Media Fundamentalism 

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001

Late Saturday night, CNN carried a report from Pakistan, which was being dragooned into helping the United States hunt down the terrorists. A snippet of footage showed a band of students in the streets of Islamabad raising a banner written in English for international cameras.

“America,” it read, “think why you are hated the world over.”

This sign could have been a direct riposte to how millions of Americans are reacting to the murderous assaults. On radio and TV, everyone from nurses to pro athletes keep saying they are trying to “understand” what happened on September 11. And the refrain is nearly always the same. How could they do this to innocent people? Why do they hate us so much?

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One simple answer is this. They hate us because we don‘t even know why they hate us.

It’s been our luxury to be so rich and powerful that we haven‘t needed to care about what America’s dominance means to the rest of the world -- even to the many countries that like us. We take pride in our well-meaning optimism, but this innocence is often another name for willful ignorance. When George W. Bush ran for president, it was a joke that he couldn‘t name the president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. Well, he knows it now. And so, at long last, will we. After all, it is one thing for a poor, uneducated Afghan peasant to know nothing about the ordinary people lost in the World Trade Center. It’s quite another for an American, who can tap into the world‘s storehouse of information with a mouse-click, to be unable to find the Persian Gulf on a map or to be unaware that our government backs brutal, undemocratic Middle Eastern regimes. The faceless coward who did the drive-by shooting of an Indian Sikh in Mesa, Arizona -- because to him, a turban’s a turban -- is also a terrorist, one of an equally uncivilized kind.

When you hear Americans talking of the need to “understand,” it‘s spooky to realize what many of them mean. As I write this, three of the six best-selling books at Amazon.com are about Nostradamus, and e-mails zip around the country explaining that the attacks were mystically linked to the number 11. So much for the belief that being “Western” automatically protects you from being steeped in medieval stupefaction.

Thirty years ago, the major networks all boasted foreign bureaus -- international news was a vaunted part of the nightly broadcast. Now, to save money, they devote more network time to the likes of Gary Condit (a cheap story in every sense) than to covering the rest of the planet. Even after the attacks, to find out what’s going on beyond our borders, you must turn on the BBC, CNN International or one of the financial networks, where they know that history, like capital, is global. If you were looking for the single word that best explains why America is so tragically enmeshed in Middle Eastern politics, that word would be oil -- but of the major network commentators I‘ve seen, only CNN’s Christiane Amanpour says this. To judge from the other coverage, you might foolishly think that the U.S. got involved in this region because of Israel, and that we‘ve made it a client state not out of geopolitical interest, but from our nation’s famed sympathy for the Jewish people.

Ever since that deadly morning, we‘ve heard that America will never be the same. But one thing didn’t change at all: In the media, everything is eventually reduced to format and branding. Perhaps the eeriest feature of this media blitzkrieg was watching the coverage morph from honest shock to the higher brainwashing -- Media Fundamentalism.

Suddenly, we were being told how to be patriotic and how to mourn. CNN shifted its slogan from “America Attacked” to “America‘s New War.” CBS’s became “America Rising.” ABC‘s Web site offered downloadable American flags, while Kmart printed a full-page version of Old Glory in Sunday’s New York Times. When volunteers did something to help a victim, the TV story was accompanied by an explanatory logo: “Quiet Acts of Heroism.” And President Bush began being propped up with headlines hailing his newfound legitimacy and triumphant trip to New York, although Tim Russert‘s interview made it clear that Dick Cheney thinks he’s running the country. While we were ceaselessly bombarded with poll numbers announcing a 23 Americans‘ approval of a war effort -- and The Daily News’ Saturday headline called up “Grief, Revenge” -- not a soul commented on the tin ear displayed by the term “Operation Noble Eagle,” which sounds less like a call to battle than the badly translated title of an early Sammo Hung movie.

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