Southern Media

You could almost hear the deflation in Atlanta as the CNN news editors lost interest in the terrorist attack in Norway.   The initial report must have seemed so promising.  Here was a great news story.  A brutal bombing in the capital of a Western European government that was almost certainly committed, or so CNN’s ‘terrorist expert’ concluded, by radical Islamists.  No doubt still enraged about some political cartoon in a Danish newspaper.  For many network executives and for much of the audience, the Nordic countries are almost indistinguishable anyway.

Norwegian troops on patrol after Oslo bombing. (Photo by H.K Nilsen/Creative Commons)

Certainly the timing of the atrocity was perfect.  The Casey Anthony story had been sucked dry and there were no new ‘irresponsible-white-mother’ or ‘celebrity-African-American-male’ in trouble with the law stories on the horizon.  CNN likes these two story types so much that if the network somehow survives to the end of the decade its coverage will probably consist of little else.

Only continuous verbal hammering was keeping the debt limit story from spilling out of its Obama versus Boehner frame to include the Boehner versus Cantor subplot, or worse, descending into the macroeconomic dispute in all its boring complexity.

Although there was no doubt much rejoicing in Atlanta about the News of the World phone hacking scandal, it threatens to become a story about an outraged public and its elected representatives punishing media elites for vile behavior.  Obviously not a scenario any part of Big Media wants its American audience to dwell upon.

The horrific heat wave blasting the middle part of America is attractively cheap and easy to report but it too contains some potentially dangerous material.  CNN obeys the taboo against linking weather events with climate change.  Reporting that the states most afflicted by the heat wave are represented in Congress by vociferous Republican climate deniers is strictly verboten.

National Guardsman's reflection in a cafe window broken by the Oslo blast. (Photo by Bjoertvedt/Creative Commons)

Unfortunately for CNN the Norwegian atrocity story did not fit its big news story rubric.  CNN’s own terrorism expert was wrong.  Rather than a cell of bearded immigrant Muslims, a single clean cut Norwegian rightist was under arrest.  Echoes of the Oklahoma City bombing story.  Rather than another example of international terrorism to justify the three or four or more wars that the United States is waging in the Middle East, it was a case of ‘domestic terrorism.’1

Making matters worse, the accused perpetrator wasn’t even a threatening neo-Nazi skinhead.  Instead, Anders Breivik was revealed to be an Islamophobic Christian fundamentalist, an ideological conservative opposed to multiculturalism.  That is a fair description of several leading Republican presidential candidates.

Making matters worse, most of the 90-plus victims were young people attending a summer camp run by the Norwegian Labour Party.  In other words they were teenage social democrats.  Like Palestinians protesting the Israeli Occupation or Americans in prison for marijuana possession, European socialists are not a group that typically receives sympathetic treatment.  When they aren’t being dismissed they are ignored.

Making what is left of the Norwegian tragedy ideologically palatable to advertisers and the victims emotionally appealing to an audience indoctrinated to equate anything socialist with Joseph Stalin and the GULAG will no doubt cause CNN and other major American news sources to downplay or omit reference to the purpose of the summer camp.

What would convince CNN to treat rightist terrorism as a major news story?  The days when the network could make almost any news story a major news story are long past.  Today’s CNN will treat the tragedy as a big story only if a critical mass of its American competitors decide to do so.

1 In one Reuters story the atrocity was downgraded to a ‘killing spree.’  What is the distinction?  Whites go on killing sprees.  Non-whites perpetrate murderous rampages.   See Johan and Victoria Klesty.  “Norway Killer Attacked Multiculturalism, Islam Online.”  Reuters.   July 23, 2011.

(Photo by Frida Tørring/Creative Commons)
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John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.

12 Comments
  1. In a nutshell. Pre-conceived notions are truly wondrous inventions. Funny, how when something is just right, it makes us laugh. I’m ashamed. This is not a laughing matter, but your coverage is a pleasure.

