The Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Maryland-based media company whose holdings include sixty-two TV stations, did the country a favor when it refused to air the April 30 special edition of Nightline in which Ted Koppel read the names and showed the faces of the 721 US soldiers who had died in Iraq to that point. By insisting that Koppel, the most respected commercial broadcaster in America, was seeking to undermine the war effort, Sinclair demonstrated the dangers to democratic discourse of allowing too much media power to be concentrated in too few hands, and it revealed as laughable the equation between reporters’ alleged liberal bias and the content of the news. Sinclair is owned by and for right-wingers. Its top executives contribute generously to conservative Republicans, and it instructs its stations to slant the news in their favor. If Sinclair is willing to censor Koppel merely for honoring America’s war dead and for reminding Americans of this sacrifice, it hardly matters what the bias of any individual reporter employed by the company might be. When it comes to media ownership, money doesn’t merely talk, as the bard of Hibbing sang, “it swears.”
Even by the debased “with us or agin’ us” standards of Bush-era punditocracy discourse, Sinclair stands out as an impressively dumbed-down operation. Like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network, it shamelessly distorts the news and mocks those who would let reality interfere with its ideologically induced ignorance. Its centrally controlled content highlights the wit and wisdom of its corporate mouthpiece, Mark Hyman, who speaks of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” in France, a “hate-America crowd” in the media and “unpatriotic politicians who hate our military” in Congress. And while Sinclair refuses to broadcast the names and faces of America’s dead soldiers–a refusal that Senator John McCain, former Vietnam prisoner of war, termed “misguided” and “unpatriotic”–it is more than happy to provide its viewers with propaganda “news” stories manufactured by the Bush Administration to fool the public. Sinclair has also sent Hyman and another “reporter” to Iraq to find the “good news” its corporate owners insist journalists are deliberately withholding from the nation.
Barry Faber, Sinclair vice president and general counsel, told the Washington Post that they had chosen to censor Nightline because they believed the program’s “motivation is to focus attention solely on people who have died in the war in order to push public opinion toward the United States getting out of Iraq.” Faber suggested that the reading of the names of the dead would “unduly influence people.” Using the same bait-and-switch routine the Administration deployed to justify its unprovoked attack on Iraq, a Sinclair press release demanded to know why Koppel did not read “the names of the thousands of private citizens killed in terrorist attacks since and including the events of September 11, 2001. In his answer, we believe you will find the real motivation behind his action scheduled for this Friday.” Well, the answer is, he did–on the first anniversary of 9/11–but don’t bother Sinclair with facts. “The average viewer who watches the show is not going to remember that,” Faber replied to Post reporter Lisa de Moraes, who pointed it out to him. To point out that no connection has been established between Iraq and 9/11 seems almost persnickety in this context, except that it was used to justify the war and is still trotted out by that unreconstructed fabulist, Vice President Cheney, among other war defenders.
Although the Administration did not publicly support Sinclair’s anti-GI position, it clearly prefers that any evidence of the costs of war be hushed up. The Pentagon has censored all coverage of returning war dead, and when a photo of flag-draped coffins evaded the ban, the photographer lost her job with a Defense Department contractor. Meanwhile, Sinclair is not the only news organization to base its coverage on what it believes to be good for Bush’s war. When 60 Minutes II shocked the world with photos of US military personnel abusing and torturing Iraqis held in a Baghdad prison, the editor of the New York Post, Col Allan, told a New York Times reporter he would not run the photos because “a handful of US soldiers” shouldn’t be allowed to “reflect poorly” on the 140,000 who do their job well. In fact, as the heroic Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker days later, the horrific torture may have been the official policy of US military intelligence.
The shocking sight of US soldiers forcing Iraqi prisoners to simulate oral sex and masturbate in front of their captors brings home the degree to which the Iraq adventure is unraveling, at a pace surprising even to its most vociferous critics. Much of the problem lies with the Administration’s incompetence, but a healthy proportion can also be attributed to its deliberate dishonesty–coupled with a cowed media’s unwillingness to subject its false contentions to even rudimentary scrutiny. During the run-up to the invasion, America, as Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler observed with euphemistic delicacy, was “taken to war and almost everything we were told before the war, other than that Saddam Hussein is bad, has turned out, so far, not to be the case: the weapons of mass destruction, the imagery of nuclear mushroom clouds, the links between al Qaeda and Hussein, the welcome, the resistance, the costs, the numbers of troops needed. All of these factors were presented by the administration with what now seems, at best, to have been a false sense of certainty.” And yet given all that, the likes of Sinclair, the New York Post and their partners in faux-patriotic misinformation and censorship–including corporate giants Clear Channel and the entire Murdoch empire–seek to keep Americans ignorant not only of the lies we’ve been fed but also of the cost of these lies in lost lives.
Reactionary media giants are undermining our democracy as they cheer this Administration toward ever greater disaster abroad. How, as John Stuart Mill asked, can citizens possibly “check or encourage what they are not permitted to see?”