January 18, 2006
By Patricia Goldsmith
is more stultifying than one-party rule. It's a simple rule of perception
that unchanging sameness - they always win, no matter what - dulls
the senses. My feeling is that right now the American people are
taking a little breather. They got through the war on Christmas
and that's enough for now. The Dow Jones hit 11,000 for the first
time since 9/11. People are drinking more, smoking more, sleeping.
Burrowing into their families. Going to see Brokeback Mountain (I
highly recommend it). Working. Above all, they are ignoring. They
are tuning out the political process, because it is nothing but
nonsense and stuff they can't do anything about.
They same is true for activists. Constant focus on the puppets
who are out front can only lead to feelings of futility. We have
to start thinking about the players behind the scenes. It's time
to go back to the beginning and try to understand our enemy. Time
to consider the question, who is the enemy.
For example, I've gotten into the unconscious habit of thinking
of journalists as reluctant accomplices to this rightwing takeover,
as unhappy, hijacked professionals much like the experts in the
State Department-and, for that matter, the experts throughout government.
I think that because I forget that the media are their own best
apologists. The truth is, the corporate media are leading
this revolution, not merely following along and scavenging.
Consider the Abramoff scandal. This is undeniably the worst corruption
scandal in our country's history, easily out-doing Tea Pot Dome,
not only because it's international
in scope, but because it represents the engineering of what
Tom DeLay modestly refers to as "permanent majority status."
That spectacular feat was accomplished by means of the so-called
K Street Project, which mandated that the Republican Party and all
its members would henceforth deal only with Republican lobbyists.
I realize the Democrats are blameless only because they were ruthlessly
cut out of the action, but it's still a treat watching Wolf Blitzer
trying to twist the facts to fit the bipartisan scenario demanded
by the RNC talking points of the day. For a little comic relief,
I highly recommend this
video of Blitzer interviewing Howard Dean.
It's time we learned the rudiments of "scandalology," as John
Dean calls it in his excellent
book, Worse Than Watergate. For a scandal to be a scandal,
Dean says, the media must certify it. When Newsweek's Howard
of Bill Clinton at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, "We have
to wonder whether we can continue to respect ourselves as a people
if a man like this remains president," he was expressing exactly
the kind of moral outrage that makes a scandal.
If the media have the power to manufacture a crisis, as with the
Clinton impeachment, conversely, "if the media learn of a transgression
and fail to react, there is no scandal." In a very real sense, our
mass media establish the rules governing public and political decency.
In that regard, Plamegate set a benchmark in the journalistic
management of Bush-based scandals: suddenly, after years and years
of hearing about the "character issue," the accepted standard for
press censure of a president became criminal indictments. And even
after the indictment, pundits argued that the indictments were too
few, or for puny crimes (i.e., perjury instead of treason).
Bob Woodward was one of those publicly scoffing at the seriousness
of the charges. The Washington Post quoted
Mr. Woodward as saying of Plamegate that ultimately "there is going
to be nothing to it. And it is a shame. And the special prosecutor
in the case, his behavior, in my view, has been disgraceful." Furthermore,
Woodward warned, Fitzgerald "made a big mistake" in going after
But that was before someone in the White House tipped Fitzgerald
that Woodward knew about Plame even before Libby did. After he got
caught, Mr. Woodward started singing a much less bellicose tune.
Suddenly it was "pretty frightening" that Judy went to jail.
"I hunkered down," Woodward said in an interview. "I'm in the
habit of keeping secrets. I didn't want anything out there that
was going to get me subpoenaed."
Woodward is, of course, famous for his part in the prototypical
media scandal of our times, Watergate. One could argue that the
arc of Woodward's career perfectly describes the whole trajectory
of media in the electronic age. In the early seventies, the media
landscape was highly diversified. Virtually all cities and most
towns had their own independent newspapers. There were a large number
of independently owned radio stations, rooted in the communities
they served, and FCC
regulations for radio and television included the now-obsolete
and equal time doctrines.
In the seventies, the Times published the Pentagon papers
and the Post competed with the Watergate story. The regulated
press performed their function as economic competitors to each other
and adversaries to unbridled and secretive government. Because of
the press, Richard Nixon resigned. The political class did their
bit, too, certainly, but the press acted as the public conscience.
