Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Media Politics in the ‘West’: CNN and President Obama

I have found myself completely engrossed in a discussion I was drawn into, recently, on Face Book about the politics of media bias in America vis-à-vis the US Government and its recent labour report statistics. This is not unlike a conversation I have also, routinely, heard mentioned on the BBC, in particular on its World Have Your Say programme, on which I have also been a guest on-air a few times.

The main thesis of that argument centres on what is claimed to be the mainstream (‘liberal’) media's support of Government, in particular, the Obama administration, in the specific context of America. CNN comes up for greatest mentioning in this regard, though the same may also be said of the BBC, etc. Here, ‘liberal’ refers to the sense in which such media are, presumably, renowned for pandering to the views of the largely, white, in this case American, educated, set of mostly undeclared elites. As such, the ‘liberal media’ are largely perceived as pro-Government and, in particular, pro-Obama partly because Obama is regarded, especially by his critics, as (more) 'acceptable' to ' liberal', whites.

Read as upper-class, educated and especially metropolitan in its outlook, CNN, BBC and others, suppousedly, fall over themselves to represent President Obama and his administration, to a lesser extent, in progressive terms, presumably ignoring the grim realities of the 'real' America and the wider world. But is this characterization accurtate? And, how do such claims about the responses of the media towards President Obama aid or limit his ability to govern/ function? Are their attitudes, necessarily, different from the coverage of former President Bush?

To appropriately answer any of these questions, I feel it is incumbent on me to state that I am neither American, nor necessarily vested in seeking a complete resolution of this discussion; that is, beyond opening up for consideration some initial observations about, in particular, CNN’s coverage of President Obama which though largely favourable in my view, nonetheless challenges some of these assumptions. To begin with, agreeing with these assertions would, by necessity, mean that President Obama’s key messages of ‘hope’ and ‘change’, however questionable for some, are at best a fluke and at worst a complete lie. It would also suggest that the President’s platform has not had a positive impact, even outside of America.

Of course, it is important to note that, President Obama is still less than four months into his Presidency, as well as that he has achieved a number of the plans he had said he would implement upon taking office. He seems to have laid the foundation for doing what he said he would do, specifically his proposal to go after tax cheats, as a way to boost income for the economy, by passing laws to ensure that American businesses that hide money in tax havens like the Cayman Islands would be found out.

Further, lifting the ban on stem cell research, closing Guantanamo as well as opening up relations with Cuba and parts of the ‘Arab world’, also mark the US President as committed to achieving the platform on which he campaigned. While, the jury is certainly still out on the economy, despite signs of life on Wall Street, there are clearly reasons to understand what might well be considered (favourable) ‘media support’ of President Obama, currently. After all, the seeming speed with which he is going literally takes your breath away.

Still, it does not change the fact that the media seem explicitly biased in their treatment of the current President than say President Bush, or do they? Is there merit to the claim that this new President is getting a bligh – an easy pass, as it were, on the way to achieving his mandate, without rigourous opposition by the American media? Indeed, even if we accept President Obama's media savvy helps to explain what appears to be a complicity on the part of the range of the 'liberal' (mostly American) media to represent Government in a positive light in order to achieve some other unspoken interests, whether for like of Obama or because of monetary interests, these claims do not tell the whole story.

Indeed, remarks like these are to be rigourously interrogated. This is, especially where the notable bastions of 'liberalism' CNN were amongst the first to start questioning whether the new President was 'doing too much'; that is, not focusing completely on the economy. They were also amongst the first to counterpoint those questions with the, presumably, ‘never-before-seen’ images of white Americans living off food stamps. The obvious reading being that the American economy was in such a state of shambles that even the sacrosanct images of 'whiteness' were, themselves, under threat.

Admittedly, I found the narrative surrounding these stories very disconcerting, every time I watched the reports, if not altogether disingenuous. I was never under the impression that there was a real commitment to explaining, in clear and unequivocal language, that the conditions of living on food stamps, insofar as they allow one that privilege, is common to the realities of many white Americans. More to the point, the fact that the narrative sets up tensions between the then depth of the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ and America's own efforts to dig itself out of the quagmire, with these suppousedly depressing images of wholesale economic malaise and presumed despair, heavily undercut the claims that the new President was getting a 'free pass'.

In fact, I recalled in one story on the same CNN, about pirates in Somalia taking an American captain hostage being reported, directly ahead of questions about President Obama's ability to 'keep America safe'. Beyond the obvious ‘fact’ that, the media are ‘only’ answering the questions which the ‘public’ wishes to have responses to, there was no mistaking the clear parallels, however questionable, between the activities of Somali pirates and American security issues in this context. This, especially as President Obama also has direct roots in Africa.

The subtly of the parallels, however, were made all the more apparent thanks to the BBC which reminded, recently, in one of its features that piracy in Somalia is an especially sore point in modern American history. The near defeat of its army in 1993, chronicled in the movie Black Hawk Down profoundly underlined the point. While, obviously, important to Americans in terms of their security, the pirate incident, however innocuous, also raised questions about whether the President could (really) keep America safe, specifically regarding threats immediately outside its borders.

The obvious connection, therefore, between an African-American President and Africans (Somalis) who were creating havoc for Americans, presumably in the interests of economic activities, was unmistakable - at least in my view. Then, there was also the matter of whether President Obama was not, himself, weak when it came to military capacity as the Commander in Chief. In that regard, there is a clear and evident need to reconsider the claims that he has been given an easy time by the likes of CNN and other such media.

