The senior press historian brought to a climax his presentation of the American press freedom concept by announcing: Here we achieved the Founding Fathers’ dream of the open marketplace of ideas.
I told him: That was in the glorious past, when an enlightening and critical press was the public watchdog on the government. Today, it is more like the supermarket of ideas, where most thoughts are manufactured, packaged and shelved.
The professor was proud of having over 1,300 newspapers in America, but those and hundreds of radio and TV stations are mostly owned by five mega corporations. The few remaining independent papers are a rare species, threatened with extinction.
How can you maintain a true form of press freedom if everything is for sale? How can you provide enlightenment if market forces decide your form and direction? How can you be a dedicated watchdog if your eyes are constantly on the beef, and your leash is in the beef industry’s hands?
You can tell me it is not my business, if it was not America. From Hollywood movies to network sitcoms, from print news to sound bites, and from New York Times to CNN, the American media rules. They set trends and standards, educate and train, and preach the rest of us on democracy, ethics and freedom. This gives them the unique universal position of leading or misleading, and upgrading or downgrading the message and the messenger.
So, when The Washington Post and The New York Times that published the Pentagon papers, unfolded the Watergate scandal and brought the downfall of a powerful president uncritically buy this administration’s justification for the Iraq war, we have to worry. When most American papers refuse to publish a review of a best-seller book from an American president, Jimmy Carter, and his article defending himself against an Israeli smearing campaign, we have to worry. And when the open and free market of ideas fails to face off a lobby dedicated to promoting a foreign country’s interests over America’s, we have to worry.
A Pulitzer Prize winner once explained his anti-Arab, pro-Israel position saying he had a constituency to cater for. Israel’s powerful friends can hurt you, he revealed. Arabs, on the other hand, can only send angry messages, he could live with that. Thomas Friedman changed after his visit to Saudi Arabia, and was kind enough to say a few nice things about its leadership. It didn’t take long to hear from the lobby, it seems. Today, he never makes any criticism of Israel, but hardly a week passes without a jab at the evil Arabs.
The Op-Ed editors of an independent major city newspaper were telling visiting Arab reporters how free they were to take the public’s side in any fight. No government or business interests could influence the editorial policies of their paper, they assured us.
I asked them squarely: Are you free enough to criticize Israel? They said yes. But, later, one editor took me aside and told me a story. Once, Israel was misbehaving in a way that cannot be defended or ignored. Its army was bombarding the Palestinian town of Jenin in 2002, and innocent civilians were killed everyday. The editor wrote a mild criticism of Israel, balanced with a criticism of the Palestinian authorities. The next couple of days, a few Arabs wrote praising the balance and many Jews wrote criticizing the stand. All lived in the paper’s city area.
Two weeks later a flood of letters came from outside the city and state with strong criticism. They all carried the same language or text. At the same time, many individuals and corporations canceled their subscriptions and advertisements. They cited this particular article and accused the paper of anti-Semitism. Some threatened lawsuits. This was the last article of its kind, the editor said. “Our survival at the end of the day is more important to our shareholders and staff than the survival of the Palestinians.”
Another case in point, an American TV producer interviewed by an Arab radio was asked to explain the overwhelming support for Israel in the US Congress. He said: You need millions of dollars to run for Congress, and the Israeli lobby will make or break you depending on your loyalty, not to your country but to theirs. If you beat your competitor in pledging your undying loyalty to the Holy Cow, Israel, you win their steadfast support. Later, they watch you like a hawk and judge you on your voting record. One mistake and you are down with a scandal or in the next election. Therefore, the American explained, most elected politicians and lawmakers are in the lobby’s pocket. The interview was translated by an Israeli Arab-media watch group, an article was written about it in a pro-Israel paper, and the torture campaign began! In a few weeks the pressure was too much for his employers to bear and he had to resign.
We, in the Arab world, never claim to have true free press, but American media brag about it. Freedom of the press, you say? Tell me about it, America!