Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Scattered thoughts

Tonight, when things appear to be improving in the United States in terms of debates and discussions, I want to drop back to how things were not all that long ago.

Following 9/11, debate was hushed by the mainstream media and certain gatekeepers. That's not something unique to our times but hopefully online sources will help it be remembered. Bartcop and other sites that were around then have real time discussions on the climate in this country at that time.

Why is that important?

When we look at the internment of the Japanese-Americans in this country during WWII, for instance, we're shocked and it seems so against the fabric of our society that we have a hard time comprehending how it could happen.

In our country we saw Muslims rounded up, we saw secret deportations and numbers of other activites that wouldn't seem to fold easily into the fabric of the United States. But they happened with little outcry registering.

When the issue did resonate, outside the mainstream media, and the events were spoken of, sometimes there was a tendency was to put it in the perspective of Germany as Hitler rose to power. That offended a number of people. (That's not my slamming anyone who made that comparison -- people making such comparisions were usually doing so in a solid manner despite the whines and slams from the right.) But we really didn't have to go other shores ("we" being American community members, apologies to our members from other countries, I'll probably continue to use "we" as I rush through this).

We've had witch hunts many other times. McCarthyism is but one example.

What bothered a number of people (rightfully so) besides the actions following 9/11 was how little discussion there was of them. We take our cues, as a nation, from our media. (A point that shouldn't be controversial whether someone's a reader of Noam Chomsky or Marshall McLuhan or In Style.) And we found ourselves faced with a media that was owned by or in part . . .
(If your new to this topic, refer to this web page from NOW with Bill Moyers which has a drop down menu you can use.)

We link to many independent media sites (I'm not providing a ton of links in this entry so use our permalinks on the left) like The Progressive, The Nation, Democracy Now!, BuzzFlash, In These Times, Ms., The Black Commentator, CounterPunch, Indymedia, Pacifica, Clamor, LeftTurn, etc. They exist, they are out there. (Along with many others.) But we're more apt to have Fox "News," MSNBC, or CNN in our homes than a magazine on our coffee table. (We as a nation.)

In his book, A Matter of Opinion, Victor Navasky explains that he sees the importance of The Nation and other opinion journals as presenting ideas to a wider audience. (That's my bad summary of a major point in his book. My apologies.) It's the point of this community in terms of trying to hook members up with voices that speak to them. As FAIR has documented repeatedly since it's inception, the voices presented by the mainstream media grow narrower and narrower each year.

If tomorrow an apple is used as a weapon and fright wing senator goes on Meet the Press to call for banning all apples and hawkish Dem is the "opposition" arguing that we should instead implement a testing procedure for apples, to the public, that's the debate clearly drawn. That's the debate the mainstream media popularizes and gets behind. And if you're thinking there must be some other idea/plan or even thinking, "We're talking about one apple here!" you're left with the impression that you are so out of the norm that no one else in the country shares your opinion. It's not on the TV, it's not on the radio. So it must be you going out on limb all by yourself.

And the result may be that you dismiss your own opinion and attempt to get with the program. Even if you don't, you may feel you're the only one who would ever think that way, so what's the point?

Following 9/11, you 'got with the program' in some manner or you were demonized. (Susan Sontag, et al.) And we need to remember that because people will ask, "How did this happen here?" They'll ask that about the secret deportations, the roundups, the practice of torture and rendention and a host of other things.

People being frightened does play into it and for that you need national hysteria. The lack of serious debate and a limited number of opinions and voices reaching out through the mainstream only aid the creation of a national hysteria. If, in the future, we attempt to answer how we entered a period where secret hearings, et al. were suddenly "American," we won't have to look to Germany to explain what happened here. We'll merely need to note that few people in power used their power (most abdicated it) and the press didn't do their job (ditto). And maybe, if we can all remember that, it can serve as a lesson the next time a similar event pops up (and they always do). Laura Flanders says, "Don't leave politics to the politicians."

You can't. They're not going to advocate (with few exceptions) anything that they're not being pressured to do. Possibly, that's understandable. You are a representative of a certain area and if the citizens in your area aren't pushing for action, it may be "smart" not to take any.

The myth of the brave press isn't reality. At best, we've been able to count on a few strong voices in any era. To use McCarthyism, the press largely took a pass on the witch hunts in real time and, like politicians, waited for the mood of the nation to change. That might have been "smart" as well. They are selling papers, magazines or commercial time.

But what's smart business isn't smart democracy. And if there's a lesson from our recent history, hopefully it will be "Speak out soon and speak out often." The only way ideas will get traction is if they're heard. Too many times, I heard someone say, "I'd say something but I'm the only one who feels this way." (And when this site started, that feeling of "I thought I was the only one who thought that" has been a constant in e-mails.) If you see something you think is wrong, dig in your heels and stake out your position. Don't wait for an editorial in a paper or for backing from a politician. Don't wait for the "mood" of the nation to shift.

Even shut out of the mainstream media, your ideas can still take life in the people around you. And if media consolidation isn't dealt with, we're going to need to be very aware of what power we do have and we're going to need to be willing to use it.

