Essay: All the news that fits your reality
By JAMES PONIEWOZIK
Stay tuned for unfiltered feeds from Bush and Gore. Get the message?
You've just liberated a nation from a tyrant who spread his lies through a state-run TV network. What do you do next? If you're the Bush Administration, you spread the good news...by setting up a state-run TV network!
Apparently, along with market capitalism and the one-man-one-vote principle, the Administration intends to export to Iraq America's delicious sense of irony. As reported in the New York Observer, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) plans to begin a 24-hour broadcast service, dedicated to reporting the Iraq news it deems important.
The broadcast will be live and unfiltered — unfiltered, at least, by meddlesome journalists. Dorrance Smith, a CPA media adviser and a former ABC News producer, told the Observer that the network's model was the wartime broadcasts from Centcom headquarters, which frustrated journalists with their lack of specifics but convinced audiences that we were blowing up a lot of stuff real good.
The hope is that local TV stations will use the feed, allowing the government to take its reportage straight to the public.
This is not the first time the Bush Administration has pulled an end-around play on the national media. Just before the war, the President held a press conference with preselected questions from preselected reporters; in September, he gave a round of interviews with local journalists, a slap at big-media reporters who weren't playing nice.
Now the Bushies gripe that the press is ignoring the good news from Iraq in favor of the bombing of the minute. With a dictator overthrown and schools being rebuilt, why should the press fixate solely on violence and dramatics?
Of course, the Bush team didn't have this scruple when the dramatic incident in question was the rescue of Jessica Lynch on a stretcher. But they actually have a good point.
The media too often do play up violent stories at the expense of nuanced ones: if it bleeds, it leads. The problem is, Bush's crew have embraced this critique only now that they prefer the nuanced story to the battlefield one. At the same time, they have abandoned a worthy conservative principle: that government, and taxpayers' money, should stay the hell out of the media business.
But Bush & Co. have an unlikely media-bashing ally of sorts: Al Gore. Speaking last week at Middle Tennessee State University, the former Vice President bemoaned the "quasi-hypnotic influence" of TV that, he said, has dumbed down American political discourse. Says Gore, a onetime newspaper reporter who wrote a college thesis about TV and the presidency: "[TV news] does not lend itself most readily to the conveyance of complex ideas about self-governance. Instead it pushes toward a lowest common denominator."
Gore's solution, of course, is to start a TV news network. With deep-pocketed backers, Gore has looked into buying cable channel News World International. Despite initial reports, Gore's camp says he and his backers intend to make the channel not a liberal mouthpiece but a "hip" news channel for young viewers — CNN meets MTV. Maybe; maybe not. (Gore has long complained about the undue influence of conservatives on talk radio and Fox News, so you do the math.)
But one thing is certain: if it is political, none of its employees or fans will believe that it is. I write about TV and media for a living. Few subjects, I've found, incite more reader mail than media bias. And yet — though media bias is supposedly everywhere and universally despised — no one has ever written me to complain that a network or newspaper was biased in favor of his political view. There is no subject about which people are less objective than objectivity.
Some pundits say the politicization of American news — opinion becoming more visible than headlines, politicos starting news outfits — means we are moving toward a "European" model of media, in which newspapers and news programs are openly left-or right-wing. You watch the Glass Half Full Channel, I watch the Glass Half Empty Channel and everyone's happy.
But we're not Europeans: we can't simply light up a Gauloise, unfold a copy of our partisan newspaper and jadedly admit that bias is inevitable — c'est la guerre! Boy-Scoutishly, we feel this is wrong, cynical, corruptly Old World. We need a fig leaf. Our news must call itself "unfiltered" or "fair and balanced." It must flatter both our world view and our belief in our fairness.
What the Bush-TV and Gore-TV ideas have most in common is not politics. It is this American combination of idealism and arrogance: the conviction that if everyone had pure, unfiltered information — if, indeed, there were such a thing — the scales would fall from their eyes, and they would join the side of right.
We're rational people, after all. We want reality, not bias. And is it our fault that on our favorite channel, reality happens to be biased in our favor?
Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.