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Media Beat

Violence at the remote



When we contemplate our roles as media consumers avidly seeking to understand what’s going on in the world, one of our American conceits is apt to be that the TV set lets us in on violence. Television, we’ve been told, brings war into our living rooms. Similar logic would contend that watching a heart surgeon at work on The Discovery Channel is like having one’s chest cut open.

We’re encouraged to be a nation of voyeurs – or pseudovoyeurs – looking at images and imagining that we see and understand. In this mode, the world shakes out with a rough division of labor. In the United States, we watch and like to believe that we understand what it means to undergo the violence that we catch via only the most superficial glances.

The TV (and computer) screens provide windows on the world that reinforce our distances.

Watching news with a hand on the remote, viewers are routinely in a zone supplied by producers with priorities far afield from the vital mission of journalism in a democratic society. On the subject of how TV news really works, there’s a truism that should be credited with at least as much insight as the unfortunately accurate cliche “If it bleeds, it leads”: The corporate media enterprise is not about making sense, it’s about making money.

The recent dismemberment of the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers – and the current multibillion-dollar machinations that could give Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. control over The Wall Street Journal – are the latest big straws in a gusting manipulated wind across the political economy. The situation is getting worse. Yet the massmedia business of news has always been somewhere between highly problematic and deplorable.

The fruits of the media tree have energized the drives to war throughout the lifetimes of the baby-boom generation. Excellent independent-minded reporting has always occurred in mass media outlets – but such exceptional journalism can’t make up for the standard-issue journalism that has a huge impact for the same reason that advertising campaigns have predictable results: A necessity of effective propaganda is repetition.

If the bottom line of corporate owned media outlets is the quest to maximize profits, how far afield is war coverage likely to wander?

It’s true that media outlets occasionally stick their institutional necks out, and not only with editorials and columns. Front-page reporting may also displease powerful officials in Washington or corporate executives. But the departures are rarely fundamental. In huge media institutions, underlying precepts of a de facto militaryindustrial media complex are rarely disturbed in any sort of sustained way.

For media managers, the disincentives to wander too far in war coverage are evident. Widespread accusations that a particular media outlet has undermined American troops or endangered national security – whether hurled by high-ranking government officials or media-savvy pressure groups that can light a fire under advertisers – are a potential nightmare for men and women in charge of protecting the media outlet’s bottom line.

Which brings us back to violence at the remote. While a TV network may be no more guilty of obscuring the human realities of war than a newsprint broadsheet or a slick newsmagazine, we’re apt to have higher expectations that the television is bringing us real life. Vivid television footage is in sharp contrast to static words and images on a page. At least implicitly, television promises more – and massively reneges on what it promises.

We may intellectually know that television is not conveying real life. But what moves on the screen draws us in, nonetheless. We see images of violence that look and loom real. But our media experience of that violence is unreal.

Artifice comes in many forms, of course. In the case of television news, it’s a form very long on pretense and very short on delivery. We’re left to click through the world beyond our immediate experience – at a distance that cannot be measured in miles.

The new documentary film “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” based on Norman Solomon’s book of the same title, is being released directly to DVD this week. For information about the full-length movie, produced by the Media Education Foundation and narrated by Sean Penn, go to: www.WarMadeEasyTheMovie.org.

©2007 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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