When an anchor person (Dan Rather) goes on a talk show (Letterman) to say he takes his marching orders from a president, we need to realize that regardless of the anchor, regardless of the person in the oval office, there's a problem. When an anchor (future at that point, Brian Williams) goes on a talk show (Leno) to say that he's interested in his broadcasts being kid friendly, we have a problem. In the first example, a person with a huge say in what will make the evening news is implying that he'll present what's approved by the White House. In the second example, that mythical large number of children tuning into the evening news are used as an excuse for watering down content. The result of both statements is not an endorsement of journalism (or even an appreciation of it). Nor are they new attitudes. However, in the past, when they've been expressed in similar terms, they were usually expressed following an actual event. For instance, apparently looking over the crayola scrawled notes of seven-year-olds, Peter Jennings once expressed concern over his decision to show a Lebenese child on a stretcher. In the talk show remarks noted at the start of this paragraph, there was no specific incident that either anchor was responding to. These were pre-emptive statements volunteered by the two men.

The fact that the statements weren't greeted with loud criticism from the mainstream is troubling. If you watch the news with your child (if), you're agreeing to see the news. Not just the pretty things. We heard, during the impeachment, people moaning that now their kids were talking about blow jobs. Taking them at their word (for some reason Nielsen hasn't registered any significant number of children watching the evening news broadcasts, but whatever), you tell your child to leave the room or you turn off the TV. If the child is saying "blow job," you tell the child to stop. If the child's at an age where s/he repeats everything heard then they probably shouldn't have been watching a news program to begin with because they're probably not at a level where they can handle it.

But we were all infantilized by the mainstream media. Whether it was hidden coffins (the administration's policy could have been gotten around, as was demonstrated when the photos finally did break) or not showing pictures of the graphic violence. Note, that's pictures of the graphic violence. Photo journalists capture what they see. They don't create it (if they do, they aren't photo journalists).

Yes, you had a few pieces here and there. We can note, for instance, R.C. Longworth's "War from 30,000 feet: Whipping Up a Crisis" which ran in the Chicago Tribune March 23, 2003. After noting FDR's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Longworth wrote:

. . . Bush is using fear as a weapon, not to build courage among Americans but to stampede them into endorsing a case for a war that has been built literally on a grab bag of possibilities, contingencies, ifs and maybes, of things that haven't happened but could happen, of bad guys who might hit us if we don't hit them first.
This is a created crisis. Now that the crisis is upon us, we can only hope that it passes quickly, with minimum loss of life on either side, and that our native skepticism prevents it from happening again.

"National hysteria" is a term Longworth uses and you need that hysteria before you can bring out the nails and the wood or the bonfires necessary to conclude the witch hunts with.

National hysteria is what whips us up and silences us. An independent press is needed in any time period to combat that.

The mainstream press' consolidation is a concern today but it's a mistake, my opinion, to assume the mainstream media was ever that independent to begin with.

In terms of today, it will be interesting to watch the coverage play out in the next few years. There will, if history holds, be the usual "We were all wrong." Some will point to a Longworth at their paper as an example that they did "cover" the issues with little accountability for the fact that a Longworth was the exception and not reflective of the overall tone.

It'll also be interesting to see how some cheerleaders (water carriers) for the current administration (I'm not speaking of columnists, I'm speaking of reporters) minimize their own part in the hysteria, the witch hunts and pressing (not reporting) the administration's agenda.
Will Judith Miller (who, from her actions in Iraq, appears to have foolishly believed some of the claims she reported on) be the scape goat that allows everyone else to emerge with a pass?

Martha e-mailed about an online transcript (at the Washington Post) with James VandeHei entitled "White House Insider" and wondered what world he lives in? Here's one section:

San Francisco, Calif.: Why doesn't the press refuse to take briefings from Scott McClellan, who either lied to them about the Plame incident, or was lied to by the administration? Isn't his credibility shot?
Jim VandeHei: Scott took a good beating when it was learned that the White House knew much more about the Plame leak than he and others let on last year. It's not entirely clear how much he knew about the involvement of other officials. But Scott has a lot of credibility with reporters. He is seen as someone who might not tell you a lot, but is not going to tell you a lie. more broadly, we go to the briefings if for no other reason to hear the White House spin on world events. they rarely figure into our daily reports because we will talk to Scott and others one on one and not in front of a crowd.

He's not going to lie, according to VandeHei, and yet "we will talk to Scott and others one on one and not in front of a crowd." The daily briefings "rarely figure into our daily reports." But he's not "not going to tell you a lie." Even overlooking the apparent contradiction in VandeHei's statements (if he's not going to lie, why are the daily briefings of no value to the Post?), what exactly is VandeHei doing making these remarks? Why is he vouching for "Scott" in such a personal manner?

I wonder how the remarks made in the transcript will play out (that's not the only section that should raise eyebrows)? It's as though there's not an even an effort made any longer to appear impartial as reporters name drop "Scott" and leave their role as reporter to peer inside "Scott" and vouch for him. It's doubtful VandeHei will get any flack for the remarks or be reassigned but the remarks do raise questions. Or would if anyone wanted to ask serious questions about the role of journalists today.

Here's VandeHei quoting "Scott" on the expulsion of the Denver Three in "Three Were Told to Leave Bush Town Meeting" (March 30, 2005):

Scott McClellan, Bush's press secretary, said it was a volunteer who asked them to leave "out of concern they might try to disrupt the event." He said the White House welcomes a variety of voices into events but discourages people from coming to heckle the president or disrupt town hall forums. "If someone is coming to try to disrupt it, then obviously that person would be asked to leave," he said. "There is plenty of opportunity outside of the event to express their views."

Does VandeHei really believe that "the White House welcomes a variety of voices into events"? Is that a sign of "Scott"'s credibility?

We'll hopefully continue this but I know I missed posting Tuesday night because of wanting to say more so this will go up as is.

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