Almost Spot On: The British
Critique of American Newspapers
As the war on Iraq draws ever closer, the vital issue of media coverage is becoming increasingly significant. The pace and pitch of the war will, after all, be partially shaped by its reception in the press. Although the War Party in Washington has powerful weapons of PR and spin, in the end coverage will be produced by real live journalists, and their somewhat less animate editors.
The majority of our readers, I suspect, take their information from the English-language media – chiefly, the American and British networks, newspapers and websites. To some extent, as knowledgeable individuals such as Daniel Ellsberg attest, the British are currently doing a better job in regards to Iraq. But when it comes to their perception of the American media, the Brits have tossed their darts just left of the center.
The Guardian: Hitting Close to Home
A recent article by the Guardian's Matthew Engel bemoans the state of American newspapers today. Engel dismisses them as timid, formulaic, and saccharine, as not only bland but as also lacking in vocation. According to him, "journalistic adventurousness" as well as "political courage" are currently lacking in American news reporting. The unstated context is the media's hands-off policy regarding Bush's adventures in Iraq.
That said, there are some flaws in the argument. While generally an excellent – and damning – denunciation of American newspapers, the Guardian piece suffers from the same tacit presupposition shared by most British observers: that is, the perceived importance of "liberals vs. conservatives" in the formulation of American policy on Iraq.
The British, as this piece confirms, tend to believe that a lack of liberal gumption lies at the root of the problem for the American media. If the media were just more liberal, the argument goes, those dastardly conservatives wouldn't be able to get away with their nefarious schemes. However, it's not quite so simple as that.
Boiling it All Down
To British eyes, the American political scene is divided fundamentally between Republicans and Democrats, with the former being evil and the latter being good. At the same time, it is understood that the former exemplify "conservatism," and the latter, "liberalism." Overlooked are the myriad of other political views – some crystallized, others hardly formed – that can also be described through a combination of these terms. Perhaps the British cannot see this because their own conservatives (of the Tory persuasion) have been considered a laughingstock, having been put out to electoral pasture for so many years. Indeed, it sometimes seems that in the UK "conservatism" simply means opposing the Euro, while supporting fox hunting and the Royals.
However, since the American political spectrum is as wide as that country is vast, the British conception seems rather small-minded. Just because the Democrats and Republicans have a chokehold on power now does not mean that they always will. And it definitely does not mean that all Americans should be lumped in with the parties' policies.
It thus becomes somewhat problematic when Engel cites a lack of "political courage" in the American media regarding Bush and Iraq. By his own implicit definition, he would seem to be saying that American journalists are not liberal enough – that is, not Democratic enough.
Yet perhaps this tacit political advocacy is somewhat to be expected; after all, the author himself admits that in England, "national newspapers traditionally have an agenda of their own."
A 'Liberal' Affiliation?
Indeed, the Guardian – that self-appointed bastion of British liberalism – has had no trouble in supporting America's Democrats. Articles such as the present one cite party supporters, and party-oriented op-eds from Clinton-era officials, such as Robert Reich, occasionally appear. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the British view the Democrats' woes as problems to be solved in common. At the very least, there is a high degree of sympathy shown for the latter.
Indeed, we should remember that the Brits' horror with the current administration began in November 2000, when the grave possibility of a Bush Administration really began to dawn on them. Thereafter, drawing heavily on the new president's abundance of verbal gaffes and apparent stupidity, the British papers (and people) were able to put their trademark cynicism to good use. That this feeling is still the pervasive one amongst war-wary Brits is evidenced by a recent Washington Post survey:
"Being critical of U.S. policy does not constitute a prejudice," said Godfrey Hodgson, a veteran journalist and author. "A vast majority of the British people are favorable to the United States, but a substantial majority are opposed to George W. Bush."
Much of the outrage is indeed aimed at Bush, whose colloquial speaking style and Texas accent don't go over well here. A cartoon in last Sunday's Observer newspaper depicted him as the Lone Ranger and Blair as Tonto. When Blair expresses doubts about the Iraq campaign, Bush replies: "Shut up, Tonto, and cover my back."
"Bush is a gift for anti-American cartoonists," Timothy Garton Ash, director of the European Studies Center at St. Antony's College at Oxford University, said. "If Bill Clinton were still in the White House, I suspect it'd be a very different story."
