LONDON – Frustrated by the failure of US-based broadcast networks to provide a realistic account of the political machinations that led to the Iraq war, millions of Americans tuned in British news reports – which were picked up on public broadcasting and community radio, the internet and television stations.
Already high American audience figures for BBC World News bulletins spiked by 28 percent in the first weeks of the war, and BBC officials delighted in e-mails like the one from a New York viewer who wrote, “The BBC seems to be the only decent source of news on this conflict. American networks are appalling.”
While Americans expressed admiration for the BBC’s straight take on the news, British viewers who caught reports from US broadcast and cable networks have been shocked by the bias that permeates coverage of the Bush Administration and its military adventurism abroad. The general director of the BBC bemoaned the “gung ho” coverage of the US networks while a veteran British Cabinet minister dismissed US news coverage of the war as “old-fashioned propaganda.”
“What the US networks give you is just a rehash of Bush Administration announcements, and worse. There’s no news in it,” says Tony Benn, one of the best-known political figures in Britain and a frequent commentator on international news programs. “Does anyone take them seriously?”
While Britain’s many press critics found plenty to object to about BBC coverage of the war, the network got high marks from most for asking tough questions about British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s alliance with George W. Bush, the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the governance of cities captured by the so-called “coalition of the willing.”
In contrast, American networks dismissed dissent, openly questioned the intellect and patriotism of those who questioned Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “evidence” regarding Iraqi weapons of mas destruction and degenerated into rah-rah coverage of presidential pronouncements once the war began.
So embarrassing was the US coverage of the war – and so conscious was the rest of the world of the collapse of basic journalistic standards – that BBC director general Greg Dyke found it necessary to promise that, “In the area of impartiality, as in many other areas, we must ensure that we don’t become Americanized.”
Dyke, who is generally seen as an ally of Blair, admitted that he was “shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during the war.” He added that, while in the US, he was “amazed by how many people just came up to me and said they were following the war on the BBC because they no longer trusted the American electronic news media.”
Sincere criticism from abroad – along with the unprecedented abandonment of US news outlets for foreign sources – ought to make this a point at which US journalists, regulators, politicians and citizens pause to reflect on whether too few owners are running too much media in too greedy and irresponsible a manner.
Instead, with a strong push from the Bush White House, Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell is moving to enact ownership rule changes that will allow big media companies to get dramatically bigger. Promising the Newspaper Association of America convention last month that the FCC would eliminate the 1975 rule that prevents owners of newspapers from buying up radio and television stations in the towns where they publish, Powell told the newspaper executives, “We have finally taken this by the reins.”
If Powell and the other commissioners pull those reins tight and enact the proposed rule changes – a step the chairman wants the FCC to take by June 2 – the vast majority of American newspapers could become as vapid and unquestioning as American television and radio. If that happens, Americans who want to know what is going on in the world will have to import British newspapers to read while listening to their morning BBC reports.