Friday, January 19, 2007

Post No. 100: The “Ideology” of the U.S. media?

Note: Any references to dates found below is made relative to 16/1/2007, that is the day which I started writing this short essay.

I am really quite amazed at how quickly people react to certain things and issues. I mean, it was only yesterday (15/1/2007), that the Straits Times (ST) published in its pages a lengthy (altogether, the excerpt took up 2 pages of space) excerpt (“This column on Singapore, are you sure you want it to run?”, ST, 15/1/2007) from Mr. Tom Plate’s, a veteran U.S. journalist from the LA Times, new book: “Confessions of an American Media Man: What they don’t tell you at journalism school”) and on the same day, we already have people, specifically Singaporean “netizens”, discussing and commenting about this particular excerpt (for examples, please go here, here and here). And from what I can observe, most of the comments about this particular excerpt are those disputing Mr. Plate’s positive portrayal and remarks about Singapore in the 1990s and MM (then still SM) Lee Kuan Yew, with some comments even accusing Mr. Plate of, if not the ST, of “carrying the balls” of Singapore and MM Lee or “inviting” Mr. Plate to become a Singapore Permanent Resident or citizen if he really thought so highly of the Singaporean system.

However, while this entire dispute over Mr. Plate’s positive portrayal of Singapore and MM Lee is an interesting topic in itself, I would not be focusing on this particular issue in this essay. Instead, I would be mainly be focusing my attention on this theme, which, from my viewpoint, is what Mr. Plate was actually trying to get at in the excerpt (we Singaporeans perhaps just got distracted by his comments on Singapore and MM Lee, understandably, of course), of the “ideology” of the U.S. media.

“Ideology” of the U.S. media? Ha, I can just imagine you all asking: “What in the world is this guy talking about?!”. Well, from what I can personally observe, my contention is that most people have the perception that the Western media, of which the U.S. media is a subset of, is one which is critical, free, independent, reliable, objective, impartial and that it adopts an adversarial position vis-à-vis the governments of the countries they are found in, in that they are supposed to be the “watchdog” or “Fourth Estate” of society. Yet, there is one question which we need to ask: is such a perception of the Western/U.S. media congruent with reality? Or is this perception a misperception?

I apologise for disappointing you all, especially those of you all who have a very rosy picture of the Western/U.S. media in your minds, but it would seems to me that the Western/U.S. media does not match up to its public image. Yes, I concede that the Western/U.S. media is perhaps better than what we can find in other regions of the world (though, this point remains debatable, of course) but it is not as good as what people usually think is the case.

Why do I say what I have said in the preceding paragraph? Well, from what I can remember of “Manufacturing Consent”, a book co-authored by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (an illuminating exposé of the U.S. media in particular which I have laboured through several months ago; I strongly recommend it, it’s still available for loan from local public libraries, I think), it is argued that the U.S. media, despite what most people may perhaps think, is one which is “subservient” to the U.S. government, in that it, unknowingly or otherwise, conforms to an agenda or “ideology” controlled by the U.S. government.

For example, if I’m not wrong, the book highlights the case of how while the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was condemned by the U.S. media as being an illegitimate intervention in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and/or an attempt to prop up a puppet government, U.S. military inventions, on the other hand, in Central American countries, in particular that of Nicaragua, received a much more favourable assessment of being valiant attempts to safeguard the liberty and security of the “democrats” and capitalists found in these countries from “communist” forces.

Another even starker contrast, as pointed out in the book, can be seen from the difference in treatment, accorded by the U.S. media, between a case of a priest found dead in Poland (pardon me if I got the details wrong; a photographical memory I do not have), which was then still under Soviet influence, and the “deliberate” murder of several members of the clergy by the government of a U.S. client state (of which I cannot remember the exact name of but it should be a country from Central or South America, if I am not wrong). In the first case, a big hue and cry was raised, with accusations about how the priest was killed by the secret police as instructed by the Soviet Union, in the U.S. media, while in the second case, little was said and it was quickly covered up with explanations about how the murdered clergy were “subversive” forces and/or murdered by thugs who were beyond governmental control (hopefully, I got the main idea correct here).

Besides the 2 examples mentions above, many other similar examples on how the Western/U.S. media is a “subservient” one were also cited in the book by Herman and Chomsky.

And, lest you all have the idea that it was only in the past during the Cold War that the U.S. media was influenced by an “ideology” manufactured by the U.S. government, allow me to cite to you all more recent examples. One, I suppose you all would still remember how the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was touted in the U.S. media as a war aimed at “liberating” Iraq. Two, while much hoo-ha was raised over the large number of U.S. casualties in Iraq (the most recent count, I believe, is around 3000), little, if not nothing, was said about Iraqi casualties (or at least greater attention/priority was given to U.S. casualties). And, last but not least, we need to note that while civilian casualties incurred by terrorist attacks are described as the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, civilian casualties caused by U.S. military attacks are described as regrettable but unavoidable “collateral damage”.

Furthermore, as hinted by Mr. Plate in the excerpt, we need to note that the Western/U.S. media and those who are part of it (i.e. the journalists and editors) are not exempted from what most people would refer to as ethnocentrism (or as the late Edward Said would call it: "Orientalism), in that they have the tendency to assume that their standards are and should be the universal standards which the rest of the world, regardless of different specific conditions, should abide by. Also, as suggested by Mr. Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, in his book: “Can Asians Think?”, Western journalists tend to have preconceived notions about certain things and places (an apt example of this is provided in Mr. Plate’s excerpt when he observed that William Safire, a veteran New York Times columnist, had wrote a scathing column on Singapore and MM Lee before he had personally visited Singapore or spent time with MM Lee) and tend to think that they are “crusaders” coming into a “backward” region (i.e. Asia). Thus, in other words, the Western/U.S. media, instead of observing & reporting about the rest of the world in an objective and impartial manner, does so through tinted glasses.

Hence, in the final analysis, it is my opinion that while we acknowledge the weaknesses of the local traditional media and understand that it perhaps still have much room for improvement, we should not fall into the trap of mistakenly thinking that the Western/U.S. media model (though it may perform better in certain aspects) is one which is somehow exempted from any deficiencies of any sort and/or that it must need to be the model which our local traditional media should emulate and develop into.

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