Yikes! This, it seems, is how the British have fooled themselves. By putting all of the blame on Bush himself, they have ignored all of the known and unknown individuals behind the scenes, the officials who were at least equally (if not more) involved in calling the shots. That said, it becomes understandable why, two years later, British media opposition to Iraq centers on opposition to President Bush. However, since there are other, even more splendid reasons to question the need for a war on Iraq, we must question the Guardian's logic.
Republicans and Democrats: War and War-Lite
It is unconvincing to cite opposition to war as a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans. With the exception of emotional issues such as abortion and school prayer, the two parties are essentially the same when it comes to war. All the Senate "hearings" and other alleged debates exist for the sake of formality, and essentially merge into one; it becomes merely a question of, "war now, or war later?" No matter which party is in power, the essential urge to war remains the same – though their ephemeral objections must of necessity assume specific political contours.
For example, when Clinton was in power, the Republicans griped for a time about over-extension of forces and too much interventionism in the Balkans – but in the end did not stop any of Clinton's Balkan adventures. In actuality, the Republican Party boasts very few true and active non-interventionists in its ranks.
Now, finding themselves out of power, the Democrats must take their traditional tack of, "give peace a chance" (i.e., allow the Iraq inspectors more time). But in the end, the result is the same: war will be approved. In short, there is no meaningful and sustained anti-war dissent from either of the two big parties. Despite what the British may think, there is no black and white distinction here – it's only black and black.
For this reason, the tacit assumption – that the media should correct itself by being more liberal – is naïve. It is simply based on a rather limited understanding of what "conservatism" means. Nevertheless, this is a very interesting concept, as it reflects the British media's tendency towards political advocacy, and close relationships with political parties. While the pro-peace, pro-reason sentiment here is laudable, it is mistaken to think that by adopting the platform of the Democratic Party, the media will somehow be better off. Emotional attacks on the intelligence of George Bush belie the fact that he may be somewhat of a figurehead.
And indeed, what would be the alternative to a Republican administration? Rather than offering a pro-peace viewpoint (after all, the Democrats are really just "War Lite"), we'd probably be stuck with nauseating plaudits to high-profile partisans who have already received too much media apologia for their cult religions, electric vehicles and oxygen bars.
'Hard News' Versus 'Opinion'
Recently I spoke with the editor of a prestigious enough American paper, who said: "The difference between American and British newspapers is that we want hard news, and their news is more of a combination of hard news and opinion." In other words, American media standards are respectful of facts and figures, surveys, quotes and polls. American editors are suspicious of all those impressionistic, opinionated and analytical reports coming from overseas.
There are drawbacks to this view, however. In its reliance on "hard news," the American media makes itself an easy target for government manipulation. A plethora of data, coupled with a dearth of critical analysis, make for reports that are essentially devoid of meaning or other nutritional value – in other words, McNews. If some piece of information is expressed in a "factual" format, it is respected as being accurate – and no matter if it is an alleged "leak" coming from "Pentagon sources" or other shadowy progenitors. The worst thing is, as Engel states, sometimes the journalists really do mean well:
"it is not merely Bush's opponents who have failed to grasp the rules, but ordinary reporters who believe their sole job is to get at the truth. American journalists emerge from university journalism schools, which teach rigid notions of factual reporting and "objectivity." But facts can be very slippery creatures, especially when sliding through the hands of skillful politicians and their spokesmen. The journalists may see the sleight-of-hand, but in the US the conventions of their trade make it hard for them to convey it."
And so, even for well-meaning journalists, the "conventions of the trade" have their own irresistible internal logic:
"most Washington reports consist of stories emanating from inside the government: these may (rarely) be genuine leaks; they may come from officials anxious to brief against rival officials, but that too is rare in this disciplined and corporately-run administration. Most of these stories, which look like impressive scoops at first glimpse, actually come from officials using the press to perform on-message spin. Whatever the category, the papers lap this up, even when it is obvious nonsense, a practice that reached its apogee last year when palpably absurd plans for the invasion of Iraq emerged, allegedly from inside the Pentagon, on to the New York Times' front page.
"It's a very cynical game," says Eric Umansky, who reviews the papers for slate.com. "The reporters know these stories are nonsense and they know they are being used. But it's an exclusive. It's an exclusive built on air, but CNN says 'according to the New York Times,' so the paper's happy, and it stays out there for a whole news cycle. So what if it's popcorn?"
