Rod Driver

The Providence Journal, February 18, 2000

News media shield us from the news


SUPPOSE YOU NOTICED that the news media were not reporting an enormous life-and-death story involving the United States. And suppose that you decided to tell something about it through a paid television commercial. Would there be a problem with that? A major humanitarian organization has a TV commercial telling of the suffering and deaths of Iraqi children and appealing for contributions for relief efforts. In December, on behalf of "Life for Relief and Development," I took that 30-second TV spot to Rhode Island television stations to arrange for broadcasting.

Channel 6 and Cox Cable accepted the ad. Channels 10 and 12 rejected it; and I asked, why?

Channel 10 didn't challenge the accuracy of the ad; but the manager was nervous because it mentioned damage done by American bombs and the U.N./U.S. sanctions. I can't say what explanation Channel 12 will offer for rejecting the ad because, for the past several weeks, station manager Deborah Sinay has apparently been too busy to return my calls.

The Clinton administration and the news media have done a remarkable job of keeping Americans from learning the tragedy of Iraq. Mainstream newspapers and TV news programs have scarcely mentioned the effects of sanctions since a 60 Minutes segment on May 12, 1996. (On that program, Leslie Stahl expressed dismay at the deaths of half a million children under five; and Madeleine Albright replied, "We think the price is worth it.")

Americans are also shielded from learning about the epidemic of cancer and birth defects apparently because of radiation from the depleted uranium we used in "Desert Storm" in 1991. In December, 60 Minutes interviewed American soldiers who were briefly exposed to this radioactive hazard nine years ago. The program avoided discussing the Iraqi children who have been subjected to it all their lives. Depleted-uranium weapons have become an embarrassment to the United States, but not because of what they did to Iraqis.

The embarrassment arises from the fact that American soldiers were exposed to them without being warned of the potential dangers. (We still sell these weapons to other countries.) In December 1998, just before the Ramadan holy days, President Clinton ordered intensive bombing of Iraq. That assault was conducted with much publicity. But few Americans realize that the United States has continued bombing Iraq almost daily ever since, on the pretext of enforcing the (non-U.N.-approved) "no-fly zones." It isn't in the news.

When we learn of a woman at the South Pole with breast cancer or a whale beached on Cape Cod, we follow the story in the media for days hoping for a successful rescue. Perhaps the only tragedies for which we have no compassion are the ones we are unaware of. We don't worry about the death of 4,000 to 5,000 Iraqi children each month because of the sanctions because we don't hear about it. And while the American public lacks information, worse yet, so do our elected politicians.

A friend and I recently sought U.S. Sen. Jack Reed's help in lifting the economic sanctions to let Iraq feed and treat its children and repair its bombed water-treatment plants, ambulances and other vital equipment. It was a depressing meeting as Senator Reed just kept saying that it's all Saddam Hussein's fault. We suggested that it is unconscionable to punish 22 million people for the sins of one man. The Iraqi death toll now ranks with that of the Armenian genocide. It is more than 10 times the totals at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. But Senator Reed is convinced that Senator Reed has no responsibility. He repeated the story that we've heard from State Department spokesman James Rubin and his wife, Christiane Amanpour, of CNN, that the Iraqi government is hoarding food and medicine.

Reed obviously knows little about the so-called "oil-for-food program." He seemed unaware that Iraq cannot produce even as much oil as the U.N. Security Council allows because of the condition of its bombed facilities. The inadequate proceeds from the sale of oil are then further reduced as the United Nations takes 35 percent for administration and reparations. What remains is controlled by the United Nations's "661 Committee," where the United States can veto or put "on hold" requests to buy repair parts and reconstruction materials. Many requests for spare parts for Iraq's oil industry are "on hold" as are requests for parts even for ambulances and refrigerated vehicles for delivering medicines.

In a speech on Dec. 10, President Clinton declared that "the most important job of any society is raising children." But he is spending more than $1 billion of American taxpayers' money each year maintaining a naval blockade to prevent food, medicine and other supplies from reaching Iraqi children. And the administration threatens 12-year prison sentences and $1 million fines for Americans who take medicine and toys to children in Iraqi hospitals.

The embargo and the bombings continue killing Iraqis, and the radiation from depleted uranium continues causing cancer and birth defects. But these stories are not on the news; and Channels 10 and 12 won't even let us hear them in a commercial.

Rod Driver, of Richmond, is a professor - emeritus of mathematics at the University of Rhode Island and a former Rhode Island state representative.