Democratic Underground

Solving the Media Puzzle: A Day in the Life

November 15, 2005
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

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When I was growing up, my teenage mind needed to find the pieces to the confusing, chaotic puzzle that was reality. How to make sense of all this information that constantly was coming at me? Part of my solution was to become a journalist, getting right into the heart of the information barrage. Consequently, the use of reporting and analyzing skills has helped me make my way through the world's seeming chaos.

These thoughts came to me the other morning as I was reading the daily newspaper. If I were a visitor from another planet, I imagined, what sense could I make of earthling - especially American - society from what I read on this single day, November 11, 2005, in one hometown paper, in this case the San Francisco Chronicle? Were there connections, larger lessons, hidden clues?

So here goes, one morning's newspaper seen as a political jigsaw puzzle. Here are the pieces; let's see how they fit together with each other where possible and with what we now know from other media sources, including television.


The two large-headline, above-the-fold stories involved California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Fox News' larger-than-life personality Bill O'Reilly.

Virtually everyone, including his wife, had warned Schwarzenegger not to call a special election but he bulled on through at a cost to the state and counties of nearly $45 million. But the lead story indicates that Schwarzenegger, having run into a brick wall with all of his special-election measures defeated across the state, took personal responsibility for the fiasco.

He didn't try to shift the blame and said he'd learned valuable lessons, the main one being that the voters clearly wanted these issues settled by the legislators and governor working together, not by the costly initiative process outside the usual lawmaking channels. He promised he'd work more closely with Democrats, labor unions (nurses, teachers, firefighters, police, et al.) - all of whom he grievously insulted time and time again in the run-up to the election - in solving the state's many economic and social problems. The governor hasn't kept many of his previous promises - not to be beholden to special interests, not to take money from the state's education fund without paying it back, etc. - so we shall have to wait and see if he keeps these new promises.

Meanwhile Bill O'Reilly more or less encouraged Al Qaida terrorists to attack San Francisco because the voters last week approved sense-of-the-city resolutions disapproving of military recruiters on public school campuses and against handgun ownership by civilians. Now one can agree or disagree with the wisdom of one or both of those measures, and of the intelligence of voters in approving them, but that's not what O'Reilly did. He favored a more extreme option. Here's what he said to San Franciscans on his show the other night:

"You want to be your own country? Go right ahead. And if Al Qaida comes in here and blows you up, we're not going to do anything about it. We're going to say, look, every other place in America is off limits to you except San Francisco. You want to blow up the Coit Tower? Go ahead."

To O'Reilly, free speech, where voters express themselves at the polls, is somehow totally illegitimate when O'Reilly doesn't like the way they voted. Therefore and ergo, it follows in O'Reilly's perfect logic that the city in which such thoughts are expressed should be blown up, in this case by terrorists. The rest of America will then turn its back on a sinful place that received its just desserts.

And O'Reilly isn't the only Hard-Right conservative to express such radical views. On Page 16, Pat Robertson, the Christian evangelical preacher, expressed pretty much the same feelings about the voters in Dover, PA., who basically fired their entire board of education because they authorized science instructors to teach theological speculation rather than science. The issue, of course, was whether something called "intelligent design" theory should be taught in science classes along with Darwin's evolutionary findings. Here is what preacher Robertson said after the voters acted:

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city."

Robertson, you see, believes he speaks for God; if you don't agree with the preacher, then clearly you're in need of some serious Biblical smiting. If a tornado strikes Dover or if there should be a terrorist attack on that town, you're on your own. You've rejected The Lord. Tough love, brother.

These kinds of dumb verbal attacks - and others like them, including rightwing radical Ann Coulter calling liberals "traitors" who should be taken out and shot - normally would be ignored as the mad ravings of political idiots. But such extreme behavior and commentary reminds us too easily of what Nazi propagandists were saying about Jews and others in '30s Germany, that these citizens were "vermin" or "cockroaches" who deserved to be rounded up and slaughtered. The Nazi propagandists were laughed at, weren't taken seriously, regarded as nutcases to be ignored. But the laughing stopped suddenly when those making such outrageous comments assumed power and actually were able to put into effect what they had only talked about doing in their wild fantasies.