The press enforced and enacted respect for the law.
Thirty years down the road things have changed just a bit. Now
Woodward is not only a managing editor at the Post, but he
has a sweetheart deal where he can sit on scoops he gathers for
his books in return for serializing them first in the Post.
Good for him, bad for us. Very, very bad for us, as it turns out.
The hero of Watergate has become a wealthy businessman.
But that's only possible because of a lot of other changes that
have occurred. It took years of work, years of capitalist indoctrination
- greed is good, greed is good, greed works - but bit by
bit the FCC regulations designed to prevent the kind of propaganda
machine built by the Third Reich have been chipped away: equal time,
fairness, the laws against consolidation and monopoly. The result:
Rupert Murdoch's dark parody of equal time and fairness, "fair and
George W. Bush is Rupert Murdoch's star personality, and worth
every damn billion. Rupert Murdoch is the undeniable leader of the
corporate media consortium; all the other networks have been good
and Foxified. Roger Ailes, Murdoch's news genius, is rolling
out the Fox method to the network affiliates, closing up any
gaps in their total control of the message. (There can be no greater
compliment from a pundit than that someone's "on message.") Fox
is certainly holding up the broadcast end of the Total Information
Awareness campaign, with emphasis on the word total.
Broadcasting, however, has the potential to surpass even Fox.
Think what a network under the control of a Republican Congress
and a Republican White House will one day be capable of doing. Money
buys a very long view.
Until recently, it's my feeling that a lot of the control exerted
was purely economic. By insisting that newsgathering and journalism
- which in the past had been viewed as loss-leaders and part of
the price of doing business - achieve profit margins similar to
the selling of soap and cereal, corporate executives effectively
insured superficial coverage without ever taking a red pencil to
an editorial. According to an article in the New Yorker by
Ken Auletta (October 10, 2005), high profit targets and consequent
cuts in personnel have been at the heart of a conflict at the LA
The corporate executives in the case scoff at such an elitist
caricature of the dispute:
Journalists express dismay that bottom-line pressures are reducing
the quality of news coverage. What this actually means is that
when competition is intense, providers of a service are forced
to give the consumer what he or she wants, not what they, as proud
professionals, think the consumer should want, or, more bluntly,
what they want.
But now, taking the next step, failure to hit profit targets not
only means cutting people, but direct intervention in shaping editorial
content, a significant benchmark in corporate management of the
message. Tribune chain executives cashiered the LA Times'
columnist Robert Scheer in favor of a right-wing columnist Jonah
Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism. (Have you noticed that
there's been a lot of right-wing effort to co-opt and nullify the
word fascist lately?) Scheer says that the publisher who
fired him, Jeff Johnson, "is an accountant who cares nothing at
all about a free press and cares nothing about journalism, he's
a right winger who supported the war ... who told people two years
ago he couldn't stand a word that I wrote."
The entire Knight-Ridder chain, which includes the Daily News,
the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Miami Herald, is
sale because of irritation in some quarters with the negative
stories they've been breaking. The feeling on the right seems to
be if you don't like the news, buy a paper and change it.
The White House's demand that news services doctor
the transcript of a Scott McClellan press conference is another
benchmark of sorts. If we ever get used to them tinkering with the
public record, reality itself may become obsolete.
It's time to start attacking the messengers. When Chris Matthews
us that George W. Bush sometimes "glimmers" with "sunny nobility,"
you know that the only economic competition in this market is in
seeing who can kiss the most neocon butt, proof positive that media
giants are no more capable of self-regulation than the coal mining
Here's another Matthews nugget: "Everybody sort of likes the president,
except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left." And another:
"I think this is the brilliant political move here by the president,
forcing the Democratic carpers and complainers to come forward,
and say, 'Alright, you don't like my strategy for victory in Iraq?
Vote against it. Go ahead, make my day.' This is Clint Eastwood
I have to ask myself, do they have something on this guy, or was
he born this way? I hope for his sake it's the former. This is the
voice of the left on the network news channels, folks. When
is someone going to have the guts to ask Matthews point-blank when
he runs one of these numbers if he's getting payola?
To paraphrase Marshall
McLuhan, the media is the scandal.