truth to power: tactics in hard times

On a cold March night in southwestern Virginia in 2003, one week prior to the United States invasion of Iraq, I filed into a packed auditorium of 2,000 students, including the entire corps of Virginia Tech military cadets dressed in white pants, white gloves, and navy blue hats. Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, a weekly news magazine that airs on U.S. network television, was to speak on the topic of the impending U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A professor at this university at the time, I was in the midst of conducting research for a Web site that had been launched on September 11, 2002, entitled, "Critical Media Literacy in Times of War." For over a year, my team of talented graduate students and I had been immersed in an examination of how and what different news sources were reporting on the effect of sanctions, civilian casualties, and number of persons reported at war protests in relationship to recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was steeped in international press coverage related to Bush's threatened war, and as the talk progressed, it became evident that Russert was omitting central arguments against the preemptive attacks that had been widely published in most �international and some domestic news media in early 2003. Describing his talk as an "objective evaluation" of the bipartisan views represented in news media, Russert concluded his speech by saying that, given journalism's objective work reporting the facts, Bush's proposed invasion was justified and warranted.

I was first to the microphone for the question and answer period. As Russert spoke, I had written down carefully worded remarks identifying key facts reported in respected news sources that he had neglected to mention. Outlining these omitted arguments, I asked Russert if he read any international news sources and suggested that he seemed extremely partisan in his selection of news coverage and consequent appraisal of the situation. His face turning red, Russert shouted that I had no right to claim to be a professor given my misreading of the facts. Cheering on Russert's cowardly attack, the audience began hissing and booing at me when I attempted a reply, and I was forced to retreat to my seat, genuinely afraid. As I left the auditorium, I feared I would be accosted, and was grateful for the few people who thanked me on my way out.

It was at that moment that I realized the potency of the active silencing of dissent, and how distorted myths of journalistic objectivity could be used to justify something as devastating as the bombing of a nation and its people. Of course, my experience was not unusual — this was during a post-9/11 period in the United States when academics deemed "unpatriotic" were being "blacklisted" by such right-wing organizations as CampusWatch.

. . . .

Less than a year later, in early 2004, Tim Russert grilled George W. Bush on Meet the Press. When I read that Russert accused Bush of misleading the public and congress with stories about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), I felt a familiar anger — the anger at the number of politically powerful people who have adopted a revisionist story of their views on Bush's preemptive invasion. Just one of the many turncoats. And this about-face of opinion — from supporting invasion to opposing the war — was enacted by so many politicians, in so many media outlets, and through the "evidence" of public opinion polls that one is simply left in a twilight zone of desperation. Who has the power to define reality?

. . . .

My exchange with Tim Russert is emblematic of how the media functions in terms of truth and power. The auditorium is a public sphere; Mr. Russert, paid to stand at the podium with his hand on the microphone, epitomizes the power of media. The professor plays the role of merely one citizen, whose "opinions" (not facts) cannot possibly be right. (Where was Colbert's "truthiness" in 2003?) And playing the part of media aptly, Russert would never admit in that public sphere that he was possibly wrong for excluding internationally recognized, credible arguments that countered his view. When public perception of the facts changes, and it is safe for dominant media to take a more dissenting position, media tend not to accept responsibility for harm already done. There are rare exceptions: both the New York Times and National Public Radio in February 2003 had to correct their underreporting of the number of antiwar protestors at demonstrations around the world on February 15, which in fact comprised the largest international antiwar movement in history. In 2005, the New York Times offered a feeble mea culpa for their role in disseminating false information about WMD.

As I travel and speak internationally, people frequently ask, "Is there a public in the United States that disagrees with the Bush Administration's policies? If there is, we don't see it reported here [in Canada, France, England, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium]." Even progressive scholars do not seem to dig farther than headline bytes to recognize the fact of the largest international anti-war movement in history.

Megan Boler, from the introduction to Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times

Some wmtc/JoS readers may remember an old post of mine, in which I unintentionally caused offense, never dreaming that there were Tim Russert fans in our midst.

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