Sunday, April 24, 2005

The rock 'em, sock 'em news


My Boston Globe covered some compelling stories this morning. I learned millions of federal government records have disappeared from public sight. Many have been stamped with such designations as "for official use only" by low-level clerks or, in the case of the Homeland Security Department, by any of the 180,000 people who work there. If you're interested, you can't get a directory of who works at the Pentagon any more. Nor can you find out if your house is downwind from a dangerous chemical plant. You can't even find out how many and what kind of documents have disappeared into a black hole of new classifications such "sensitive but unclassified" and "not for public dissemination."

It was a chilling news report. But it didn't claim the lead news position in my paper.

Neither did a powerful piece out of Iraq. It reported that insurgents are launching fewer but larger-scale assaults. This, reports The Globe, "has prompted some commanders to reexamine their believe that the insurgency (is) on the wane."

No, the lead story -- the one editors considered the biggest news of the day in my morning Boston Globe was this: Beer sales are up 20 percent at Fenway Park .... Got it.

Now I've been a city editor. And I can envision the conversation of front-page decision-makers.
The beer story is: (1) local news (2) timely (a drunk Red Sox fan took a swipe at a Yankee outfielder last week) (3) tied loosely to a team the city's citizenry reveres even more than the new Pope.

But beer sales?

And then it all made sense. On the same front page The Globe ran a story about the spread of crystal meth abuse. Booze. Drugs. War. Secrecy. It was a front page that collectively captured America, 2005: Some real news for those who still read and a cross-section of reality about those who'd rather do anything but.

In fact, perhaps The Globe should have captured the day's news under a single headline:
"Bye-bye war, hello wooziness, who cares ... freedom's a mess, I think I'ma gonna cry-y."

So pour me a 16-ouncer. By next week, I could be coming at you with a new feel-good reality, something like: "It's nuclear -- and awfully nice. Why getting rid of Senate filibusters gets down with God."

Go Sox.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Standing at a crossroads in Springtime


The mercury finally crept past 60 degrees this weekend, and the popping of crocus buds, the crush of colorfully clad cyclists, and the company of neighbors sweeping mounds of snow-truck sand onto the sidewalk all heralded the unofficial arrival of Spring.

If only these sunny days would stay, but the mercury will head south tomorrow and a cold rain could fall by mid-week. This isn’t uniformly bad, I tell myself unconvincingly, because it will give me more undivided time to research fever charts other than the rise and fall of Springtime temperatures. And there are plenty worth tracking. There’s the steady climb of gas prices, which hit a New England record this week and are expected to approach $3 by the height of summer. There’s the stagnant stock market, waiting to see whether President Bush’s proposed steroid shot of individual retirement accounts gets any traction in Congress. And there’s the latest AP-Ipsos poll of presidential popularity, showing the ratings of the president dropping fast and those of the U.S. Congress dropping faster.

Though gas prices and presidential popularity are headed different ways, these charts, of course, are related. The pundits say George W. Bush is suffering because the public doesn’t like the price at the pump and remains suspicious that his efforts to “rescue” Social Security are actually not much more than a payoff for his friends on Wall Street.

I personally can celebrate just about any reason the public is losing faith in George W. Bush. Where have Americans been? From energy policy to education, the war against AIDS to the war in Iraq, gaps in health care to gaps in homeland security, his record falls far short of his rhetoric. And when it comes to talking about freedom while practicing torture, the divide between espoused principles and actual practice makes George Orwell’s “1984” seem muted in its prophecies.

Still, it would be nice if we, as a nation, got exorcised on occasion about something other than our own wallets. Gas prices are high in part because Americans have blithely bombed around in gas-guzzling SUV’s as the tank of world supplies headed toward empty. Stocks are flat because they can’t just keep climbing and climbing and climbing in a universe of borrow and spend, spend and borrow.

I'm not defending his Royal W., just noting that he should be losing popularity for other reasons. One good one is the way in which he revels in a culture of death and twists it into a campaign for a culture of life.

In this Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Frank Rich puts it this way: “Yes, these politicians oppose abortion, but the number of abortions has in fact been going down steadily in America under both Republican and Democratic presidents since 1990 … The same cannot be said of American infant fatalities, AIDS cases and war casualties – all up in the George W. Bush years.”

Also up – way up – is the quotient of righteous religious wrath, exercised by the zealots who wanted to use Jeb Bush’s state police to spring Terri Schiavo from a hospice center, those who don’t hesitate to threaten and impeach any judges who would offer a contrary interpretation of the Constitution, those who believe the final battle, Armageddon, approaches and will gladly crush any sinner not making the journey with them.

These people are out there, and in growing numbers. In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on the eve of his retirement, Bill Moyers, the thoughtful, spiritual, and liberal journalist and former presidential adviser, put their numbers at 15 percent of the American population. And their clout is much larger still. It is this zealous right to a large extent that the political pundits are talking about when they use expressions such as “shoring up the president’s base.” And it is they, their dogmatic and uncompromising beliefs, their insistence that the rest of us either tow the line or risk their assaults, that should lead the list of reasons for the president’s declining popularity.

As a “Rolling Stone” headline puts it: “The far right of the evangelical movement has a plan to impose biblical law on every aspect of American society – and the White House is listening.”

How closely the president listens to this group, and its own right wing extreme, known as the Dominionists, will depend, I suspect, on the rest of us. If the American public, in its actions and words, remains the silent majority, satisfied with a seemingly sincere and smiling president as long as he lowers prices at the pump, the squeak of the Dominionists grinding wheel will grow louder. If the Democrats remain passive and meek, the push of Republicans to institutionalize the minority party’s political irrelevance will succeed, stripping from senators the right to filibuster and opening a floodgate through which the activist right will pour. Watch out.

