The camera as enemy

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Imagine Big Bird explaining how just nine people can have the right to decide a presidential election. Or picture Miss Piggy doing a cute, tear-filled rap about how our president is the hope of a war-filled world.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the Bush I administration threatened to cut public broadcasting funds if the White House weren’t given some editorial control. That idea didn’t fly in a Democratic-controlled Congress. But PBS has apparently still been irritating conservatives by occasionally disseminating facts—which tend, of course, to undermine Bush II’s prevailing fantasy imagery. This summer, the Republican-controlled House voted to cut PBS funding by 25 percent, although—after much public outcry—the $100 million was restored by the Senate.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was originally instituted to act as a buffer between political agendas and public information. However, with Bush’s appointment of his staunch loyalist Ken Tomlinson to the position of Chairman of the Board, the CPB has acted more as a propagandist. Some of Tomlinson’s e-mails revealed that he even follows directives straight from the White House. Public broadcasting is utilized and trusted by a wide range of citizens, as studies show (including one mandated by Tomlinson, which he tried to keep secret when the results weren’t to his liking).

Why should such media battles even matter to us? Because never in contemporary times has the information we receive from official sources been so diametrically opposed to the realities we live in. And the situation is worsening.

It’s one thing to see all the half-million dollar houses American citizens seem to inhabit on TV shows and commercials, and then to look around at our own homes. We’re used to these disparities; we understand them. (Although many people across the world, upon seeing images of Katrina’s aftermath, were reportedly amazed to learn that we don’t all live like our characters on TV.) However, when—long after indisputable facts and logic have weighed in—half of our citizens believe that we found WMDs in Iraq, and that Iraq was connected to 9/11 or Al-Qaeda, we must acknowledge that a very intentional war of disinformation is being waged upon us. If this suggests “conspiracy theory” to some of you—a phrase that has come to disparage any critical thinking about the larger political pictures—I would suggest that U.S. citizens need to revisit common sense.

The first rule of communication is that the source affects the message: Who is telling us something will inevitably affect what they tell us about it. Is it conspiracy theory to suggest that those in power will tend to want to retain that power? Or that they will act in self-interested ways to help them retain that power? Right now, five mega-corporations (with, of course, complex branches to thousands of other large corporations) own over 90% of all the media in this country. Think about it—that includes TV, radio, magazines, book publishers, record labels, and movie companies: America’s entire virtual world. How would that affect what we hear and see? How many of us stop to recall that the paradigm of “the liberal media” was inculcated in us by the media itself?

The political and media response to the horrifying aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exemplifies the ongoing battles of control over our virtual realities. Although I usually get my news from alternative sources, I watched hours of TV coverage for days, with much-repeated photos and video clips from channel to channel, and all I kept thinking was: Where is the real coverage? What we were seeing was far too clean, I knew, and there seemed to be some media investment in avoiding human aspects of the stories. (Although certainly we got to see a few extraordinary examples of spontaneous sincerity and rebellion from reporters.) Then I saw a show done by Oprah, and she got it; it was the only real coverage I’ve seen to date.

Even with her financial and star status, Oprah was very nearly kept from filming inside the Superdome by a soldier who said he was under strict orders not to let anyone in. Oprah expressed surprise that thousands of people had been confined in there for six days, though she couldn’t walk in for even a few minutes. Just as Mayor Nagin let her in, a troop of soldiers came jogging up to the door and the first soldier stated into his walkie-talkie, “We’ve got reinforcements.” Those troops were not being called upon to safeguard the health of Oprah and her cameraman. It was the camera as enemy, reality as enemy.

Now that the military has been working at keeping reporters from shooting dead bodies during the clean-up (despite a judge’s restraining order obtained by CNN), and FEMA has privatized the body counting and disposal to a Bush crony (and, of course, campaign contributor) with a history of illegal body dumping, we have to question if we will ever know the actual toll of Katrina and its aftermath of U.S. racism and classism.

In these strange and dangerous times, it becomes even more important to stay grounded in our communities and cultures, trusting in our own life experiences, our own realities. Alternative paths of information also become much more critical for revitalizing any aspects of democracy remaining. We must wake from the opiate sleep of these virtual realities. The country, the world, and countless innocent people need a new reality, a hopeful reality. And we can only begin to create that by first acknowledging the actual conditions of the one we truly inhabit.

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