|Number 188||January 17, 2003|
Since I start teaching a class on media and international news next week (see “Upcoming Nygaardian Events” in this issue), I thought it a good time to express my overall view as to why domestic news from South of the border is what it is. (Sneak preview: It has to do with the fact that our media system is run for profit.)
New resources are constantly popping up for new and creative ways of opposing the U.S. march toward war with Iraq. So, for the indefinite future, I will attempt to reserve some space each week in Nygaard Notes for listing one Anti-War Resource of the Week. By listing just one each week, I perhaps will avoid overloading y’all with too much information, while at the same time boosting all of our spirits by showing evidence of the growth of a real grass-roots movement (I hope). Also, some readers who are opposed to the war may not yet have found the right way to express their views. Maybe this weekly feature will eventually show YOU what you need to get active. That feeling of deja vu you have is because I announced this item last week, but forgot to put it in!
A sincere thank you to 1) All the new readers. Hi! 2) All of you who sent such positive messages in recent weeks. I’ll try to be worthy of your faith in me. 3) All of you who have told your friends and fellow activists about Nygaard Notes. I don’t know who you are, but people are hearing about it somewhere!
Until next week,
I want to mention a couple of things coming up that may be of interest to Nygaard Notes readers who live in the vicinity of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. (Readers farther afield can skip this part.)
Nygaard Offers Media Class
Once again I am scheduled to teach a class at the Resource Center of the Americas on media and Latin America. The class—with the ungainly title “Looking at the World: How the Media Shapes Our Understanding of Foreign Affairs”—will be on Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 8:30 starting on January 21st. I try to teach the class using a popular education approach, with my role being to facilitate the development of the knowledge, skills, and capacity for action that already exist in the people in the class. We have fun for five Tuesdays in a row. If you’re interested, call the Center at 612-276-0788, email them at email@example.com, or visit their website at http://www.americas.org/ and click on “Classes.”
Clarify Your Terms! Public Discussion
Some readers were intrigued by my decision last year to officially abandon the terms “left” and “right” when referring to politics. I said that the terms were mostly meaningless, often very confusing, and that they really limit the thinking of those of us who don’t buy that Al Gore is a “leftist.” Anyhow, an informal public discussion of the need for new language for our political discourse has been scheduled for Thursday night, January 23rd, at MayDay Bookstore on the West Bank in Minneapolis. It’s right at 3rd and Cedar Avenues, just east of Downtown. If you want directions or something, call them up at 612-333-4719. I have no idea yet how this event will be organized, but it’s bound to be interesting!
This week’s AWRW is a website where you can sign the International Anti-War Referendum, a document that speaks directly to the immorality of the planned attack on Iraq, regardless of whether the U.N. Security Council “authorizes” it or not. If you choose to cast your vote in favor of the referendum, you will be demanding that the funds now earmarked for war instead “should be used to create jobs, to combat famine and disease, and to finance education, housing, healthcare, childcare, assistance to the elderly and to meet people's needs.” Find the referendum at: http://www.votenowar.org/en/.
[The following article is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in the December-January issue of “Connection to the Americas,” the newsletter of the Resource Center of the Americas, based here in Minneapolis. That article appeared as an overview of U.S. media coverage of Latin America, called “Desaparecidos: 10 Questions the Major News Media Didn’t Ask in 2002.” If you are a member of the Resource Center, you’ve already seen it. If not, read it online at http://www.americas.org/. And consider joining the Center. Heck, they hire pretty good writers, don’t they? Nygaard]
For the average resident of the United States, the news media is their “window to the world.” Few are aware, however, that this window is located in the kitchen of the world’s largest and most ornate imperial mansion, and to look through it is to see “the world” as nothing more than a big back yard. Most United Statesians decline to cast more than an occasional glance out of that window and, when they do, it’s usually because there’s a ruckus of some sort that they think might warrant a call to the cops.
Consider Latin America. It’s not a mystery that so many important and compelling stories from Latin America are missing from the U.S. media. There is little motivation for a corporate, profit-oriented media industry to do anything but play to the prejudices and self-interest of the affluent, largely Anglo, public that their advertisers demand. Since that audience is largely indifferent to affairs beyond our borders, most news of Latin America never gets on the air at all in this country. The news that we do get tends to be sensational and superficial, aimed at catching the eye of the largest possible audience of potential consumers, not at informing or enlightening the public. What we end up with is “News in 3-D:” Drugs, Dictators, and Disasters. As the War Against Terrorism takes hold, perhaps we’ll start seeing the news in “3-T:” Terror, Tyrants and Trauma. Either way, it’s disempowering.
In Nygaard Notes #180 I quoted Andrew Kohut, director of The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, reporting on the results of Pew’s biennial survey of United Statesians’ relationship with the media, conducted this past June. “Public interest in international news,” he said, “showed a small increase [from our last survey], but most Americans continue to pay attention to international news only when something important is happening.” Remarkable as that statement is—there are times when the activities of 95 percent of the world’s population are not “important”??—it also raises another, crucial, question: What do the residents of The World’s Only Superpower consider “important,” and how do they arrive at that judgement?
