The war you see may depend upon which channel you’re watching. In 2003, Greg Mitchell had edited several national magazines and written eight nonfiction books in his 30-year career. He served as editor of EDITOR & PUBLISHER, a weekly magazine covering the newspaper industry in North America. In this episode of NOW with Bill Moyers, Mitchell discussed media coverage of the war in Iraq.
Next, as the FCC considered further deregulation of corporate media ownership rules, big media seemed on the verge of getting even bigger. Opponents of media consolidation feared that giving these media giants a free pass to let the marketplace rule could severely affect the ability of journalists to be independent. Can democracy survive without the diversity of ideas presented by a truly free press?
Finally, Moyers interviewed writer Susan Sontag about the gap between the images and the realities of war. The author of several novels, including the National Book Award-winning IN AMERICA, and many works of non-fiction including AGAINST INTERPRETATION, ON PHOTOGRAPHY AND ILLNESS AS METAPHOR, her books are translated into 32 languages. In her most recent book, REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS, Sontag explores how we can have compassion for others we do not know, the power of images, of photographs and memory, and the persistence of war. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
Watch a Clip
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. The news from Baghdad continues to remind us that war is about death and dying.
Among the casualties this week was the first American journalist to die in the war, Michael Kelly from the WASHINGTON POST killed in an accident while traveling with the army’s third infantry division.
But modern technology has also made war a spectacle, a “living room war,” as the writer Michael Arlen famously described television’s coverage of Vietnam.
This week, as the troops moved into the suburbs of Baghdad, the journalists were at their side.
But some media stars were upstaging the war with a spectacle of their own.
The cable channel MSNBC told its viewers that the Pentagon had expelled Fox News star Geraldo Rivera for putting American troops at risk with his reporting. Rivera was indignant.
RIVERA: It sounds to me like some rats at my former network, NBC, are spreading some lies about me.
MOYERS: Then FOX let loose a salvo at MSNBC whose correspondent Peter Arnett had been fired for some indiscreet comments on Iraqi state television.
FOX ANNOUNCER: He said America’s war against terrorism had failed. He even vilified America’s leadership. And he worked for MSNBC. Ask yourself, is this America’s news channel?
MOYERS: Meanwhile, Fox is putting former marine officer and convicted felon Oliver North on the air as a reporter in Iraq.
NORTH: There has never been a campaign like this in world history. Does Fox rock?
SOLDIER 1: Fox rocks.
NORTH: Does Fox rock?
SOLDIER 2: Yes,sir.
NORTH: Say that.
SOLDIER 2: Fox rocks.
MOYERS: Fox host Sean Hannity brought Ronald Reagan’s son Michael on his show.
HANNITY: We’re thinking of your dad and please say hi to your mother for us. I’m going it to tell you the President reminds us of your dad with his leadership here. He’s been terrific. And thanks for being with us.
REAGAN: You know what they’ve got on their side? They both have God as their king.
MOYERS: It took an old hand like ABC’s Ted Koppel to remind everyone what the real war in Iraq as opposed to the feuds between the cable channels is all about.
KOPPEL: It always looks and sounds glorious before the fighting begins. But look again. This is the picture of war.
MOYERS: We’re devoting this entire broadcast to media issues. And we begin with thoughts of journalism and the war. With me is Greg Mitchell, the editor of the weekly national magazine, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, which many of us consider the Bible of the newspaper business. Greg Mitchell is co-author with Robert J. Lifton of these two acclaimed books: WHO OWNS DEATH and HIROSHIMA IN AMERICA. His own books, you can learn more about them on pbs.org, have won several awards in their own right. Welcome to NOW.
MITCHELL: Thank you.
MOYERS: Your own publication, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, did some of the first reporting about embedded journalists.
MOYERS: What do you think about how that is working? And is it good for journalism?
MITCHELL: Well, we’ve seen some very dramatic examples just this week of some of the positive aspects of it. There was the checkpoint shootings that were reported at first by the Pentagon that there had been many warning shots given and that—
MOYERS: This is when the civilians came through the checkpoint in a van?
MITCHELL: Right. And the first military reports were that they had received many warnings, ample warnings over and over. There happened to be a WASHINGTON POST reporter embedded at the scene. And he reported the truth which was basically that the warnings were not that extensive.
And that the U.S. commander at the scene had yelled at his own forces afterwards. And they had not given enough warning. And so one wonders if there had not been an embedded reporter there, what would have come out about that? On the other hand, the embedded reporters often seem a little too rah-rah. They, you know, there has been very little censorship, I have to say, outright censorship. But one worries about self-censorship. About their worries of being kicked out if they report something that the military doesn’t want them to report.
MOYERS: Do you think the public knows that the reporters who are embedded had to sign a contract with the Pentagon in order to be accepted for this role? That they had to agree to play by the rules?
MITCHELL: Right. Well, I think it’s a question whether they know but also whether they care. I think, as we found in polls over the years, that the American people, large numbers of them, don’t even quite agree with freedom of the press completely. They believe that there should be all sorts of restrictions. And, of course, everyone agrees that in war time there should be more restrictions. But the question is, you know, to what degree?
