Monday, January 22, 2007
The encouraging news: Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York plans to push for legislation that would break up media monopolies and restore the Fairness Doctrine, abolished two decades ago by the Reagan FCC. “If Rush [Limbaugh] shoots his mouth off, he must give equal access to our side,” Hinchey said. “The American public will begin to get both sides or all sides of an issue. That is basic – fundamental to a democracy.”
Worrying about the loss of real news is not a romantic cliché of journalism. It's been verified by history. From the days of royal absolutism to the present, the control of information and knowledge had been the first line of defense for failed regimes facing democratic unrest. The suppression of parliamentary dissent during Charles I's 11 years of tyranny in England rested largely on government censorship, operating through strict licensing laws for the publication of books.
The Federalist's infamous Sedition Act of 1798 in this country, likewise, sought to quell republican insurgency by making it a crime to publish false, scandalous and malicious writing about the government or its officials. In those days, our governing bodies tried to squelch journalistic information with the blunt instruments of the law: padlocks for the presses and jail cells for outspoken editors and writers. Over time, with spectacular wartime exceptions, the courts and the Constitution have struck those weapons out of their hand.
But now they have found new methods in the name of national security and even broader claims of executive privilege. The number of documents stamped "Top Secret," "Secret," or "Confidential" has accelerated dramatically since 2001, including many formerly accessible documents that are now reclassified as "Secret." Vice President Cheney's office refuses to disclose, in fact, what it is classifying. Even their secrecy is being kept a secret.
Beyond what is officially labeled "Secret" or "privileged" information, there hovers on the plantation a culture of selective official news implementation, working through favored media insiders to advance political agendas by leak and innuendo and spin, by outright propaganda mechanisms, such as the misnamed public information offices that churn out blizzards of factually selective releases on a daily basis, and even by directly paying pundits and journalists to write on subjects of mutual interest.
They needn't have wasted the money. As we saw in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the plantation mentality that governs Washington turned the press corps into sitting ducks for the war party, for government, and neoconservative propaganda and manipulation. There were notable exceptions -- Knight Ridder's bureau, for example -- but on the whole, all high-ranking officials had to do was say it, and the press repeated it until it became gospel. The height of myopia came with the admission (or was it bragging?) by one of the Beltway's most prominent anchors that his responsibility is to provide officials a forum to be heard, what they say more newsworthy than what they do . . . .
I think what's happened is not indifference or laziness or incompetence, but the fact that most journalists on the plantation have so internalized conventional wisdom that they simply accept that the system is working as it should. I'm doing a documentary this spring called "Buying the War," and I can't tell you again how many reporters have told me that it just never occurred to them that high officials would manipulate intelligence in order to go to war. Hello?
Similarly, the question of whether or not our economic system is truly just is off the table for investigation and discussion, so that alternative ideas, alternative critiques, alternative visions never get a hearing. And these are but a few of the realities that are obscured. What about this growing inequality? What about the re-segregation of our public schools? What about the devastating onward march of environmental deregulation? All of these are examples of what happens when independent sources of knowledge and analysis are so few and far between on the plantation.
So if we need to know what is happening, and Big Media won't tell us; if we need to know why it matters, and Big Media won't tell us; if we need to know what to do about it, and Big Media won't tell us, it's clear what we have to do. We have to tell the story ourselves . . . .
What happened to radio, happened to television, and then it happened to cable; and, if we are not diligent, it will happen to the Internet. Powerful forces are at work now, determined to create our media future for the benefit of the plantation: investors, advertisers, owners and the parasites that depend on their indulgence, including many in the governing class.
Old media acquire new media and vice versa. Rupert Murdoch, forever savvy about the next key outlet that will attract eyeballs, purchased MySpace, spending nearly $600 million, so he could, in the language of Wall Street, monetize those eyeballs. Goggle became a partner in Time Warner, investing $1 billion in its AOL online service. And now Goggle has bought YouTube, so it would have a better vehicle for delivering interactive ads for Madison Avenue. Viacom, Microsoft, large ad agencies, and others have been buying up key media properties, many of them the leading online sites, with a result that will be a thoroughly commercialized environment, a media plantation for the 21st century, dominated by the same corporate and ideological forces that have produced the system we have lived under the last 50 years.
SIDEBAR: In 1987, in the midst of the Iran-Contra scandal, Bill Moyers made a striking PBS documentary entitled The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis, which dealt with the history of the national security state and the dangers of government secrecy. The film has not lost any of its pungency, and if you haven't yet seen it, you may view the full 90-minute version by clicking on the graphic in the post directly below.