April 24, 2002


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Media Beat

Alice's new adventures
in Medialand

By Norman Solomon


ALICE CLIMBED OUT of the news hole. She seemed badly shaken. "I thought Wonderland was curious indeed," she said, "but Medialand is even more peculiar."

Responding to my quizzical look, she quickly added: "Don't worry, I stayed away from the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the 'Drink Me' bottle, and the 'Eat Me' cake. I did not converse with a single playing card, dormouse, or mock turtle. I was simply observant."

Alice's sudden appearance in the sunlit meadow gave me an idea. No longer a girl, she was clearly an intelligent woman. "Here," I said, pulling a laptop from my briefcase, "please write about your latest adventures." And before she could decline, I ran off. Returning hours later, I found these words:

Oh dear, how to begin? The Hatter and the March Hare could never match the lunacy I've just seen in Medialand. I'd heard of people subsisting on treacle, but the current media diet is rather more grim. I've got half a mind to write a poem: "The Walrus and the Journalist wondered where they'd been. / They wept like anything to see such quantities of spin ..."

It was Friday, April 12, when the military in Venezuela pushed out the president. On Saturday, April 13, the New York Times front-page headline read, "Venezuela's Chief Forced to Resign," and the first of the story's more than 30 paragraphs referred to "a sudden end to the turbulent three-year reign of a mercurial strongman." The entire article used the word "coup" only once – reporting that "Cuba called the change-over a coup."

Meanwhile, also declining to call the coup "a coup," the Times's lead editorial used upbeat euphemisms to hail it: "With yesterday's resignation of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chavez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader." But many Venezuelans were less pleased to see the ditching of their constitution. In less than 48 hours Chavez returned to office.

The Saturday editorial asserted that the move against Venezuela's twice-elected president was strictly an internal matter: "Rightly, his removal was a purely Venezuelan affair." But on Tuesday, April 16, the newspaper reported: "Senior members of the Bush administration met several times in recent months with leaders of a coalition that ousted the Venezuelan president ... and agreed with them that he should be removed from office."

In an April 16th editorial, the Times indicated that three days earlier it had suffered from temporary amnesia, forgetting the transcendent virtues of democracy. In the wake of the coup's failure, that editorial was a bit contrite: "Mr. Chavez has been such a divisive and demagogic leader that his forced departure last week drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer."

In Medialand, how does a democratically elected president become a "strongman"? And when is a coup not a coup but a "change-over"?

Well, through the looking-glass, Humpty-Dumpty provided an explanation. "When I use a word," he said, "it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less." When I objected that "the question is whether you can make words mean so many different things," his retort was brusque. "The question is," he replied, "which is to be master – that's all."

That perverse outlook seems to be axiomatic in Medialand's biggest recent story. Amid all the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I wonder about remarkable inconsistencies of media interest and moral indignation.

For instance, in contrast to the highly publicized case of John Walker Lindh, what about other Americans who also have been moved by religious fervor to go abroad and take up arms for a foreign government? Relocating from homes in such areas as Brooklyn, N.Y., quite a few Americans went to Israel and now serve that country's military.

This spring, no doubt, some of them have been part of the Israeli offensive in the West Bank. It is curious indeed that the same U.S. news outlets fascinated with the "American Taliban" are so uninterested in scrutinizing those Americans who strengthen the ranks of the Israeli armed forces as they participate in the killing of Palestinian men and women and children.

The similarities are glaring enough to make the media avoidance notable. Apparently certain of a supreme being's approval, Lindh chose to enlist in holy warfare that included the frequent taking of civilian lives. The same is true of the numerous Americans who now carry machine guns for Israel in the occupied territories.

Sitting in a beautiful meadow, I wish these events were all a fantasy from which I might awake, with my sister gently brushing the dead leaves that have fluttered down from the trees onto my face. But this is no dream.

Norman Solomon's latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media. His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.