freedoms and responsibilities.
Now that Baghdad has fallen but the looting that followed gives a
preview of problems that may lie ahead -and about which there seems
to have been comparatively little realistic advance consideration
in US broadcast media, it seems timely to us to consider why this
may be so and also how far the move to war has led US media constricting
the cover it broadcast for commercial reasons.
We do note that the vast majority of Americans get their foreign news
from TV but in terms of the exchange of ideas, as opposed to broadcast
of dramatic footage, radio and print have unique strengths and thus
Freedom to dissent, of course, only becomes an issue when there are
strong feelings about something and as the war has developed, various
issues have surfaced in the US about both news coverage and the degree
to which the much-vaunted freedom of speech of the US should be curbed
in the circumstances.
In addition there have been what we could term linked but side-issues
in terms of how far dissenting views are being muzzled by the US mainstream
through the actions taken, for example, against the Dixie Chicks following
anti President Bush comments by singer Natalie Maines.
We therefore thought it worth considering the current state of the
US media as regards airing dissent and whilst not going along with
conspiracy theorists, US mainstream broadcast media does seem to have
operated in general within fairly narrow bounds.
Business, principle. or
In looking at the Maines issue, most of the actions
in limiting airplay that we have noted seem to be largely related
to business pressures rather than any centralised political
direction: A commercial radio station in the US has, apart from
a nod or two to indecency and obscenity regulations, pretty
well no formal duties to the public in respect to its licence
to use the public airwaves and thus commercial motives are likely
to dominate decisions.
The result is inevitably a pressure to go for the popular as
opposed to the principled and it was noticeable that in San
Diego Jefferson-Pilot, owners of the top-ranked country station
initially felt it had to drop the Chicks from its playlist although
it was not part of the hound-them brigade and said they would
gradually be brought back (See
RNW March 22).
The lower ranked country station in San Diego, owned by Clear
Channel, not only dropped the Chicks but made more of its decision;
this, however, was said by them to have been a response to listener
feedback and certainly the station could well benefit from the
Clear Channel itself has been accused of getting too close to
being part of the story, particularly because of its involvement
with the Rallies for America staged by one of its hosts Glen
Beck but Beck says his action was begun not by him but by a
request by Susquehanna Dallas host Darryl Ankarlofor help from
his station for a rally to support troops to honour his son
who had just joined the US marines.
Beck points out that the rallies were all organised by stations
locally and that not all were Clear Channel stations and Clear
Channel itself has said that it has not issued corporate directives
over the matter.
We rather think that Clear Channel would have been less likely
to have supported anti-war rallies, even had they been reflecting
popular feeling, because of reluctance to upset the administration
when involved in a lobbying effort to ease US media regulation
but that is not the same as organising such events.
In contrast Cumulus wrapped itself in the flag and banned the
Chicks, maybe seen as a "patriotic act" by its president
and CEO Lew Dickey.
In both business and principle terms, each decision has its
own logic and justification but to us the former is the more
truly American, the latter mistaken.
The Jefferson Pilot response is both pragmatic in recognising
the current business realities in the market concerned where
a large military population meant that it would suffer badly
if it ignored the current climate of opinion. At the same time
the company said openly "we're not going to get into McCarthyism,
or blacklisting, or anything like that."
The Cumulus action was more hard-line but is probably also a
good business decision at the moment.
What is certain, however, is that a clear message has gone out
to others in terms of the price that my have to be paid for
expressing dissent and that US arguments for other societies
to allow free societies are weakened rather than strengthened
by the Dickeys of this world.
Mainstream news coverage.
More important than what happens in popularity terms to those who
express controversial views -after all the Dixie Chicks are still
selling records, if not as many, and are not barred from expressing
their opinions - is the question of diversity of news sources available
to Americans and the nature of the reporting they are receiving.
Here we share some of the concerns that have been expressed - much
mainstream broadcast cover, and not just that of the Fox TV network,
is seen by many outside the US as veering significantly towards
a limited US viewpoint - just the kind of action that has led many
in the US to criticize foreign broadcasters.
It would not be unfair, we think, to suggest that US commercial
radio in general might well have enjoyed a positive response from
the majority of its audience more because its tenor backs their
feelings rather than because there is any dispassionate attempt
to assess that reporting in a wider context.
Most Americans who want
to can, like most people in the "western world", now
gain access to other views and sources of information to a degree
unprecedented in history and in radio terms two developments
in particular have contributed to this: the Internet and satellite
For those with satellite radio, there is access to a range of
US sources but only a very limited range of news from other
countries (more overseas TV services are available on satellite
in the US than are radio ones) - just the BBC World Service
from XM and BBC services plus World Radio Network on Sirius.
That is a significant extra range for many US communities but
we rather regret that neither service has felt able it worthwhile
to add any other international radio services.
The Internet does make up for this in that a much wider range
of services are available and in the ultimate analysis for prosperous
Americans in all but the most rural areas, there is a tremendous
range of views available if there is the will to seek them out.
Accessing these, like dipping into newspapers from other countries
via the Internet, is however a minority interest and most Americans
we suspect very rarely take the trouble to go beyond listening
to their local radio station or watching US TV channels for
Overall, although we personally might wish that
people in general had more interest in getting a variety of
views on news a any time, we cannot see any great case to be
made of censorship by US media during this war.
There does, however, seem to be a reasonable case to be made
that the US media did in general fail to encourage and develop
deeper debate of options and likely outcomes long before war
was under way and also that there is rather limited airing of
In addition, even when such voices do get on the air, they tend
to be given only very limited exposure within an American-oriented
perspective, if not put in a pejorative context or actively
attacked on some channels.
That case will become much stronger if within a fairly short
time the focus on the welcome for US troops is not at least
accompanied by more thoughtful cover of what happens next.
At the same time, as far as we are aware, apart from the New
York Stock Exchange short-lived ban on Al Jazeera, US organisations
do not seem to have generally involved themselves in active
We recognise, however, that a commercial station takes great
risks if it gets out of line with what its audience demands
and thus find the conspiracy theories lacking credibility. The
faults in that they exist are a reflection of the US political
system and US public as much as of US media and unlike the people
of Iraq those of the US can't reasonably blame anyone else if
things go wrong.
It should be emphasized that US citizens have the ability to
access information, won't be shot for dissent, and can ultimately
use their votes to force a change both politically and in their
media. Unlike people living under a dictator, those in a democracy
who support a policy by a large majority have no moral alibi
if things go wrong.
The corollary therefore of supporting a system that leaves news
cover mainly to the marketplace but in a context where people
are free to choose is that they should expect to lose others'
respect should they complain when things subsequently go wrong.
In this case, many things can go wrong with very significant
implications for the US, its economy and its citizens. We hope
they don't but if they do, not much sympathy can be expected
next time: the US administration has already largely dissipated
any post 9-11 goodwill.