|March 16, 2006|
Tony Soprano and Iraq: The Mafia, the Military and the Media
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
"Violence is as American as Cherry Pie." -- H.Rap Brown
NEW YORK -- As the "Sopranos" return to the airwaves for a new season, the likeable Lorraine Bracco, who plays show shrink Dr. Melfi, was on the Colbert report suggesting that the HBO drama has one social value, it shows violence as it really functions in our culture.
Odd, isn't it, that we have to turn to fiction to be confronted with reality. What does that say about how well the news we consume on TV every day serves us?
And what does it say about us as a people - our attraction to, and perhaps even need for violence in entertainment? America's love affair with media about the Mafia is obvious, as is our addiction to crime shows. Long after the FBI defeated organized crime in real life, it was reborn as a staple in the movies, in hip-hop, and often sympathetically on TV and our imagination.
That in turn led to the "Mafia-ization" of politics and corporations which increasingly operate corruptly through gang-like family formations (The Bushes) or corporate hierarchies (Enron) and military contractors (Halliburton). The Justice Department warned the mafia was taking over our ports again, just before the Dubai deal distracted our attention. What moral separation is there, in the age of Abramoff, between the shadowy, snarling, gun-toting Dick Cheney and the Godfather?Gangsters 'R Us.
I don't know if anyone has watched HBO and the other movie channels for a week to track the body count, but I am sure it is way up there.
The writer Charles Sullivan speculates that:
"Perhaps America's insatiable demand for entertainment is in fact a form of self medication whose delivery mechanism is television, rather than the hypodermic needle. Mind-numbing, irrelevant, sensory-depriving entertainment is a method to kill the pain of a truth that lives ceaselessly upon the shores of our eroded conscience-a truth so painful that we must suppress it at all cost?
"Reality television does many things. But one thing I am quite certain that it does not do is portray reality. Cheap and shallow entertainment only dulls the senses, like imbibing alcohol in excess to keep us comfortably numb, safely insulated from the reality that our nation is foisting upon the world. For many of the world's people, America has reduced their reality to piles of broken rubble; lonely hours of endless terror called Shock and Awe; the filth and stench of secret gulags where torture is implemented on a scale known only to the CIA."
This is not the image of the Iraq war that we see regularly on TV. Instead the war mostly comes to us sanitized and disconnected from its causes.
We see some deaths in the "when it bleeds, it leads" coverage but usually it is only killing by the so-called "insurgents" using IEDs, car bombs, and suicide tactics. Writer John Stokes has tabulated civilian deaths in Iraq and says they now come to a quarter of a million.
He blames the US invasion for creating the climate, writing: "The most common cause of death is as a direct result of a worsening 'culture of violence', mostly caused by indiscriminate U.S. co-ordinate air strikes, and related military interventions, reveals the study of almost 1000 households scattered across Iraq. And the risk of violent death just after the invasion was 58 times greater than before the war. The overall risk of death was 1.5 times more after the invasion than before." But we are rarely told about these patterns. Oddly, the network news chiefs knew they were withholding information. A year ago, I wrote an article for the industry trade magazine, Broadcasting & Cable noting that in November of 2004 the presidents of the Big Three news networks "told a Stanford University seminar that their operations uncritically conveyed deceptive information that convinced the public an invasion of Iraq was the only option. They admitted that they reported inaccurately about the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
"Simply stated," confessed David Westin, president of ABC News, "we let the American people down." Sadly, their partial mea culpa was not repeated on their broadcasts. (C-SPAN covered it.)
At the time, in January 2005, I asked, "Will they face any consequences for their actions? Unlikely. Has there been any outbreak of conscience in newsrooms or, more important, any commitment to cover Iraq in a less jingoistic manner?
Not that I can see.
Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias, a Canadian, has been closely following the war on American television. Her conclusion: the coverage "has barely changed, even as the administration wants it to be even more 'positive.'"
What has changed today? Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon has gone from gloating about the pro-war coverage to criticizing "exaggerated" reports -- blaming the media, not the military for ongoing setbacks.
The fact is that the violence in the country and attacks on journalists has made reporting in Iraq harder than ever for western journalists.
"As Iraq slips further into what seems an endless spasm of bloodletting, many Western reporters have been forced to hunker down, only leaving their guarded compounds for short periods and only then with a translator, a driver, and at least one bodyguard in tow," reports Paul McLeary in the Columbia Journalism Review. "As a result, they have come to rely more and more on Iraqi stringers to gather information."
He also notes that these brave reporters are often treated as second-class journalists. "For the Iraqi stringers who risk their lives and often are forced to hide what they do from friends and family, typically without even the glory of a byline in return, the answer to the question of why they do it is complicated." It mostly comes down to money.
Meanwhile, in the Muslim world, the US media are increasingly being denounced for promoting Islamophobia in the aftermath of the hysteria about the Dubai Ports deal and those provocative cartoons about the Prophet Mohammad.
Is our media doing a better job after three years of war in explaining these issues or reporting the various options policymakers have?
What have they learned and what are we learning?
A recent survey of US soldiers found that over 80% believed they are there to avenge 911, despite no evidence that Iraq had anything to do with that terrorist attack. True, public opinion has shifted against the war but few TV newscasts or talk programs discuss immediate withdrawal in anything but negative terms. Congress is still pouring money into the war on the "faith-based" belief that "progress is being made."
It's mad and maddening, but it seems the logic for the war has left the world of the rational entering the realm of the deranged and irrational. And that's where the Sopranos' shrink, Dr. Melfi, might come in with an offer of group therapy for the war makers and all those "pragmatic" Democrats who enable them and/or are in co-dependency relationships with their policies.
Perhaps it's time to send Tony Soprano to Washington to break some closed minds open and let some light in.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
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