And we’ve seen in our interviews with editors in the past couple weeks, many cases of editors getting a lot of mail from readers who are upset about the, you know, about their coverage. And it shows that the people have a really different view of what the rights and the responsibilities of the press are.
MOYERS: I saw your story about the USA TODAY the other day. I’ve been reading USA TODAY, I think it’s doing a good job too. But the editor of USA TODAY got in trouble for this photograph, didn’t he?
MITCHELL: Well, they ran a photograph of some dead Iraqi soldiers on the front page. And a large number of readers, they told us, complained because on the same day they ran a photo inside of a U.S. soldier surrounded by happy Iraqi children. And so these people were saying, “Why wasn’t that photo on the front page instead of the dead Iraqi soldiers?”
And the executive editor of USA TODAY told us that the reason was simple. It was a day of great bloodshed. One of those days of great pessimism. And he thought it would have been inappropriate and misleading to show this happy photo on the front page. So he went with the more grim — the grim photo.
Another example I’ll give you, the DALLAS MORNING NEWS editor told us that they’ve gotten a lot of complaints for showing dead civilians or damaged civilians of Iraqis on the front page. And he says that it’s viewed by the readers as an anti-war statement. You know, it’s even showing the casualties on the other side is an anti-war statement. And you know that really goes against, again, all the principles of press coverage that we believe in which is, you know, showing what is happening. And letting the people deal with it as, you know, as they can.
MOYERS: Yeah. You said to a colleague of mine that you thought this photograph on the front page of the NEW YORK TIMES will become the most famous one to emerge from this war. Why is that?
MITCHELL: Well, it shows an American soldier comforting a Iraqi child. The reason it’s so interesting is it’s ambiguous. Some people will read into it the compassionate American who is really the, you know, the person that they will focus on.
Other people will focus on the child or the caption which indicated that her mother had just been killed in a fire fight. So, it has that kind of ambiguity. You can take it as an anti-war photo because of what it shows. Or you could take it as a very pro-war, “Americans are trying to save them.” So it’s— I think it will be one of the lasting photos from this campaign.
MOYERS: Do you think that journalists can be objective about what they’re reporting when they are alongside the troops who are protecting them as they move forward?
MITCHELL: Right. Well, I think that’s one of the problems. These reporters have been living with these troops. Reporting with them, getting to know them. And that, of course, that’s all terrific. You know, no one could really be against that.
But in practice, it could modify or adjust what they report about the actions. If the war is over quickly, it will have probably less impact than it might have. If this war does drag on in a long siege of Baghdad, there will probably be some very, very bad moments out there. And one wonders how much these reporters who have bonded so much with the troops will be able to honestly report.
One of the problems in this whole campaign has been that originally we were told that the embedded reporters would only make up maybe half of the reporters who would be covering the conflict. The rest would be independent. But what’s happened is because of the dangers over there, almost all the reporters are the embedded reporters. So there’s very few free-roaming reporters who can report without any restrictions whatsoever. But the problem is that the commentators on TV have almost from the beginning adopted a “we” attitude. They now are reporting, “We are advancing. We are taking fire. We are taking prisoners.”
So there’s— all objectivity has been dropped. And, as human beings, I think we could agree it’s understandable in this situation. But, as journalists, it’s not the best situation where commentators, anchormen, reporters in the field, are talking about this as a “we” rather than the U.S. mission, the U.S. soldiers.
MOYERS: Fox News has become the cheerleader for the government. What does it do to other news organizations when Fox proves that jingoism is more popular than journalism?
MITCHELL: I think the problem with that is that a lot of the other, particularly the cable news networks, have felt that they have to keep up with that. I think there’s a certain competition to show that they’re not soft on the war or that they have any less patriotism than Fox.
And we’ve seen it just this morning. I saw an interview on CNN with an Australian woman who had been in Baghdad and had just left. And the woman kept saying that, you know, she was amazed how much the Iraqi people, although they may not like Saddam Hussein, were very angry about the bombings.
Many of their children had been injured or killed— angry at the U.S. because of the bombings. And the person who was the interviewer back in the U.S. asked her one aggressive question after another. After he finished talking to her, he then sort of editorialized on the air saying, “Well, we’ve talked to countless people who say that the Iraqi civilians will welcome with open arms the American soldiers.”
Now that may or may not be true. But the point is that even the— one of the rare kind of dissenting or contrary opinions that was expressed, the anchor felt he had to then jump in and editorialize saying, “You can disregard what this woman said. You know, we have other information.”
And again, I think the point is, is that no matter how you feel about the war, no matter how you feel about the way it’s being conducted or what’s gonna happen, you know, I think it’s a bipartisan issue that the press should report straight down the line. You know, let the people see all sides. Let the people get all the information as quickly as they can. And, you know, let the chips fall where they may. And not editorialize everything that has to do with the war.
MOYERS: You wrote a very strong story a few days ago in EDITOR AND PUBLISHER about how the press had bungled some 14 or 15 important stories. What do you think about now the way— the view of the war we’re getting from journalists?
