Monday, January 15, 2007

Reforming the media

The media's collapse, said actor and activist Jane Fonda in an earlier speech, shielded the government's own failures.
Telling the story of
Abeer Qasim Hamza, a 15-year-old Iraqi who was raped and murdered by U.S. soldiers, Fonda criticized the news media's impotence in covering the war.
"The cold-blooded murder of Abeer and her family is a tragedy," Fonda said. "But it's almost as great a tragedy when her story and all the other stories that are difficult to hear and difficult to accept are buried in the back of news pages and quickly shuffled off the nightly news." She added: "A truly powerful media is one that can stop a war, not start one."
A founder of the Women's Media Center, which advocates for greater representation of women in media and in newsrooms, Fonda said American journalism takes pride in balance but "forgets that the world is not divided only by right and left."
"During the coverage of the 2004 elections," she added, "journalists were more than twice as likely to turn to a male source than a woman."

The above, noted by Cindy, is from Trevor Aaronson's "Fonda Wraps up Media Conference: Advocate for women in newsrooms says journalism forgets divide not just right and left" (Memphis Commerical Appeal via Common Dreams). That's a jumpoing off point for a joint entry. Participating are:

The Third Estate Sunday Review's Dona, Jess, Ty, Ava and, me, Jim;
Rebecca of
Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude;
Kat of
Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills);
Betty of
Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man;
C.I. of
The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review;
Cedric of
Cedric's Big Mix;
Mike of
Mikey Likes It!;
Elaine of
Like Maria Said Paz;
and Wally of
The Daily Jot

Fonda's comments strike at the heart of the problems with media today. They address the issue of Abeer, Iraq, and the portrayal of the 'other' (anyone who's non-White, non-middle-aged, non-straight, and non-White). As Rebecca has argued, Abeer's story is the story of Iraq.

And what did the media do with it?

Independent media ignored it. Early on (June), it looked like there might be some interest in but that was quickly dropped as independent media marched off elsewhere. It never really bothered to pick up the story after it was done completely ignoring Iraq. No article in The Nation ever ran on Abeer or has run as of today. A fourteen-year-old girl was gang raped, murdered, her five-year-old sister was murdered, her parents were murdered and the initial blame for the war crimes was 'insurgents.' The reality was that the war crimes were committed by non-Iraqis. In November, James P. Barker admitted to his involvement in the war crimes (he entered the home as part of a plan to rape Abeer and kill her and others in the house). His court confession also included the actions of others. Since they've yet to be tried, or to confess, you can toss "alleged" in front of their names if you like.

But Abeer was raped and killed and where was the media when the details emerged?

The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Off Our Backs and Robin Morgan were accounted for, they weighed in. Where was everyone else?

The New York Times specialized in a funny sort of reporting. Before the defense could present their legal argument in an Article 32 hearing that was held in August, the New York Times, supposedly presenting objective reporting, managed to run an opinion piece as reporting and somehow managed to argue the defense's case. In a piece published before the defense had presented their case. In a defense that a military legal expert said had no known basis in legal history. Wow. Those New York Times reporters (Carolyn Marshall and Robert F. Worth) are certainly amazing. They predicted it all -- and without any help from the defense! What seers are they.

The New York Times specialized in another kind of reporting on the war crimes -- never mentioning Abeer's name. To name the victim would be to give a face to her and since their own 'reporting' had already crossed the line into advocacy journalism (not anything wrong with advocacy journalism but the paper self-presents as 'objective') it was very clear that their interest wasn't in the truth, wasn't in reporting what happened, but in rendering Abeer and what happened to her invisible. How do you, as reporters at the paper repeatedly did, cover the trial of men accused of gang raping and murdering Abeer and never manage to mention her name?

You do it very carefully when you're interests are in managing and mitigating public opinion. Better to make her a faceless victim if you're interested in continuing to sell the illegal war which the paper is interested in doing.

Now the paper's actions should have been called out. So you might think you got that. You didn't. If in no other way, The Nation could have covered Abeer as a media topic. There media columnist could have addressed the way the paper of record rendered Abeer invisible. But he wasn't interested in that. AlterPunk was interested in useless articles such as his lengthy take on why the New York Times shouldn't run unsigned editorials -- a column that ran in a magazine (The Nation) which runs unsigned editorials.

