It was April 2nd, and my wife and I were driving our son home from day care. We listened to an broadcast from WRVO, our local NPR station, about the progress of the American invasion in Iraq. My wife turned down the volume for a few seconds and remarked, "Yesterday was April Fool's Day. No one played a joke on us this year."
I had forgotten the little holiday. Large, cold raindrops began to fall and I turned on the windshield wipers, pushing them aside.
A few hours after we got home, the rain began to freeze on the branches on the trees above our house. By dawn, the ice was three-quarters of an inch thick. The wood of our trees, old oaks and swamp maples, began to split under the weight.
By noon, our driveway was blocked, thick with fallen branches. Our power went out, and with it, our water and heat. Temperatures were falling below freezing. Still, our telephone lines remained, and with the remainder of my laptop's battery power, I checked the news online. The Americans were within miles of Baghdad. I couldn't find anything in the online editions of the local newspapers about the storm here at home.
My last refuge of contact at our home was the radio out in the car. I moved the car out from underneath the trees, and listened in to NPR again, to hear that the people of Baghdad were also without electricity. Their skies were dark, waiting for the American attack on their city to begin. This was the last I heard. The next time I turned the on radio in my car, WRVO was dead. My landlord says that Oswego, where they transmit from, was hit pretty hard.
A couple days later, a local paper, the Auburn Citizen, quoted a firefighter as saying that the area looked like a "war zone". He wasn't the only one who made the comparison. When I went over to the next county to make sure my mother was all right, we met her neighbor in the back yard and surveyed the damage. "Baghdad has nothing on us," he told us.
My son is just two years old now, and after one night in a cold and waterless home, we decided that he'd be better off somewhere else. So, we took the car and headed south to Auburn, the nearest city with power intact. We got a hotel room, and looked for local news on the television to get some idea of when we might get our power back. All we found were the standard cable news channels, with their live coverage of what they called "Operation Iraqi Freedom", their reporters embedded with the American military, reporting only what the soldiers around them were doing, restricted in what they could tell us about the details.
A lot has been made of the fact that the embedding of journalists with the American military has created a kind of slanted coverage of the war by American journalists. On CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, Americans see the war that the American military wants to show. Behind the lines, there are few foreign reporters, and almost none with transmission equipment to show pictures, moving or still, of the destruction caused by the American invaders.
Less has been made of the way that the unrelenting dominance of military information in the news has pushed other important stories away from public view. All around me, people are living through a natural disaster, but I'm struggling to find any information about it. On the other hand, I can easily find out when the next big sandstorm is due in Iraq.
It turns out that my area of Upstate New York was under a state of emergency for a couple days, though I never knew it. How was I to find out, when the daily press briefings given by Donald Rumsfeld and the eager constant updates from reporters in Iraq kept all other information off the air?
For two days, I heard nothing about Kitty Lytle, a grandmother who was killed just a mile or so up the road from me when an ice-coated sugar maple fell under the extra weight and crushed the pickup truck in which she was trying to reach her family.
Up the road another couple miles, two more people died as a result of the ice storm - a mother and her thirteen year-old son. I saw the emergency vehicles rushing up the road in the late afternoon as they struggled to remove downed trees in the path of a rescue, but all I could find out about through the news was that American soldiers were making a foray into central Baghdad to show Saddam Hussein who was boss.
Don't get me wrong - I think it's very important to get news about the war America has started in order to take over Iraq. The thing I notice, though, is that even though the war news takes up almost every minute of coverage in the media these days, the actual content of the news is very small. Every television station, and almost every newspaper, covers just a tiny portion of the war over and over again: what American military officials are willing to tell. On the cable television channels here in my ice storm hotel room, the same small amount of news is repeated over and over again every fifteen minutes.
If we are to get war news, we need journalists who are willing to report all sides of the stories. Through some searching online, I see that there are photographs of Iraqi casualties and destruction of Iraqi homes by American bombs. Why is it that I see so many old photographs of the few American soldiers who have been killed or injured, but I don't see a single photograph of any of the hundred thousand Iraqis who have been killed so far in this war?
This low quality of war news has only enough substance to fill perhaps fifteen minutes of any given hour of news time, so why is it being repeated over and over again, as if there is nothing else to tell? My deepest concern is that news about other life and death events here at home is getting almost no time at all.
Extremist legislation is being rammed through by the Republican-controlled Congress. President Bush continues to push for more tax cuts for the rich. Democrats are demanding a full and honest accounting of the skyrocketing federal budget deficit, and being stonewalled. A highly communicable, potentially deadly disease is sweeping the planet. North Korea is threatening more work towards building nuclear weapons.
Other vital events are taking place that I don't even know about because journalists aren't reporting on them the way that they normally would. Instead, the news media is pouring its resources into filler pieces about families who are sending letters to their loved ones overseas, about flag companies doing good business, about retired generals, about speculation after speculation after speculation by people who have no way of knowing when or how this war will end.
Maybe it's true during wartime that Americans don't want to hear about anything else. Maybe it's true that the American news media is just giving the American people what they want. Americans want to feel good about their government during time of war.
So the stories about hundreds of thousands of more layoffs don't reach us. So the news articles we might see about the long list of corporations filing for bankruptcy are never written. So Americans never find out exactly what kinds of radical new laws the Republicans in Congress are passing. So we don't hear any discussion of the upcoming Presidential election and the activities of the many candidates who are planning to challenge George W. Bush for power. We don't hear any debate about the important issues we have to deal with here at home, with our economy crumbling and our civil liberties under attack by our own government. Heck, we don't even hear about it when our own neighbors are killed in natural disasters right down the road.
Instead, we hear the same canned speeches from Commander-in-Chief Bush over and over again. Every day, we hear the same defensive insistence from Donald Rumsfeld that everything is going to plan. At the same time every morning, we hear the same general refuse to answer the same basic questions from the same reporters.
Well, it's war time, we're told, and that means that everything has changed - again. It's been less than three years that George W. Bush has been trying to lead our country. I wonder how many more times are we going to let Bush tell us that everything has changed.
What we hear about is a function of what we do. Right now, Americans are bending almost all of their effort into war. Most of our tax contributions to the federal government go to build and maintain America's military, and much of the rest is going to functions that support what the military does - pseudocivilian departments like Homeland Security, Central Intelligence, and Federal Investigations. Less and less of our work is being used to build schools. More and more is being used to build weaponry. Know that guy down the block from you who works in the grocery store? His income helps to build cluster bombs. How about that real estate agent who showed your neighbor's home last month? Her commission contributes to tanks and bullets to help America invade the nations of our evil enemies.
The more I consider the matter, it makes sense that the news about the disaster around the corner has been drowned out by the intense focus of almost every news outlet on America's war in Iraq. The amount of our work taxes that goes to disaster relief is a speck of dust in comparison to the budget of the United States military.
I suspect that as long as war continues to be the largest item in America's budget, war will also continue to be the biggest story in our news, no matter what happens to us close to home.
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