MITCHELL: Well, again, I’m afraid that in the rush to be first with something and the rush to declare a victory, they let the story get ahead of the facts. You know, four different times they reported based on the military statements that Umm Qasr had been taken. You know, Basrah has been taken two or three times. And as far as I know, it still hasn’t been taken.
And what I’m afraid is that we may be entering another period now where the reports are overly optimistic. I heard reports yesterday on television one after another talking about “next week there’s gonna be a new government installed.” That we’ll probably be in the middle of Baghdad by then. And that there’ll only be pockets of resistance remaining in the country. So I’m a little afraid now, again, people are getting their expectations raised only for a fall. And I think that’s the danger that journalists and the military collaborate on.
MOYERS: What concerns you about what’s not being covered?
MITCHELL: My complaint is with the cable news networks that are on 24/7 and yet have found virtually no time to interview psychologists and theologians and other observers who could talk about what this is doing to us, what this is doing to us as a country.
MOYERS: Well, this is the thing that’s different about your business of print and my business of television is that there’s a built-in dynamic. Let me just show you the logos, the images that the networks hurl at us every time they come to the coverage of the war. Look at this and tell me what you think after we watch it.
What does that say to you about the mixing of images and journalism?
MITCHELL: I think it’s unfortunate just because of the tone it sets for the entire coverage. You know, this is serious business. Everyone agrees. The war is, you know, is not a video game.
Certainly the soldiers don’t feel that out there. And, you know, and the people shouldn’t feel that because there’s real destruction at the other end. So I think that the images we’re getting is really an overlad of what we really need to know, which is how the war is really going on the ground and what the long term effects are going to be.
MOYERS: Do you see as much cheerleading in the print press as you do on television?
MITCHELL: No, I think the print press has played it more straight down the line. They’ve had a more variety of stories. They have had reports from more reports from Baghdad itself. More reports on what people are saying around the world.
More reports on protests pro and con about the war. More range of editorial opinions. So I think the print press and newspapers have done a much better job, a more reflective job.
MOYERS: And they’re not as susceptible as television is to the minute by minute measure of ratings.
MITCHELL: Yeah, well, you know, I have watched this and I’ve watched this pretty carefully the last couple weeks. Time after time, there’s a report that comes out of the Pentagon or from the field or something. And it shows up on a respected web site. It’s reduced to a brief paragraph. Then it gets reduced further to a headline. Then it gets reduced further to a link on a web site.
And then it gets reported on TV briefly. And then it gets reduced to the crawl. I mean, it feels like this is the crawl-ization of news in this war. Because complex, nuanced, unconfirmed reports are reduced to eight word statements on a crawl. So I think it’s a real— the mentality has become not only shifted to sound bites but even word bites.
MOYERS: What do you think is at stake for democracy and how we journalists cover this war?
MITCHELL: Obviously, there are great— always be restrictions in war time. But, you know, Edward R. Murrow had a quote on his wall in his office from H.D. Thoreau in which he said, “To speak the truth, you need two people. One to speak it and one to hear it.”
And I think that sums up the relationship not only between the military and the press but the press and the American people. You know, the press often is reporting factual matters. And the public sometimes turns away from it. We entered this war, with upwards of half the people in the country believing that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attack.
Now, that’s of enormous importance in terms of support for the war. Now, how did that happen? Was that the media’s fault? Was it the government’s fault for putting out the stories? Or is the public sometimes not receptive so that the media can expose things, the media can paint a complex picture?
And the public wants to believe what the public wants to believe.
MOYERS: Last question. Do you have a sense that when the battle is over, this story’s only begun?
MITCHELL: Well, certainly the story for the journalist, has only begun. I don’t think most Americans understand that this is gonna be something that’s with us for years and decades and I’m not sure we get a sense of that from the coverage which seems to be oriented towards next week or next month, battle will be over. And the boys will start to come home. And it’ll just be a glorious episode in our past rather than something that’s just the beginning of this story. We’re really at the beginning of the story of the U.S. and Iraq in the 21st century.
MOYERS: Greg Mitchell from EDITOR AND PUBLISHER. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
MITCHELL: Happy to be here.
MOYERS: Just about everyone has an opinion on how the media covers the war, but there’s another big media story happening right now that very few Americans even know about. And that’s no surprise.
The powerful corporations that own most of our newspapers, TV and radio want even more power over what you see, read, and hear. But the last person they want to know what they are up to is you.
What’s at stake for democracy is whether there’s going to be monopoly control over mainstream journalism. A big story, indeed, but not one you’re likely to hear about from the usual suspects. NPR’s Rick Karr and NOW’s Peter Meryash have our report.
KARR: In January of last year, a train derailed in Minot, North Dakota. Two hundred and ten thousand gallons of ammonia and a toxic cloud spilled out of it.
Authorities wanted to get the word out to Minot residents: stay indoors and avoid the area near the derailment. So they tried to get in touch with six local commercial radio stations.
All six of those commercial stations — out of a total of seven in Minot — are owned by one huge radio and advertising conglomerate: Clear Channel Communications. It’s been buying up radio stations across the country and replacing their live local programs with shows recorded in far-off studios that only sound local.
CLEAR CHANNEL DJ: This is Becky Wight. It’s been a pleasure. Have a great weekend!
