In 1968, John Wayne put out a movie called The Green Berets. In 141 time/space-defying minutes, this motion picture's unquestioning, Pollyanna view of America was oblivious to what was going on at the time. Even as grizzly images of our military adventures appeared nightly on television, The Duke offered something from another Hollywood, one of his old war pictures or westerns in which, even in the face of savage conditions, people remained clean-shaven, clean-spoken, clean-shirted and perky. The plotline: Wayne and his Boy Scout commandos prove to a skeptical reporter the ultimate goodness of the United States' war in Vietnam.
The movie, made with a script assist from the Pentagon, highlights the chasm that always seems to exist between reality and â€œthe official story.â€? Today, Green Berets is considered a joke, a propagandistic dinosaur made so because of its gross juxtaposition to the groundbreaking work of the Fourth Estate it sought to subvert. We tend to look warily on propaganda because, in the rare instances where it comes to light, it belies our society's fundamental tenet of a free market of ideas. And if that seems to fly in the face of the hyperbolic ratings boosts the three 24/7 dedicated news networks garnered for their sanitized coverage of the recent war, it may emerge evidentially in an expanding media menu, notably in a conspicuous leakage of American Web surfers to overseas news organizations.
Much was made this spring of the â€œnews warâ€? between Fox News, MSNBC and CNN and the resulting viewership bonanza. But on closer examination of where and how Americans got their news during Gulf War II, we see some curious traffic patterns toward the Web sites of such outlets as the BBC, The Guardian and al-Jazeera.
In March, the month the war began, cnn.com drew 26.3 million unique viewers and msnbc.com drew 24.3 million â€” up 23 percent and 24 percent, respectively, over February. Newspaper sites saw upticks as well; The New York Times' site topped all with 9.6 million unique visitors, a 14 percent jump (all per New York-based Web tracker Nielsen//NetRatings). But the biggest jumps among American audiences were made by the BBC (up 158 percent, to 5.3 million); Reuters (up 72 percent, to 2.1 million); and al-Jazeera, the controversial Qatar-based news network founded by Asian ex-Beeb-ers, which bolted to a million unique viewers (technically a 1,208 percent jump, but that's starting from nothing), in spite of having its initial English-language site hacked and shuttered, most likely by the National Security Agency.
Obviously, we should expect proportionate increases in users of Web news media, given that the online population is still growing in the U.S. The Web and its cornucopia of news voices â€” alternate news sites, article clearinghouses, bloggers â€” have steadily eroded the reach of traditional media, particularly with the younger generation. A survey by the Newspaper Association of America found that daily newspaper readership declined by 9 percent from 1997 to 2000 among 18- to 24-year-olds, by 8 percent among 25- to 34-year-olds and by 6 percent for the 35-to-49 cohort. Viewership of local TV news declined 8 percent, 8 percent and 9 percent among the respective groups, while the number of visitors to Internet news sites jumped 16 percent, 15 percent and 12 percent. The youngest group's usage figure for Internet news sites (23 percent) nearly matched its rate for newspaper readership (24 percent).
Beyond tech access, something else is driving Americans to sample different flavors of news: the sterile groupthink and homogeneity of our own Big Media. Even as of February, though a majority of Americans thought war an improper course without U.N. sanction, precious few outlets among major U.S. networks or newspapers bothered to break down the numbers, according to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). â€œAt a time when 61 percent of U.S. respondents were telling pollsters that more time was needed for diplomacy and inspections, only 6 percent of U.S. sources on the four networks were skeptics regarding the need for war,â€? FAIR reported in its study of networks' on-air â€œexpert sources.â€?
The major media fully ignored gangbuster stories reported exhaustively overseas. Among them were: (1) a manifesto that prescribed the invasion of Iraq and pacification of the Mideast penned in 1998 by a think tank whose board included a raft of current administration hawks; (2) the use of retreaded, outdated and â€œcookedâ€? information in Colin Powell's case for war presented to the United Nations' Security Council; (3) the U.S. bugging and hacking communications of Security Council delegates; (4) astonishingly vocal cadres of American intelligence officers saying the administration was using only select tidbits of information that supported its actions, ignoring voluminous data that didn't; and (5) a defecting Iraqi general who said Hussein had destroyed all unconventional weapons in the early 1990s â€” information that seems to be sadly telling in the war's aftermath.
Once hostilities commenced, U.S. coverage seemed to coalesce into a chorus of cheerleading, and there seemed to be a moratorium on the violent images war inevitably incurs. The endless human interest stories about GIs were so saccharine they seemed straight out of NBC's Olympic coverage. CNN's overseas editors and reporters, who ran accounts markedly different from those on the network's U.S. feed, publicly expressed astonishment at the propagandistic tone of the U.S. â€œversions.â€? In a rare case of breaking ranks, one news â€œceleb,â€? NBC correspondent Ashleigh Banfield, took her industry to task in a speech at Kansas State University in April, averring that it had painted a â€œglorious, wonderful pictureâ€? of war that â€œwasn't journalism.â€?
While certainly the cable channels boasted spikes in viewership, a swell of Web news users clicked offshore. The Guardian, the U.K.'s respected progressive daily, had seen traffic on its site grow 10 percent during the buildup to the war, with 49 percent of its unique visitors coming from North America (perhaps largely on the strength of its having broken some of the above stories), versus a 3 percent gain for news sites overall, reports Nielsen//NetRatings. The Guardian's traffic exploded by 137 percent in the first week of the war, while the BBC World Service bolted to 5.3 million surfers in March, up 3.2 million over February.
â€œIf you just look at how this war developed, the administration made some serious claims that sort of fluctuated one to the other. Even before the war, none of those claims held up to scrutiny â€” and now, after, none of them do,â€? says Robert McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois. And scrutiny, being the specific charge of the Fourth Estate, has been in short supply. â€œThe sort of press envisioned in the Constitution was, if you go to war, we have these independent institutions that hold you accountable. They don't just say, â€˜Great war, guysâ€™ and move on,â€? adds McChesney. â€œIf the Soviet Union cited reasons like this in their invasion of Afghanistan and Pravda reported nothing but what the government said, we would've dismissed it out of hand. Our press hasn't been much better. That sends a lot of Americans, maybe not consciously but intuitively, looking for something our media is not offering.â€?
In The Green Berets' infamous last scene, The Duke and a young Vietnamese boy walk into the setting sun, a sun setting in the east over the Tonkin Gulf. Renata Adler, in the June 20, 1968, issue of The New York Times, wrote of the movie, â€œIf the left-wing extremist's nightmare of what we already are has become the right-wing extremist's ideal of what we ought to be, we are in steeper trouble than anyone could have imagined.â€? Sadly, a right-leaning news media has lived down to everything a progressive news junkie expected of it. We begin to wonder if its reporters would report breaches of immutable laws of physics if the administration posited otherwise.
Should the obfuscation continue, and should younger generations count on the Web more and more for their news, we can only hope that the current trickle to a bigger market of ideas doesn't become a flood.