U.S. Interests, Corporate Media Interests
While news of Latin America in this country has always been filtered through the lens of “U.S. interests,” the increasing size and concentration of ownership of the media has made a bad situation worse. Not too long ago there was at least lip service paid to the idea that the reputation of a network news division depended in part on a record of good journalism developed over time, and a beleaguered news editor could perhaps “sell” the argument to his or her boss that the expense involved in reporting on the activities of our government in Central or South America was worth the investment. That idea’s an almost impossible sell now; there’s no time to wait for long-term benefits when shareholders are buying and selling based on the most recent quarter’s stock performance.
As a local TV news manager said to me a couple of years ago, in speaking about their local news show, “We are a commercial TV station. We have to bring in viewers to get the advertising to pay the high costs of doing local news.” Therefore, she added, “We need to lead with a ‘grabber.’ It may not be good journalism, but we need to keep our ratings up.” Her point? Commercial news stations have to produce bad journalism in order to pay the costs of producing...bad journalism. And so it is with the national news programs that fill our nation’s living rooms. All of the U.S. broadcast networks have now closed their Latin America bureaus; no one cares about that stuff and, if some disaster happens, it’s much cheaper to get the necessary photos from free-lancers and locals who will work for less.
What do news editors believe will “grab” the attention of the mass audiences sought by their corporate bosses? Some of it is explained by the age-old newspaper truism that the unusual is newsworthy and the everyday is not (“Dog Bites Human!” is not news. “Human Bites Dog!” certainly is.) This journalistic practice serves to diminish the “newsworthiness” of the everyday workings of the U.S.-dominated economic system that sentences so many to lives of poverty.
Further decreasing the likelihood that such mundane realities will remain unnoticed this side of the border is the startling lack of Latino voices in the U.S. media—voices which might reflect the lived experiences of newly-arrived (or not so newly-arrived) immigrants and their families to the South. According to a study by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, only 0.6 percent of all U.S. sources interviewed on the three major network news shows in the year 2001 were Latino. Another recent FAIR study of urban public radio newsrooms in the U.S. showed that, while the cities served by the radio stations studied were on average 25 percent Latino, only 1 percent of the hosts and anchors at the stations studied were Latino.
Beneath all this lies a more profound problem: the U.S. is no longer a word-centered culture in which a “good story,” well-written, can sometimes be sold to the mass of citizens. We have become a graphic, picture-oriented culture in which the easiest things to “sell” to the affluent, largely Anglo audiences that advertisers demand are flashy images of dramatic events that will play on people’s emotions and pre-existing prejudices.
The easiest emotion to stimulate in the interest of boosting ratings is fear: fear of the uneducated, poor, and “primitive” masses in the “underdeveloped” South. Whipped by hurricanes, ruled by crazed maniacs, and ever plotting to hook our children on narcotics, Latin America is the setting for a tragic movie (which we call “news”), and the only time Uncle Sam is seen is when he comes riding to the rescue.
The structure of the corporate media and the insular nature of the U.S. news-consuming public go a long way in explaining the distortion and invisibility of Latin American news in this country, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of specific attempts to suppress or “spin” the news that might threaten powerful interests. Eight journalists and three media employees were killed during the year 2001 in six countries—Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Haiti and Paraguay—50 per cent more than in the previous year. In Colombia alone, forty journalists have been killed since 1991. Occasionally the actual killers are prosecuted, but those who order the killings almost never are, so the fear continues.
The tactics used by the U.S. government to manipulate the media are numerous and familiar in the historical record, and include both overt and covert operations. The Pentagon has long employed major public relations corporations to manage their propaganda needs, and the new “anti-terror” Office of Global Communications is headed by high-powered Madison Avenue executive Charlotte Beers, whose charge is to “supervise America’s image abroad.”
The Reagan-era Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD) was notorious for using such tactics as planting false news stories in the foreign press (which ultimately floated back into the U.S. press and functioned as domestic propaganda), harassing domestic journalists who strayed too far from the party line, and inventing stories of drug running to demonize the Sandinista government and other official “enemies” of the Reagan regime. Untold numbers of Latin journalists have been on the payroll of the CIA over the years, and the CIA has recently proposed that they be allowed to have their agents pose as journalists. (The OPD was headed by Cuban exile Otto Reich, who later became ambassador to Venezuela, then Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and now sits on the National Security Council.)
In summary, then, here are the major factors that shape U.S. news about Latin America: A for-profit, unrepresentative corporate media that seeks to reach the broadest possible audience; an indifferent citizenry conditioned to respond for the most part only to dangerously racist titillation and sensationalism; a press corps that, in the South, faces intimidation and murder and, in the North, is limited by domestic censorship and self-censorship enforced by the ever-present War On Terror; and a huge and multi-faceted propaganda apparatus linking the proclaimed “national security” needs of the state to the efforts of the media (often in secret).
The result is that U.S. news on Latin America comes through an elite, Anglo lens that conceals the roles of the U.S. government and U.S.-based transnational corporations in perpetuating the region's extreme economic disparities. News through such a colonial window will always be seen in full “3-D.” If we want to begin to study the 3 Rs of Responsibility, Redress, and Revolution, we’ll have to look elsewhere than the corporate media.