Radio jammed with pro-war propaganda

March 20, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - This is how I spent the week before the war: Driving across the Florida landscape, locked in the alternate universe of talk radio.

I tuned in as an act of professional penance, and I'm sorry now that I didn't take my hands off the wheel to make notes. But I took away lasting memories of propaganda, a souvenir list of fact-free opinions delivered by a cast of angry baritones.

Somewhere between Orlando and Tampa, a host spent the morning touting the discovery of an Iraqi drone as the smoking gun in the case against Iraq. Reporters on the scene would describe this drone as a "Weed Whacker with wings."

There was another host, somewhere between Tampa and Fort Myers, who took anti-war women's groups angrily to task on the grounds that the women of Iraq were bitterly oppressed. He didn't seem to know that Iraq - which surely oppresses both genders - is a secular state where women are more equal than among our friends the Saudis.

On the last lap between Fort Myers and Naples, there was the assertion, repeated again and again, that Saddam Hussein was somewhere behind the terrorism of Sept. 11. Never mind that the CIA disagrees.

The only counter note to the drumbeat of war I heard all weekend was from an elderly peace activist who apparently offered himself as a hapless human shield against the host and listeners who attacked him. On this Orlando station, he couldn't get a fact in edgewise.

I am normally protected from talk radio by my day job, but it was no surprise that the hosts were all right-wing. That is, by now, a given. Some venture capitalists are trying to start a left-leaning network, but today it's as if one medium has been thoroughly ceded to the right, and in this case pro-war, wing.

In my car-bound venture, I kept thinking of the old adage, "Truth is the first casualty of war." But this time, truth became a casualty before the first shot was fired.

In many ways, talk radio seems to have taken up where yellow journalism left off. It bears the trademark disregard for history, casualness about facts and a penchant for propaganda.

Remember reading about the Spanish-American War in 1898? Publishers such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer built a war constituency and circulation in symbiotic frenzy with headlines like "The Country Thrilled with War Fever."

Today, newspapers fret over ethics and hire ombudsmen and run correction boxes. The New York Post may blast the French and Germans with the headline "Axis of Weasel," but most of us have a "one hand" and "the other hand," and often wring them.

The old yellow haze has drifted over to the territory of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. In that territory, the best defense of the right-wing media is an offense against the left-wing media. Facts are as fungible as the word "infotainment."

In that talk-war world, it doesn't matter if the drones are deadly or comic, if the United States is part of a worldwide "coalition" or isolated, if the French simply disagree or are "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." Half a truth is good enough.

I am not saying that this is Talk Radio's War. It's not. It's this administration's war and, like it or not, this country's war. There has been enough reason for knowledgeable people with strong moral sensibilities to disagree about the short-term and long-run gains, about the risks of war and the risks of delay.

But talk radio has followed the leader. That leader, President Bush, has openly rejected nuance, embraced simplicity, applied spin when facts were enough. He has stayed "on message," unembarrassed to tell us that "I don't see many shades of gray in this world." So too talk radio, a medium that is equally black and white, us and them, good and evil.

Now we have a war that may change the world, for better or worse.

We go into this war carrying the casualties of the prewar season: a kit bag of half-truths. What media is now black and white and yellow all over? Stay tuned.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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