by David Kopel
Mar. 29, 2003
Gulf War II will not only lead to regime change in Iraq's state-controlled media, it is making some Americans re-evaluate our own news sources, too.
For example, Denver's 7 news has long been considered the runt of the litter, behind dominant 9News and runner-up News4. But in the opening days of the war, Denver's 7 was the clear leader in providing hours of news coverage, with KBDI-Channel 12 coming in second by carrying BBC World News.
News4 offered the NCAA basketball tournament, which was a reasonable alternative for people who wanted to go on with normal life, while 9News and Fox 31 trailed the news leaders, offering comedy repeats and similar fare.
Gulf War I in 1991 was the cable television war, with CNN establishing pre-eminence. The Lewinsky affair of 1998-99 saw a trio of all-news cable networks, supplemented by the Drudge Report, establish themselves as the leading sites for breaking news and for the political debate which determined President Clinton's fate. This time around, however, the old giants are passť. The Drudge Report offered war updates only sporadically, and the cable trio of Fox/CNN/MSNBC made their bottom-of-the-screen news crawls even more annoying, since they frequently lacked actual new information to report.
Cable news provided obsessive human interest focus on the tiny number of coalition casualties and prisoners - so much so that a viewer might almost get the impression that the Iraqi regime was winning the war, rather than rapidly giving ground while inflicting very small losses.
So folks who wanted the most up-to-the-minute war news increasingly turned to two weblogs that collect war information from all the U.S. and British television stations, leading Anglo-American newspapers, and other sources from all over the world. Agonist ( www.agonist.org ) and Command Post ( www.command-post.org ) became the places to go for the very latest and most detailed information. If you hadn't watched the news for six hours, and wanted a concise summary (with links to more details) about everything that had happened recently, these sites were indispensable. There were many other good Internet sources that took the story far beyond where the networks or the daily newspapers went. Debka.com (an Israeli site with close ties to military intelligence in that nation) reported first on the Kuwait flags being raised over Iraq's coastal province - perhaps a portent of Kuwait claiming its reward for being the main American base in the war. The "Where is Raed?" weblog ( dear_raed.blogspot.com/ ) reported the experiences of an Iraqi architect living in Baghdad. He conveyed the texture of daily Baghdad life far better than did the foreign journalists who were confined to their hotel by Saddam's enforcers.
The Middle East Media Research Institute ( Memri.org ) offered English-language translations of Arab media - such as an open forum on Al-Jazeera TV frankly discussing the failures of Arab governments, as well as the Palestinian Authority's official media exhorting their audience to join a jihad terror campaign against Americans in order to support Saddam.
The Sunday before last, American Rachel Corrie died after she was hit by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza while she was trying to prevent the destruction of a house believed to conceal a tunnel network used by terrorists. The News and the Post both covered the story with an Associated Press story by Ibrahim Barzak.
Corrie was a volunteer with the International Solidary Movement, a group of anti-Israeli activists. Both papers ran a mugshot of Corrie, and the News also ran a large picture of Corrie lying injured near the bulldozer. Some context could have been supplied by supplementing these photos with a file photo (which was widely shown on the Internet) of Corrie at a Feb. 15 rally in Gaza, where she screamed with fury while burning an American flag.The AP story concluded with the statement that the current war in Israel "has claimed about 2,200 Palestinian lives - about three times the toll of the Israeli side." This is technically true, but misleading when presented without more information.
More than half of the Palestinians killed have been combatants, and an eighth were killed by other Palestinians. In contrast, 69 percent of Israelis killed have been noncombatants. In other words, the Israelis primarily target fighters and the Palestinians overwhelmingly target civilians. These numbers come from the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, a research organization in Israel whose report is based on public sources.
"Study says home ice no edge in playoffs" headlined a News hockey story (March 24). The article discussed a study from the Journal of Sports Behaviour published "several years ago" and another unnamed study from the 1980s. The article said that "some in hockey are skeptical of such studies," but the article unhelpfully failed to provide any explanation for why the studies would be invalid - or to provide any information about the mysterious 1980s study.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case challenging Texas' criminal law against homosexual sodomy. The News previewed the case with an excellent Associated Press article, which provided a clear explanation of the arguments on both sides of the case. The article also provided background on the two gay litigants who had never been activists until they were arrested for having sex in their own apartment.
In contrast, the Post used an article by David G. Savage of the Los Angeles Times. The Post article was much weaker on legal explanation. The article presented a pejorative summary of past Supreme Court cases involving gays. For example, the 2000 case upholding the First Amendment right of the Boy Scouts to require that scoutmasters adhere to the Scout code was described as allowing the Boys Scouts "to kick out a well-regarded scoutmaster who said he was gay."
A letter to the Post's sport section (March 16), wondered how owners could get away with fining players like David Wells, the New York Yankees pitcher who recently wrote an embarrassing book about the team. The letter writer said such punishments "violate the First Amendment," and he wondered if efforts to silence players or coaches have "ever been challenged in court?"
The answer is that no court challenge could succeed because the First Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, is a limit only on the government, not on anyone else. If the government censors your speech, your First rights may have been violated. If your employer offers you a job contingent on your agreeing not to speak publicly in a way that embarrasses the employer, there's no First Amendment issue. If your employer happens to be the government, constitutional issues might arise, but that's not relevant for sports teams.