The Perfect Media Storm

Why should journalists be globally apocalyptic when being south-Florida apocalyptic will more than do the trick?

| Mon Aug. 16, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

The day before Charley the hurricane hit, I checked out prime-time network news, which on every channel led with (and lingered on) New Jersey Governor McGreevey's resignation ("I am a gay American…"). Story two, unsurprisingly, involved a series of reports on the unprecedented double-hurricane threat bearing down on Florida. ABC even displayed a weather map with the evil-looking, multicolored, swirling radar eye of one hurricane right over the island of Cuba, which, of course, went unmentioned as only Florida's upcoming fate was being considered. The third story of the night, maybe 12 minutes into the news, was the ongoing "Iraq, Najaf branch, more trouble in." And this was, when you think about it, extraordinary in its own way. After all, sex and the weather -- think Michael Jackson and El Nino -- regularly trump any other subjects on the news agenda. Americans love bad weather. (If you don't believe me, just visit El Paso, Texas, as I do periodically, where the weather remains splendidly predictable week-in, year-out and watch the TV weather people reach as far as the Persian Gulf for a little ugly weather drama.)

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What's usually so lovely about bad weather, especially for television, is that it has all the visual action of war -- lots of filmable disaster, plenty of casualties, vistas of damage, cartloads of close-ups of human pain -- without the politics to worry about. So by the night Charley, the "worst" hurricane "on the west coast of Florida in at least a century," according to my home-town paper, was blasting in, the full first perhaps 15 minutes or so of the network news had become all-hurricane all-the-time. On the other hand, a simple Google search ("did not match any documents") tells me that for all the media coverage of the powerful storm and its wake of devastation, the one obvious, if controversial, connection no media person in America seems to have made was to global warming -- or rather to predictions that our overheating-planet is going to have ever more "extreme weather" episodes. A linkage like that, after all, would make such a mess of the perfect media event.

And speaking of connections poorly (or not at all) made, rises in oil prices that would once have passed for nightmare energy scenarios have, like so many Creatures from the Black Lagoon, been swimming to the surface of the business pages and generally stopping there. On the network news, the latest oil price rises tend to be given later in the half-hour in the dry, scorecard manner of the Dow Jones figures. Last week the price of a barrel of crude surged over $46 a barrel. Maybe soon we'll hit a previously unimaginable $50 a barrel, despite Saudi pumping promises, but no point in sounding apocalyptic or, say, making a few connections between the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, American energy use, the Bush administration, the perfect storm in Florida, the sales of SUVS, lowered fuel efficiency standards, and our poor, fragile planet. After all, why be globally apocalyptic when being south-Florida apocalyptic will more than do the trick? (Oh, and in case no one other than you and me have noticed, there's been a stock market slide in recent weeks.) You could read your morning paper every day and catch your evening news (and check out NPR in the bargain) and still easily miss many of the signs of crisis that beset us like so many potential Charley's.

Iraq may be the exception to this. Our encoded media have so much of the news compartmentalized and regularized. It's rare to see a subject grow completely uppity, step out of line consistently, and insist upon taking on meanings other than the limited ones our media has assigned it. At the end of June, for instance, the Bush administration "handed over sovereignty" to the Allawi "interim administration." By now, it's quite clear that L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Administration officials controlled remarkably little of Iraq other than the places where our troops were garrisoned, and the Green Zone of Baghdad, and so had more or less nothing to hand over (had they wanted to, which they didn't). Nonetheless, they created a tidy enough "sovereign transfer" for our media, mostly locked in Baghdad, where control was at least up for grabs. Put in headline terms, the transfer was meant to read: "Onrushing stability and democratic possibility in now-unoccupied Iraq." It was meant to take Iraq off the front pages until at least November 3. And it did succeed in doing so for perhaps a month, during which time the Allawi [fill in the term of your choice: interim administration/government/regime/puppet government] was written about in our press as if it were indeed a serious government, a genuine partner with the United States (or alternately those "multinational forces"), and not a shell, completely reliant on the Bush administration and unable to extend its powers beyond parts of Baghdad -- neither to the semi-independent Kurdish north, nor to the rebellious Sunni triangle, nor to what may soon enough come to be known as "the Shiite triangle."

During that month, the press (and television) dealt with Allawi's regime as if it were anything but "interim" (as I'm sure Allawi would himself prefer) and as if it were truly an independent player, despite the fact that, as geopolitical columnist Paul Rogers of the openDemocracy website recently pointed out: "US officials or their appointees operate at a senior level in every Iraqi government ministry, and the regime is dependent on American military forces in Iraq for its very survival."

This treatment was extended to Allawi's paltry and poorly trained police and security forces, whose willingness to fight and allegiance to his regime look thin indeed, especially since, as Kamil Mahdi, an Iraqi university lecturer in England, writes in the British Guardian, "[T]here is now a greater effort at involving the police and other new Iraqi armed forces in waging the United States' war-by-proxy against the political opponents of the occupation." The reality of the troops our press call "Iraqi forces" (as if those fighting them came from some other planet) is not encouraging. Tony Karon of Time magazine recently pointed out that in Najaf the Americans seem to have had special plans for those "Iraqi forces" (while our military spokespeople talked of Sadr's militiamen and others "anti-Iraqi forces"):

"The government rushed to assure Iraqis that American forces would not enter the Imam Ali Mosque, and any fighting there would be done by Iraqi security forces. The problem was, U.S. commanders had reportedly concluded that the Iraqi forces in the city had trouble achieving even 'minor combat objectives.'"

For anyone with a memory of the Vietnam War, where "our" Vietnamese continually disappointed their American advisers, while the enemy -- "Charlie" or "the VC" -- performed with often startling bravery against overwhelming firepower, much of what is to come will undoubtedly prove painfully familiar. Our paid Iraqi troops will go up against Sadr followers like Ahmed Eisa, armed with a powerful sense of nationalism and a religious fervor. Eisa is a Shia who counts 27 relatives killed during the Saddam era and who sent his wife and two young children out of Najaf "to make sure there is someone to remember me after I die." He then told a Washington Post reporter:

"I know the Americans have better weapons. They have better plans. They have uniforms that cost $3,000, and we have only our clothes… But I have principles. I have holy land to defend. I have family to protect, so I feel stronger than them. The occupation forces are nothing but mercenaries who fight for money, so I feel stronger."

He added:

"I am old enough now to differentiate between occupation and freedom… It's not true that the Americans came to get rid of Saddam. It was only a trick to occupy the country. We all know that Bush announced twice that this is a crusade. So we know they are targeting a certain group [the Shiites]…We know the strategic importance of Iraq in the region and the wealth of our country. They want to control it. They want to control our oil, our wealth and the world."

"There is something called patriotism… I like my country, and I saw the U.S. forces did not come to protect us. So I wanted to follow the leader who can demand my rights and defeat the occupation. The U.S. forces are occupiers, so we have to resist them."

Read a longer version of this post at Tomdispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.