  2. Thanks for this assessment, John. It’s pathetic that no one upstairs can acknowledge and correct this bias.

  3. Robert Lamb

    Sorry, but I couldn’t find the handle on this story, unless it is free-floating anger: everything is no damn good.
    I was watching CNN during the Oslo tragedy and I didn’t see what you saw.
    What I did see, as it turned out, was an affirmation of the theme of my new novel, A Majority of One, out Sept. 9, to wit:
    Not all religious fanatics live in the Middle East. America has its own homegrown variety, many of whom are willing to kill in the name of the Prince of Peace.
    Obviously, ditto for Scandinavia.
    What CNN is missing, along with many another news outlet, is the logical interpretation: religious fanaticism is personal, social, political, and cultural poison.

    1. John Hickman

      Sorry but I didn’t see your or anyone else’s novel in the CNN news coverage. I was paying attention to what was and WAS NOT being covered.

    2. Excellent comment. Your takeaway about religious fanaticism is spot on.

  4. Frank Povah

    It has ever been thus – like Murdoch;s crocodile tears, the concern of those who own the grist mill is meaningless.

    Seaking of Murdoch – no-one has yet raised the question of why he left Australia – and boy, were we glad to see the bastard go.

  5. Daniel Flynn

    Thanks, John. It’s the end of innocence, in a way, to a beautiful country with nice people. Their post World War II oil wealth has made them feel secure without Europe (without the E.U. and the Euro). The people are independent. Perhaps they will now learn better that ‘no man is an island’, that we together can do what I cannot alone. That all are part of society. That loners should not be left alone. My wife Kate McNally visited friends in beautiful Oslo in June last year for the first time. It reminded me of San Francisco of the 1940s and 50s where and when I was born and grew up. Dan Flynn, Verviers, Belgium

  6. Jon Sinton

    Great analysis of the sad demise of CNN as a world class news organization. I have written about it in these pages, so will not be redundant (http://jonsinton.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/how-to-fix-cnn/).

    Hope you don’t mind that I have used your “…resembles Republican presidential candidates” line all weekend! Brilliant. Thanks!

    1. John Hickman

      Your analysis of what it would take to save CNN offers a pretty comprehensive checklist. Is there something about the management culture at the network that prevents it from facing its failures?

  7. Islamic terrorism is rightist terrorism. The only real difference is that the west has tacked on that whole “freedom and democracy” thing when it’s mostly a talking point rather than a real belief. The major cultural and religious differences are just a smokescreen, the Islamic extreme right and the western extreme right have the same political goal in regards to the “other” – the “outsider infidel” needs to get the f out, their way is the best, the “other” is evil, dirty, etc. I just love how they both hate each other’s guts when they can’t see how akin to each other they really are.

    I also love how the western right wing is now getting a taste of their own medicine when their whole ideology is attacked based on the acts of the few extremists, in this case only one (but he does claim he has contact with “cells” i.e. “Knight Templar” type extremist groups).

    I know everyone here gets that, but what amazes me is how many people who don’t, who act just like their enemies with the exception of a different religious and cultural facade that makes them believe they are vastly different.

  8. I read Martin Marty’s extensive work on world fundamentalisms years ago and one point has stuck with me ever since. All fundamentalism’s are basically the same. I don’t remember his points, but his conclusions were right on.

  9. I meant to make a second point before I pressed the submit button, but these days my fingers are much faster than my mind.

    Any one who thinks they are getting news from any of the network news outlets is deluded. In an interview given years ago, the late Peter Jennings said, “The responsibility of journalists is to INTERPRET the news”. No, no, no! That’s the responsibility of editorialist. The responsibility of the journalist is to report the news in an unbiased manner. Recently I stopped watching ABC news, which I have followed for years because of Diane Sawyer’s overly dramatic responses to the most insipid stories. Now I flit from one network to the other enjoying PBS the most.

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