Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Moline, Ill.--As a practicing journalist for 49 years (it began on the sports desk of the Davenport, Iowa, Morning Democrat), I am not surprised or startled about the shallowness and crassness of our current manifestations of the press. I can remember as a reporter working in the area indicated by the dateline of this piece being terribly offended when the top executive of a major lobbying group referred to the news media as the publicity media. He discounted the idea of the media serving democracy with thorough and reliable factual accounts and portrayed it as solely a public relations and marketing vehicle. I was offended more because he reflected the direction in which the press was moving. As I work on some assessments of the press with old colleagues and competitors in the region where I once worked, I must concede that the press has arrived at the place it was headed for.
The administration of George W. Bush, like the executive to whose words I took offense, has understood and used the press with great effect. Its manipulation of the press is the one area in which the administration can claim great success. It understands the role the press plays in the Orwellian manipulation of the public mentality. The Karl Rove business is just one small revelation of how a state-controlled press works in a seemingly free society. A more frightening perspective is gained by reviewing the many books that analyzed the systematic lying of the Geroge W. and its orchestration of information that led us into the war on Iraq that were published at election time. The belligerent right wing has learned well the effectiveness of intimidation through insult, abuse, and personal defamation. It has also learned that constant repetition of falsehoods will eventually result in their acceptance by many people. The reason-believing, peace-seeking left wing has been too reluctant to admit the de facto totalitarianism that rules the country by exercising control over its information.
Getting control over the press is no subtle and arcane process. Except for the Christian Science Monitor aand PBS, the major media all depend on advertising revenues. As any journalist with a few years of experience and a modicum of moxy about how the press works can tell you, advertisers exert a tremendous amount of editorial control. While journalists can cite a few cases where the media has stood up to the threats of advertisers to withdraw their revenue-producing advertisements, they also know that there is a constant pressure against doing anything that might upset advertisers or the business community in general by printing news that does not present them with glowing praise. That pressure is what kept the press from looking into Enron, Worldcom, and the myriad of regional and local business disgraces that sap the economic energy and moral will power from America. In South Dakota, that pressure defines the editorial thinking about covering Sen. John Thune and his relationship to the Dan Nelson Auto bankruptcy and fraud investigations. The Bush administration won the election of 2004 largely on its posture as the protective big brother behind which people with little intellectual or moral gumption can cower.
You will find no commentators in the media pointing to the fact that a wimpy electorate chose war and economic totalitarianism over peace and economic freedom and opportunity. When a government of the people, by the people, and for the people fails, the people are at the root of the problem. They have fallen prey to the war mongering fed them under the guise of the Bushite phony patriotism. It takes tough discernment and resolve to do something to save the lives of our troops. Rather, the people slap yellow-ribbon decals on their cars, call the dead soldiers heroes, and dismiss their wasted lives as the cost of bringing democracy to a recalcitrant culture. They have fallen prey to the idea that the country should be run like a business and, therefore, the country should be turned over to corporations, like Enron, Worldcom, and Halliburton, that wants to extend a Wal-Mart standard of living and employee rights to every citizen. We are not slamming Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has its place. Our point is that it should be kept in its place, not be crowned ruler of America.
A dismaying fact is that the media has abandoned its Fourth Estate function and now is devoted to serving the administration, because that seems like a majority wish, and servicing its advertisers, which it does for its economic comfort. The days when editors and publishers struggled with the conflict between news and the wishes of advertisers are over. Except for a few die-hard old news dogs, the media has largely abandoned any concern about the professional handling of news and submitted to its role as primarily a marketing and propaganda tool. Reporters live in fear of being called biased liberals, and so they devote their energies to avoiding any stories that might prompt that accusation from the rightwing squawk squads.
Oddly, publications with the most lavish advertisements and revenues are the ones who are acknowledging the disconnect of the media from its news function and the malaise of the American people. In the August Vanity Fair, writer James Wolcott examines the situation. He says, the media “would be much happier if Iraq would resolve itself or, better yet, go away…recede like Afghanistan into the hazy distance, reduced to three column inches on page A18.” The editors introduce his piece by stating, “If Iraq is “Vietnam on crack,” as some claim…America is in serious denial about the horrors its leaders are inflicting.”
Wolcott berates the reality-show level of dementia that grips the media mentality:
It’s hard for cable-news networks to amp up the umpteenth American soldier
killed by a roadside explosive or another bushel of Iraqi recruits blown to
scatteration when it’s so much juicier chasing the latest “Amber Alert” for an
abducted white girl, choppering over a tense hostage standoff, or swarming the
hot celebrity trial that’s inciting Nancy Grace to spit tacks at any defense
lawyer who dares defend his or her client (you know, just on the quaint off
chance that the bozo might be innocent). When Terri Schiavo and Pope John
Paul II took turns dying and eclipsing other news, Mr. Media was able to put
Iraq on the back of the shelf behind the canned peas. Once the eulogies
were completed, however, Iraq re-inserted itself into the news with an
intensified round of bombings marking new coordinates in chaos.
The majority of people until recently have supported the war on Iraq as part of the defense against terror. But as the number of flag-draped coffins of American troops has reached half of the number killed in the 9/11 attacks, the people are beginning to question the contention that anybody is any safer because of that “Vietnam on crack.”
Ironically, the war may not succeed in bringing democracy to Iraq. But it may well be the motivation for bringing democracy back to America...if the people go past the media and demand information about what is really going on.