Media Fundamentalism

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?

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.

 

It would be dishonest to claim that we heard no astringent voices, though they did sound frustrated that nobody‘d been listening to what they’d been saying all along. The FAA‘s ex--security chief Billie Vincent told ABC that the airlines have cared more about their bottom lines than the safety of their passengers. And over on CNN’s Capital Gang, mad dog Robert Novak wiped away his mouth-foam long enough to ask Amanpour if she was “optimistic” that Bush could put together a coalition like the one his father had. “Well, I‘m not optimistic or pessimistic,” she replied wearily. “I’m just looking at what is coming out of the capitals since President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have been talking about this coalition.” That is, she was being a reporter, not a propagandist.

You can‘t just watch or read the news -- you have to look through it. On September 15, the L.A. Times’ huge piece on Osama bin Laden managed to avoid spelling out his CIA connections, although the story‘s so familiar that it had made the front page of Le Monde a day earlier. One afternoon I was listening to a radio interview with journalist Robert Fisk, the last Westerner to interview bin Laden, who was explaining that the terrorist financier comes across as neither mad nor demonic. Abruptly, the interview was cut off from the studio with the sentence “As important as it is to understand those who may have perpetrated these attacks, it’s equally important to remember the victims.” The station then began talking to a guy whose wife was killed in the attack. And this was on NPR.

Although rhetorical excess is normal and probably necessary for a country that‘s been savagely attacked, one longed for some thoughtful debate. But far from encouraging open discussion of what happened and how the country should deal with it -- you could search in vain for anybody from the left -- the media pushed the idea that a national consensus already exists. There was no serious argument about whether Afghanistan might prove to be a quagmire or whether we really should flatten Kabul, a city that already looks like a sand-wrapped village from the original Star Wars. In fact, the most passionate arguments I heard came on ESPN Radio, whose guests had strong feelings about whether the NFL should cancel its games or fill stadiums with people chanting “USA! USA! USA!”

But then, we live in what the situationist philosopher Guy Debord famously dubbed the Society of the Spectacle, where “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” Until last week, our recent wars have been fought from high in the sky, their bomb-glare shown on TV. Our airport security focuses less on human contact than on electronic screeners. Our international espionage makes a fetish of high-tech snooping -- although our spies can’t speak Arabic. And when it comes to mourning the dead, many of us no longer feel comfortable with the old rituals. We tend to transform genuine grief, too, into televised spectacle. As soon as the exhausted Dan Rather broke into tears on Letterman, it instantly became part of the news.

People have always turned to religion for consolation, understanding and guidance. This is especially true in times of great suffering, which is why our media coverage has taken on a quasi-religious aspect. Nearly all of us experienced the horror of the attacks through television, the national altar. On it was enacted our postmodern liturgy, with its theme music and computer-generated logos, its solemnly intoned litany: “our national tragedy,” “show of support,” “worst crisis in our history,” “hunt ‘em down” and, of course, “Western values.” The airwaves were filled with illustrative tales of evildoers and of hijacked martyrs who kept the White House from destruction by downing United Airlines Flight 93. Did your son save the White House? Jane Pauley asked the family of victim Jeremy Glick, who were patently unnerved by her scoop-seeking pushiness.

Although none of this gave me any succor, that didn’t stop me from watching. Even as I obsessively read the papers or surfed the Net, I kept an eye free for the TV coverage, desperately sifting through all the data, somehow feeling that if I paid close enough attention, the next piece of information would surely bring “understanding” -- what some call revelation. So I stared at each new shot of planes hitting the towers, and watched them crumble over and over, like burning sticks of incense. I scrutinized bin Laden‘s fuzzy training videos and pondered the theological significance of jihad-inspired pilots running up tabs in a Florida strip bar. And each time a new factual shard was uncovered -- some of the bombers came from San Diego! Bin Laden has a limp! -- I’d file it away in my head, building my shield against mortality, as if knowing everything would somehow protect me and those I love, would magically restore the world to September 10, when I didn‘t have to worry about my airplane being turned into a missile or that my government might be about to make a ghastly mistake. And each time I clicked off the set deep into the night, I, like millions of others, was startled by the silent darkness.


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