KARR: Minot authorities say when they called with the warning about the toxic cloud, there was no one on the air who could’ve made the announcement. Clear Channel says someone was there who could have activated an emergency broadcast. But Minot police say nobody answered the phones.
Clear Channel owns more than twelve hundred radio stations nationwide; they have an audience of over one hundred ten million listeners a week. Critics of the company say that its way of doing business is symptomatic of what’s wrong with the American media today — that it’s grown too big for the public’s good.
SEN. DORGAN (D-ND): The fact is we’re headed in exactly the wrong direction. In these areas you need to have your foot on the brake, not your hand on the throttle.
KARR: At a recent hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan used the Minot incident as a warning: that as large media companies like Clear Channel buy up the last remaining independent media outlets across the country, the public suffers.
SEN. DORGAN (D-ND): I think all of us ought to be concerned when we see this massive concentration occurring.
KARR: Dorgan grilled Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell over a phenomenon that’s redrawn the landscape of the American media over the last decade.
SEN. DORGAN (D-ND): Do you not agree, for example, that if you had moved last month to Minot, North Dakota, and all of the commercial stations in that city are owned by one company, that there’s been a diminution of competition? That it’s diminished, that it’s not beneficial to the consumer to have no competition among the radio stations, commercial stations, in Minot? Would you agree with that?
POWELL: Yes, I would agree it’s a problem.
KARR: The problem’s known as “media consolidation.” Multibillion-dollar media conglomerates growing larger and larger as they buy up their competitors and independent broadcasters and then centralize their operations. Critics of consolidation say it’s happening at the expense of local communities and journalism.
Consolidation started in earnest in 1996 after Congress passed a bill that set aside most limits on how much of America’s broadcasting industry big media firms could own. Since then, almost a third of the country’s radio station owners have been bought out by conglomerates.
Then there’s television: more than three-quarters of Americans now watch channels that are owned by just six companies.
And those companies own dozens of the best-known names across the media. Just one example: Viacom owns CBS, UPN, MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, Showtime, Paramount Pictures, thirty-nine local TV stations, the nation’s second-largest radio chain, more than a hundred thousand billboards, more than four thousand Blockbuster stores, and the venerable publishing house Simon and Schuster.
And that’s just a partial list.
BLETHEN: If we go out 20 years from now with the same pace of concentration of media ownership we’ve had for the last 20 we will not have a democracy. There’s simply no way.
KARR: Frank Blethen is a newspaper publisher and a critic of media consolidation. He represents the fourth generation of his family to run the independent daily THE SEATTLE TIMES.
He says consolidation hurts the public and its only benefit is to the bottom lines of a few media conglomerates.
BLETHEN: The CEO’s get compensated not on their journalism, not on the Pulitzer prizes they win, not on some investigative piece that pisses off a major retailer. What they get compensated for is “did you lay enough people off and reduce your news content enough and raise your prices enough so that the stock price went up?”
If you care about journalism, if you care about your local communities, and if you care about democracy, you’re not in it for the maximum dollar.
KARR: Blethen’s joined other critics of consolidation in asking the FCC to make a last stand and stop the growth of big media. On the other side of the debate: a who’s who of media conglomerates — including AOL Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, General Electric, Cox Enterprises, Gannett and the New York Times Company. They’ve asked the FCC to kill rules that prevent them from owning even more. Observers on both sides say it may be the FCC’s most important decision ever.
The big media firms argue that the rules are outdated. FCC Chairman Powell is sympathetic to that argument: he says technology’s changed so the rules should, too.
POWELL: Almost every rule that’s being considered here pre-dates cable television, pre-dates direct broadcast satellite television, pre-dates the Internet.
KARR: Powell is one of three Republicans who’re in the majority on the FCC. He says big doesn’t necessarily mean bad.
POWELL: I do agree with people who say, “Oh, well, but TV’s different. This is key to our messages.” I agree. But I think part of what gives us anxiety is not that there are only six, but that they’re big.
KARR: Do you think that size matters? I mean, do you think that some of the people who are concerned about size are right to be concerned about the size of these companies?
POWELL: I think they are. But the only thing that I sort of encourage citizens to do is, you should be right to be concerned, but you should also be intellectually honest, and count the benefits.
Because we have strong evidence that a lot of times local independent run stations cannot afford to bring quality local news. Sometimes when a larger entity takes over, their resources are available to put that back on the air.
KARR: There’s no question that some stations owned by big media companies do quality TV news. But a recent study by Columbia University’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that TV stations owned by smaller media firms generally produce better newscasts: they’re better at local reporting, they produce longer stories, and they do fewer softball celebrity features.
The study concludes that “changes that encourage heavy concentration of ownership… in local television… by a few large corporations… will erode the quality of news Americans receive.”
And sometimes, when consolidation comes to town, it just means fewer choices for viewers. Take Jacksonville, Florida, for example: two large media firms have bought up all four major network TV affiliates in town. Radio giant Clear Channel owns the CBS and FOX stations while Gannett — the nation’s biggest newspaper publisher — owns the ABC and NBC affiliates.
