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March 25, 2003



By Betsey Culp (bculp@sfcall.com)

This war that we’re waging in the deserts and cities of Iraq has made me sick. Literally.

[Don’t say “we,” admonishes a friend. He’s not your president.]

        On Saturday afternoon, I walked away from the Civic Center, heading toward BART. At a certain point, the amplified anti-war oratory from the bandstand collided with strange strident music from a black-clad troupe of mummers. To the left, the colors of Pop Zhao’s canvas wrapped the new Asian Art Museum. To the right, the dun of CHP uniforms formed a semi-circle. Before me San Francisco’s anachronistic monument to its early pioneers rose into a bright blue sky.

Everything began to spin.

I realized later that it was the flu.

During the next couple of days, I watched a lot of TV. The collision of our city’s sights and sounds with CNN’s war collages churned my already queasy stomach.

Once again, the City of St. Francis is sending out a message of peace to the rest of the world. [I’m so proud I live in San Francisco, another friend says.] But I, like the Europeans whom Thomas Friedman has been talking to, feel that a certain contract between America and the world has been broken. And this time, I’m not sure our message is going to work its magic.

You’ve seen the same CNN images I watched over the weekend, snippets and sound bites that left no doubt of who won the MTV revolution. It’s not even a matter of the forest and the trees: the standard fare is closer to twigs.

To its credit, Public Television is trying to fill the gap; so is the Discovery Channel. But I suspect these estimable stations will be preaching mainly to the choir. And so are the online publications that are trying to provide context and discussion, like the ones the that Call carries links to.

In fact, we who live in San Francisco are lucky to have the Chronicle. (Have you taken a look recently at David Lazarus’s column, which has just migrated from the Business Section to Page A2?) What about people in Des Moines. What do they see when they pick up their morning copy of the Register? What about people in Reno, who likely read the Gazette-Journal? What about readers of the famed New Orleans Times-Picayune? Or the equally well-known Philadelphia Inquirer? Take a look. You might be surprised at how far the reporting and editorial opinions are from those of the Chron, and how close they are to CNN’s and those of the White House.

(Don’t become too complacent, though. To the undoubted chagrin of many progressives, some of the most refreshing opinions can be found in conservative organs like the Washington Times.)

Meanwhile, what is the rest of the world seeing and reading? For even among American doves, most commentary comes from the United States or Great Britain. To get a taste of some very different perspectives, try the compendium of Arabic news sources filed at Al-Jazeerah (no relation to Al-Jazeerah TV) and the items translated from Russian on Venik’s Aviation, which offer a broad and somewhat technical view of the progress of the war.

How trustworthy these two sites are, is up to you to determine. But isn’t that the problem with CNN as well? The only way to reach a solution may be to play each side against the other, in a old-fashioned method known as “weighing the evidence.”

But it’s not the education of San Franciscans that’s the problem. They’re accustomed to searching the web for information they can’t find elsewhere. They’re accustomed to taking positions that are out of sync with other parts of the country. They learned long ago to -- as the bumper sticker says -- question authority.

They’re the choir.

The problem is reaching the congregation. How do people who passionately believe our present war is wrong get their message beyond… beyond the Berkeley Hills? Think of the possible media. TV? On most newscasts, anti-war protestors are given short and sarcastic shrift, if they are mentioned at all; public TV is for the elite few. Would it be possible, somehow, to turn the attention of the larger viewing audiences away from celebrity gossip and reality shows and toward issues that have never even entered their consciousness? The dumbed-down programming that critics have complained about for years serves the administration in Washington better than any active propaganda machine.

Think about other media. Movies? Who goes to see Michael Moore? Who will go to see his films after Sunday’s Oscar ceremonies? Music? Think ClearChannel.

In an earlier age, an attractive magazine like McClure’s could alert the public to issues that other media preferred to avoid. Subscribers living in all parts of the country would run to their mailboxes to see the latest from investigative reporters like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. But who reads The Nation? Mother Jones? The Progressive? The choir.

I don’t have an answer. I hope you do.