Sunday, 22 June 2008

Respect goes West- Mike's Letter from America #7

What ‘liberal media?’

Those of you nursing bruises from last Sunday’s demonstration against Bush’s visit to the UK will be surprised to hear that it never happened. I know this thanks to National Public Radio’s ‘White House Correspondent’ Don Gonyieh, who assured us that there was ‘not a single protestor’ on the streets of London. The fact that (a) this was not true and (b) that if had been, it was only because the march had been banned, seemed to have been totally lost on Gonyieh. Clicking on the BBC website left me little the wiser (no change there). Eventually, thanks to the English-language news on Germany’s Deutsche Welle TV (which we get thanks to basic cable) I was finally able to see footage of non-existent policemen whacking non-existent demonstrators with non-existent truncheons.

The U.S. media is notorious for its insularity – the first time I visited America, I watched CNN’s ‘World News Hour’ in the hope of finding out what was going on outside the 50 states. It turned out that the main item of ‘world’ news was American troops being sent off to some foreign country (I think it was Bosnia that week). But you would expect better of National Public Radio (NPR). This is, roughly speaking, the equivalent of BBC Radio 4, but with a far smaller budget. NPR and its TV equivalent PBS are publicly funded through a mixture tax dollars from Congress, and listener or viewer fund-raising drives. This gives it an editorial independence lacking in the corporate networks, and most of the time, NPR is excellent in a ‘BBC circa 1950’ sort of way. It has more overseas correspondents than any other network; it has in-depth news coverage that goes beyond sound-bites; it caters for those Americans who do not think music starts and ends with soft-rock; it hosts quirky shows which would never see the light of day on bottom-line-driven networks.

All of this means that NPR and PBS are targets for inevitable accusations of liberalism and elitism from the Right, and clearly public broadcasting should be defended unconditionally from those who would like to cut off its (pitifully small) funding. However, its supposed liberalism is debatable. When I first came to the US, my initial reaction was ‘thank God, something intelligent on the radio’. However, over the weeks I began to notice how, like the BBC back home, NPR’s ‘balanced’ news reflects the orthodoxies of US politics. So coverage of Venezuela always focus on Chavez’s ‘grandiose’ gestures, not on the substance of the country’s politics, while coverage of Iraq too often sounds like warmed over Pentagon press releases. I’ve no desire to defend Vladimir Putin, but why was his last speech as president described as ‘typically bombastic’, when NPR would never dream of calling one of Bush’s speeches ‘typically rambling and incoherent’?

Of course, NPR is way ahead of Rupert Murdoch’s cretinous Fox News, which quite unashamedly peddles conservative propaganda under the laughable banner ‘Fair and Balanced’. I occasionally turn on Fox News just to see how long I can stand it before switching to another channel; (record so far – about 15 seconds).  It would take hundreds of blog entries to catalogue all the shocking, offensive, or just plain daft examples of Fox’s pushing the Republican agenda – check out the film documentary Outfoxed or all Al Franken’s book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them To take just the most recent example, one Fox news anchor claimed that a fist-punch gesture made by Barrack Obama and his wife was a ‘terrorist fist jab.’ Fox News is an extreme example, but networks such as CNN paved the way for it by focusing on style above substance, trivia before real news. Readers who are my age will probably remember CNN’s reporters at the start of the 1991 Gulf War crowing that Baghdad was ‘lit up like a Christmas tree’ by allied bombing.  It is one of the ironies of the modern media that we have 24-hour news networks, but less real news reporting.

Despite all this, the right constantly cry ‘liberal bias’ against the media – a rather ridiculous accusation in the circumstances. The writer Eric Alterman rightly chose the title What Liberal Media? for his book on right-wing bias in the news. For that matter the ‘liberals’ in the media aren’t even particularly left-wing – for example, Al Franken’s book is a great read, as he rips into the lies of right-wing commentators while also being funny, but at times it reads like a hymn of praise for the Bill Clinton administration, including its armed interventions in Haiti and the Balkans.

So are there any rays of hope? As in the UK, there are plenty of left-wing periodicals, blogs, and indymedia sites, but in the mainstream media, the popularity (especially among younger people) of satirical shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report shows that there is a big audience for political programming that lays into Bush and his cronies. Both shows use humour to make serious points about politics and the media, and it’s significant that a poll showed that viewers of the Daily Show (which bills itself as ‘fake news’) were better informed about the news than those who watch the ‘real’ news on Fox.

I’m not sure whether that is encouraging or depressing…