennedy reflects on Halford J. Mackinder in his review of Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire.)
He also said that the devastating loss in ’64 (Goldwater) led the Republican Party to embark on a strategic plan that has resulted in a radical shift of American opinion to the right in the intervening four decades. He attributes some of that shift to conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
In closing, he encouraged the audience to support alternative media (is The Nation “alternative”? it certainly feels/reads like it) and critique media. Don’t abandon mainstream media, he said — use it on their terms (in other words, with critical thought).
All in all, an enlightening and stimulating afternoon.