I can recall the exact moment when I knew Saddam Hussein’s number was up. It was not the March 17 48-hour ultimatum or Wednesday’s long-range assassination attempt. It was sometime in November when a spot of channel surfing left me watching MSNBC’s sensitively titled The Road to Baghdad.
To say the program had a hidden agenda would be wrong has there was no effort to hide anything. The world may have been caught up in the diplomatic efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom to secure U.N. sanction for their Baghdad soiree, but on MSNBC, retired generals were already perusing maps of Iraq and discussing attack options.
It wasn’t long before the main networks followed suit. As early as January, the networks were trailing their war coverage, while the race to sign up retired military figures resembled a retired generals employment program. Against the inevitability of war that the ensuing coverage engendered, it is not surprising that antiwar voices struggled to be heard.
Long-running and fierce are the arguments about bias in the media. The accusation of corporate ownership of the media or that it is full of liberals are frequently cited as proof of a particular slant. But it is not only the ownership or the political persuasion of television journalists that shortchanges the American public, but rather the current practices and procedures of news production that give disproportionate weight to official voices and stifles diverse opinion.
Typically, government and military sources are interviewed in their offices, at press conferences or are invited into studios. Such settings lend an authority to their opinions. By contrast, a reporter on the street will pluck an antiwar protester at random who may be no more coherent than a teleprompter-less George W. Bush.
The effect of such a difference is subtle. Of far greater concern is the failure of the media to balance their coverage. Government pronouncements are reported daily, but antiwar opinion only exists in the media on the day thousands take to the street to represent it. Of course, the nation needs to hear the pronouncements of the Bush administration, but to then cut back to the studio for endorsement of government views from network-employed, ex-military figures is as balanced as a Michael Moore acceptance speech.
In their coverage of demonstrations, the networks are simply going by rote. Police and organizer estimates of participants are quoted with a voiceover summary of what the protest is about accompanying footage of people marching with banners. How else is there to explain why a pro-war demonstration of 1,000 people receives as much coverage as an antiwar demonstrations attended by upwards of 100,000 the previous day?
For the two weeks sandwiching Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations on Feb. 5, national media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting monitored ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and PBS’s News Hour. According to its study, 76 percent of cited sources were current or former U.S. officials. Damningly, at a time when opinion polls suggested sizeable opposition to conflict, only 6 percent of U.S. sources on the four networks were skeptics regarding the necessity for war.
The Bush Administration’s repeated linking of Hussein to al-Qaida received widespread coverage. Coverage of numerous Middle East analysts and even the CIA casting doubt on this connection was, however, conspicuous by its absence. It is no coincidence that a pre-war AOL poll suggested that more than 50 percent of Americans believe Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The U.S. soldier shown on NBC painting Sept. 11 payback messages on Baghdad-bound shells clearly had no doubts. Sometimes it isn’t what you say that matters; it’s what you leave out.
Chris O’Donnell is a sophomore majoring in mass firstname.lastname@example.org