Sunday, January 16, 2005
A Long Time Coming
Frank Rich writes one of his typically interesting pieces today on the Armstrong Williams scandal and illustrates one of the reasons we are in such poor shape in the media wars.
[T]he Jan. 7 edition of CNN's signature show can stand as an exceptionally ripe paradigm of what is happening to the free flow of information in a country in which a timid news media, the fierce (and often covert) Bush administration propaganda machine, lax and sometimes corrupt journalistic practices, and a celebrity culture all combine to keep the public at many more than six degrees of separation from anything that might resemble the truth.
That he[Novak] and Mr. Begala would be allowed to lob softballs at a man who may have been a cog in illegal government wrongdoing, on a show produced by television's self-proclaimed "most trusted" news network, is bad enough. That almost no one would notice, let alone protest, is a snapshot of our cultural moment, in which hidden agendas in the presentation of "news" metastasize daily into a Kafkaesque hall of mirrors that could drive even the most earnest American into abject cynicism. But the ugly bigger picture reaches well beyond "Crossfire" and CNN.
[P]erhaps the most fascinating Williams TV appearance took place in December 2003, the same month that he was first contracted by the government to receive his payoffs. At a time when no one in television news could get an interview with Dick Cheney, Mr. Williams, of all "journalists," was rewarded with an extended sit-down with the vice president for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a nationwide owner of local stations affiliated with all the major networks. In that chat, Mr. Cheney criticized the press for its coverage of Halliburton and denounced "cheap shot journalism" in which "the press portray themselves as objective observers of the passing scene, when they obviously are not objective."
This is a scenario out of "The Manchurian Candidate." Here we find Mr. Cheney criticizing the press for a sin his own government was at that same moment signing up Mr. Williams to commit. The interview is broadcast by the same company that would later order its ABC affiliates to ban Ted Koppel's "Nightline" recitation of American casualties in Iraq and then propose showing an anti-Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor," under the rubric of "news" in prime time just before Election Day. (After fierce criticism, Sinclair retreated from that plan.) Thus the Williams interview with the vice president, implicitly presented as an example of the kind of "objective" news Mr. Cheney endorses, was in reality a completely subjective, bought-and-paid-for fake news event for a broadcast company that barely bothers to fake objectivity and both of whose chief executives were major contributors to the Bush-Cheney campaign. The Soviets couldn't have constructed a more ingenious or insidious plot to bamboozle the citizenry.
The Leninists of the conservative movement morphed into Stalinists sometime during the Clinton administration and have been becoming more and more open about their totalitarian bent. But this has been brewing for a long, long time. In fact, it was the red-baiter of red-baiters, Richard Nixon, who set the whole thing in motion. That should serve as a vivid reminder that those who preach the gospel with the most evangelical fervor are the ones most likely to be sinners. The most zealous anti-communists developed a very inhealthy appetite for the tactics of their enemies. (Or maybe it was that fascination rather than any real philosophical objection that led them to become obsessed in the first place.)
As we live here in America, basking in the golden glow of conservatism's apotheosis, Dan Rather's "retirement" represents the completion of another piece of the American Soviet project.
This is just sad:
According to a Broadcasting & Cable source in Washington, D.C., CBS News president Andrew Heyward, along with Washington bureau chief Janet Leissner, recently met with White House communications director Dan Bartlett, in part to repair chilly relations with the Bush administration.
CBS News’ popularity at the White House-never high to begin with-plunged further in the wake of Dan Rather’s discredited 60 Minutes story on George Bush’s National Guard service.
An incentive for making nice is the impending report from the two-member panel investigating CBS's use of now-infamous documents for the 60 Minutes piece.
Heyward was -working overtime to convince Bartlett that neither CBS News nor Rather had a vendetta against the White House,- our source says, - and from here on out would do everything it could to be fair and balanced. - CBS declined to comment.
That had to have been a sweet victory. Seeing CBS tugging its metaphorical forelock in deference to the Republican White House was the culmination of more than thirty years of cultural indoctrination into Nixon's dark paranoid fantasy of the liberal media. But then the modern GOP is nothing if not the party of Richard Nixon.
