The Media That Failed

The Media That Failed

WHAT MAKES AMERICA’S mainstream media so disappointing? What is it about the news we (should not) watch that so (regularly) upsets, worries, troubles and even numbs us? Too much corporate interference, perhaps – so that monopolization comes to mind. Unremarkable journalists who refuse to step out of their comfort zones even when the situation demands it. Timid topics that rarely, if ever, probe beyond the rhetoric. Information can be spun, and the media must do its part, if we are to remain a democracy, to unspin. (To become O’Reilly, however, is not my suggestion.)

The problem with the media, I humbly submit, is an aversion to breaking down categories and terms and ideas. Certainly we all generalize; generalization can be the key to comprehension, a way to explain an otherwise enormously complicated world around us. But generalization is also often the best means to obfuscation. Repeat a term enough and it takes on truth. There is no longer a gap between what we hear describing a thing and that thing itself. The modern world we live in, the words we use to navigate, discuss and debate issues, are constructions. They were constructed over time by persons with agendas, which these days are rarely, if ever, exposed. (Unless Edward Said comes along and writes another Orientalism.)

Think of the terms we hear and their implications. Think about how the use of these terms is not only permitted, but also encouraged by the media – fostering illusions of consensus, reasonableness, especially inevitability. Before Iraq was invaded in March 2003 (yes, it has been more than four years), mainstream television news outlets described their coverage with the tagline, “The War in Iraq.” Not the war on Iraq, but in Iraq, as if the conflict were already underway and we were only protecting our interesrs. (Now, sadly, it has become both a war on Iraq as well as a war in Iraq.) You might say this is too childish. But there arc other, more troubling ways in which the media plays with language – or uncritically lets various groups get away with their word games.

Why, pray tell, is Europe a continent? By any measure, it is an ungainly peninsula whose westernmost residents – out of racial, ethnic and cultural conceit – have decided that they deserve a continent all to themselves. Theabsurdity of the definition is obvious in its delimitation: cutting through the Bosphorus makes some sense, but what about Europe’s land boundary with Asia? Arc not the Urals a remarkably illogical and meaningless easternmost point for Europe? In fact, it is a chauvinistic definition with geographic pretensions. The more Muslims and Asians one can keep out of Europe, the better, and that is why the boundaries have been drawn. Poor Turkey, which has only a wisp of territory on the “European” side, is therefore essentially Asian and not a serious candidate for the European Union.

Then there is the wonderful appeal to the “international community,” as if one exists. As often as President Bush remarks on America’s singular utility, our prophetic and almost divine importance for the world, we are told that it is not America alone, but the “international community” that stands behind our remarkably unpopular policies. Yet most of Latin America, Africa, India and China – altogether some 4 billion people, more than two-thirds of the world’s population – generally care not a whit for the latest specter certain neocons conjure to haunt the world. Making the world safe for democracy does not depend on democracies like those in India and South America, whose constituents, by the way, outnumber the population of “the West.” That such games are played should not surprise us, but for some reason it surprises America’s mainstream media.

But let us remember that Muslims have excelled at this subterfuge as well, such that we too need a media to break down the misuses and abuses of terms. “Modesty” has become hijab and no more, with modesty between sexes morphing into fences keeping men out and about and women in and invisible. “Islam” has become an attention to mundane, outward details, which are increasingly believed to be politically enforceable. “Justice” is too often understood as revenge or retribution – the spiritually profound Islamic principle undermined by small groups of Muslims with extremist agendas. The broad consensus of Islam has been smashed by those who desire to own Islam’s vocabulary, so that Islam’s language can mean what they want it to – nothing more and nothing else. There is an “international community” other than the “international community” you always hear about. There is an “Islam,” too, other than the “Islam” which gets and demands – all the attention.

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