Critics of media consolidation say Jacksonville may give us a glimpse into the future if the FCC further relaxes the rules that govern the ownership of television stations. Here’s what they’re talking about. Remember that the ABC and NBC affiliates here are owned by the same company. That company decided to combine the news operations of the two stations into one. That means that if you’re watching the evening local news on the ABC affiliate, your neighbors seeing the exact same thing on the local NBC affiliate.
That means viewers get fewer local voices on the air. Jim Goodmon represents the third generation of his family to run the Capital Broadcasting Company, which owns five TV stations in North Carolina.
GOODMON: This is about the big companies, backed by the big investment bankers, wanting to own more television stations. And it goes against the notion that we want as many different voices as we can have here. We need as many different owners. So I don’t buy into any of this.
KARR: Why though? Why is the idea of having more owners inherently better?
GOODMON: Well the idea is if you have more owners, you have more points of views, more ideas, more opinions, different approaches to everything that’s going on. That to me is a given.
KARR: Goodmon notes that by law, the airwaves belong to the public. Because there’s only so much space on the television dial, the government has to parcel out licenses to broadcasters. In exchange, Goodmon says, they have a responsibility to the public.
GOODMON: Nobody has a right to a TV station. You know, we make a deal, “Here’s the license Jim, you serve the public interest. You’re the only one’s gonna run Channel Five in Raleigh.”
KARR: Goodmon worries that local broadcasting will die if the FCC lets big media firms buy more stations.
GOODMON: The Commission seems to think that economy is the deal. “How can we create bigger companies that make more money?” Not “how can we get these limited licenses to do what they’re supposed to do?” which is to serve the local community.
KARR: But the networks say the stations they own are just as committed to local programming as the independents’. If they weren’t, the networks say, they’d lose viewers to their competitors.
FRANKS: I think the public votes every night with their remote control. And they’re saying, “You know, we kinda like the programming the networks are giving us.”
KARR: Martin Franks is Executive Vice President of CBS. He says the networks need to own more stations.
FRANKS: It is a financial issue, but it’s a financial issue that has to do with preserving free television, free delivery of that service.
In terms of the money that we are investing in prime time, the money that we’re investing in sports, the money that we’re investing in news, we are having difficulty getting any return, any positive return on those dollars at the level of stations that we own now.
We have to be able to grow that number if we’re gonna be able to justify the enormous programming investments that we want to make, so that we know that we’re gonna continue to bring the best in news, sports and entertainment to the entire country for free.
KARR: But critics of consolidation say the media conglomerates’ balance sheets show that they’re very profitable.
GOODMON: This is not about anybody say, you know, we’re gonna help the communities. We’re gonna improve civic discourse, we’re gonna provide more viewpoints. This is money, this is “do re mi” for the big guys.
KARR: Aren’t you up against a lot of money, a lot of lobbying clout in Washington?
GOODMON: Well, there’s, you know, the networks, the major companies have huge lobbying groups that spend a whole lot of time in Congress and spend a whole of time at the FCC working on their best business interest, which is let us own more and more and more stations. That’s what we want to do. It’s a powerful, powerful lobby.
KARR: That’s true of just about everyone in this debate: the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents independents like Jim Goodmon, has a powerful Washington lobby, itself.
Media companies and their lobbyists made tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions during the last election cycle. And they’ve been wining and dining the FCC, too, as Chuck Lewis of Washington watchdog group the Center for Public Integrity told a January forum at Columbia University.
LEWIS: We found that 1,400 trips — all-expense-paid trips — were paid for by broadcasters and other a companies for FCC personnel. How can the FCC judge and discuss media ownership if they’re taking trips from these guys?
KARR: FCC staffers say the commissioners’ travel budgets are tight and trips paid for by corporations help them fulfill their mandate to educate the public. But Chuck Lewis told the panelists — including FCC Chairman Powell — that he disagrees.
LEWIS: I don’t know how to put this delicately so I’ll just spit it out. There is a general perception that the Federal Communications Commission and Congress have been a little too close and a little too accommodating to the broadcast industry.
KARR: Meanwhile, critics say, the easiest way to see the effects of consolidation is by examining what the big media conglomerates aren’t reporting.
BLETHEN: The most egregious problem in journalism has always been what’s not covered.
KARR: SEATTLE TIMES Publisher Frank Blethen says one thing the owners of America’s largest news organizations aren’t covering is themselves.
He may have a point: in 1998, for instance, Walt Disney company CEO Michael Eisner told the National Public Radio show FRESH AIR that he thought ABC News — which Disney owns — should not report on its parent company.
GROSS: Is that the policy that ABC can’t cover Disney?
EISNER: We don’t have a written policy about that. Uh, ABC News knows that I would prefer them not to cover it, they really know I don’t want any puff-pieces, I don’t want any executive profiles, I don’t want any positive pieces on our company.
KARR: What Eisner didn’t mention was what would happen if ABC produced a negative story on Disney. According to published reports, just days after Eisner’s appearance on NPR, ABC News pulled the plug on an investigative piece that contended its parent company Disney had failed to thoroughly check the backgrounds of employees at its theme parks, which resulted in the hiring of alleged pedophiles.
