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Gary Younge
Now dissent is 'immoral'

Some of you, many of you, are not going to like what you hear tonight," said Ted Koppel, the senior American news anchor as he introduced Arundhati Roy, the Indian novelist, activist and critic of US foreign policy, to his show shortly after September 11. "You don't have to listen. But if you do, you should know that dissent sometimes comes in strange packages..."

The introduction, such as it was, told us less about Roy than it did about both Koppel and the mindset that has dominated the American media since the collapse of the twin towers. It reflects at best a reluctance, and at worst a downright refusal, to engage with views and voices opposed to George Bush's foreign policy. It illustrates a tendency to dismiss rather than discuss, and deride rather than debate - to circle the wagons around nationhood, leaving questions about what is being done in the nation's name and why, on the outside.

"This nation is now at war," said Peter Beinart, the editor of the liberal magazine New Republic. "And in such an environment, domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides."

As such, American journalism has been embedded not only militarily but politically as well. At a press conference in March, a journalist offered the following searching inquiry: "Mr President, as the nation is at odds over war, how is your faith guiding you?"

Dissident voices do exist. While you will rarely hear them on television, most big newspapers have at least one columnist who was opposed to the war, and several magazines have published articles that are critical or revelatory. The problem is not so much that such views are unavailable as that they have been effectively marginalised. Only those sympathetic to them might seek them out, while others looking to form opinions are unlikely to stumble across them. Presumably Sean Penn would not have paid around $125,000 (£76,000) to take out a full-page ad in the New York Times on Friday to write an essay against Bush if he thought he could read it elsewhere.

In short, views that offer an informed critical analysis of the Bush administration's foreign policy, particularly with regard to the Middle East, are not part of the national conversation in the United States. And until Americans can have that conversation with themselves they will not be equipped to converse with the rest of the world about the relative legitimacy or otherwise of their government's actions but will instead continue to retreat into a combination of belligerence, bemusement, defensiveness and demagogy.

Under these circumstances the brouhaha that has consumed the American media over the past three weeks about the transgressions of a few reporters at the New York Times seem particularly to have been blown out of all proportion. The Times, one of the nation's most respected newspapers, fired a reporter, Jayson Blair, last month after it discovered that he had fabricated and plagiarised several stories. Last week one the paper's star writers, the Pulitzer prize-winning Rick Bragg, resigned after a story that carried his name turned out to have been reported largely by a freelancer.

True, both stories raise important, if very different, issues about journalistic integrity and editorial checks and balances. It's true too that both tales are engaging - Bragg because of his status, Blair because of his self-destructive personality traits and his apparent inability to stop digging now that he is in a hole. "I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism," he boasted recently.

But neither amount to a national crisis in journalism. And while more revelations might claim senior scalps at the Times, they hardly point to an implosion of values there either. Any schadenfreude from this side of the Atlantic is particularly misplaced as, where factual accuracy and accountability is concerned, American newspapers are far superior to their British counterparts.

But where diversity of opinion and willingness to challenge their political establishment is concerned, they are currently lacking. To what extent this is just the American media reflecting the preoccupations and values of their readers is a moot point. Most Americans did support the war. Today, polls show, 55% approve of Bush's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and two-thirds believe the war on Iraq has helped the war on terrorism. The three words most likely to be associated with Bush are "honest", "good" and "leadership".

And yet there is a sizable minority, just too small to be considered mainstream but far too large to be regarded as fringe, who disagree. Coming a close fourth on words to describe Bush was "arrogant". About a quarter of Americans believe efforts to bring stability to Iraq are going badly and more than a third believe the Bush administration overestimated Iraqi weapons, most believing it did so to build support for the war. Such views may not be reflected on a national scale, but they are dominating heated local conversations throughout the country.

America is not exceptional in this regard. The last place you would look for incisive coverage of Northern Ireland would be the British media and similar criticisms could be made of French journalism during the Algerian war. Political establishments in powerful nations rarely tell the truth about power and their media are often only too happy to collude. "Only when lions get to write history," says the African proverb, "will hunters cease to be heroes."

Where America does differ is in the nature of industry and the war it is engaged in. The American media industry is dominated by just a few companies. AOL Time Warner, to name but one example, owns among many other things, Time magazine, Fortune, Life, Sports Illustrated, CNN, Comedy Central, Warner Brothers Pictures and Black Entertainment Television. With the head of the Federal Communications Commission, under Michael Powell (son of secretary of state Colin Powell), set to relax ownership rules later this month this consolidation and the lack of choice that goes with it will get worse before it gets better. And with a war that is endless against a foe that is stateless (terror has no nationality), invisible (it could be anyone) and ubiquitous (they could be anywhere), the potential for these media distortions to become both pervasive and permanent is very real indeed.

Fearing the contamination of the pool of domestic information, many Americans have voted with their remote controls and browsers. American audience figures for BBC World news leapt 28% in the first few weeks of the war, elevating its Baghdad correspondent, Rageh Omaar, to sex symbol status. Meanwhile, American visitors to the websites of the BBC and progressive news organisations such as the Guardian have risen exponentially since September 11.

The problem for the American media is not so much whether dissent comes in strange packages as whether it comes at all. "I will not march to stop the war while Saddam is standing, for that would strengthen his tyranny at home," argued Michael Walzer, co-editor of a liberal magazine that claims to "welcome the clash of strong opinions" earlier this year. Its name? Dissent.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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