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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Alan Maass is the editor of the Socialist
Worker and author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached
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