2003 Media Follies! - Annual survey of the year's most overhyped and underreported stories

This is the eighth year that I've looked at the most overhyped and under- reported stories of the year. I began compiling the list in 1996 with the perception that the U.S. public, instead of getting the information it needed to make informed decisions in a democracy, was being distracted with an endless barrage of feel-good trivia and official spin.

Every year since, it's gotten worse, and the gulf between what people in this country and those elsewhere in the world are told about the same events has continued to widen. But the year 2004 will be a particularly critical one in our nation's, and world's, modern history. The chain of events set in motion by the U.S. invasion of Iraq is likely to take a definitive turn; beyond that, the American public will be asked to pass judgment on four years' performance of one of the most radical regimes in our country's history. Understanding what's actually happening has never been more important -- and spinmeisters' efforts to obscure what's actually happening will be stronger and more technologically savvy than ever. It's time to get smart.

To that end, enter 2004 with our annual list of the past year's most overhyped and underreported -- and misreported -- stories. Remember, they told us they'd lie to us. They were telling the truth.

Most Overrated Stories of the Year

Saving Jessica Lynch On the basis of its subsequent media saturation -- books and TV instamovie included -- the bogus story of Jessica Lynch's “rescue” narrowly outpolls the toppling of Saddam's statue as the most sickening episode of government lying for political gain in recent memory. (The “official” story of Saddam's capture may yet prove to join this elite company.)

Both the statue and Lynch stories were easily and quickly discredited in foreign media -- and, eventually, in U.S. media as well -- but remain iconic markers of the “heroic” Iraq invasion in the minds of many Americans. In the case of the statue, what was presented as the joyous, spontaneous post-victory celebration of a huge Baghdad crowd was quickly revealed by non-network witnesses and wide-angle lenses to be a group of at most 150 Iraqis -- probably paid by the Americans -- who with the help of U.S. troops on site pulled down a statue of Saddam for waiting TV cameras in an otherwise nearly empty plaza.

The Lynch episode was even more cynical, particularly for its crass exploitation of a young soldier who had gone through the undeniably harrowing ordeal of being a POW. But she was captured after being injured in a vehicular accident -- not, as the first Pentagon claimed, after a heroic firefight. And the videotape of her “rescue” from an unguarded hospital that she could freely walk away from involved the filming of an elaborate Hollywood-style commando raid against an off-camera foe that turned out to be completely fictitious. Both episodes were important reminders that sometimes the camera does lie -- depending on who's holding it.

Other lowlights of the year:

Arnold Schwarzenegger runs for governor. Never before has a political neophyte gained high political office by waging a campaign through appearances on E! and Jay Leno. Let's hope it never happens again. (But it probably will.)

Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant. Which is worse -- a sports superstar, on trial for felony rape, who gets huge ovations in arenas across the country because of the charges against him, or the dare-you-not-to-look spectacle of a trial examining the alleged perversions of an over-the-hill music superstar who is now longer barely recognizably human, let alone black or male?

The economic recovery. Also on the 2002 list. This year, it moved from the realm of projecting a fictitious recovery from a highly selective (and dubious) reading of economic tea leaves, to projecting a fictitious permanent recovery from a highly selective (and dubious) reading of the tea leaves of what is at best a temporary respite from misery. And what the hell is the point of a “jobless recovery,” anyway?

And, of course, there are the perennials: bleeding that leads, overhyped weather, and our secular religions: sports and shopping. Bread and circuses, sans bread.

The Year's Most Important Underreported Stories

The Bush tax cuts have flopped. The flip side of the “recovery” stories. This has also been on the list the last two years. But it's worth a return engagement because most of the administration's economic claims -- and assumptions for future planning -- are grossly fictional. Never has an administration been so greedy for its own economic interests, or lied so much about it. We'll be stuck with the bill for decades.

Corporate corruption continues to run amok. Bush's 2002 “reforms” were a farce. The problem isn't just the lack of regulatory enforcement -- it's the entire system.

Health care in America is in crisis. Bush's Medicare bill largely served to make wealthy drug companies richer still; the so-called “Patient's Bill of Rights” was a meaningless farce. Meanwhile, even a relatively minor health problem can destroy the life savings of the nearly 50 million uninsured, and the far larger numbers whose insurance works great so long as we don't get sick. The real story here is the countless parasites unnecessarily making money in our health care system, and how politicians would rather cater to them than help solve a crisis that, sooner or later, affects each of us.

Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton. Neither man has a chance for the Democratic nomination. Yet both Kucinich and Sharpton have generated fiercely loyal followings as the only two candidates in a crowded field with the clarity and guts to challenge fundamental assumptions of the Bush domestic and foreign policy agendas. Howard Dean's successful candidacy wouldn't be possible without this pair on his flank, making him look “more reasonable” even as corporate media ignores or ridicules their campaigns.

The Taliban is making a comeback. Bush's pledges to not abandon Afghanistan turned out to be a cruel joke. Sure, our troops are still there -- they're the only thing keeping CIA man Hamid Karzai in “power,” albeit only in the capital city of Kabul and only during daylight hours. Elsewhere, the same old brutal warlords are running the show, stealing, murdering, and getting rich from record poppy harvests. The Americans have so little influence they've resorted to quietly working with “moderate” elements of the Taliban -- who, with the patience of any society that has a history of several thousand years, are quietly getting stronger again in the mountains.

The peace movement was right -- and still is -- about Iraq. The fact that the Bush Administration was lying about virtually every justification for invading Iraq was something any inquiring reporter could have exposed months before, not after, the invasion began. No ties to Al-Qaeda. No weapons of mass destruction. No danger to U.S. security. Dated, wildly exaggerated, or simply forged “intelligence.” An invasion that was illegal under any and every conceivable legal authority. And peaceniks have continued to be right: the anonymous (and, in the U.S., almost entirely unreported) death of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Many thousands more, including U.S. soldiers, will die from the radioactive munitions. And now the country's being looted by the same bullies who overran it. Saddam isn't the only government leader who deserves to stand trial.