After all, I have not yet heard or seen where CNN has afforded, in the same way, the Obama administration an opportunity to respond substantively to the charge by former Republican Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani that the President did not make (enough of) a fuss over North Korea’s rocket launch, recently. According to them, this was evidence of his weakness on security issues. Indeed, just today former Vice President Dick Cheney’s remarks about America being less safe with President Obama in office continue this discussion, all the time without a visible and meaningful reply from the administration in terms of defending the President’s credibility.

It seems reasonable in my view, then, that the question of media bias has less to do with a pro-Obama favouritism and somehow seems to relate more to the changing attitudes towards blackness in American popular culture, specifically at the levels at which media such as CNN and others operate; and how that affects their vision of the Government. Notably, I conceded in a Face Book response that, all media are biased. The question, then, seems to be less about the biases of media, per se, and more with how such biases affect how the ‘facts’ are covered as well as, whether there were any ‘facts’ to begin with.

Media bias is a function of media practise, generally. Facts and figures help to extend those biases; though, they are not necessarily in and of themselves biased in the same way that one's agenda is or can be. To critique media bias without a simultaneous admission of this kind, therefore, makes such a criticism almost redundant; that is, where it does not present alternate facts and figures to dispute the claims made by those reported as 'official' in the (mainstream/ liberal) media.

Indeed, one colleague in rebutting these assertions reminded that, ‘facts’ (and figures) are not autonomous pieces of information which' fall from the sky'. In her characteristically acerbic critique, my colleague/ friend highlighted the very point I was attempting to make that, unless there are new ‘facts’ that have been marshaled to challenge the claims in the original discussion about the labour statistics put out by the Government (read President Obama) last week and reported by the 'liberal media', then there is hardly a credible premise on which to say the Government is lying.

As a matter of fact, subsequent to my interventions the original commentator reported that his intentions were not to say the Government or the media were lying. Rather, it was to suggest that numbers are being revised upwards to achieve a more favourable view of the American economy. This then translates to increased consumer confidence; more sales and, ultimately, more ad revenue for the media. A fairly simple and straightforward equation.

However, missing from the explanation is the means by which we achieve the awareness that the numbers have been tampered with. Which is not to say that they have not been. On the contrary, the commentator's admission underlines my earlier claim - arguments about media bias, or half truths reported as 'facts' must be dissected in appropriate context, especially where they lead to flawed conclusions. In that regard, the charges of media bias, whether in America or elsewhere do not help much in forwarding a meaningful understanding of how the media work, for whom and why.

Indeed, such an analysis says nothing of whether the stories reported are accurate, production values are adhered to, or even whether professionalism is deployed in the coverage of said stories, or follow-ups done on whichever issue. To which end, there is need to look again at what is being said by such remarks and how they may be used to serve multiple agendas, some of which are often hostile towards certain groups and communities, in this case the Obama Administration.

It is worth recalling too that, perspectives are learned and, obviously, shift to suit the contours of the realities in which we live. Nowhere is this more the case than in the media where the establishment, which controls them usually get to influence what is produced. The ultra Conservative views of Fox News, which is owned by the Conservative Rupert Murdoch, make this point only too well. Hence, ’facts’ are marshaled to support various positions despite that the ‘facts’, themselves, may not necessarily be flawed in terms of verification and testing.

And, that is also not to suggest that, ‘facts’ cannot be made up, or reports altogether doctored to achieve a more favourable image of an organization, in this case the American Government. After all, the example of the disgraced New York Times journalist who was found to have lied in some of his reports in the mid-90’s make the point all to obvious.

Consequently, and as noted above, the complexities in the coverage of America’s first African-American President and the ambivalence expressed in the attitudes of some Americans towards both him and his policies, specifically African-Americans like those with whom I interacted on Face Book are also tied up in these power relations between the state and the media. Thus, the ‘liberal media’s presumed anxieties towards black leadership may well be said to be echoed in the complicated responses of their audiences towards the Government.

Further, it may be argued that this attitude towards how to cover the first African-American President also gives cues to the audiences which they, in turn, read into subliminally and thus, find it hard to make important distinctions between in the attitudes expressed towards Government. This is not to suggest, however, that all of President Obama’s decisions have been appropriate or even good/ effective. Far from it! The failed candidate selections for some of his Cabinet positions would be one such example. Rather, it is to say that, wrapped up in the claims of bias towards President Obama in how he is covered by the ‘liberal media’ are also many unresolved concerns about race relations and the state, in America.

The BBC recently reported that, notwithstanding that Americans work in ‘diverse’ environments, many still live in segregated communities. The refusal in that regard to engage with each other is telling, in terms of what it says about how much work remains to be done about these very troubling issues in America, especially considering that they also set the tone for many in other parts of the world.

Consequently, questions of media bias, whether regarding CNN, the BBC, or any other media in the ‘West’ seen as ‘liberal’ must also examine the history of such media and how they have evolved in/ alongside the societies they presume to serve. How different are they from the rest of the society in which they operate and is such a difference, if noticed, sufficient to suggest that the treatment of all political figures are the same (read favourable)?

If yes, then we have not begun to have this very important discussion as of yet. And, if no, we are still hemmed in by conventional thinking which makes us also, largely, unable to have this conversation in a meaningful way. I would venture, accordingly, that the answer is somewhere in the middle; though, exactly where remains a matter for further discussion.

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