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In his new book, No Sense of Decency, prize-winning political correspondent Robert Shogan recounts the advent of TV news in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Its "coming-of-age" reached a high point in 1954, when this powerful new medium brought down the notorious Sen. Joseph McCarthy as millions of Americans watched in rapt awe - and disgust - the Army-McCarthy Hearings.
Indeed, television played a decisive role in other earth-shattering events that rocked the US, most notably the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Exposing the ugly face of racism in places like Selma, Alabama and Little Rock, Arkansas helped forge the 1964 civil rights bill. The daily intrusion of the Vietnam War into the living rooms of American households, with images of US soldiers returning home in body bags, the Tet offensive and that South Vietnamese girl running naked through the streets, her body charred from napalm, turned the tide against America's misguided adventure in Southeast Asia.
But, as Shogan points out, at the very incipient stages of this novel invention, news correspondents, editorialists, anchormen and commentators were mostly cheerleaders for government policy. Certainly during World War II, those short newsreels in movie theaters only trumpeted the victories and splendor of the allied forces fighting Nazi Germany. Such was also the case during the Korean War and throughout most of the Cold War.
Reporters tiptoed around government leaders, seldom asking them pointed questions; except for CBS's Edward R. Murrow, who defied McCarthy's intimidating and menacing assaults against anyone who dared challenge him.
THE WORLD of TV news has changed dramatically since Murrow's day. We are saturated with 24-hour-a-day news coverage. CNN, BBC, MSNBC, FOX News, Al Jazeera reach a global audience. One can overdose on round-the-clock satellite and cable news. Some stations pride themselves on balanced reporting, particularly Fox News; but any objective analysis indicates the opposite, as it unabashedly pushes its own conservative agenda.
CNN, while more subtle, heralds its professionalism with its pretentious I-Report, Back Story, Connect the World, which are no more than blatant gimmicks to draw in audiences. While less entertaining - and less infuriating than Fox - to read the news, it parades before us a bevy of international female beauties to compete with Fox's runners-up to the Miss Universe contest - all a chauvinistic exploitation of the female species in a cynical attempt to make the news more "attractive."
Such was the case with the attraction of "embedded" reporters with US troops in Iraq. They should have been labeled "in bed" reporters, as they transmitted to viewers what their government dictated.
Then there is the phenomenon of "experts." However, these so-called authorities are no more than political pundits. To fill hours of endless broadcasts, they parse every word of every politician, deciphering some idiotic meaning behind the meaning. In no place is this truer than here. Our self-important TV news personalities are more interested in hearing themselves as they incessantly interrupt the interviewee or answer their own questions, rather than listening for the answer. They pass off opinions as news. They don't report events of the day, they shape them.
RELATED TO matters in the Middle East, I would propose this line of questioning to some of the interlocutors involved. Let's do it in the order of US President Barak Obama, former US president Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Question: President Obama, when addressing the Muslim world, did you really mean to say that Israel deserves a country only because of the Holocaust? Are you, a believing Christian, unaware of the historical ties of Jews to this land? You fed the current argument that Arabs should not have to suffer for the sins of the Europeans. Was this not a colossal mistake, indicating that you may lack the skill to serve as an impartial negotiator between Israelis and Palestinians? You want a freeze in settlement building, but if the Israelis continue with the settlement enterprise, do you plan sanctions to pressure Israel?
Instead of showing Obama speaking of matters related to the Middle East, with images of the conflict being flashed across our TV screens for dramatic effect, and instead of propagandizing for right-wing policies, Fox's Bill O'Reilly should ask some of the above penetrating questions.
Question: President Carter, you met with Hamas leaders and reported their willingness to recognize Israel within the 1967 borders. You present Hamas as reasonable partners to peace negotiations. But how reasonable are they when they introduce Shari'a law and deputize a "God squad" to enforce it? Did you ask them about Gilad Schalit who, contrary to international law, is denied any rights? Does that sound reasonable to you? Isn't the protection of human rights your calling card?
Did you ask them to explain their violent takeover of Gaza, or why more Palestinians have been killed by Palestinians than by Israelis, including during the war and the entire intifada, often in the most brutal fashion imaginable? What type of peace agreement do you envision, given the fractious division between Fatah and Hamas?
Even as we watch a grinning Jimmy Carter fawning all over Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh, praising his supposed moderation, CNN's Christiane Amanpour should be asking these piercing questions instead of advertising her own soon-to-be-aired self-aggrandizing program.
Question: Prime Minister Netanyahu, because of the West's insistence on halting all settlement activity, you have indicated that you have basically agreed to cease new settlement building. Yet, every week, stuffed in my mailbox, is a pamphlet from some modern Orthodox yeshiva discussing the weekly Torah portion. Each flyer includes advertisements for settlements - some newly formed, some well into different stages of development and some selling plots. None of them are existing settlements so one could argue "natural growth," and none are in the Jerusalem area so one could argue that they are not part of a settlement freeze.
What purpose do Channels 10, 11 and 22 serve when they show film clips of a smiling Netanyahu shaking hands with Obama, George Mitchell, Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy? Why doesn't Miki Haimovich ask him point blank about the bald-faced lies he sells to these leaders - not intervene before he answers or argue with him, but just let him squirm as he is confronted with incontrovertible facts when these yeshiva handouts are presented to him?
It is not enough to abide by the adage "one picture is worth 1,000 words." Too often news stations use images for their sensationalistic value, and images can take on a life of their own, presenting a story that appears to be insightful, but possibly having no bearing on reality.
Instead of such superficiality, we need a modern day Edward R. Murrow, who can wade through all the media hype and ask tough questions so that we might have access to some semblance of truth.
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