And the continuing debate over consolidation is another story that critics say big media firms aren’t covering. In 1995 when Congress was considering allowing more media mergers, the evening network newscasts barely touched on the subject. This past February, when all five FCC commissioners traveled to Richmond, Virginia for their sole official public hearing on today’s proposed changes, that pattern seemed to be unfolding all over again….
You might think that a major revision of the rules that determine who can own the media in the U.S. would garner some attention from the network news. You’d be wrong. None of these crews behind me here at the FCC hearing in Richmond is from one of the networks. In fact, a February survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Project for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University found that 72 percent of Americans, nearly three quarters of us, had never even heard that the FCC was considering changing the rules.
ADELSTEIN: It raises a real question as whether or not there is independence between ownership and the journalists. There’s no better case study that I can think of than this issue in determining whether or not the journalists are able to cover the stories they want to.
KARR: Jonathan Adelstein is one of two Democrats on the FCC.
ADELSTEIN: We’ve heard from a lot of journalists who said they felt very intimidated about doing this story, sometimes explicitly, and sometimes it’s implicit.
It’s clear to them that it’s not a career advancing move to write a story that challenges the policy that is being promoted by their boss.
KARR: While most reporters have been ignoring the story, two NEW YORK TIMES columnists have spoken out against further consolidation: liberal Paul Krugman wrote that “politicians are busy doing favors” for media firms that support them. Conservative William Safire wrote that deregulation’s led to “media giantism” and demanded a stop to consolidation “before merger mania afflicts TV”.
On Capitol Hill, members of Congress are taking sides in the debate. In March, Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Wayne Allard of Colorado called for more public discussion: they sent a letter to their fellow Republican, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, that says deregulation “could have a sweeping impact” so the commission should give any proposed changes “a complete public airing” first.
And just days ago, ten members of Congress including Republican House Commerce Committee Chair Billy Tauzin and Democratic Senator John Breaux, both of Louisiana, sent Powell a letter of their own. It says the rules are “outdated” and urges the commission to lift them “by June.”
Because there’s been so little media coverage and public input, Jonathan Adelstein and the other Democrat on the FCC, Commissioner Michael Copps, have gone on the road to hear from the public. This week, the two consolidation skeptics were in North Carolina and Chicago; next week, Copps will be in Phoenix, Arizona.
ADELSTEIN: So I think we need to get a lot more public input on this. Because these are things that affect their daily lives: what they see on television, what they hear on the radio, and what they see in the newspaper.
KARR: FCC Chairman Michael Powell has dismissed the road trips as “a nineteenth-century whistle-stop tour.” He says the Commission will decide by June and that there’s no need for more public input.
MOYERS: Still not convinced? Still don’t believe media consolidation matters? Then take a look at this rally in Richmond, Virginia.
At the time when the media giants are lobbying the Bush administration to gobble up everything in sight, stations owned by Clear Channel, the country’s biggest radio giant with close ties to the White House, have been calling for rallies in support of the President’s war on Iraq.
Another media company with over 250 stations stopped playing the music of the Dixie Chicks when one of the singers was critical of Mr. Bush.
Then, almost in lock step, the country’s most influential television news consulting firm told stations around the country that covering war protests may be harmful to their bottom line. And the largest radio consulting firm urged their clients to “go for the emotion” for “patriot music that makes you cry, salute, get cold chills.” Chilling, to be sure.
Susan Sontag has seen war close up in her long career as a writer and activist. Her new book could not have been more timely, even though she started it long before the invasion of Iraq. REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS is about war and how the images of war affect our perception of reality.
Susan Sontag is not a photographer, yet her famous book ON PHOTOGRAPHY is required reading in almost every serious photography course in the world. Her novels and nonfiction books including ILLNESS AS A METAPHOR have been translated into a score of languages. She also writes and directs films and plays and is an honorary citizen of Sarajevo for her work there during that city’s horrific siege in the mid-nineties. So, Susan Sontag knows the sights and sounds of war, and as we began our conversation this week I asked her to take a look with me at images of the first few hours of the attack on Baghdad two weeks ago…
SONTAG: I’ve been where the sky looked like that. I find it difficult to look at this footage, because it reminds me of the reality. It doesn’t interest me as a game. It doesn’t interest me as a spectacle. It reminds me of the painful reality. I’ve been too close to the reality, I think, to watch the image.
MOYERS: So, an image like this shows you nothing new? Nothing you didn’t already know about war?
SONTAG: No, it makes me ill. It makes me fearful. I begin to actually tremble a little, inwardly, because I remember the fear that you feel on the ground when the sky is like that.
War is, first of all, noise. Incredible noise. In Sarajevo, it was like that all the time. That sound except, well, between three and five in the morning. Sometimes it would be silent, relatively silent. And when I first came back after those three years of being mostly in Sarajevo, ’93, ’94, ’95, I found it hard on 4th of July, or Chinese New Year, just to hear those sounds. They scared me. They scared me not in my head. They scared me in my stomach. Because you develop—
MOYERS: In a physical reaction.
SONTAG: Yeah. The physical reaction of—
SONTAG: —fear. And you know, we talk about civilians being killed. We talk about, I think we should talk about, I’m certainly thinking about the civilians being killed now in Iraq
And let’s say, of course, the majority of them will survive. But the terror that you feel even if, assuming you survive, imagine what children feel who are sheltering in basements, with that sound, and who are scurrying for their lives. It’s very, very painful.
