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Speed Kills

[whitespace] CNN PR SNAFU at OSU

By Bob Harris

THERE'S A NEW disease sweeping across our beloved land, an epidemic virus that can affect your speech, impair your judgment, and even cause aggressive behavior. The infection is most rampant among the Pentagon, the White House, and the news media. And it's almost completely undiagnosed. You may be suffering from it yourself.

I'm referring, of course, to ... the tragedy of Speedmouth.

Speedmouth strikes swiftly. One day, someone says the entire phrase, "Weapons of Mass Destruction." The next day, it comes out as "WMD." "Chemical and Biological Warfare" quickly becomes CBW. "No Fly Zone" collapses into NFZ.

And once Speedmouth attacks, the disease spreads swiftly. What begins as a hallway parlance infecting isolated policy wonks (who contract the contagion when data overload affects their mental immune system), a Speedmouth infection can suddenly surface in a White House press briefing and instantly reproduce like Ebola into the mouths and keyboards of reporters eager to parrot any military phrase in an effort to sound really butch.

Next thing you know, even TV-exposed housewives in Kansas are afflicted, rattling off meaningless Speedmouth phrases over tea at the card table with the somber gravity of a nuclear briefing in the war room.

"Never mind the CNN PR SNAFU at OSU, the DCI's POV on UNSCOM correlates with CIA and NSA intel, confirming the CW about AP reports on WMD and CBW, so the CCC is projecting A-10s and F-16s into the Iraqi SOG ... gin."

This, my friends, is a shocking case of Speedmouth. This poor woman has no idea what she's saying, but she's convinced it means we have to bomb someone.

Unfortunately, while we understand the cause, the only known cure is a long and difficult one: Read a book.

BY NOW YOU'VE READ various news reports about last week's skirmish at Ohio State between two CNN reporters and three Clinton advisers on one side and a small but vocal minority of the folks they supposedly work for on the other. A large group of normals, caught in the middle, was left trying to decide whom to trust.

If you saw the fiasco live on the tube, you already know that much of what was said, both during and after the show, was completely false. First, let's be clear about what that TV show was--and was not. This was not a "town meeting." At a real town meeting, priorities are decided as a result of what the people have to say. This CNN deal was set up so the big shots could explain priorities that had already been decided. The two are fundamentally different. The first is a form of genuine democracy. The latter, which happens so often we're starting not to notice the difference, is what Noam Chomsky calls "manufacturing consent."

And CNN was not just reporting the news. It cut a deal with the White House to get exclusive rights to the show by footing the bill, handling the logistics, and giving the speakers a worldwide audience. CNN did not demand--as an objective reporter might --that people who disagree should receive equal space and time. So, bottom line: CNN paid to produce a high-profile TV talk show starring Bernard Shaw as Oprah, featuring a unanimous group from one side of the debate about Iraq, presented to sell the official policy to the people.

In fact, White House aides actually complained the next day that the audience hadn't been screened in advance, so anyone who lined up for a ticket--even the riffraff who ask embarrassing questions!--could get in. In other words, the real problem was the sloppy intrusion of actual democracy into the staged event.

That so many commentators deemed Clinton foolish for allowing such an outbreak to occur--without noting that it's also the fundamental thing we're supposed to be defending--tells you more about us media people than it does the protesters.

Once the press and citizenry begin giving the president the power of a generalissimo, how long will it be until he actually becomes one? Personally, I didn't much care for a lot of what the protesters said, and I sure wasn't fond of the way they said it. But they deserve credit for being hip enough to treat the event like the cheap stunt that it was all along.

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From the March 5-11, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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