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Media’s love-hate affair with violence



Are the U.S. news media in favor of violence?

That depends on who’s doing it.

Criminal violence is an easy call, and journalists make it — often with easy righteousness — every day. The yellow-tape segments that bleed and lead local TV news are so requisite that they’re as predictable as commercials for fast food and digital gizmos.

Then there’s the kind of violence — rarely occurring in the light of day — that gets scant media attention. With somewhere around 2 million people behind bars in the United States, all kinds of violent acts are happening in the nation’s prisons and jails. The violence that some guards inflict on prisoners is even less apt to make the news than what stressed-out prisoners do to one another.

Various forms of what could be called “institutionalized violence” are not identified as such in the standard reportorial lexicons. When children go to bed hungry — or when people can’t see a doctor and then wind up in emergency rooms with serious medical conditions that could have been prevented with earlier health care — some very cruel hotwired violence is underway. But from a boilerplate media standpoint, it’s part of the regular social order.

In short, according to tacit judgments that dominate the media establishment, reprehensible violence doesn’t include the violence that goes un-rebuked by prevailing authority structures in our society.

And then, of course, there’s the U.S. war-fighting establishment — what outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower called the “militaryindustrial complex.” During the five decades since he spoke those words, the warfare state has embedded itself evermore insidiously into politics and media.

It takes at least tacit faith in massive violence to believe that after three decades of horrendous violence in Afghanistan, upping the violence there will improve the situation. Yet, right now, such belief is prevailing in American media.

Often it seems that lofty words about war are boilerplate efforts to make us feel better about an endless warfare state. Oratory and punditry laud the Pentagon’s fallen as noble victims of war, while enveloping its other victims in a haze of ambiguity or virtual nonexistence.

When a recent edition of The

Washington Post printed the routine headline “Iraq War Deaths,” the newspaper meant American deaths — to Washington’s ultrasavvy, the deaths that really count. The only numbers and names under the headline were American.

Ask for whom the bell tolls. That’s the implicit message — from top journalists and politicians alike.

A few weeks ago, some prominent U.S. news stories did emerge about Pentagon air strikes that killed perhaps a hundred Afghan civilians. But much of the emphasis was that such deaths could undermine the U.S. war effort. The most powerful media lenses do not correct the myopia when Uncle Sam’s vision is impaired by solipsism and narcissism.

Words focus our attention. The official words and the media words — routinely, more or less the same words — are ostensibly about war, but they convey little about actual war at the same time that they boost it. Words are one thing, and war is another.

There are facts about war in news media and in presidential speeches. For that matter, there are plenty of facts in the local phone book. How much do they tell you about the most important human realities?

Realities of violence are all too widespread, near and far, as Americans go about their daily lives. The tasks of journalism should not include moralizing, but the profession should be holding a mirror to our society and offering a consistent moral compass. In the process, news media can help us to see and to choose where we really want to go.

©2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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