And it’s a noise that’s 1,000 times more the noise that you’re hearing on television. So, I find it hard to watch war movies. I find it very hard to watch war on television. It’s too real to me to watch as a spectacle.
War scares the hell out of me. And I’ve — the fact that I’ve volunteered to go to wars because that was a volunteer activity, of course.
MOYERS: As a journalist, as a writer?
SONTAG: I don’t go to wars in order to write it. I’m not a journalist. And I guess I go to war because I think it’s my duty to be in as much contact with reality as I can be. And war is a tremendous reality in our world.
MOYERS: You didn’t go to be a spectator either. What did you do?
SONTAG: No, no. I worked in the city. I worked in the city. I mean when I first went, to my great surprise, they asked me to work in the theater. They were asking me to direct a play. A lot of people think that I went to Sarajevo to direct a play. I would’ve been crazy to do that and it wouldn’t have occurred to me in a million years. But once I was there and they said well, you know, I said, “I want to stay. I want to work here.” “Well what can you do?” I said, “Well I can type. I can teach children English. I can do elementary paramedical tasks in the hospital. I can direct movies and plays. “Oh! Direct a play!” I said, “No. — I don’t want—” I didn’t want to do it.
MOYERS: In the midst of war?
SONTAG: Yeah. And then I said, “What do you want a play for?” And I said, “We’re not animals. We’re not just people sheltering in our basements and standing on bread lines and water lines getting killed. You know people— when I came back people said, “Well, who went to the theater?” I said, “The same people that went to the theater before the war.”
MOYERS: You were afraid?
SONTAG: Oh, all the time. I would be crazy if I weren’t afraid. And I was very lucky a couple of times when I really should’ve been killed and I saw people killed within a few feet of me on a number of occasions. And that, you know, the bullet or the shell or the shrapnel could’ve hit me rather than them.
When somebody asked me about a year ago, “What are you working on?” I said, “I’m working on a little book about war.” Now, that was a book, of course, which I thought because everything I write comes out of firsthand experience, was somehow taking my experience in Bosnia and Sarajevo of the mid-90’s and finally doing something with it.
I thought, “Well, I know something. I think I can say something that’s of interest about war, and how we think about war.” And then, the book comes out now—
MOYERS: The timing couldn’t have been better.
SONTAG: And has this obscenely topical character, because now the United States government has elected to start a war.
MOYERS: What did you want us, the reader, to take away from this book?
SONTAG: What I want people to think about is how serious war is. How it is elective. It’s not an inevitable state of affairs. War is not the weather. I want people to think about what war is. And at the same time, I know it’s very hard. I end the book by saying, in a way the world is divided into people who know, have had direct experience of war, and people who haven’t.
And if you’ve had a direct experience of war, and I think every single soldier, or journalist who’s been in you know, in the trenches and the front line or an observer or human rights worker, or anybody who has actually had a direct experience, prolonged direct experience with war, knows that when you go home, and people say, “How was it?” or “What was it like?” You really can’t explain. You can’t— you feel as if you can never tell them what it was really like.
That it is both more horrible than any kind of pictures could convey, and maybe one of the most horrible parts of it is that it becomes a normality. It becomes a world that you can live in. There is a culture of war.
MOYERS: Let’s talk about the images in REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS. Why don’t images that you write about and that we see, why don’t they stop war?
SONTAG: I don’t think images can stop war, because I don’t think images just come all wrapped up with their meanings very apparent to us. I think the images, as I say, they’ll disgust you with war in general, but they won’t tell you which of the wars, let’s say, that might be worth fighting, like World War II, and the ones that you should bring to an end as quickly as possible or pull out of. For that you have to have a politics or you have to have an ethics, or you have to have some knowledge. And that’s why you need words to go with the images.
It’s not the pictures that are going to tell us that specific message. The pictures are going to tell us how terrible war is. But they’re not going to help us understand why this war is wrong.
Because you know, the other people will just say, “Well, hey, war is hell.” I mean, don’t you know that? But grow up. You know, did you think war was pretty activity in which nobody gets killed? Of course! War is hell.” So the pictures are not going to tell us to stop a particular war, a particular war. And for that we need debate, and we need a two party system, which we no longer have in this country.
So this is a book that really wants to talk about how horrible war is. Precisely in the way that images both convey it and can’t convey it.
MOYERS: What do you mean? They convey a slice of it, but not the totality?
SONTAG: Well, they can, of course they can’t convey the totality. That goes without saying. No image can. But it’s also that when you watch things through an image, it’s precisely affirming that you’re safe. Because you are watching it. You’re here and not there. And in a way you’re also— you’re innocent. You’re not doing it. You’re neither being killed nor are you firing the gun.
You become a spectator. It confirms you in a kind of feeling of invulnerability. On one level it’s people looking at war as spectacle. But they don’t just look at it as spectacle. They just look at it as, well, that’s a terrible thing. Really terrible. And they turn the channel.
