|Ilustration by Peter Bennett|
Slate’s Robert Wright recently posed a tricky question of moral equivalence: “How many Afghan citizens is one American soldier worth?” In media terms, the equation is slightly different: If a handful of Americans get anthrax, does the rest of the world matter at all?
Now, one can hardly fault people for caring about domestic bio-terrorism, but the coverage’s sheer overkill (for want of a better term) reminds us that, even after September 11, America still thinks itself the center of the universe. True, newscasts now show us Central Asian countries that once only appeared in Rough Guide travelogues, but aside from the odd Caribbean hurricane or Swiss tunnel fire, they ignore places that don’t fit the overarching plotline of America’s New War. Although Latin America has recently been rocked by two high-profile murders — the shootings of Brazilian labor organizer Ademir Federicci and human-rights advocate Digna Ochoa in Mexico City — I’ve not heard their cases mentioned on TV, and barely came across them in print. While Ochoa’s murder did receive desultory wire-service treatment in the L.A. Times, the paper has yet even to mention Federicci’s name. This is a bad time to get killed in strategically irrelevant places.
And then there’s the yawning indifference to last Sunday’s election in Nicaragua, in which ex-leader Daniel Ortega — Sandinista egomaniac, born-again yuppie and alleged child molester — was defeated by aging businessman Enrique Bolaños. The unlikable Ortega only had a chance because, unlike Bolaños, he defined himself against current President Arnoldo Alemán, whose regime flagrantly lines its pockets while 80 percent of the population live in poverty. Predictably, the U.S. government spent weeks backing a huge anti-Ortega campaign that’s been described as “Guilt by Osamification”: It pointedly linked Ortega to international terrorism and implied that, should he win, American aid would be cut off. The U.S. presence has been so naked that President Jimmy Carter, in Managua to monitor the voting, decried foreign intervention in sovereign elections.
Surrounded by spore talk, you probably didn’t hear much about this exercise in Free World democracy. Long gone are the days when Nicaragua was a Cold War obsession, when Ronald Reagan warned us that the Sandinistas were only two days’ drive from Texas. The U.S. government was then so hot to topple the Sandinistas that it spent hundreds of millions of dollars, backed the murderous, drug-dealing contras and wantonly violated U.S. law in the Iran-contra case.
Our media is usually loyal to what the government deems important, and in the late ’80s, stories about Nicaragua were inescapable — news items, TV features, virulent editorials. In the year before the 1990 election that ousted Ortega, articles about the country literally appeared by the thousands. The rabidly anti-Sandinista Wall Street Journal alone ran 66 pieces. In the year before this election, the paper ran only eight. Where the 1990 Los Angeles Times averaged three articles per day that at least touched on Nicaragua, these days it’s mentioned only half as often as Singapore.
What happened? Well, Nicaragua didn’t enter a phase of utopian good government. Nor did it benefit from a Latino version of the Marshall Plan, sponsored by that beacon of humanism James Baker. No, rather like Afghanistan after the Soviets fled, it fell off the radar once it had served our country’s purpose. For all the promises America made during the contra days, the country is still desperately poor — and we still impose duties on some of its major exports.
While the media seem to have largely forgotten Nicaragua and our role in its sad past, I’m not so sure our government has. On November 1, George W. Bush signed a disgraceful executive order that gives a sitting president the right to veto the release of any and all presidential papers, even in the event that a living former president should want his own released. In so doing, Bush can now deny access to 68,000 pages of documents from the Reagan presidency that were scheduled to become public. The excuse, as always, was national security. But given all the byways of the Iran-contra affair (among other Gipper Era horrors), one wonders whether Bush is looking to protect the name of the old Reagan hands now serving his administration. Or could it be even closer to home?
