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Media Tonic for War Fever

Many Americans got their news and attitudes about the Iraq war from alternative sources showing far more skepticism than mainstream U.S. television.

The U.S. news media covered the war in Iraq the same way they cover the Olympics-with red, white, and blue trappings, human interest stories, bombastic theme music, and an almost total focus on American accomplishments at the expense of any international context. Around the clock coverage gave the illusion of telling and showing everything and made us forget how little we actually knew.

From watching television, few in the United States could, for example, tell you why the French opposed military action in the Middle East (other than because they are French) or discuss intelligently the political disagreements among the Arab states or tell you whether the number of civilian casualties in this war is greater or less than the number of civilians killed on September 11. In the last Gulf War, researchers at University of Massachusetts found that the more television news people watched, the less likely they were to be able to answer basic questions about the war.

We should not be surprised that the news media has taken an overwhelmingly pro-war stance. The media have historically embraced governmental goals during wartime and asked questions after the fact-if at all. The prevailing trend on the news networks-following the success of Fox News-has been toward an openly partisan approach. The most heavily viewed public affairs shows today are not newscasts but crossfire discussion programs which-whether from the right (mostly), the center (rarely), or the left (hardly ever)-seem exempt from traditional journalistic standards.

What is remarkable about the present moment isn’t the nationalistic bias of media coverage but rather the degree to which opposition to this war has remained firm in the face of that coverage. At the start of the war, most polling indicated that somewhere around sixty percent of Americans opposed U.S. action in Iraq in the absence of United Nations approval.  Bush won over about half of those initially opposed to the war-for the most part, those who would have supported the war if the UN had signed off on it. By late April, Gallup polls were showing that roughly 70 percent of Americans supported the war, but we can compare that to the 90 percent support Bush’s father gained by the end of the First Gulf War. Those who continue to oppose the war tend to fall into predictable categories-African-Americans, liberals, independent voters, the working poor, and people aged 18-29. Yet, in all of these demographics, Gallup found, a significantly higher portion had rallied behind the First Gulf War than embraced the second.

Given the overwhelmingly pro-war nature of the mainstream news coverage, one has to wonder: what are the information sources that have fueled this skepticism about the war effort? I see three principal sources.

Independent digital media. Over the past decade, digital access has spread into the mainstream. Antiwar protestors have been extraordinarily effective at deploying the resources afforded them in this more participatory environment to mobilize their supports in opposition to governmental policies. An organization like Moveon.com was able to draw more than 750,000 protestors-on short notice-based on its cultivation of an electronic mailing list and its effective use of cell phones and text messaging. This alternative “indie media” infrastructure started to take shape around the Seattle World Trade Organization protests several years ago. A global network of anti-globalism activists launched the movement, designed to disperse messages being blocked by corporate controlled media. Indymedia.org acted as a clearinghouse for publicizing the goals of the protestors, posting first-person reports, photographs, sound recordings, and digital video footage. These digitally savvy activists linked their own documentaries via satellite to a network of public access stations around the country, developed their own Internet radio station, and published their own online newspaper, available on the Web to readers around the world. What began as a tactic to support a specific protest has become a self-sustaining, volunteer-run news organization with outposts around the world. The indie-media movement has been for the current anti-war movement what the underground press was during Vietnam-only more widely accessible, more ideologically diverse, and more immediate.

International news sources. People in the United States have greater access to international  news coverage than ever before-in part because of the Internet, but also because of the expansion of available cable options. Organizations such as Globalvision have used weblogging, or blogging, to bring together international coverage of the war-coverage that often operates on different assumptions than the U.S. reporting of the war. British online newspapers such as the Guardian Unlimited or the Independent have gained millions of U.S. readers in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Traffic at english.alJazeera.net, the English language version of the most significant Arab news operation, reached more than one million hits per week. BBC newscasts are now widely available on cable and an increasing number of immigrants can maintain access to their own national news services via Internet radio. This broader access to international coverage pushes against the unilateralism promoted by the Bush administration, forcing us to ask questions about how the United States is perceived overseas. Add to the mix transnational discussion forums where, no matter what the official topic, the war is being discussed and people are encountering push-back on their views.

Pop culture. If U.S. news coverage has tended to slant to the right, the popular culture has tended to slant to the left. Recent studies have shown that young people typically get less of their information through traditional news channels than entertainment media, including such topical comedy shows as Saturday Night Live, The Comedy Central’s Daily Show, and HBO’s Real Time. Newspaper readers can access a pointed critique of the war on the comics page through The Boondocks; Web users can follow the adventures of Secret Asian Man, laugh over the biting cartoons of Tom Tomorrow, or read the parodies of news coverage in The Onion. This is why popular culture has figured so prominently in debates about the war. One segment of Americans would prefer the West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett to the man who currently occupies the White House; another wants to muzzle actor Martin Sheen (who plays the character) because of his outspoken anti-war views.

This more oppositional popular culture reflects a decade during which the consensus-building function of network television has broken down. Commercial entertainment increasingly targets niches rather than attempting to address the public at large. While news aims for older consumers, popular culture targets younger consumers and increasingly, minorities-the groups most heavily opposed to the war.  When the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour included anti-war content in the 1960s, it was pushed off the air because it alienated middle Americans. Today, many of these shows will survive as long as they draw in their targeted demographic.

So far, most analysis of the role of media in the war in Iraq has focused on the way the news networks covered the conflict. Yet, the U.S. media environment is much more porous than ever before; the American public has access to a much broader array of information sources; and as a result, for better or for worse, it is going to be much harder to bring about the kind of uniformity of support that characterized American opinion during the First Gulf War.

Noam Chomsky has famously described U.S. news media as “manufacturing consent.” Today, however, American leaders face a difference challenge: that of managing diversity. If the Iraq War is any indication, they are much less likely to succeed in mobilizing total support behind their efforts.

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