From "The President and the Press" by David Wise in the Atlantic (sorry, subscription req'd):
In April of 1971, John Ehrlichman, the President's chief assistant for domestic affairs, complained in person to Richard S. Salant, the president of CBS News, about Dan Rather, the network's White House correspondent. Ehrlichman was in New York to appear on the CBS Morning News with correspondent John Hart. Afterwards Hart and Ehrlichman adjourned for breakfast at the Edwardian Room of the Plaza, where they were joined by Salant. The President's assistant brought up the subject of CBS's White House reporter.
"Rather has been jobbing us," Ehrlichman said. Salant, seeking to inject a lighter note into the conversation, told how Rather had been hired by CBS in 1962 after he had saved the life of a horse, an act of heroism that resulted in considerable publicity and brought him to the attention of the network. It was then that Rather went to work for CBS News as chief of its Southwest bureau in Dallas. When President Kennedy was assassinated in that city, Rather went on the air for the network, and his cool, poised coverage of the tragedy gained him national recognition. After Dallas, Salant explained to Ehrlichman, CBS brought Rather to Washington, in part because the new President, Lyndon Johnson, was a fellow Texan.
"Aren't you going to open a bureau in Austin where Dan could have a job?" Ehrlichman asked Salant. He then accused Rather of never coming to see him in the White House, and he suggested it might be beneficial if Rather took a year's vacation.
Walter Cronkite believes the Nixon Administration attacked the news media "to raise the credibility of the Administration. It's like a first-year physics experiment with two tubes of water--you put pressure on one side and it makes the other side go up or down." He added: "I have charged that this is a 'conspiracy.' I don't regret my use of that word."
By applying constant pressure, in ways seen and unseen, the leaders of the government have attempted to shape the news to resemble the images seen through the prism of their own power. The Administration's attacks, Richard Salant acknowledged, have "made us all edgy. We've thought about things we shouldn't think about."
That article was written in 1973. And it was before they set the second part of their plan in motion. While diligently working the refs for the last 30 years they were simultaneously building an alternative media to push from the competitive side and drive the discourse to the right.
Today, that dream of control is fully realized. Republicans routinely bully any reporter or organization that doesn't play ball while they feed lots of juicy propaganda to their bought and paid for media like FOX, Rush, Drudge and The NY Post knowing that the story will work its way into the mainstream anyway. They created an entertainment model for news in which entertainment values superceded civic values and it attracted a different kind of person to the field. Over time, fewer and fewer reporters wouldn't play ball because those that refused were weeded out in a form of (un)natural selection. In the end, the survivors don't even know they are biased. They are so enmeshed in this system of celebrity punishment and rewards that their own self esteem is now drawn from their acceptability to the (Republican) establishment. And each and every day the partisan right wing media pushes the discourse a few inches further to the right.
So just this week we find out that Armstrong Williams is being paid by the taxpayers to promote the President's political agenda and the social security administration employees are being required to disseminate Republican talking points to the public during a major policy battle. There are undoubtedly many more examples of the literal merging of state and party.
But the media has long since been corrupted by a far more sophisticated, legal system of payola and influence peddling. It makes little difference now whether there are more Armstrong Williamses because there are many, many people who will happily perform his function while taking a check from a right wing foundation or think tank.
The right wing noise machine works like a single organism, relentlessly attacking any threat to the Republican party, unquestioningly advancing anything their leadership directs. It's just plain greed that led them to use taxpayer money when there is so much special interest money to be used for the exact same purpose.
In a just world this Armstrong Williams scandal would get at least the exposure the "selling" of the Lincoln Bedroom tale got in the Clinton administration. At the time there were endless stories about abusing the public trust and and forcing the taxpayers to foot the bill for partisan activity. There were months of handwringing and hankie clutching and "how will we ever sleep again knowing that political activity took place in the People's House!"
Anybody want to lay a bet that tthis scandal produces anything like that? Are any Democrats prepared to go on television and perform a soap opera prosecution featuring phony pathos and crocodile tears about "sending a message to the children?" Are we prepared to boost ratings and give the media reason to defy the White House and the right wing message behemoth with a show they can't resist? (Certainly, when given the chance our hard boiled political operative Paul Begala didn't even nick Armstrong with a ball point pen, much less stick the shiv in as Novak would have been so delighted to do if the shoe were on the other foot.)
I'm not holding my breath. The fact that no WMD in Iraq is causing nary a peep from anybody tells me that even body bags and billions can't shake the machine. I'm not sure anything will except total economic meltdown. Sadly, we may just get our wish.
digby 1/16/2005 01:23:00 PM