One of the take-home lessons of this war (for me) has been that it hammered home the gulf of coverage between television and the internet. With two 24-hour news channels and all the hundreds of embedded journalists at work, one might hope to have heard hundreds of meaningful perspectives. And the funny thing is, if TV was your only source of news through the course of the war, you probably felt that you were hearing lots of meaningful perspectives, that you were, on the whole, getting fair and balanced coverage.
This war happened during an incredibly busy cycle for me. I never was able to pay it the attention it deserved. Often I would plop down for 30 minutes at the end of the day and watch some of the incredible pictures, see some interviews, soak up some analysis. Later in the evening, I’d sit down at the computer to wade through email and find dozens of copied stories and URLs forwarded by friends. Not just stuff from fringe journalism and war blogs, though there was some of that, but content from major publications both inside and outside the United States. And I would wonder whether the forces behind TV news and “the internet” (i.e. the rest of the journalistic universe) were watching the same war. And this whole other picture would emerge. I would see commentary and history and facts that were crucial to understanding the big picture of this war that were not being transmitted on mainstream media.
Night by night, I realized the extent to which the mainstream media was working in complicity with the essential interests of the Pentagon. No questioning of policy or of our historical support for Saddam’s regime. No photos of Iraqi heads caved in by U.S. bombs. No explorations of the long-term effects of the use of depleted uranium. No discussion of the effects of 12 years of sanctions. No discussion of all the war profiteering in its myriad forms. And so on. Sure, all these topics received mentions here and there, but never any real discussion commensurate with their importance. Basically, mainstream media reported the situation as if with gravity, but with no real teeth.
For example, for a while I was impressed at how much air time CNN and Fox were giving to protests taking place in the U.S. and abroad. But it quickly became apparent that this was lip service – the cameras were happy to show the bumper sticker philosophy being hoisted on placards, but were not actually giving air time to anyone who could articulate any of the anti-war positions. Even though a quick web search would turn up hundreds of authors, intellectuals, even ex-military personnel who would have been happy to offer another view, this seldom happened. The limited protest coverage was essentially a ruse designed to make the stations look fair and balanced for a few minutes so they could get back to shots of tanks in glory.
In contrast to Fox, CNN seemed like the sober brother. But only in comparison. Check this interview with CNN’s Aaron Brown — behind the gentle eyes and trustworthy manner and soft cadence that all seem to say “liberal news anchor,” he artfully dodges all the real issues.
Anyway. It became very clear after a while that there was no way to get a balanced picture of the war from TV. And while this has always been true — one has always had to turn to alternative news sources for reduced whitewashing, the internet now became even more essential because it was able to work with the same immediacy as the cable news networks and their embedded reporters.
The problem was not that the TV news lied to us, but that its sins of omission were systematic and consistent. We may well have one of the most free presses in the world, but it has squandered its freedom by playing stooge. TV news has forgotten that it’s more than a business — it is also a public trust with a public responsibility. The internet’s role in counterbalancing the effects of the broken news trust have never mattered more. The internet exposes TV for its journalistic shortcomings.