SIX MONTHS LATER THE BASIC TOOL IS LANGUAGE

By Norman Solomon

"Since last fall, the biggest media buzz-phrase has been 'the
war on terrorism.' By now, journalists are in the habit of
shortening it to 'the war on terror' -- perhaps the most
demagogic term in recent memory.
"  

" Present-day reporting is locked into a zone that excludes
unauthorized ironies. It simply accepts that the U.S. government
can keep making war on 'terror' by using high-tech weapons that
inevitably terrorize large numbers of people.
"

"The notably forthright [daily paper in Florida's] editorial pointed out that 'without
robust dissent, democracy might as well pack up and head for the
hills.' And it accurately described the status quo of March 2002
in the USA: 'This is not unity. It's not patriotism. It's
 stupor.'"

"Promised a perpetual
'war against terror,' we face a parallel media war without end.
It's a propaganda siege that must be resisted -- because truly
open debate is essential to democracy. As Galeano observed:
'There is no greater truth than search for truth.'"

      Cameras have recorded countless defining moments. And six
months after Sept. 11, some nightmarish televised glimpses of
that day's horrors still resonate deeply. Visual images are
powerful. Yet there's no substitute for words that sum up what
might otherwise seem too ambiguous, upsetting or baffling. Words
attach meaning to events.

     Since last fall, the biggest media buzz-phrase has been "the
war on terrorism." By now, journalists are in the habit of
shortening it to "the war on terror" -- perhaps the most
demagogic term in recent memory.

     Present-day reporting is locked into a zone that excludes
unauthorized ironies. It simply accepts that the U.S. government
can keep making war on "terror" by using high-tech weapons that
inevitably terrorize large numbers of people. According to
routine news accounts, just about any measures deemed appropriate
by top officials in Washington fit snugly under the rubric of an
ongoing war that may never end.

     Irony, while hardly dead, is mainly confined to solitary
reflection. If insights run counter to the prevailing dogma, then
access to mainstream media is fleeting or nonexistent. The need
for independent thought has never been greater.

     At this point, facile phrases about war on "terrorism" or
"terror" are written in invisible ink on a blank check for
militarism. They can be roughly translated as "pay to the order
of the president" -- to be cashed with a lot of human blood.

     The grand media outlets are so entangled in the current
newspeak that they rarely seem capable of presenting any
fundamental challenge to the White House. At the same time, a
smattering of news outlets -- far from the centers of
journalistic power -- refuse to dodge the task of raising key
questions.

     A daily paper in Florida made a profound statement on March
2. "The nation's loyalty is turning into groupthink," the Daytona
Beach News-Journal editorialized. "How else explain a president
who, playing on the war's most visceral slogan, gets away with
justifying an obscene corporate tax cut as 'economic security,' a
build-up of defense industry stock as 'homeland security,' and an
exploitative assault on the nation's most pristine lands as
'energy security'? How else explain his contempt for Congress,
his Nixonian fixation on secrecy, his administration's junta-like
demeanor in Washington since September?"

     The notably forthright editorial pointed out that "without
robust dissent, democracy might as well pack up and head for the
hills." And it accurately described the status quo of March 2002
in the USA: "This is not unity. It's not patriotism. It's
 stupor."

     At once foggy and focused, the media lexicon of
self-justification rolls on. By implicit definition, Washington's
actions against "terrorism" can only be righteous -- and a
penumbra of virtue extends to Uncle Sam's allies. That helps to
explain why, in the daily drumbeat of reporting from the Middle
East, the Israelis who shoot are engaged in "security" operations
while the Palestinians who shoot are "gunmen."

     Almost without exception, in U.S. news reports about the
back-and-forth violence, exculpatory words like "retaliation" are
reserved for deadly Israeli actions, not deadly Palestinian
actions. It's a typical element of style for American journalism:
Israelis "retaliate." Palestinians don't.

     The media spin is exceedingly kind to the occupiers. When
Israeli onslaughts take civilian lives, that's not "terrorism."
When Israel sends tanks and aircraft to attack Palestinian
neighborhoods or refugee camps in the West Bank or Gaza, that's
merely an "incursion."

     Meanwhile, American taxpayers are financing massive new
Pentagon ventures, with troops and weaponry deploying overseas
from Afghanistan to Georgia to the Philippines. To boast about
waging war against "terror" by terrorizing is a no-brainer only
in the sense that our brains must be on automatic pilot in order
to nod approval.

     A little more than a year ago, at the first World Social
Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Latin American writer Eduardo
Galeano commented that our societies suffer from "fear of
solitude ... fear of dying, fear of living." The dominant trends
encourage passivity. "Quietism is based on fear." And: "The
system presents itself as eternal. The power system tells us that
tomorrow is another word for today."

     Currently, that's more true than ever. Promised a perpetual
"war against terror," we face a parallel media war without end.
It's a propaganda siege that must be resisted -- because truly
open debate is essential to democracy. As Galeano observed:
"There is no greater truth than search for truth."

     That search, positively endless and necessarily difficult,
stumbles over manipulative language. Words are pivotal for
keeping us in this mess. And words may be crucial for getting us
out.  

 

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (I'd recommend a visit to the site), a nationwide consortium of public-policy researchers. He has written op-ed pieces for Boston Globe, Washington Post, Newsday, New York Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Baltimore Sun, and is a far more successful writer than Alex Sandell will ever be.  His column, normally titled, "Media Beat," is nationally syndicated in a wide variety of newspapers.  If you'd like to see his weekly "Media Beat" column published on the opinion page of your local daily newspaper(s), please contact the opinion-page editor at the paper(s) and suggest that the paper give his column a try. Please mention to editors that his weekly column is available to newspapers from Creators Syndicate. Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." 

Back to The Juicy Cerebellum