Wednesday, September 19, 2007

CNN - The O.J. and Madeleine Network (Just Don't Ask Them About Iraq)

[NOTE: I also posted this article on If you like it, please go to it here and recommend it, comment on it, etc. Thanks.]

I turned on CNN just before 7:00 a.m. yesterday morning, just as the network was previewing its lead three stories of the day (in order):

- The spokesperson for the parents of missing British four-year-old Madeleine McCann was quitting his government job to work for the McCanns full time (this was termed "Breaking News").

- Three accomplices were charged with O.J. Simpson over the alleged armed robbery of sports memorabilia in a Las Vegas hotel room.

- A bag of Dole lettuce in Michigan tested positive for E. coli.

According to CNN, these were the three most important stories to report to the American people: A British girl that has been missing for months, a squabble over souvenirs that happened to include a famous athlete that many people think got away with murder 13 years ago, and one incidence of E. coli. (I know food safety is a very important issue, but that was not the slant of the CNN story.)

Can you imagine a U.S. soldier, returning home after spending 15 months dodging IEDs in Iraq, waking up in his bed for the first time in more than a year, turning on the television, and seeing CNN's valuation of what is important and what the American people want to see (presuming, of course, that CNN is catering to the wishes of their viewers by covering Madeleine McCann and O.J.)? He would probably say to himself something like, "I and 165,000 other soldiers are fighting a war, and nobody here gives a crap what's happening over there." And when it comes to the media, at least, he would be right.

After I had gotten going with my day and had the opportunity to look at the news online, I saw two stories that didn't make CNN's top three:

- The U.S. barred civilians from traveling outside of the Green Zone after Blackwater, a private U.S. security contractor doing business in Iraq for the government, was accused of shooting 11 civilians.

- Senate Democrats indicated that they would aggressively pursue legislation to bring the troops home from Iraq.

I'll bet that most Americans aren't even aware that there are nearly as many private contractors in Iraq as there are military personnel, and that these contractors tend to make a ton more money than our troops do. The Pentagon has essentially outsourced big chunks of the war. (Two examples of coverage of this topic are a CNN article from 2006, so the network does know about this issue, and a PBS "Frontline" piece from 2005.) The contractors, and their ability to operate outside of governmental control, have been a dirty little secret of the war that none of the major news outlets have seemed to want to devote any significant time to.

You would think that a news agency like CNN might want to investigate this story, especially after Blackwater's alleged actions have affected the ability of civilians and diplomats to travel in Iraq. I'm sure most Americans, until this story broke, believed that military personnel took care of this function. Although, since CNN barely covered the issue, it's probably still unknown to most Americans. You would think CNN might want to let the American people know what these contractors are doing in our name.

Of course, you (which includes me) would be both wrong and naive.

No, CNN is too preoccupied with Madeleine McCann and O.J. to cover real news stories. Like, for example, the looming battle in Congress over the war. A USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday showed that Bush's speech supporting the surge and the Congressional testimony of Gen. David Petraeus failed to sway the views of the American people, who still support bringing the troops home.

It seems as though the battle over Iraq, which began in earnest when the American people kicked the Republicans out of power based entirely on the issue in November 2006, has been inevitably headed to the upcoming showdown in Congress. In the early part of this year, with the 2008 election nearly two years away, Republicans in Congress almost uniformly backed the president, keeping nearly every piece of anti-war legislation from leaving Capitol Hill. But, with the 2008 elections just over a year away, and with the recent polls showing that Americans have not changed their minds, there is tremendous pressure on Republicans in Congress. Now, supporting the president could be a one-way ticket to election defeat. But, it seems, the Republicans in the Senate and House would rather watch an "According to Jim" marathon than give in to the Democrats.

Assuming the Democrats don't roll over like they usually do, the stage is set for an epic battle. You would think that a major news agency like CNN would throw a ton of its airtime and resources at this very important story, one that may be the defining debate of the time, with major implications for the country's future. Again, you (and I) would be very disappointed.

No, in CNN's view it is Madeleine McCann and O.J. that merit massive coverage, complete with expert commentaries, illustrative graphics, and endless airing of photos of the victim (in the case of the McCann case) and alleged audio from the crime scene (in the case of the O.J. matter). The fight over the course of the war in Iraq? That gets a big yawn from CNN.

I am exceptionally hard on CNN, mainly because the network is supposed to be the standard-bearer for 24-hour news coverage, both based on its long history (or at least as long as there has been a history of 24-hour cable news) and its reputation. While I am not prepared to cut CNN any slack, I will note that if people wanted to watch political news instead of stories of celebrities gone awry and attractive females involved in crimes (CNN's two go-to news topics), CNN would comply. The network is just meeting the demands of its customers. That does not absolve CNN, though, since a drug dealer could make the same argument. But it does mean that people need to start taking some responsibility for watching and insisting on real news from their news providers.

If Sen. Chuck Hegel (R-Neb.) is right and the Iraq war is the biggest foreign policy blunder in U.S. history, the course taken by the government in the next year could have dire implications for the future of the nation. The American people, as the electorate in a democracy, will play a large part in affecting how thing move forward in Iraq, most prominently when they go to vote in November 2008. How tragic would it be if people were under-informed because they were too busy following stories about O.J. and Madeleine McCann?