In End Times: The Death Of The Fourth Estate, writers Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair argue that the media today slavishly tows the establishment line. Alan Maass, editor of Socialist Worker, reviews the book and explains how the media has led us into recent wars.



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The mid-1970s is often remembered as the "golden era" of American journalism. Most famously, the media exposed the crimes of the Nixon White House, reducing a president who had won re-election by a landslide two years before to a national laughing stock who resigned in disgrace before he was impeached.

But Watergate was only one among many scandals during this period. Some of the darkest secrets of how government and business actually function in a supposedly democratic system were laid bare by a seemingly emboldened press. 

So it might come as a surprise to learn that Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, which led the way in exposing Watergate, was less than pleased. A few weeks after Nixon resigned in 1974, Graham lectured a meeting of media executives that the press should "be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had overcome."

Three decades later, no one could describe the mainstream media as "over-involved" - unless they meant "over-involved" in presenting the undiluted propaganda of the powers that be.

End Times: The Death Of The Fourth Estate, a new book by CounterPunch editors Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, documents the current dismal state of the media - from the "embedded" reporters who present the Pentagon's line, to a punditocracy that cheerleads for war, to the editors and executives who oversee a press characterized by a mind-numbing conformity.

Why are the media so tame? After all, the government doesn't censor them to get the stories it wants.

End Times documents some examples of outright pressure applied against an unwilling press. But these are the exceptions. As a rule, the U.S. political establishment can count on the media taming itself - acting like "the really well-trained dog," in the words of George Orwell, "that turns somersaults when there is no whip."

As Cockburn writes in an article dissecting the New York Times under former Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, "[M]ostly, supervision is not such an explicit process. Every reporter and editor in the news business has a compass in their heads which alerts them within the fraction of a degree to the prejudices and preferences of the boss, whether it's Katharine Graham, or Ben Bradlee, or Rosenthal or Murdoch or the Executive Network News Producer or whoever is construed as ruling the roost."

Journalists at major media outlets learn what is expected of them, and those who want to advance - and most do - adapt themselves to the agenda, spoken or not, of their employers, as well as the people and institutions they report on.

End Times: The Death Of The Fourth
Estate, a new book by CounterPunch
editors Alexander Cockburn and
Jeffrey St. Clair, documents
the current dismal state of the
media - from the "embedded"
reporters who present the
Pentagon's line, to a punditocracy
that cheerleads for war, to the
editors and executives who oversee
a press characterized by a
mind-numbing conformity.

As Charles Lewis, a former 60 Minutes producer who resigned to form the Center for Public Integrity, put it, "The values of the news media are the same as those of the elite, and they badly want to be viewed by the elites as acceptable. Socially, culturally and economically, they belong to the group of people who they are covering."

Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Post during Watergate, confirms Lewis' observation. "Reporters are more conservative than the previous generation," he said. "And I think there's a very good reason for that. They get paid a hell of a lot better. It's hard to be conservative on US$75 a week, but seventy-five gran, you begin to think of the kids and the bank account and the IRA and roll it over and all this stuff."

In his essay titled "The Fall of the Washington Post," CounterPunch contributor Ken Silverstein provides the final proof by citing the quintessential celebrity journalist Diane Sawyer.

"During an episode on social spending, Sawyer berated a welfare mother who was illegally working two part-time jobs in order to supplement her US$600 per month welfare benefits," Silverstein writes.

"'You know, people say you should not have children if you can't support them,' Sawyer sternly lectured her victim. As pointed out by FAIR, the media watchdog group, Sawyer earns every day almost as much as the welfare mom earned per year: US$16,700."

These are the people who determine what's news, and therefore it's no surprise that the media tend - in contrast to the right wing's claims about liberal bias - to reinforce existing prejudice, rather than challenge it in any significant way.

Thus, one section of End Times is devoted to describing how the supposedly liberal media continue to peddle racism, in a variety of forms.

In an article about Gary Webb - the San Jose Mercury News reporter pilloried by his media "colleagues" for his articles revealing a link between the CIA, the U.S.-backed contra army that fought the left-wing Nicaraguan government in the 1980s, and the epidemic of crack cocaine in Black Los Angeles - Cockburn and St. Clair highlight how African Americans were chastised for their "paranoia" in believing Webb's story.

Blacks, the two write, "get it coming and going. Terrible things happen to them, and then they're patronized in the Washington Post for imagining that such terrible things might happen again."

A media intent on reinforcing conventional wisdom is all the more susceptible to the professional hucksters - otherwise known as public relations consultants - whose job is to sell the story or image that their bosses want to see in the press.

St. Clair's article "How to Sell a War" takes a look at the Bush administration's sales force for the Iraq war, whose mission was to underline and reinforce the doctrines of the administration's neocons to an accommodating media.

"Facts," St. Clair writes, "were never important to the Bush team. They were disposable nuggets that could be discarded at will and replaced by whatever new rationale that played favorably with their polls and focus groups."

As Charles Lewis, a former
60 Minutes producer who resigned
to form the Center for Public Integrity,
put it, "The values of the news media
are the same as those of the elite,
and they badly want to be viewed
by the elites as acceptable.
Socially, culturally and economically,
they belong to the group of people
who they are covering."

This statement of the central rule of perception-making under Bush Jr. is echoed in Cockburn's gleeful obituary to "The Great Communicator," Ronald Reagan. "Truth, for him," Cockburn writes, "was what he happened to be saying at the time. He went one better than George Washington, in that he couldn't tell a lie, and he couldn't tell the truth, since he couldn't tell the difference between the two."

Reagan's still hallowed image depended on what Cockburn calls the "news spasms" manufactured by his handlers to create "a national mood of consensus," with Reagan as the placid, grandfatherly master of ceremonies.

In reality, Cockburn writes, Reagan was "a vicious man, with a breezy indifference to suffering and the consequences of decision... [for which] Dante would surely have consigned him to one of the lowest circles of hell, to roast for all eternity in front of a malfunctioning TV set and a dinner tray swinging out of reach like the elusive fruits that tortured Tantalus."

Amid this otherwise grim picture, Cockburn and St. Clair present a reason to be cheerful. In the book's introduction, they write, "[T]he old David vs. Goliath struggle of the left pamphleteers battling the vast print combines of the news barons has equaled up," thanks to the Internet.

CounterPunch's Web site has at least 100,000 visitors a day, they point out. "Thirty years ago, many of these pieces, challenging the official nonsense peddled in the mass-market media, would have been doomed to small-circulation magazines, or a 30-second précis on Pacifica radio... Not any more. We can get a news story from a CounterPuncher in Gaza or Ramallah or Oaxaca or Vidharba, and have it out to a world audience in a matter of hours."

This is food for thought. The Internet has made it much easier to get access to the real story, buried under the myths and bromides of the U.S. media. If the politicians and pundits complain that official Washington has become a place of non-stop scandal, it's partly because it's harder in the era of the Internet to keep a secret from those who want to find it out.

But this point does raise another question. In spite of this unprecedented access to information, the U.S. government was still able to get away with its invasion of Iraq. The facts to debunk the lies that justified the invasion could be found easily - on CounterPunch, in Socialist Worker and well beyond. But that didn't stop it from happening.

To successfully challenge wars and injustice, more than the right information is needed. The facts and ideas put forward in books like End Times, on web sites like CounterPunch and in publications like Socialist Worker need to be put into practice - by activists who share both the bitter anger of this book toward the everyday crimes of the system and the hope that struggle can win genuine change.

Note: Alan Maass is the editor of the Socialist Worker and author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached at: alanmaass@sbcglobal.net.

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June 12, 2007