In America, when an ambassador criticizes the regime currently in power, he is the object of vicious political sliming and his wife, a covert intelligence officer, has her identity revealed, thus putting her out of work and at physical risk, along with anyone else with whom she'd worked undercover for the past decade. Punishment, but relatively light, as things go. In China, we learn, a Beijing Communist Party official who rose to fame last year by denouncing official corruption in a letter on the Internet was sentenced to life in prison on trumped-up corruption charges after a year-long campaign to silence and discredit him. Chinese communist hardliners, Stalinist bureaucrats, Nazi tyrants, Bush & Co. bullies - what did we do to deserve such abominations?


Moderates in the Republican-dominated House - yes, there still are a few - were able to cancel an immediate vote on the Bush Administration's budget plan, because it included oil-drilling in the pristine Alaskan wilderness and draconian cuts in such important safety-net social programs as Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, student loans, foster care, child-support enforcement and other federal programs.

Given the political weakness of Bush (down into the mid-30s in recent polls), the absence of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (under indictment in Texas), and the gains by Democrats in last week's elections around the country, the moderates apparently feel better able to enforce their demands on their party. Needless to say, the Hard-Right Republican leadership is not amused, and is threatening and twisting arms big time.


The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2004, noting the Constitutional requirement for habeas corpus rights for all defendants, ruled that "enemy combatants" held by the federal government at Guantanamo have a right to challenge their detentions in court. For a year and a half, the Bush Administration has refused to fully enforce that ruling, taking appeals to one court or another. Wanting to find a way to turn the court into an irrelevancy, a few days ago the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate voted to nullify the Supreme Court ruling; if the House agrees, the time-honored concept of habeas corpus - which is designed so that those accused have the right to a speedy hearing on the merits of their incarceration - will be null and void. Welcome to the world of American jurisprudence in the post-9/11 era, the operating Bush & Co. principle of which seems to be that since "they hate us for our freedoms," we'll just eliminate the freedoms.

Also on Page 8, someone in the government leaked the fact that the CIA has a series of secret prisons (so-called "black sites") in eight countries around the world, where presumably many high-value terrorist suspects and others are sent for special processing and interrogations. Rather than investigate those revelations and the damage those secret jails and tortures do to American prestige and national interests around the globe, the Senate Intelligence Committee is going to investigate who leaked the information. The usual: deflect attention away from the message by going after the messenger.

After the Democrats' invocation of a rule requiring a closed session of the Senate, the Intelligence Committee supposedly finally agreed to investigate how the Bush Administration used the faulty intelligence provided it in taking the country to war with Iraq - in other words, whether Bush & Co. lied and deceived us all in order to gain popular support for the upcoming war. But the committee chairman, Republican Pat Roberts, who managed to delay the promised investigation past the 2004 election, feels OK about another delay while they look for the leaker of the classified CIA "secret prisons."

On Page B8, a Chronicle editorial questions not only the politically motivated hunt for the leaker, but also the reasons for setting up secret CIA prisons in the first place; doing so "begs the question of why our government feels compelled to hold suspects outside the U.S. legal system and beyond the reach of independent oversight."

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney is fighting like crazy to permit the CIA to continue to torture suspects in U.S. custody. (This in addition to the "black-site" gulags in Eastern Europe and elsewhere and the "rendition" of key suspects to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere who are less squeamish about "harsh interrogation" methods.) What is it in the neo-con mind that cannot understand that torture does damage to America's long-term national interests, alienates many populations we should be cultivating, puts our own captured troops at added risk - and doesn't work anyway, since prisoners being tortured will say anything to stop the pain and terror, including outright lies?


Ayman Nour, a leading foe of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, has lost his legislative seat after he and his supporters were harassed and intimidated by Mubarak thugs. Human rights groups monitoring the recent Egyptian elections said the vote in Nour's district was marred by vote-rigging, ballot-box stuffing and intimidation at the polls.

In this country, there has been virtually no mainstream media coverage of the General Accounting Office's recent report verifying that voting anomalies in the 2004 presidential election in Ohio raise serious concerns about the likelihood of fraud, meaning that Bush probably didn't actually win the 2004 election.