White-Bread Writing, and Other Ills
The other drawback of having no interpretative voice in "straight" reporting is editorial timidity. And this does not necessarily mean cowardice about Iraq, or any other political issue; on every subject, American newspaper editorials tend to be about as bland, unconvincing and inarticulate as you can get. The lack of in-depth arguments is due partially to their unfortunate brevity (an inherently physical restriction of any newspaper), but also to a fear of social interaction that has become endemic in this polarized, self-obsessed and socially disinterested land. Few editorialists in America have the stomach to say anything interesting, if it may also be controversial. While we can imagine a witty, and sometimes pointed critic such as Rob Morse of the San Francisco Chronicle, we cannot conceive of an incendiary editorialist such as Robert Fisk in an American newspaper. In 2003, the internet has become the last refuge of the free-thinker.
And this is part of the reason why American newpapers are in trouble. As Tom Kunkel, dean of journalism at the University of Maryland, told the Guardian:
"the trend in American journalism has been to be more credible and more objective. But we've just taken all the fun out of it. Most of the time, it's just 'he said' and 'she said.' Newspapers have got kinda boring. The industry wrings its hands and asks what's wrong and beats itself up. What it never does is say: "well, we could make the paper a hell of a lot more interesting."
However, while the Guardian report quite rightly infers this point, it is not entirely fair, as it restricts itself to the major US newspapers. There are signs that things are changing further afield. While we shouldn't hold our breath when it comes to these, it is gratifying to note that smaller papers are actually making big statements – like the Madison Capital-Times, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and especially the St. Petersburg Times. It is a reflection of the fact that ordinary Americans – especially those away from the dominant cities – are making their voices heard. For this, they should be commended. And, as the British may have a hard time believing, many of the dissenters wouldn't consider themselves to be "liberal," either.
The Disturbing Alternative
However, despite all of the ferment, no significant, high-level dissent has yet arisen in this land of factoids and bare-bones information. This leaves a gaping void into which can be thrown all sorts of trash – as Antiwar.com's Justin Raimondo pointed out in regards to the phenomenon of the "court intellectuals."
Since 9/11, America has been struggling to redefine itself, its values and priorities, against a backdrop of war and terrorism that may well remain for a long time to come. Over the past 16 months, a new philosophy has been established: that American Empire should be recognized as necessary, and lauded for its benevolence.
At first, such sentiments crept in tentatively, in subdued tones, lest some cranky dissenter point out that America is constitutionally not (supposed to be) an empire. However, the argument for "Noble Empire" is now being expressed with brazen confidence – through editorials in major newspapers, through the reports of think-tanks and the speeches of "respected" authorities. In the end, they all become enablers of an administration that seems hell-bent on Empire at all costs. Take the words of Harvard's Michael Ignatieff, quoted in the above article:
"Ever since George Washington warned his countrymen against foreign entanglements, empire abroad has been seen as the republic's permanent temptation and its potential nemesis. Yet what word but 'empire' describes the awesome thing that America is becoming? It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires."
Many have mused that should we launch war on Iraq, it will simply confirm that America has gone crazy. The fact that the above Imperialist logic is becoming more and more accepted – and not denounced as extremism – is a sign that it already has. And here, once again, the journalists have not really questioned such views – they've merely noted their existence. In failing to criticize, however, they have become the enablers of the enablers.
The Incomplete Critique Is the Inconsistent One
British critiques like that of Matthew Engel do a real service in exposing the ills of American journalism. However, they also invite the charge of self-contradiction. Let's consider the case of the Balkans, where the convenient liberal-conservative dichotomy breaks down completely. As far as I remember, the British newspapers – and not just the liberal ones – gave wholehearted support to the Blair-Clinton tag-team in 1999. The illegal decimation of Serbia was enthusiastically trumpeted as the victory of liberal "humanitarian" intervention – the kind that the American "court intellectuals" are now shamelessly evoking in the context of a (Republican) war on Iraq.
This new and even more illegal war (and all of its so-called justifications) have been flayed by the Brits, as we have just seen. Yet why haven't they criticized these so-called "liberals" as inciters of extremist imperialism? Is it because they would like to pretend only the conservative War Party tends towards empire?
In 2003, the paradigm has indeed shifted (from humanitarian intervention to anti-terrorist intervention) – that much is true. But really, has the British media suddenly become infiltrated with peace-mongers?
Not really. For little has changed since 1999: Tony Blair is still in power, doing the bidding of an American president hell-bent on war against a non-threatening country. Whether in Kosovo or Iraq, the dynamic is the same. To judge from this contradiction, it would seem that opposing war is not so significant to the "liberal" British media as is opposing Republicans – and that is political advocacy at its most useless.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia. He just returned from a long stay in Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
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