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Between The Lines: Media's Role During Crisis

Between The Lines: Media's Role During Nation's Crisis

BETWEEN THE LINES Q&A

from the nationally syndicated radio newsmagazine "Between The Lines"

http://www.btlonline.org -

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints on national and international issues under-reported in major media

For release Oct. 8, 2001

Media's Role During the Nation's Crisis: Investigative Journalism or Cheerleading?

Interview by Scott Harris.

*Mediachannel.org's Danny Schechter says the bottomline mentality of media companies takes precedence over their public service responsibility, contributing to America's illiteracy about the world.

**Note this interview was conducted several days before the U.S. bombing campaign against Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001

With flags waving on television screens and from millions of car antennae, there is a public demonstration of unity and determination across the country to confront and defeat the terrorism that took an estimated 6,000 lives on Sept. 11. But while this new patriotism sweeps through the nation, voices of dissent during this crisis have in some instances met with harsh condemnation and even suppression.

Rage against those who don't follow the prevailing line on the terror attacks was seen in the recent firing of Dan Guthrie of the Grants Pass Oregon Daily Courier who criticized President Bush for hiding in a shelter during the assaults in New York and Washington. When Tom Gutting wrote a column titled "Bush Has Failed to Lead the U.S." in the Texas City Sun, the newspaper terminated him and ran a front page apology. In covering a Sept. 29 peace demonstration in Washington D.C., the New York Times chose this deliberately inflammatory and misleading headline: "Protesters Urge Peace With Terrorists." Comedian Bill Mahr, host of television's "Politically Incorrect" lost many advertisers after he commented that the U.S. was cowardly in "lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer later denounced Mahr and warned that "Americans need to watch what they say, (and) watch what they do." This comment was deleted from a White House transcript of the press conference, according to the New York Times.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with journalist and author Danny Schechter, executive editor at Mediachannel.org, who, over the last four decades, has worked for both corporate and independent media outlets. He examines the role of the press since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Danny Schechter: Most of us are relying on television for our news and information and most of the reporting on television is very much alike. When you flip from channel to channel you find the same sources, almost the same story line-up presented in the same way by people who look very much alike. And often what's missing in that media mix is context, background, analysis ways to help us make sense of and interpret what we're hearing, understand why it's happening and what the various options are.

We're in a situation where the pundits who are called on to explain all this to us often are people who come out of government, either this administration or the last administration or the kind of policy 'wonks' in Washington, D.C. mostly drawn from conservative think tanks -- the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Center of International Studies, so-called terrorism experts and the like. The problem here is that often these people are either wrong; don't really understand what's going on. Voices from other countries, other people who've had experience with terrorism over many, many years are not being heard from. That's what Media Channel is pointing to, the need for more contextualized and diversified coverage.

Dissent tends to get marginalized if reported at all. Critical views are not being raised. People who raise them, or make comments construed as critical are having their patriotism questioned and I think that's something that is really dangerous.

Between The Lines: George W. Bush, during his address to Congress talked about the new war America will be waging against terrorism. The old saying goes, "the first casualty of war is truth." We've seen a series of clampdowns in the media against people who are dissenting from the 'line of march.' We had a journalist at the Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Ore. fired. We had a journalist at the Texas City Sun fired. We've had Bill Mahr of the television show "Politically Incorrect" in jeopardy of losing that program, because of some remarks he made about "cowardly acts." But I wanted to get your comments on what happens in a time of crisis in the United States, such as what we're seeing now, to those who do come to the media with a dissenting voice.

Danny Schechter: I am writing about that now. There is a danger that journalism can become jingoism. If you look at the New York Times, Anthony Lewis who has been a big critic of President Bush, had a recent column basically praising Bush to the skies. Liberals tend to form a consensus of support around the government, and the range of permissible debate -- as Jeff Cohen of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) once said -- is from A to B, not from A to Z. So there's a tendency to rally around the flag and to share the same policy assumptions.

There's also a very heated debate on the left right now between author and columnist Christopher Hitchens and MIT professor Noam Chomsky and others who are really poles apart about whether or not criticizing U.S. policy is insensitive to the victims of these attacks.

Between The Lines: What kind of duty does the media have to answer the question that so many people are asking after these terror attacks -- and that question is: "Why do they hate us so much?"

Danny Schechter: I think obviously there have been these cutbacks in coverage and the reason for them is all these media mergers. The profit, the bottom line needs of these companies has come before their public service responsibility to educate and illuminate issues for the majority of Americans. So yes, this is a big problem -- a kind of illiteracy about the world. It's something we need to do something about. Of course the media has a responsibility to do more.

What happens in media organizations often is that the executives are making decisions about what should be covered and what shouldn't be covered. They say, "well, people aren't interested in this," translation: I'm not interested in this. In other words, they're not interested assuming the rest of us aren't. When "60 Minutes" covers a story from another country, you know what? The ratings do not go down -- people are interested. Why? Because it's well-presented, it's interesting. That's what we need, more coverage that's interesting, that's well-sourced, where you have enough time, not 1 minute, 10 seconds to explain the history of the world.

There were reports issued warning of terror attacks. They happened to occur during the Gary Condit craze in Washington, so they weren't even reported. We need to ask some questions like what is going on, why is the U S. government with a $344 billion defense budget unable to protect Americans? We need to ask ourselves what are the interests of the oil industry and the defense industry in this particular situation. Who is benefiting from these policies? What is the likely outcome of all of this? What are the deals going down? In other words, we need to get a deeper understanding of what is happening, so that we don't put ourselves in the service of policies that fail. We've done that for many, many years.

The Republicans were saying "we need to get tough, we need assassinations." And it turns out that former President Clinton had authorized assassinations, they just weren't successful.

Looking at the policy is important, looking at the media and media coverage is important. Writing letters to the editor, writing emails to columnists, feeding back to the media; that's very important as well. In another words, it's not enough to sort of stand by and say, "Ahhh look at that, what do you expect?" Get involved!

Danny Schechter's latest book, published by Akashic Books, is titled "News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics 1960-2000," covering his four decades as a journalist and activist. Visit Schechter's media watch Web site at: www.mediachannel.org

Visit the group's Web site at www.afghanwomensmission.org

See related links and listen to an excerpt of this speech in a RealAudio segment or in MP3 on our Web site at: www.btlonline.org for the week ending 10/12/01.

------

Scott Harris is WPKN Radio's public affairs director and executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines, for the week ending Oct. 12, 2001.

To subscribe to Between The Lines Q&A, e-mail btlqa-subscribe@topica.com


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