News Media Still Startled From Its 19th Century Decrepitude

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The news industry is worrying itself from its 19th Century decrepitude to the ether, but it needs to redefine the concept of news itself. What we read in our newspapers and watch on television is antiquarian. In some ways magazines, with their broader perspectives, are ahead of the curve.

What the news needs more than anything else is historical context, the very thing news executives have always eschewed in favor of immediacy. Without historical context the news becomes a major cause of ill-considered, slogan-driven policy.

The news industry has given itself a pass for its culpability in taking us to war in Iraq, but while we’re remembering the distortions of intelligence data and the downright lies of the White House we ought to remember how CNN and Fox News melodramatically beat the war drums and how the print media failed at due diligence when there were plenty of Arabists around to challenge the war policy.

Anyone who has ever watched the Discovery, Military, History or Weather channels may have observed that they often give us far more food for thought than the so-called news channels. They are more reflective, less inclined to dramatize. Such was the case this week when the Military Channel reopened the case of the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898.

With the exploding of the Maine, American foreign policy departed from its republican ideals to take a distinctly imperialistic turn. The impetus, of course, was money, business. We had considerable monies invested in Spanish-held Cuba, and we had embarked on the expansion into the Pacific Basin that ultimately brought us into conflict with Imperial Japan.

The press, led by the ultraconservative and hawkish Hearst newspapers, jumped to every conspiracy theory conceivable. The Navy commission established to investigate the sinking, pressured by Congress, concluded that it was an act of terrorism either by Spanish sympathizers or by Spain itself. The slogan, Remember the Maine, To Hell With Spain, led us into a war in which we ultimately seized Cuba and The Philippines from Spain and destroyed what remained of its empire.

The parallels with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that legitimized the Vietnam War and with George Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s bogus rationale for invading Iraq can hardly be more compelling. But in each case a complacent, irresponsible press played a major role and then stood by acting as if it had had nothing to do with war hysteria but was merely an objective bystander. Ever since the press has been tsk-tsking all the way to the bank.

The Military Channel recounted that in 1974 four-star Admiral Hyman Rickover, a controversial maverick, headed another commission of inquiry that concluded that the Maine had sunk because of an explosion within the steel-plated ship itself. This cast doubt on the Spanish conspiracy theory but failed to put it completely to rest.

But now scientists, using computer modeling and cutting-edge metallurgical research unavailable in 1974, have shown that the explosion originated in a coal bunker by spontaneous combustion, a frequent occurrence wherever coal was used to power ships, and then ignited gunpowder in the Maine’s hold. So much for the Spanish conspiracy.

Here we have three instances in which a democratic republic, which had renounced empire and colonialism from its inception, went to war in behalf of imperialist interests on the basis of misinformation and even chicanery. And the press, which had been envisioned by our founders as a bulwark against government misdeeds, took part in inflaming public opinion.

The media role in the sinking of the Maine (which has been explored closely by scholars) and in the Vietnam and the Iraq wars should give us pause. What we think of as news is more a tsunami of ephemeral reports and events, self-serving interpretations and political posturing. Sometimes the press may argue, as it did regarding the Maine, that there was nowhere to turn for countervailing viewpoints, but it had no such excuse in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

The Internet, to which the news industry is reluctantly transitioning, offers a unique opportunity to redefine news. Indeed, we might usefully revisit the very word. What we need is information and contexts in which to put it. We need new nomenclature for the ideal media role in the 21st Century. Perhaps a word like context. The reason for hope is hypertext, which enables the news industry to put events in perspective. For example, when the White House was making its case for barging into Iraq in the name of democracy, the press could have said, Whoa, Remember the Maine, and then linked breaking stories to all those previous doubts about how the Maine actually blew up that winter’s day in Havana harbor. The press could have revisited the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and its historical reexamination.

But even more significantly, the press could have turned each Iraq story into a virtual index of issues related to modern Iraq history. Readers would have clearly seen that the British had failed in the 1920s to create a balance among Iraq’s sectarian parties. They would have seen how many Arabists thought it a bad idea to invade. They would have understood the secular nature of the Ba’ath Party and the unlikelihood of its having made common cause with Al Qaeda. They would have been able to ask themselves who would benefit most from an Iraq incursion. The answer, of course, would have been big oil and Pentagon contractors.

All these matters eventually came into play, but too late, because our concept of news is not broad enough to prevent nitwit sloganeers and conspiracy theorists from hijacking foreign policy.

The 2001 anthrax incident is another case at hand-a string of developments without context. If the FBI can convince us, as it is now trying to do, that Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, the Army biochemical researcher at Fort Detrick, Maryland, who recently committed suicide, was in fact the man who in 2001 killed five people and threatened many more, will the media remember that it was the anthrax scare and not the September 11th attacks that frightened us into allowing our civil liberties to be eroded in the name of national security? And will the media reopen the case with the same vigor with which they have reported each development? By reopening the case I mean, Will the media point out that a nation of 300 million souls was made docile by fear that foreign terrorists were using anthrax powder against us rather than a domestic terrorist for reasons that are not entirely clear?

If the media continue to refuse to take responsibility for the issue of context, if they persist instead in providing a steady stream of developments and smart-alecky punditry, they will have forfeited the opportunity of a century to redefine American journalism in the name of public enlightenment. The media have traditionally taken the position that it is for historians to make sense of things, to provide overview. But in a world as fast-moving as ours we can’t wait for the historians; we must instead take advantage of what is already archived. The current formula of literally poisoning news with punditry is a sorry excuse for putting news in context. It accelerates the polasrization of an already profoundly polarized society, because it daily invites partisans to pick their poison, leaving independent-mind citizens to fend for themselves.

There will always be a segment of our population that prefers ideology to fact, simple-minded solutions to nuanced examinations, and war to peace. Profiteers depend on this predilection for easy answers. One would think, would hope that the press would be the antidote to knee-jerk hawks and profiteers, but the press is owned by big business and takes its responsibility to make money for investors more seriously than its First Amendment responsibilities. A democracy can never be reminded too often that war is big business.

That is why the idea of citizen journalism is so spectral to press moguls. The idea of being no longer capable of hyping and propagandizing news by ownership of media outlets is truly intimidating. And yet nowhere in today’s presidential campaign is the issue raised of who will control the Internet. That’s no accident. It’s the last issue corporate media wants raised.

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller’s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

See www.djelloulmarbrook.com for more.

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook, born in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter grew up New York, served in the US Navy. His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University. His story, Artists Hill, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.