The catastrophe that has been the U.S. administration of Iraq. Iraq's guerrilla resistance is not the work of Saddam Hussein, or foreign fighters recruited by Al-Qaeda and the like. It's the work of the Americans -- specifically, it wouldn't exist except for the widespread and steadily rising popular anger over the Americans' ongoing, utter failure to provide any of the services normally associated with government. Eight months into U.S. rule, looting is still so bad most Iraqis won't leave home after dark. Usually there's no electricity to see by, anyway, especially outside Baghdad. The U.S. occupiers have been censoring Arab media, repressing the political parties they don't like -- especially Shi'a fundamentalists -- making widespread mass arrests with no semblance of a judicial system or due process (and widespread torture allegations), and murdering civilians seemingly at will and with no fear of consequence. Far from instilling democratic values, Washington has done everything possible to avoid them -- from canceling promised free elections to blocking the use of U.N. and other technocrats with experience in building and nurturing civil society to not doing that work itself. Hiding in their heavily fortified compounds and armored convoys, the Americans remind many Iraqis of nothing so much as the thugs they replaced.

Privatization and corporate looting of Iraq. Meanwhile, the serious looting isn't on the street -- not that Americans tried to stop that, either, even at the invasion's height. It's in a privatization scheme more sweeping than has ever been adopted in any poor country anywhere else in the world. Iraq is literally being auctioned off, mostly to well-connected American companies like Halliburton and Bechtel. Few Iraqis have any of the new currency, let alone jobs -- those are all going to Americans or to Kuwaitis, Saudis, or Southeast Asian nationals. By the time Iraq is given the chance (albeit heavily rigged in D.C.'s favor) to “rule itself,” the country will look a lot like those houses the Grinch visited before Christmas -- except that these Grinches will never, ever get bigger hearts and give the stuff back.

Israel's apartheid wall. Longer and taller than Berlin's, it's a flagrantly illegal gambit to reduce Palestine to Bantustans; meanwhile, the routine brutalization and humiliation of ordinary Palestinians continues to grow. This, not Iraq, is the conflict upon which future world peace depends, and Washington's role in worsening it has been critical. Why so little attention?

Africa, Africa, Africa. So much is flying under U.S. media radar, it's hard to know where to start -- from Mugabe's terrorizing of Zimbabwe to AIDS to the renewed national and regional depredations of Nigeria, a country effectively run by the likes of Shell and Chevron, and whichever local generals have the franchise this week. But as always the place to start is Central Africa -- where a brutal, decade-long war has now killed a staggering four million or more people, replete with atrocities, civilian massacres, torture, sexual slavery, and lots and lots of U.S.-made weaponry. The war's raison d'etre? The mineral wealth of the eastern Congo, which includes several rare minerals used in the production of computer screens, keyboards, and chips. Prominent among the numerous American companies getting rich by paying “rebel” armies to take over mining regions are -- surprise -- Halliburton and Bechtel. This should be a scandal rocking the globe -- but it's sub-Saharan Africa, where they don't value life the way we do [sic].

The collapse of the “Washington consensus.” U.S. media has given a bit of attention to the hypocrisy of the Bush Administration pushing a free trade agenda while blithely continuing its price supports for domestic steel and agribusiness. (Somehow, the arms trade never makes this list.) But the bigger story is that despite Washington's enormous fiscal and military clout, and the sobering example of Iraq for any who dare step out of line, fewer and fewer countries are buying that “free trade” bullshit. Since 2000, popular movements in nearly every country in South America have determined who governs the country; this year, protesters forced Bolivia's president into exile over a natural gas export scheme. Lula, Brazil's newly elected, left-leaning president, has formed (along with India and, increasingly, China) a caucus that is standing up to Bush demands for the right to loot the global South. Both the WTO talks in Cancun and FTAA talks in Miami broke down this fall. Popular outrage over decades of destroyed economies isn't letting the elites who run these countries acquiesce to Washington. Now that's democracy in action.

Bush v. Constitution There have been no, repeat, no publicly revealed terror attacks foiled on U.S. soil since 9/11 -- only the trumped-up cases of a few homegrown Muslim fantasy warriors. But state power and erosion of civil liberties and the Bill of Rights continues to expand, in the name of 9/11 and “terrorism”. A leaked draft of a proposed “PATRIOT II” bill caused a public uproar early in the year. A major provision was then snuck through Congress anyway -- the right to seize and examine any business's records, no warrant, judge, or jury needed. Guantanamo's prisons continue to expand, allegations of torture and border brutalizations keep cropping up in foreign media, and John Ashcroft still has a job. The good news: increasingly, courts are telling Bush to back off. The bad news: if reelected, Bush will likely get to pick two or three new Supreme Court judges.

The U.S. remains the biggest terrorist nation in the world. We're the largest arms exporter. We're funding the next generation of Saddams in places like Pakistan and Uzbekistan, we give Israel money and diplomatic cover, we ignore international treaties and laws whenever we like. For years, it was all done with an implied threat: our military will crush any regime that strays too far out of line. With Iraq, the threat is no longer implied; it's right out there for all to see.

No combination of world powers has been able or willing to hold this rogue state accountable for its transgressions. The only force that can is the American public itself. In 2004, we'll have the chance. The essential first steps: Educating ourselves, seeking out multiple alternative news sources, and making up our own minds. The essential next steps: use that knowledge, spread that knowledge, and get busy!! --Geov Parrish