Friday, May 28, 2004

Iraq as launching pad for media reform

This was the lead story in the NY Times on December 3, 2003:

In the first verdict of its kind since the Nuremberg trials, an international court today convicted three Rwandan news media executives of genocide for helping to incite a killing spree by machete-wielding gangs who slaughtered about 800,000 Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda in early 1994.

A three judge panel found that the three defendants used a radio station and a twice-monthly newspaper to inflame ethnic hatred that eventually led to massacres at churches, schools, hospitals and roadblocks. The radio station, dubbed Radio Machete in Rwanda, guided killers to specific victims, broadcasting the names, license plate numbers and hiding places of Tutsis.

..."The power of the media to create and destroy human values comes with great responsibility," the court said in a 29-page summary of its judgment. "Those who control the media are accountable for its consequences."

...Two of the defendants, Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, were founders of RTLM radio station, which prosecutors said had a huge influence in a country where people primarily rely on the radio for news. The case against the two turned on the question of whether they intended to create a frenzy of violence, or simply failed to control the station.

The judges found that both men, as well as Ngeze, the newspaper editor, had to know that the broadcasts and articles would unleash violence given the political climate in Rwanda at the time. They cited the words of one witness who testified: "What RTLM did was almost to pour petrol, to spread petrol throughout the country little by little, so that one day it would be able to set fire to the whole country."
While I have grave misgivings about prosecuting media executives, I've been thinking how this court decision resonates with the way the American media handled Iraq. Now I am not saying that the conflicts in Iraq and Rwanda are comparable. Rather, I am suggesting that the media played a similar role in both cases: recklessly inciting a nation to violence.

Most people hopefully understand by now that the American media dropped the ball on Iraq, completely. But instead of crying over spilt milk or persecuting the countless numbers of pundits who got things so very wrong, we should view the Iraq debacle as a lesson about why media reform is needed in this country. Badly. Whether that means new stipulations attached to broadcasting rights, stronger limitations on media concentration, more funding for noncommercial and nonprofit outlets, or whatever other ideas have been floated by media critics and activists, I am not sure. Nonetheless, what I am sure of is that this issue deserves a much higher profile on the national agenda.

You might recall that immediately following 9/11 the performance of the media was thrown into question. Some people realized that there was a reason why most Americans couldn't locate Afghanistan on a map, and it wasn't because of stupidity; others found the resonance of the "why do they hate us" question to be indicative of some kind of failure. Soon enough, though, waves of patriotism crushed this introspection and incisive questions were replaced with flags on lapels. The opportunity was lost.

Today, the fallout from Iraq presents a new opportunity. As difficult as the task is in front of us, we should seize the moment. I am firmly convinced that such a movement for reform -- if it has any chance to gain momentum -- will have to come from independent voices who pay close attention to the media, but aren't tied into the journalistic mainstream.

There is now an infrastructure on the web engaged in serious amounts of media criticism, on a scale that has never been seen before. Bloggers have grown quite adept at mobilizing support behind or against some figure and pointing out underreported or inadequately contextualized news. Yet this focus is still too narrow and myopic. Moreover, blogging frequently degenerates into left/right political snowball fights that distract from fundamental questions regarding the exercise of power within American society, instead focusing on who's most fit to wield such power.

We need to go further; we need to forge alliances with those within journalism and academia who are worried about the influence of commercial pressures on media and develop strategies to make such concerns palpable in the nation's political discourse; and we need to concentrate more on structural issues and connect the paucity of our commercially-drenched, market driven media with larger concerns about the state of democracy within the US.

Our ultimate goal should be to galvanize the disparate voices on the net into a political force that can exert pressure on media policy and, hopefully, the very political economy of media. No small task, mind you, but this is where blogs should next begin to tread.