I’ve been thinking a little more about how the “bounds of acceptable discourse” are perpetuated. By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the flap over the decision of the Sinclair-owned ABC stations not to air the “Nightline” segment in which the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq were solemnly intoned. (If you missed the story, this AP article contains just about everything you need to know.)
This interests me not simply because of what it suggests about the corrosive influence of media conglomeration and political corruption on the free flow of information in a democratic society. Appalling as that is, it is also utterly predictable.
To me, what this story really highlights is the untenability of our popular construct of the impartial journalist. The truth is, at one level the cynical, Bush-whacked Sinclair was correct: the decision to read those names on the air was a political decision. Every decision about what to air on a news show is guided by politics, however much the producers might like to believe that they are above the fray.
And I would go one step further and suggest that the failure to acknowledge this simple, fairly obvious fact might actually result in a more dangerous slant than if the bias were fully conscious and freely acknowledged from the start. There’s no bias like an unconscious bias.
For example, the unexamined assumption shared by maybe 95 percent of working U.S. journalists, and 100 percent of mainstream political commentators, that our government is basically well intentioned in the conduct of its foreign affairs has the effect of burying a great number of important stories. For example, how much do you remember hearing or reading about the extraordinary pressure brought to bear on the citizens of El Salvador to vote as our government wanted them to in the buildup to their “democratic” national election last month? I’m guessing that you, like me, remained blissfully unaware of it (as we do about so much that our government does, every day, to ensure its unquestioned hegemony throughout the hemisphere). Why didn’t it get more play? This story would seem to have been highly relevant to other stories that are considered worthy of coverage (“sovereignty” in Iraq; the ability/willingness of partisans to use foul means to decide elections in the U.S.). Widespread concerns about the continuing flow of immigrants into the United States and the decline in wages, etc., as well as the fairly extensive constituency that opposed the U.S. backing of El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s, would seem to have ensured a receptive audience for coverage of the Salvadoran election.
So why didn’t we hear all about it? Again, the concentration of media ownership has a huge influence, without a doubt. But you can read the headlines in any newspaper from three decades ago and you won’t see much more openness to these kinds of stories than you see now. (Indeed, the age of the Internet has initiated a new level of ready access to information scarcely conceivable only ten years ago. Anyone can go to the public library, log on to a computer and find the very blueprints for U.S. global imperialism with a few clicks of the mouse.)
Laziness and inattention are huge factors in determining coverage. For decades, the vast majority of newspapers in the United States have relied upon the New York Times to decide what the headlines for the following day should be. But does that mean that if we simply did away with the New York Times, everything would be hunky-dory? The problem is, it’s impossible to cover stories like the Salvadorean elections without challenging the bedrock assumption about American virtue I mentioned above.
It seems almost laughable that our major news organs consider it too controversial to refer to U.S. troops in Iraq as occupation forces, preferring instead the clearly pro-Bush term “coalition forces.” But thirty years after the end of our Indochina adventure, it remains impossible to refer to U.S. entrance into Vietnam as an invasion, or to “model villages” as concentration camps. Just the other day, my father mentioned his anger at a statement in Newsweek that the Vietnam War “cost 50,000 lives.” It is still difficult, if not impossible, for respectable commentators to accept the fact that we invaded another country, set up a puppet regime, and did unspeakable things to its inhabitants. (Around 1,600,000 people died on all sides in that conflict, including an estimated 340,000 civilians and 56,000 U.S. soldiers.)
I think of my recently deceased maternal grandfather, and how good he was at not seeing things that would have made him uncomfortable. Pop-pop was a strict Methodist who never had a drop of alcohol in his life, and he believed that all of his offspring and their children were just as uniquely blessed with good sense as he was. Pop-pop was a patriarch in the best sense of the word: he was extremely proud of all of us, and I remember how he sat grinning from ear to ear throughout the fairly riotous reception for my cousin Heidi’s wedding a few years back. All around him, his children and grandchildren drank wine from wineglasses and beer from the bottle. He saw – I’m convinced – nothing, other than some rather exotic forms of soda pop and iced tea!
On the other side of the coin, in every area where the conventional assumptions of mainstream commentators can be contested, the bounds of acceptable discourse inevitably expand to accommodate a more diverse selection of possible story lines. Take stories concerned with the relationship of government toward its own citizens. Imagine if we didn’t have a long tradition of suspicion toward, and agitation against, governmental authority. Would we even see stories like the AP article linked to above, freely quoting the left-liberal media reform group Free Press as an expert witness on the cozy relationship between Sinclair and the Bush regime? Would environmental and social change movements ever have gotten off the ground without this widespread presumption of an agonistic relationship between citizens and their elected representatives?
That’s not to say that this belief is unproblematic. For quite a few years now, commentators from various positions on the political spectrum have urged more harmonious, communitarian conceptions of government. I’ve been known to advocate such things myself: if we truly believed that we were the government, imagine how things might change! But I have to admit that it is at least as likely that such communitarianism would be hijacked by impulses toward conformity – another, very strong political tradition. If you think we’d be better off without conflict between grassroots pressure groups and government, take a look at Japan. The pressure to “go along to get along” in Japan is so overwhelming that almost every effort to found an independent union or an adversarial environmental group ends quickly in co-option. The one major exception to this rule, the national teacher’s union, has managed to maintain its independence over the years only through steadfast adherence to a rigid, Marxist ideology. And that’s why, every couple of years when the Ministry of Education issues new textbooks, the ever-simmering controversy about whether (for instance) Japan merely “expanded” into Manchuria, or whether it invaded it, gets a full airing in the Japanese media.
