Tuesday, November 28, 2006
The media discover themselves discovering a civil war
An odd thing happens to public discourse in the United States. Discussions of circumstances that are truly tragic eventually end in a media hubbub that can only be described as farce. This week we have again reached such a point.
The tragic circumstance? The U.S. invasion of Iraq—a collection of religions and tribes previously held together by force of an internal security apparatus—has unleashed a war that has already taken the lives of an estimated half a million people and promises to kill at least as many more. The farce? Discussions in the media, by the media, about whether the media should be using the phrase "civil war" to describe the result of this invasion.
This discussion has burst upon us full force and promises to occupy several news cycles unless and until the Bush administration interrupts by committing some new outrage.
I first got wind of this comedy last night on NPR. Michelle Norris, host of "All Things Considered," introduced a segment called "NBC Is Latest to Deem Iraq to Be in Civil War." Using careful understatement she noted that "the news media has been moving carefully around this 'rhetorical minefield.'" David Folkenflik then gave a detailed report on what other newscasters were saying before clueing us in to NPR's position.1
This morning C-Span's "Washington Week" opened with—what else?—a discussion of the use of the phrase "civil war" by the media and offered separate phone lines for Republicans, Democrats and independents to opine on the matter.
To be sure there is a serious side to this. Individual reporters are enormously afraid of standing out. No one wants to be the kid who points to the emperor's penis. And their bosses care only about the bottom line. Corporate media don't want to offend the government, which can affect their profits through regulation. And neither do they want to offend the public, which the government will attempt to rouse against them whenever the media stray too far from the official line. Ridiculous as it may seem, there are serious obstacles to reporting something so obvious as a civil war.
So the media's self-absorption has now become their modus operandi. To the extent that they do anything to inform the public, this is perhaps the safest way to achieve it: Instead of reporting events they report on each other reporting events.
Today the media are trying to inform that American troops are smack dab in the middle of a civil war—but in a way that leaves individual reporters and corporations blameless for bringing it up. (And of course the reports have to be "balanced" by giving air time to the administration's cover story that
Regular readers of Simply Appalling have known for a very long time that a civil war is raging, and I don't have the heart to rehash the matter. But "The denial of impotence" is still quite relevant. Please give it a read.