Writes “Rolling Stone,” “Dominionists are pressing an agenda that Makes Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America look like the Communist Manifesto. They want to rewrite schoolbooks to reflect a Christian version of American history, pack the nation’s courts with judges who follow Old Testament law, post the Ten Commandments in every courthouse and make it a felony for gay men to have sex and women to have abortions… Their ultimate goal is to plant the seeds of a ‘faith-based’ government that will endure far longer than the Bush’s presidency.”

Could it happen in America? The point is, it is happening.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Fighting and covering the war that wasn’t


Even with the thoughts, prayers and investment of the American public behind you, it’s got to be hard to fight a war, or to cover it, when enemy and ally are largely indistinguishable and suicide bombs are a major method of attack. It's got to be harder still when those risking their lives every day are doing so for a public largely oblivious to what’s going on.

The reason for the public's ignorance is simple: News from Iraq has largely disappeared, especially on the so-called "all news" cable stations so many Americans rely on as their primary, if not sole, source of news. It's easy to blame an Administration intent on keeping public attention elsewhere. But government wouldn't succeed without the complicity of television news exeuctives eager to boost ratings rather than spread information, more comfortable filing reports on the president's grand language of freedom and democracy than on showing or measuring the violence that continues to cripple Iraq.

Could it be that in this world of media consolidation, corporate owners would rather not make waves with a de-regulation friendly White House? I, for one, don't doubt it.

"The media, in the modern era, are indisputably an instrument of war," begins an article in this spring's issue of "Parameters," a quarterly publication of the U.S. Army War College. "... Today's military commanders stand to gain more than ever before from controlling the media and shaping their output."

The author, BBC news producer Kenneth Payne, might have added that in today's news environment it doesn't take much effort to control that output. The ingredients of control in Iraq go something like this: Declare the outbreak of democracy, keep casualties as bloodless numbers, scare away most reporters (the Iraqi insurgents take of that), and figure the press and public soon will turn to simpler versions of reality TV to grab their attention. Who needs censorship or even concentrated propaganda when Laci and Michael are around?

Last week I got a glimpse of the ground war in Iraq. Unfortunately, it wasn’t on TV. Kevin Sites, the NBC reporter and videographer whose story about a Marine killing an injured insurgent in Fallujah kicked up its own firestorm, visited Emerson College and showed students both the raw and edited footage of his story. He led an interesting discussion about the footage NBC left out of the aired report – pictures of the soldier pointing his gun from close quarters and the bullets kicking into the prostrate insurgent, who had been wounded in fighting the day before. Afterwards, however, what interested one student who emailed me was not the ethics of what aired, but the visual reality of the war itself. “Now I see what sensory war reporting is all about,” he said. Curious that it took a guest speaker rather than the nightly news.

Unlike coverage during the Vietnam War, he – and we -- are rarely seeing the reality of war. Recently, as it turns out, we’re practically not seeing the war at all.

Two days after Sites’ visit, student teams reported in class about how the war is playing – on cable television, in the elite press, in the alternative press, in blogs from Iraq, and so forth. The three students following CNN, MSNBC and Fox news, respectively – the three 24/7 cable news networks – offered the same lamentable assessment.

The war, they said, has disappeared from the airwaves. No packages. No footage. Virtually no coverage other than a very occasional 10 or 15 second “news reader.”

Newspapers are doing only slightly better. At the bottom of Page 8 in my Sunday New York Times today, I found a story telling me that 20 U.S. troops had been wounded in a major assault on Abu Ghraib prison. Had I not looked for the story – my course, after all, is titled “Journalism in Wartime” – I could easily have missed it. An update on the news wires later today said the U.S. military had increased the number of wounded American defenders to 44. That’s a lot of American men and women for a footnote on Page 8.

Perhaps the story will work its way onto tonight's news broadcasts and tomorrow's Page 1. But I’ll wager if it does, in most news outlets it will be wrapped into a positive piece on the election, finally, of a Sunni speaker to the new Iraq assembly. The message: If our boys were hurt, it continues to be for a good cause.

But on Page 4 of my Boston Globe today, framing a huge green-and-white ad for Macy’s, I discovered a different assessment of Iraq: that things aren’t going all that swimmingly.

“For the first time, US officials have backed off from their optimistic assessment after the Jan. 30 elections,” The Globe reports. “They are now predicting a ‘bumpy road,’ with political parties breaking up into ethnic and sectarian factions.”

Both the fact, and the implications of that bumpy road likely will continue to be lost on the American public being spared the realities of Iraq. Lost, that is, unless and until things turn so bad the media get a sharp wake-up call. Ultimately, I don't believe hiding the truth can help forge better policy. And that's the weakness of the government and the news media acting as though the war has just gone away.

News can never be purely objective. But most reporters (at least those not claiming to work for a “fair and balanced” network) try to do their best. As another student told Emerson’s college newspaper, he couldn’t tell by listening to Kevin Sites whether Sites is for or against the war. He clearly respected the Marines with whom he traveled. But he also respects his audience and believes that when we fight wars American citizens deserve to see what actually happens.

The answer is that people get killed. War is not antiseptic. Nor has this one ended. So why was it front-page news this week in a New England's newspaper when a group of fake vigilantes decided to patrol the Mexican border to guard against illegal immigrants but not front-page news when real soldiers in a real war fought a pitched battle in Baghdad? If you unearth the answer, please let me know.