We in the U.S. are far from immune from similar pressures to muzzle dissent and “work within the system.” In our ever-more-partisan political climate, bipartisanship tends to be seen as a virtue. But all too often, a lack of serious controversy in the corridors of power simply means that the moneyed classes are united in their opposition to the popular will and/or in their determination to mold that will into a more favorable shape. We saw this especially clearly a year and a half ago, with the closing of ranks behind the “President” in his determination to invade Iraq. Bipartisanship in that case threatened the very foundation of our republic – Congress actually relinquished its own authority to declare war, quite possibly violating the Constitution in the process.
But pay close attention to the words: they want us to think that bipartisanship is identical to nonpartisanship, which it manifestly is not. Bipartisanship means that the two major parties collude, consciously or otherwise, to restrict the bounds of acceptable discourse to such an extent as to exclude the concerns of vast segments of the voting public. Single-payer health care? An end to commercial extraction on public lands? A radical downsizing of the military budget? More taxes to pay for programs that nearly everybody supports? All off the table.
The most obvious mechanism for achieving this form of bipartisanship is redistricting, as Molly Ivins pointed out in a talk at Altoona College the week before last. She noted that in Iowa, where political districts are drawn by a non-partisan panel of experts, 80 percent of all districts are competitive. That’s the exception. In every other state, nearly all districts have long ceased to be competitive. Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for this nearly universal gerrymandering; the current ascendancy of the less-popular GOP simply testifies to its superior mastery of the process.
The result? “Representatives” elected by non-competitive districts feel themselves under little obligation to represent anyone other than the vocal minorities that elected them – much less to try and appeal to their ideological opponents, as was once the case. A shifting number of polarizing issues (flag burning, prayer in schools, abortion) become ever more prominent as the parties seek to build and mobilize ever more rabid constituencies. The impeachment of President Clinton was a watershed event in this polarizing process. And look how well it worked: Nader’s claim that the two parties had become indistinguishable was viewed by most mainstream journalists and commentators as arrant and possibly dangerous nonsense. (In addition, of course, he suffered from the decision to replace the previously nonpartisan sponsorship of televised debates – by the League of Women Voters – with a bipartisan commission.)
But the actual results of the 2000 presidential election – the one race not directly influenced by gerrymandering – bore out Nader’s claim to an extraordinary degree. Yes, Gore won the popular vote (and probably the election, had the Florida voter registration records not been purged), but by a statistically insignificant margin. Now, you can believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus if you want to, but it really stretches credulity to imagine that the electorate is precisely evenly divided in its party preferences. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, the only logical way to explain such an unlikely result is to assume that people voted almost entirely at random. The huge numbers of undecided voters reported by pollsters in advance of the election help bolster this hypothesis.
In other words, bipartisanship works in large part because the majority of voters don’t care about either party. Large differences in substance would threaten the real business of America – business. Let’s remember that, while the corruption and criminality of the Bush regime exceed Clinton’s by at least a factor of ten, the Clinton administration did pave the way with unprecedented levels of access and influence for business interests over policies both foreign and domestic. It’s a vicious circle. As more and more people become alienated from politics and fewer and fewer bother to vote, the influence of a few, wealthy backers becomes ever more prominent. In this way, apparently bitter, competitive partisanship becomes a mask for bipartisan collusion. The likely end of such collusion is complete rule by corporations – we’re nearly there already.
Most corporations are themsleves supremely bipartisan. They bet on all horses that can win. (Dissidents, like Diebold or the Sinclair Group, who are too flagrant in their bias toward one party, risk being outed and denounced in the mainstream media. Some have suggested that Microsoft’s original sin had been not to bribe either party. Given the effectiveness of the protection money doled out to the GOP in 2000, we can expect Microsoft to remain an enthusiastic team player from now on.) I’m willing to bet, however, that just like their counterparts in the news media, the corporate board members who engage in such legalized bribery would lay claim to objective neutrality. Because, of course, they are afflicted with the biggest blind spot of all: they are all partisans of money and power.
Power itself, in all its expressions – authority, hierarchy, monopoly, exploitation, constructs of self/other, us/them and purity/pollution – looms invisibly behind all the other misprisions and delusions that keep our imaginations in thrall. Challenging its hegemony, plowing under the “monocultures of the mind,” in Vandana Shiva’s resonant phrase, may constitute the most crucial of all the political acts we can engage in.
Afterthought: In light of the pervasive self-censorship of the U.S. news media, free Arabic-language media organs such as al-Jazeera play an increasing role in shaping coverage of the Iraq war. Unless and until al-Jazeera can be bought off or shut down, the occupying powers will be forced to take the “Arab street” into consideration. The airing stateside of such hugely damaging stories as the Iraqi prisoner scandal also reflects deep divisions over the occupation among U.S. elites themselves – a division which is both substantive and nonpartisan. In fact, some of the most outspoken opponents of the invasion and occupation have been conservative Republicans. But tellingly, on this most crucial of issues, the two major-party presidential candidates are nearly united, differing only in minor nuances of packaging and expedience.