Readers may remember when "people power" demonstrations brought down governments in the Ukraine, Philippines and elsewhere that had assumed power after fraudulent elections; the U.S. media, especially television, was all over those foreign miscarriages of electoral justice. Apparently, the U.S. media assumes that fraudulent elections never happen in America, and reporting on the possibility of rigged vote-tallies is simply not done by mainstream media outlets.


The lead story in the Business Section reveals that in California, and no doubt in other states as well, about 21% of private health spending goes to insurance paperwork - close to $26 billion per year in California alone. In contrast, administrative costs for our country's one national-insurance program, Medicare, are estimated at around 2%.

In other words, if our country had some variant of Medicare as a safety-net base for all citizens - a national health-care system, along with your right to see your own private physicians if you chose to - it would be far cheaper and perhaps even better-run than most folks' HMOs.


Halliburton, the giant conglomerate formerly run by Dick Cheney that has received all those no-bid government contracts in Iraq and New Orleans, had to pay $8.6 million in fines because of violations in its pension-plan program, including charging some costs of the company's executive pension and bonus plans to the workers' pension fund. In other words, they apparently were doing some skimming-type accounting, for which their $8.6M fine is little more than chump change. Such is life in the corporate fast-lane.

This kind of story helps explain why large corporations - the Enrons, Halliburtons, Bechtels, the tobacco giants, the big pharmaceuticals, the energy industry, et al. - are suspected by average, middle-class citizens as gouging and greedy, not terribly interested in the welfare of ordinary people.


I could go on to stories on other pages, trenchant columns and angry letters to the editor, further tales of outrage regarding the Bush Administration, the revived Taliban in Afghanistan, the deteriorating situation in Iraq and elsewhere - but you get the idea:

There is hypocrisy, mendacity, deception, corruption at all levels of public life - in our business (and labor) and religious sectors, and certainly in the Bush White House. Most of the time, government scandals involve either money or sex. But the current scandals of our federal government, as evidenced by just one day's worth of news stories, are much more serious.

In what ways are they more serious? Because tens of thousands of people are dying or being maimed because of the lies underpinning Bush's war policies; because a significant number of detainees in our care are being tortured and sometimes killed as torture under Bush is now enshrined as official national policy; because the Constitutional protections of citizens' rights, which our genius Founding Fathers worked out carefully several hundred years ago and which have stood us in good stead until now, have been shredded and ignored by Bush & Co.


The old political gadfly I.F. Stone's famous truism that "all governments lie," and that it is the journalist's job to ferret out those falsehoods and alert the public, is all the more potent today - and, in some ways, more tragic, since the corporate mainstream press does such a poor job of getting the facts out.

To get a better sense of how the puzzle pieces fit together, one usually has to go not only to the "official" corporate-owned media but also to the foreign media and to our generation's "alternative press," the Internet. Just think of major stories that probably would have continued to be buried by the corporate media had not the progressive websites and bloggers and alternative-media reporters not raised a hue and cry: the Iraq-war revelations of the Downing Street Memos, Bush's going AWOL from the Air National Guard, the Government Accounting Office's findings of electoral fraud in the 2004 election, the presence of a non-reporter GOP shill posing as a legitimate journalist in the White House press corps - all of these stories were unearthed or kept alive by Internet writers and editors.

But even if you live in a small city or town - away from the large-city Blue states on both coasts - I think it's still possible to glean the truth of what's going on by learning how to properly deconstruct and decipher the daily newspaper and TV news broadcasts. It's often in a kind of elitist code, but it can be broken. And foreign media and the Internet are great aids in this endeavor.

If we proceed to ignore the news-behind-the-news that's out there, we wind up as sheeple, all too willing to accept the lies, deceptions, corruptions and incompetencies of the government temporarily in power, and letting zealot-like rulers enact, in our case, their ruinous right-wing agendas.

Can it happen here? Not if you and I prevent it. Let's get to work.

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations at various universities; has worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for 19 years, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers. To comment, contact

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