April 2003
War, business, freedoms and responsibilities.

War, business, 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 more responsibility.

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 both .

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 action commercially.

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.

Other options.

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 radio.

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 their news.

Our overall conclusions.

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 non-US perspectives.
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 censorship.

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.

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