Reading the Newspapers

By Wally Hourback | September 11, 2003

I’ve become so accustomed to the way the mass media portrays Iraqis over the last year that I’d forgotten that they’re human in the same way as the people around me. I’d seen them strutting around in absurd military uniforms, cold-eyed, arrogantly proud of their stone age weaponry, rattling their sabers as they bullied or blocked the UN’s weapons inspectors. Once the war started, I most often saw Iraqis running for cover, the uniformed ones along with civilians, or standing around looking confused and stupid—or, occasionally, dead. More recently, I’ve mostly seen them shouting, looting, and otherwise misbehaving in more or less righteous postures. They haven’t been very personable or attractive in any of these frames, which is exactly the way you want other people to look when your side is willing to drop bombs on them or shoot them on their own streets.

Then somebody—presumably the Baathist remnant, blew up the mosque at Najaf, killing Ayatollah Mohammad Baquer al-Hakim and eighty-one other Iraqis.

On the front page of the National Post the next day a photograph of two Iraqi girls appeared. They appeared to be eight or nine years old, with sweet faces and chubby hands, a preadolescent Pieta in their black chadors. The sub-head beneath the photo read: “Two Iraqi Shiite girls attend afternoon prayers yesterday before an explosion inside the shrine of Iman Ali, in Najaf. Their fate is unknown.” As if that didn’t deliver the message, above the photo was another caption, in larger type: “Photo captures girls before shrine blast.”

I got the intended message (“those Baathists are brutes”), and then some. The “then some” was that the Post’s handling of the event was a first class piece of yellow journalism. Responsible journalists would have determined the fate of the girls before presenting them as victims of the evil Baathists and the still-wandering-around Saddam Hussein. But the journalistic logic here was more like, “Oh, yeah, there used to be two nice little girls in Iraq, but since they’re probably dead, why bother to find out what happened to them when they’re far more useful as presumed victims?”

Call me cynical, but the fact that their condition wasn’t reported probably means they’re alive and unharmed, because a second photo—this one of the little girls lying dead—would have been an even more convincing proof that Iraqi extremists are malevolent monsters and innumerable other colourfully alliterative descriptors of why Americans should shoot the bastards on sight.

I don’t enjoy hoping that my cynical judgments are correct, but in this case, one is telling me that two innocent children are okay. And anyway, what’s pertinent here is the level of distrust the mass media has earned over its coverage of Iraq. It has undermined its credibility to tell us anything believable about what’s going on there. Basically, what we got throughout the runup to the war and from the coverage of the war itself has been so full of self-serving bullshit that we’re left with two choices: to ignore the war, reject its justification (where are those weapons of mass destruction–or treat it as an oil industry infomercial. The only time we’re allowed to see Iraqis as what the vast majority are—innocent victims—is as a subjunct to the primary propaganda message that they’re really a nation infested with monsters, whether Baathist monsters or Muslim lunatics or Al Qaeda devils. Don’t see any innocent people in that collection.

I’m not convinced that this is the fault of the onsite journalists, whose jobs have gotten much more dangerous in the last 15 years now that people in poor countries have awakened to the fact that the majority of the Western journalists they see are “embedded” inside an ideologically-organized media apparatus. We’ve been openly on a war-time geopolitical informational footing since the first Gulf War in 1990, and in a defacto sense, we’ve been there since the arrival of corporate media agglomerates in the 1980s and the lumping of entertainment and profits with news reporting. This is a fundamental and world-wide shift, that’s gotten into every part of our lives, and it has painted a bulls-eye on an entire generation of journalists. Whether or not individual journalists are responsibly attempting to be objective in their reportage, the interconnecting tentacles of corporate interest have penetrated everything being reported, and that has made journalists completely visible as enemies to pretty well everyone who doesn’t spend their days counting their money and trying to figure out how to make more.

In this country, it’s merely ridiculous—a toddler can’t piss his pants in a shopping mall without a business reporter showing up to guage the possible implications for the stock market, and even CBC’s local morning maven in Toronto, Andy Barry, now has to do his show with a resident “business analyst” sitting on his knee. But in the nasty parts of the planet, it is making it dangerous to report news at close range, which is where the truth lies.

Speaking of the truth, that took a whacking in a September 4th story in the National Post written by Michael Friscolanti. The story, no doubt timed to coincide with Ontario Conservative Premier Ernie Eves election call, appeared with the header “More Die” when car insurance public and cites a Fraser Institute study as the source of its revelations.

The yet-to-be released report from the Fraser Institute, also the instigator of the ludicrous “economic freedom” index, which calculates how free deranged people are to die on the streets because the government has been dismantled, along with innumerable other pieces of right wing “research” in which the empirical process involves deciding what ideological conclusions ought to be made and then cherry-picking data to support them, suggests that provinces that have government-run car insurance systems have (or in the story’s argot, “endure”) 18 percent more fatal collisions than provinces that don’t.

The culprit, according to the report, is the pricing systems, which in B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba, charge less to insure young drivers than in the rest of the country, presumably on the principle that young people shouldn’t be charged with criminal activity until they commit it. The report, which ignored Quebec data (likely because Quebec’s data contradicted their conclusions, but also possibly because no one in the Fraser Institute can read French) wasn’t interested in the datums that Alberta and Ontario are more heavily urbanized than ‘Saskatchewan, Manitoba or B.C; that the relative poverty in the Maritimes makes it less likely that teenagers there can afford to own cars in the first place. Nor did it acknowledge that B.C. has quite a few mountains, which can make driving a car noticeably more hazardous.

Adopting a public system in Ontario, the story screeched, would kill 50 young people annually, maim 3900 more, and (if you don’t read the fine print carefully), cost $23 billion a year. No estimate of the social cost of giving Alberta Premier Ralph Klein a drivers’ licence was offered, nor were profit levels of the private insurance companies auto insurance operations separated from their overall operations. No comparative public/private costs were offered from elsewhere in the world. Unofficial conclusions standard to the Fraser Institute, such as the boilerplate recommendations that governments be abolished and that poor people ought to be deprived of all sources of income to prevent them from annoying the wealthy, have to be read between the lines, as does the implicit conclusion that Ontarians ought to vote Conservative if they want to save their kids—or pay about $5 grand a year to let them be killed on an equal footing with kids who live in communist provinces like B.C.

1281 w.. September 11, 2003


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