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Media Beat

Dangerous gap in coverage

There’s a chilling wisp of deja vu in the air these days as officials from Washington and Moscow square off – on the subject of nuclear weapons and anti-missile “defense.”

Twenty years ago, with leaders in the Kremlin preparing to officiate at celebrations of the Russian Revolution’s 70th anniversary, I attended news conferences that featured verbal duels between Communist officials and American diplomats visiting Moscow. Then, with thousands of nuclear missiles pointing in each direction, relations between the USSR and the USA were shadowed by the specter of nuclear annihilation.

For all the changes since then – for all the ballyhooed edicts marking the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a single global superpower – as the summer of 2007 begins we might wonder what happened to all the euphoria. What went around is coming around.

What went around, for decades, was a nuclear arms race that the U.S. news media reflexively cheer-led for the Washington contestants. Even when the American side was clearly the driving force behind dangerous escalation, the home-team media routinely evaded Uncle Sam’s culpability.

The reform-minded Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev began to push for an end to nuclear test explosions during his first months in power midway through the 1980s. When he unilaterally suspended Soviet nuclear testing – and virtually pleaded with President Ronald Reagan to follow suit – the American press displayed kneejerk loyalty to the U.S. government’s position.

“The liberal media” heaped scorn on Gorbachev’s visionary initiative, making it easy for Reagan to turn up his nose at the Soviet moratorium, which persisted without reciprocation for 19 months while the U.S. government merrily continued to set off nuclear bombs under the Nevada desert floor.

In 1987, tensions over U.S. missile deployments in Europe – and Washington’s enthusiasm for deploying anti-missile “defense” systems – dangerously spiked the perils at the edge of a nuclear precipice. In 2007, while media coverage is appreciably more subdued, the nuclear-arms tensions are much more dangerous than most news dispatches indicate.

Top-tier officials from the powerful Group of 8 countries have been “downbeat about the atmosphere between Russia and the West, which have clashed over Washington’s plan to place missile-defense radar and interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland,” according to a New York Times story with a June 6 dateline. The article went on to refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “recent threat to point missiles at Europe if the United States goes through with its missile defense plan in Poland and the Czech Republic.”

As was the case two decades ago, such reporting is opaque about the basis for Russian concerns. In the absence of explanatory coverage, the opposition to a red-white-and-blue plan for installing “missile-defense radar and interceptors” in Eastern Europe is liable to seem irrational at best.

With an estimated 10,000 nuclear bombs and warheads in the U.S. arsenal, and an equal number under the Kremlin’s command, any shift in weaponry that suggests a move toward firststrike capability is very ominous. Some arms-control experts call it “destabilizing.” But whatever you call it, the Bush administration’s current move is alarming: It will stoke fears that the U.S. government is searching for ways to come out on top in a possible nuclear exchange. This search is delusional, but any indication that such an advantage is being sought could increase the odds of a nuclear standoff turning into a nuclear war.

The American mass-media machinery has never been good at exploring such issues from a vantage point other than a window on the world tinted with the Stars and Stripes. And the current media mechanisms for even examining key nuclear-arms issues are now rusty to the point of extreme dysfunction.

Referring to the Russian leader, President Bush said on June 5: “My message will be, Vladimir – I call him Vladimir – that you shouldn’t fear a missile defense system. As a matter of fact, why don’t you cooperate with us on a missile defense system?”

But as long as the U.S. news media are so unwilling to shed light on the extreme hazards of a “missile defense system,” such questions will go largely unanswered in America’s public discourse.

©2007 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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