If you think no one in America opposes the Afghan war, it’s not because you’ve been living in a cave. You’ve just been watching too much television news. The war’s opponents have been largely absent from TV news since the bombing began. For the most part, only viewer-friendly Phil Donahue and the occasional anti-war movie star have broken through.
In their own defense, news executives told the New York Times that war’s opponents are on the margin of mainstream public opinion and are not credible.
Since when has lack of credibility stopped television news? TV reporters make a living by chasing the most freakish events, like the attack of the giant tumbleweeds or meat loaf week in Texas. Fluff – along with mayhem – is the mainstay of TV news shows.
Television news loves a good spectacle. But even the most far-out opponents of the war don’t make the cut? There’s got to be another explanation for the absence of war opponents on the tube. Here it is: News executives don’t have the guts to put them on the air.
They are fearful that anti-war sentiments might make viewers change the channel. Of course, the opponents of the Afghan war are not limited to anti-war freaks and celebrities. As Phil Donahue has noted, there are plenty of credible people willing to speak out, but, unfortunately, there’s little enthusiasm at TV stations to hear from them.
In fact, about a third of Americans – particularly women – tell pollsters that they would oppose the war if it results in large numbers of civilian deaths. While this thread of public opinion may seem inconsequential compared to the overall support for military action in Afghanistan, it is nonetheless significant and reflects an underlying uncertainty among citizens. Journalists should explore these views.
The near absence on TV of criticism of the war is bad enough, but when you add it to the sudden disappearance of televised statements by Taliban spokesmen and Osama bin Laden, the TV landscape becomes eerie. (After a meeting between the Bush administration and TV news executives, videotapes from the world’s most wanted criminal suddenly all but disappeared from the airwaves.) If a tirade by Osama bin Laden does not meet the mayhem standards of TV news, then surely Rep. Gary Condit, wherever he went, would love to know why.
The administration’s argument that bin Laden could have been using his videos to send secret messages to terrorists around the world is simply laughable. Any person intent on seeing the bin Laden tapes could find satellite access to them.
News executives removed bin Laden from TV for the same reason that they’ve ignored American voices of dissent. They are more concerned about the bottom line than about journalism.
Here’s the scenario that flashes in their minds: A brave network executive broadcasts a new bin Laden videotape. Uproar ensues, as members of Congress and pundits denounce the decision to air the tape. The cable chat shows, which will cover just about any angle on the war except opposition to it, whip up a furor over the story.
The other networks defend their decisions not to air the tape in patriotic and journalistic pronouncements. The network that aired the tape is branded as “unpatriotic” and, in fact, loses viewers. And loses money.
It could happen, and news executives know it. So, rather than take any risks for the sake of informing the public or practicing real journalism, they take the low road and avoid broadcasting bin Laden or serious opposition to the war.
The sad irony is this: Even network executives concerned only about ratings could easily justify taking the journalistic high road and airing bin Laden and Taliban statements – and thoughtful anti-war sentiments.
Americans might well appreciate being given the opportunity to consider for themselves what bin Laden and serious opponents of the Afghan war have to say.
– Jason Salzman is chairman of the board of directors of Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a nonprofit organization that challenges journalists to meet the highest standards of professional journalism.