You know, I opened — I’m a very faithful reader of the NEW YORK TIMES every morning. And when I see that section, “The Nation At War,” and I look at those incredible color photographs of the Iraqi mother with her children cowering and, you know, and some bombardment or dead bodies or American soldiers or debris or destroyed houses, day after day after day, I think, “Isn’t it extraordinary that we can be here and we’re so safe? And they’re there.” And that’s a situation we’re just going to get used to.
MOYERS: You once wrote that a picture becomes apathetic unless it leads you to action. What should we do when we see images like this?
SONTAG: Well, how do we get politics back into our lives? I mean, that we have a form of politics now in which we’re told that our duty as citizens is to assent, to be supportive. “United we stand.” That’s a very sinister slogan, as far as I’m concerned. “United we stand.”
MOYERS: Well, there’s a big tendency in America to make patriotism into consensus.
SONTAG: Exactly. So if you’re a patriot, then you have to agree with the government. Well, I think I’m the patriot, or at least as patriotic as anybody who supports this war. Because I do have the interest of this country in mind when I oppose this war.
MOYERS: You write in here, “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers. Otherwise,” you say, “one starts to get bored, apathetic, cynical.” What do you do with your compassion?
SONTAG: Well I’m an evangelist. I talk a lot. And I try to spread information. I speak, I write. I guess I believe in ethical action.
I am an activist in that. I feel a need to put my life where my mouth is or my life where my keyboard is. I feel a need to act on what I believe or what I say I believe. If I don’t act on it then I don’t think it’s worth anything.
MOYERS: Images play such a vivid part in our memories. What’s the most vivid picture in your mind that you ever gazed upon?
SONTAG: The most important pictures of my life are the pictures taken in Dachau and Bergen Belsen when the concentration camps were liberated in 1945. I was 12 years old when I saw those pictures. And I think I could say that my whole life is divided into before I saw those pictures and after.
I had a kind of revelation that’s something that just cut me in half. I thought when I saw those pictures and everybody has seen those pictures, that I suddenly thought, “Oh my God. This is what human beings can do to other human beings.” And I think the wound of that, of coming from a childhood in which I’ve never seen any violence at all, of course I’d followed the war as a small child in the newspapers but it wasn’t real to me and then just to see those photographs, I think it’s turning point of my life.
MOYERS: What did they turn you to? What did they turn you to? Obviously they repelled you with horror as they did all of us. I’m just one year younger than you and I remember seeing those photographs for the first time. But they did something to you they didn’t do to everybody.
SONTAG: Well it’s more than being repelled. I, of course, I just felt it was a revelation. I just thought, “Oh, well this is reality.” Reality is that human beings are capable of the most extraordinary wickedness. And that I guess I thought one must never forget this.
MOYERS: Perhaps the power of the image then is to remind us that there are terrible things happening in the world. And to bring to those others who are privileged and protected an awareness that we would never experience otherwise.
SONTAG: I think that’s true. But I think you have to factor in the complacency and the fearfulness of fortress America. That there are large parts of the world, there are large parts of the world in which we couldn’t be having this discussion. Which we wouldn’t have to say, “You know, pictures can tell us that terrible things happen in the world.” Because your life is telling you that terrible things happen.
SONTAG: How would it— what would you feel like if you were an Iraqi civilian who hated Saddam Hussein? Let’s take that for granted, of course, as I’m sure many of the citizens of Iraq do. Because he’s such a horrible dictator. Still, what might you feel? I don’t think most people— it’s hard to make that effort to think how the other person feels. But that’s really what a moral life is, an ethical life is… trying to take in some of the reality of what other people feel or how they see things from their point of view.
Which doesn’t mean that everybody has their own opinion. I’m not a relativist either. And I don’t think every belief is worthy of respect. But still you have to start by thinking where people are coming from. And you have to start by thinking what sense of injury they have. Lots of people have tremendous sense of injury and that is motivating them and that’s creating feeling.
MOYERS: Now I understand why you go to see for yourself.
SONTAG: I think you have to see for yourself.
MOYERS: I want to close just asking you to read the last few lines of your book because I think they bring me very close to understanding what you’re saying about the difference between the images we see on television and in the papers and what really happens to people in war.
SONTAG: Sure. “These dead are supremely uninterested in the living, in those who took their lives, in witnesses, and in us. Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us? We, this we is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through, we don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like.”
“We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand. Can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby stubbornly feels. And they are right.”
MOYERS: The book is REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS. Susan Sontag, thank you very much.
SONTAG: Thank you so much.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW, this man says the gun manufacturers know how guns get to criminals, but refuse to take action.
RICKER: There are probably a lot of people out there in the firearms industry that are afraid of what I have to say.
ANNOUNCER: A major whistleblower from within the gun industry speaks out for the first time. Next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS at pbs.org.
Journalism and war, is truth a casualty? Learn more about media ownership. Find out more about Susan Sontag’s books and essays. Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
MOYERS: And that’s our report on journalism and war. We’ve heard from over 1,000 of you in response to our invitation last week to tell us what stories are not being covered during the war. And the mail is still coming in.
Next week, we’ll be reporting on what you’re telling us. For NOW, I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 9, 2015.