He was interested in getting upset that he'd recently learned the New York Times' policy on quoting from comments on websites was questionable. In a piece where they rushed to lynch Janet Jackson -- a piece riddled with inaccuracies, only a few of which resulted in corrections by the paper -- it was apparently okay to 'doctor' a quote from a website. The paper is aware of the docotring -- at every level -- and they issued no correction on that. If AlterPunk wants to feign shock about the Times' 'quoting' from websites, he might do better to know the paper's history on it.) (Altering quotes, failure to research your articles, presenting half-baked theories that blow up with the most basic examination and not even grasping that just because you say something was or wasn't a number one doesn't make it true didn't result in the arts section's version of Judith Miller being banned from the paper for anyone interested. We could also touch on the topic of allowing people to create titles for themselves and the paper running with them. That started in the arts section and then, as the Times well knows up through the editorial offices -- carried over to the front page of the news section. The defense on that, expressed by the editor responsible for the front page piece, was that the executive in question didn't like his actual title so he preferred to use a title that doesn't exist. That may be the executive's wish but if the company wanted him to have that title, they'd give it to him. (They haven't and his being billed by a title he doesn't hold has caused anger at the company and caused those still expressing disbelief to note that when you're 'friends' with writers at the paper you can write your own ticket in what passes for 'objective' reporting.) Maybe the Cindy Brady of the faux left can next tackle that?

Probably not because it's safer for all involved (safer translates as coverage and book reviews) to offer up useless topics (unsigned editorials? A pressing issue in the bull pens of high school papers, no doubt) .

And independent media played 2006 safe and cowardly with few exceptions.

Today, John Nichols and Katrina vanden Heuvel write of Dr. Martin Luther King. It may be less than generous to note that the magazine's choosing to note him on the federal holiday in his honor. It's pointing the obvious to note that the passing last year of Coretta Scott King produced no article -- in print or 'online exclusive.' So it strikes us as a more than apalling that the same magazine who didn't appear to give a damn about Coretta Scott King now rushes pieces on MLK to their website.

Like Abeer, Coretta Scott King meets the defnition of an 'other.' African-American, a woman, she couldn't get any traction. The media critic for The Nation couldn't even note that the paper of little record didn't editorialize about her passing -- though, in the same week, they could note a playwright (and personal friend of Gail Collins) who died. Her passing didn't rate a column either. The closest to a column, and the only mention in the editorial section, was Bob Herbert's tacked on one paragraph noting she had died.

What does that say? What does the above say?

Quite a lot and if people want to address media reform, they better do seriously. The Nation is the left magazine with the largest circulation so we'll focus on it.

In 2006, when both Katha Pollitt and Naomi Klein were on leave while they worked on books, two prime spots were open to be temporarily filled. When two strong voices are absent and they happen to be female, you might think The Nation would fill those spots with women. But apparently having nearly wall to wall contributions from male writers wasn't quite enough for "Nobody Owns The Nation," they needed more male voices.

This operating belief goes a long way towards explaining why a freelancer placed her article on Abu Ghraib last year not with The Nation but with a fashion magazine (Marie Claire). The Nation should be leading and it isn't. That's in terms of what gets covered and who gets to cover it. (Already in 2007, their appalling low number of pieces written by women threaten to match the disgraceful numbers for 2006.)

Is the nation White, male, middle aged and straight in all regards? No, but if you got that impression from reading The Nation in 2006, your mistaken beliefs were certainly supported by the magazine.

Alternative media is supposed to provide an alternative, to present what media could be. (On a lower budget, granted.) Offering what the mainstream provides (often the worst it provides -- such as handicapping political races as though they were horse races) but with a left/Democratic spin (for many in independent media, the 'left' view is determined by what the DNC decides it is) isn't an alternative. It's a negative, a photographic negative, it's the bizarro world, it's just not an alternative.

An alternative requires providing an alternative. That requires covering topics that the mainstream isn't interested in. That requires creating the kind of media that demonstrates what is wrong with the current system.

If the extent of 'wrong' is that more Republican hacks are tossed on the airwaves than Democratic hacks, then The Nation is doing a wonderful job. If being a party organ for the Democratic Party is an alternative, congratulations to The Nation.

That would explain why coverage of students qualifies in the magazine as covering what an Iowan poli-sci student deemed "Eisnhower Democrats." Look, they're War Hawks, well funded one with the usual crowd of useless names speaking to them and funding them! Oh, look, here's another piece about 'activists' who are overjoyed by their 'success' (they farmed out volunteers to Congressional campaings) and who explain that sometimes you have to stop 'hugging a tree,' 'put on a suit,' and get down to business. Such business doesn't include serious concern over the environment as the dismissive 'tree hugging' reference telegraphs.

Meanwhile, in the real world, students organize to end the war, organize to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, organize to halt the imprisonments at Guantanamo, organize (and lead!) on the immigrations rights issue.

The immigration rights issue? "Alternative" coverage apparently means you go down to the deep south and speak to White people opposed to immigrant rights. You also toss in a male (of course male) activist. You avoid the students who led the protests, who woke a sleeping nation. You avoid their bravery and maybe you even offer a slap to them that the Mexican flag shouldn't be carried at a protest. Now those words generally come from people who didn't participate in any of the protests so the words are as useless as the owners of the mouths uttering them.

Where is the place at the table for people of ethnicities and color, for women and LBGTs?

The Nation is looking for a publicity director. That's not going to change the opinions of students opposed to the magazine, students who see it as useless and judgmental of them, students who see their own work and the issues that matter to them ignored.