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A couple of weeks ago, CNN anchor Aaron Brown remarked that, while the terrorist attack of September 11 had been a terrible thing, it had done wonders for his career. Although his words raised hackles among the slow-witted, Brown wasn’t wrong. In fact, America’s New War has proved a boon to the whole news media, which can once again believe they matter. Not only has the war boosted ratings and newsstand sales (at least temporarily), reporters are again being asked to do serious journalism (at least temporarily). Finally an end to all those cover stories about 401Ks.
Still, it’s not easy to remain timely when a news story can sprout mold in a matter of minutes. A poky, underfunded weekly like The Nation — which at the best of times seems to be printed on papyrus — can’t hope to keep up with a spry, left-wing Web site like CounterPunch.com, which every day offers fresh reportage and opinion, much of it by Alex Cockburn, who hasn’t seemed this perky since Waco. Things are even worse for the monthlies, which often get sent off to the printer six or eight weeks before they come out. While Esquire barely got away with its November “What They Saw” package about the attacks — I’d rather have read the Cameron Diaz cover story it bumped — the current issue of Tina Brown’s Talk shows the dire consequences of a monthly magazine chasing events. Its spread on ground zero feels as dated as old photographs from the Blitz.
The war may actually be the salvation of the weekly news magazines. On September 11, the whole country suddenly realized that it didn’t know anything about the world. By September 12, everyone wanted to know everything — it felt like a matter of life and death. But over the next weeks, most of us grasped the impossibility of catching up with Osama, Islamic history, Afghan ethnicities, Iraq’s ultimate intentions, antidotes for various biochemical weapons, and the Koranic implications of bombing on Ramadan — not to mention the ties between our Middle East policies and Bush-Cheney oil interests. No matter how dutifully you watched TV, scoured the papers and scanned the Net, you soon felt like some desolate Borgesian loner who, each time he finished a book, found two more sitting in its place. People began needing someone to do their homework for them.
Although U.S. News looks like a goner, Time and Newsweek now bristle with a renewed sense of purpose. After years of being little more than pretentious lifestyle magazines, they’ve gone back to doing what made them successful in the first place — synthesis. Using their vast resources, they take the week’s news, weed out the irrelevancies, add some fresh reporting and bring it all together in a readable package with charts and nifty photos. It would take days to learn as much about Al Qaeda as you get in Time’s current cover story on “The Hate Club,” which draws from sources, familiar and not, and packages their pictures in formats previously reserved for analyzing Friends. And I can’t remember the last time Newsweek ran a cover story as strong as Fareed Zakaria’s superb essay on “Why They Hate Us.”
Despite a few silly lapses like Newsweek’s “Generation 9-11” trend piece, the news weeklies have become essential reading for the first time in a decade. It’s a delicious irony that Walter Isaacson — who in recent years helped mash Time into squishy piffle — was recently dispatched over to sister company CNN to make that network more like the soft-minded magazine that Time stopped being on September 11.
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Judging from all those belated Emmys handed out to The West Wing, Hollywood dreams of a White House filled with battle-scarred liberals who struggle eloquently to preserve some vestiges of idealism. What we actually have is an administration in which people talk like management gurus. Under CEO Bush, it’s all about marketing. Discussing our new head of Homeland Security, a White House aide said simply, “We want to brand Tom Ridge. When people see him, we want them to think, ‘My babies are safe.’”
The U.S. is about to launch a new, improved propaganda war designed to win over the Muslim world. It’s being designed by Charlotte Beers, the State Department’s brand-new undersecretary for diplomacy and public relations, who takes office uncorrupted by any experience in diplomacy or politics. But she was the chairman of the J. Walter Thompson Worldwide ad agency and created commercials for, among other products, Head & Shoulders. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if she had more street smarts than most of her superiors — she’ll know that white guys talking about “evildoers” won’t exactly fly with the Al Jazeera audience — I like to imagine her advertisement for the war in Afghanistan: “Enduring Freedom will get rid of all those itchy, scaly terrorists and leave your Islam healthier, shinier and softer than ever before.”