Moving Pictures and Double Standards

Originally posted: June 28, 2009

Greencastle, Ind. – If there is an upside to news of Michael Jackson’s sudden and unexpected death it is this: wall-to-wall press coverage of the pop star’s passing has put the brakes on Western media’s propaganda campaign over street protests in Iran — at least for the time being.

For the better part of two weeks, U.S. and UK news outlets have been spinning the disputed outcome of recent Iranian elections in a manner that supports the strategic aims of Washington, London and Tel Aviv: to discredit the Iranian leadership and legitimate calls for “regime change” in Tehran.

While images of the Iranian people demanding greater transparency and accountability from their government are undeniably moving, if not downright inspiring, press coverage of these spontaneous expressions of democracy reveal the double standards of both the political and media establishment.

Last week, President Obama told reporters that he was “appalled and outraged” by the Iranian crackdown on political dissent. To his credit, Obama calibrated his response to the political crisis in a far more nuanced fashion than his right-wing critics. Nevertheless, Obama’s concern for innocent victims of the Iranian government’s treatment of political dissidents seems disingenuous in the context of US foreign policy.

For years, the United States has supported authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia that suppress oppositional movements through violence, intimidation and detention. Likewise, the United States routinely provides political cover and military support for Israeli aggression directed at Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. If Obama was truly concerned with the loss of innocent life, he might have taken the opportunity to express his outrage over the Israeli siege of Gaza during his historic speech in Cairo earlier this month.

Still, Obama’s hypocrisy is not nearly so galling as that of Sen. John McCain and neo-conservative pundits. McCain’s eulogy for slain Iranian student Neda Soltan is especially infuriating in light of his contempt for the safety and well being of the Iranian people. Recall that McCain callously sang, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys “Barbara Ann” during the 2008 presidential campaign.

If McCain and other Republican hardliners had their way, Neda might have been killed by U.S. air strikes — along with tens of thousands of innocent Iranians. However, if street protests fail to achieve even modest reforms, the hawks will likely intensify their call for military action against Iran. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rather ominously suggested as much during a recent appearance on BBC TV.

Following an all-too-familiar pattern, press reaction to the Iranian political crisis is self-serving and ahistorical. For all of their nonstop coverage, few Western news outlets acknowledge decades of U.S. meddling in Iran; let alone consider how current policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan may further destabilize the region. Fewer still concede that U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran — through sanctions, propaganda campaigns and covert actions — have been counterproductive, serving only to strengthen the hand of the most repressive elements within Iran.

Eileen Clancy, founder of i-Witness video, sums it up the current situation this way: “While it’s fashionable right now for U.S. politicians to stick up for the peaceful protesters and citizen journalists in the streets of Iran, those sentiments ring hollow. In the U.S., protest events are typically deemed marginal events by the news media, even when extraordinary things happen there.”

Indeed. From the 1999 Battle of Seattle to the 2003 protests against the invasion of Iraq, from ongoing campaigns against the coal industry’s practice of mountain top removal to grassroots mobilization for universal health care, progressive social movements, not unlike what is unfolding in Iran these days, are routinely trivialized or ignored by the U.S. press corps.

The logic behind such a double standard is easy to see. The establishment press has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Political dissent and popular uprisings that challenge the established order would only benefit from fair, accurate and sustained press coverage. Media blackouts are part of a broader strategy to undermine the reach and legitimacy of progressive social movements.

For corporations — including the media industries themselves, some of the most powerful corporations on the planet — and the political elite that protect and defend their interests, movements working for social and economic justice have no place on the evening news — unless of course they fit into a narrative that puts (corporate) America’s interest first.

Kevin Howley is associate professor of communication at DePauw University.

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