The Truth Deficit
In the Watergate era, journalists were often seen as heroes. Even commercial TV and radio news outlets, although on the way to becoming showcases for infotainment, were considered by many to be potential parts of the solution. By the end of the 20th Century, however, most people didn't trust reporters any more than politicians, and a Roper poll found that 88 percent of those surveyed felt corporate owners and advertisers improperly influenced the press.
Most journalists who work for mainstream media outlets deny such influence, a lack of self-awareness (or candor) that tends to make matters worse. The fact that getting ahead means at times going along with the prevailing consensus remains one of the profession's debilitating secrets. But the issue isn't just that, or that a few media giants control the origination of most content, distribution, and transmission into our homes and computers, or that we're heading toward a pay-for-access Internet world that could make notions about its democratic potential sound like utopian fiction. The underlying problem is how public discussion of vital matters is shaped by gatekeepers.
Here’s an example that remains relevant in the age of Trump: In August 2005, a cover story in Newsweek on Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts aggressively dismissed reports that he was a conservative partisan. Two primary examples cited were the nominee's role on Bush's legal team in the court fight after the 2000 election, described by Newsweek as "minimal," and his membership in the conservative Federalist Society, which was pronounced an irrelevant distortion. Roberts "is not the hard-line ideologue that true believers on both sides had hoped for," the publication concluded.
The facts suggested a different appraisal. Roberts was a significant legal consultant, lawsuit editor and prep coach for Bush's arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2000, and wasn’t just a Federalist Society member but on the Washington chapter's steering committee in the late 1990s. More to the point, his roots in the conservative vanguard date back to his days with the Reagan administration, when he provided legal justifications for recasting the way government and the courts approached civil rights, defended attempts to narrow the reach of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, challenged arguments in favor of busing and affirmative action, and even argued that Congress should strip the Supreme Court of its ability to hear broad classes of civil-rights cases.
Nevertheless, most press reports echoed Newsweek's excitement about his "intellectual rigor and honesty."
Given the Supreme Court’s decisions since Roberts became Chief Justice, whether the narrative framing of his confirmation qualifies as disinformation is worth considering. In any case it shows how journalists may assist political leaders, albeit sometimes unwittingly, in shaping public awareness. As a practice, this is known in both government and public relations circles as "perception management," and it’s been happening for years.
That's why I was eager to attend the second Media and Democracy Congress in 1998. Journalists and media activists from across the country had gathered in New York to talk about the problems – things like concentration of ownership, the relentless slide into infotainment, an avalanche of gossip, disinformation, and "news" people don't need – and trade ideas about what to do. It was encouraging to be among colleagues and friends who weren't afraid of the A-word – advocacy.
During one panel journalistic iconoclast Christopher Hitchens noted wryly that the word partisan is almost always used in a negative context, while bipartisan is presented as a positive solution. It made me think: If that isn't an endorsement for the one-party state, what is?
Similarly, most journalists assiduously avoided saying, in print or on the air, that George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan lied while president, although these were verifiable facts. But they did often note that Clinton and Reagan were great communicators, which is merely an opinion. The issue, Hitchens suggested, wasn't a lack of information – it's all out there somewhere – but how most reporters think and how the news is constructed.
Which brings us to the “free market” and competition, two basic tenets of the corporate faith. Unfortunately, most journalists are loyal missionaries of the Capitalist Church, the kind of true believers who described utility deregulation in the late 1990s as a "movement to bring competition to the electric industry." That was a classic corporate sermon, not a fact. The same kind of thing was said – when anything was mentioned – about the Telecommunications Act of 1996, although the actual result of that legislation was to reduce competition and sweep away consumer protections.
In 2009, when Sen. John McCain introduced The Internet Freedom Act, designed to “free” giant telecom companies from restrictions on their ability to block or slow down access to the content of their competitors, the sermon hadn’t changed. For example, The Wall Street Journal announced that he was just trying to stop regulators from “micromanaging the Web.”
The mainstream media also had little to say about the giveaway of the digital TV spectrum, a prime example of corporate welfare. Making the giants pay for this enormous new public resource could have dramatically reduced the federal deficit and adequately funded public broadcasting and children's TV. Instead spectrum rights were handed out for free. The only "string" was a vague contribution to be determined at a later date.
The Media and Democracy Congress did propose some alternatives: anti-trust laws to deal with the new world of global media, a tax on advertising – including the millions in political contributions that mainly end up in the coffers of media corporations – to adequately fund public broadcasting and public access, corporate divestment of news divisions, and a ban on children's advertising, to name a few. Unfortunately, none of this came to pass.
A year Later Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman and reporter Jeremy Scahill, who went on to write a groundbreaking book about the private military contractor Blackwater, provided a dramatic illustration of just how limited mainstream media’s commitment to truth-seeking and keeping watch over the government can be. The dust up occurred at the 1999 awards ceremony organized by the Overseas Press Club. Goodman and Scahill were on hand to receive honors for their documentary, “Drilling and Killing: Chevron and Nigeria’s Oil Dictatorship.”
Realizing that the event’s keynote speaker was UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, an architect of NATO’s recently declared intervention in Yugoslavia, the urge to ask him some questions was irresistible. But they were prevented from talking to him prior to the speech, and Scahill subsequently learned that a condition of Holbrooke’s appearance was no interviews. Undaunted, he waited until the ambassador finished speaking, then approached the podium and tried again.
At that point Master of Ceremonies Tom Brokaw intervened. But not to defend Scahill’s right to inquire. No, instead the anchorman told him to sit down. When Scahill declined he was dragged away by security guards.
None of the noted journalists in the room uttered a word of protest. At a time when bombs were falling in Europe they apparently felt that “decorum” was more vital than finding out why a war had started. The official story was that the government of Slobodan Milosevic had refused to negotiate on Kosovo and was engaged in a brutal campaign of "ethnic cleansing" that bordered on genocide. NATO was intervening to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe," claimed official sources, and sought only to alleviate human suffering and defend the rights of Kosovo's Muslim Albanians. But a series of stubborn facts, largely ignored by the mainstream media, contradicted those comforting assertions.
In February 1999, when so-called peace talks began in France, Yugoslavia was given an ultimatum: Grant Kosovo autonomy and let NATO station 30,000 troops there for the next three years – or else. If anyone was refusing to negotiate, it was the US and NATO. But the relentless use of buzzwords like ethnic cleansing and genocide, plus the redefinition of Milosevic as the world's latest “Hitler," gave this unyielding stance the veneer of humanitarian concern. Entirely omitted was the inconvenient reality that the violence in Kosovo was a part of an ongoing struggle between the government and separatists, who had been waging civil war for years.
So, why intervene, and why against the Serbs? The likely hidden agenda was to break Yugoslavia into smaller pieces. The Balkans is a strategic region, a crossroads between Western Europe and the oil-rich Middle East and Caspian Basin. In the 1990s, the Western powers had gained effective control over the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia, as well as Hungary and Albania. The main hold out was the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In short, it stood in the path of the New World Order.
Another year passed, and in 2000, Goodman and Scahill recounted their Press Club experience to enthusiastic applause at the annual Project Censored awards ceremony. Now they were being recognized for covering the story the Press Club had suppressed: NATO’s deliberate push for war with Yugoslavia. Despite the self-imposed ignorance of corporate media’s gatekeepers, at least some of the truth had been revealed. (Originally posted in 2010)
Part Two: Navigating uncertainty in post-modern times