A new publicity director won't conceal the fact that 'equality' has a funny meaning at The Nation. Equality doesn't mean when two female columnists are on leave, you fill their posts with other male voices. Equality does seem to mean that you demonstrate how fair you are by criticizing Harry Belafonte. At last! African-Americans can be slammed equally at The Nation! (If undeservedly.) Now they can't get covered, Coretta Scott King's death demonstrates that, but they've 'achieved' enough at the magazine that they can be slammed.

Will a publicy director speak to the staff about how they conduct themselves in on air interviews?

We think she or he should. We think that's now a requirement after Laura Flanders was called everything but stupid on air. (Flanders an astute journalist, critic and broadcaster.) That hostile, patronizing, impatient and dismissive treatment didn't come from a guest billed as being on the right, it came from a Nation staffer (and Lyndon La Rouche refugee). We think that interview, the hostitility expressed towards Flanders, says a lot. How does anyone at the magazine come to believe it's okay to treat Flanders, or any woman, in such a manner? (It was bullying. Flanders stood her ground.)

Well it helps when the culture is predominately male, predominately straight, and predominately White. And we're speaking of the culture at the magazine. Media reform is suddenly an issue (for a week or so) and we're reminded of the 2006 issue on media reform which played like celebrity even if it didn't make for good reading. Having something to say wasn't apparently a requirement, just name value. (Which led to it playing out like the what-are-they-reading feature in Vanity Fair -- though in fairness to Van Fair, that's a tiny item in the magazine, not something they provide for pages and pages.)

Margaret Kimberley (Black Agenda Report) is very popular with this community, so let's get practical: when does she get invited to the table?

Or does she have to blindly cheer every Democrat to be included?

If impeachment was a topic worthy of a January 2006 cover, why is it a topic dropped when Nancy Pelosi announcing she is pulling it off the table? Last time we checked, she wasn't listed on the masthead of The Nation.

Independent media needs to show some independence. That's independence in thought and in coverage. Talk of media reform is meaningless if alternative outlets aren't willing to provide an alternative currently.

As 2006 drew to a close, CounterSpin finally found a woman they could interview for the full program (a practice common with male guests). We see that and her topic (the way the press covers war) as a big step in the right direction. But having lived through one of the worst years for independent media (2006), we're not about to act like media reform is something required of the mainstream and that the bulk of independent media has done a good (or even an okay) job in the last year. It hasn't.

It has not reaffirmed the core of democracy (that would require covering actions that included more than running for office or urging that readers vote). It has not practiced anything resmembling Brown v. Board in their own coverage. And we're all dying for the moment where a host (male or female) of a panel has the guts to stop a male, who repeatedly cuts off a female guest, by pointing out just how dismissive he's treating the woman and asking him why he thinks that treatment is acceptable? We're also dying to get something other than The Elector.

We're not interested in The Elector and we're not interested in linking to sop. A perfect example would be an article that David Enders has written. Does the writing qualify for sop? No. It's well written. But The Nation feels it's only worthy of 'online exclusive' status -- implying that they grade outside writers much more harshly than they do insiders. (Possibly they're under the mistaken belief that their print editions are awash with Iraq coverage?) While we're glad that both John Nichols and Katrina vanden Heuvel chose, on the MLK federal holiday, to note MLK, we're not interested in linking to the articles because of the magazine's own silence on Coretta Scott King. In fact, community wide we probably won't to link to anything from The Nation other than Naomi Klein or Katha Pollitt. Why?

Why bother? Why bother to link to a magazine that refuses to cover war resisters? They can't get ahold of Kyle Synder? (Puts them in the minority.) No, they just don't want to. They've demonstrated that throughout 2006 and the slam they printed on Ehren Watada is so offensive and does not pass the 'free speech' phrase that's used as a bully club.

Isn't it funny how free speech lets in Christopher Hitchens, La Rouche refugees and sexual predators but it doesn't let it people of color, it doesn't let it in women, it doesn't let in coverage of peace activists and demonstrations, and it doesn't let in war resisters.

Ehren Watada's beliefs about the illegality and the immorality of the war could be backed up with citations from (much earlier) coverage of Iraq that The Nation provided. So he takes a stand and they play dumb. That's not cutting it. At some point, when you know the war is wrong, you have to take a stand. Ehren Watada has done that. The Nation reads like its unsure. A war resister is a cover story, not a sidebar and especially not a sidebar after you've just printed a useless (unneeded and uninformed) quote from a man slamming Watada. That a magazine which says it is opposed to the illegal war continues to be unable to offer one editorial or column in support of Watada or any of the other war resisters to go public in the summer of 2006, while filling pages of the magazine week after week with useless trash like AlterPunk's nonstop shout outs to various men (someday he'll prove he's a real boy, just like Pinochio!) (and when that happens, he still won't correct his lie that Naomi Klein was a fashion consultant to the Gore campaign).

We're tired of it and we think media reform is a useless topic until independent media is willing to practice some of it themselves.