Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Influence of Fools: Why Liberals are mad at the MSM

Long accustomed to the wrath from the right, the news media is now facing white hot anger from the left. For the most part, the press seems genuinely perplexed by this turn of events.

It shouldn't be a mystery, but since the 2005 Conference on Media Reform is being held this weekend in St. Louis, here's why.

We’re angry, ladies and gentlemen of the press, because for the last four years you’ve utterly failed to hold our leaders accountable to the truth.

Students of history and those of us of a certain age know this has happened before, and its effects were corrosive. Fifty years ago, responding to the failure of the press to deal with Senator Joe McCarthy’s bullying, Eric Sevareid said:

"Our rigid formulae of so-called objectivity ... have given the lie the same prominence and impact that truth is given; they have elevated the influence of fools to that of wise men; the ignorant to the level of the learned; the evil to the level of the good."

We’re angry, because when journalists make impartiality, objectivity and balance, more important than accuracy, context and truth, then once again you’re failing to fulfill the functions for which you were given First Amendment protections.

We’re angry because we believe that practicing journalism with integrity requires more of you than acting like a court stenographer; more than simply listening, recording, and printing. If the words you’re recording don’t jive with the truth, if you don’t think, don’t challenge, and don’t dig for more information, then politicians, being politicians, will tell ever bigger lies.

We’re angry, because that’s precisely what’s been happening in this country. The press just puts together the he-said, she-said transcript and leaves the truth to someone else.

We’re angry because this President and his administration have taken advantage of your malfeasance to construct a sophisticated Soviet-style propaganda machine that has spewed out more lies and deceptions than any other modern Presidency.

Other administrations created spins based on some tenuous relationship to the truth. This administration has completely severed the link and created instead, an infrastructure for telling lies. Shouldn’t that, in the end, be the story of the millennia so far?

Look at the elements. Budget periods cut from ten years to five to hide exploding deficits. Elaborate Mission Accomplished-style propaganda backdrops at every public event. Orwellian names like "Clear Skies," and "Healthy Forests" designed to hide real intentions. Fake news stories filmed at government expense and released to an all too incurious media. Paid journalists and columnists writing fawning stories for profit. Bogus White House correspondents throwing soft ball questions under assumed names.

Staged "town-hall meetings" with pre-screened crowds and pre-screened questions – questions like, "Mr. President, did you know my wife and I pray for you every night?" Whew. That’s a toughie. And even with the hand-selected audiences, strong-armed stooges roam the crowd and silence, roust, and arrest any stray dissenters who somehow make it past the crumbled remains of the First Amendment that block the entrances to these tax-supported events.

My fellow liberals like to say "Imagine if Clinton had planted a fake gay journalist in the White House press corps", but they miss the point. If this administration has been more dishonest than any other, it’s because they’ve been allowed to by a timorous he-said, she-said press.

If this brand of journalism had been practiced during the past 35 years, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Monica Lewinsky wouldn’t show up in a Google search, we’d all be saying G. Gordon who? and Ollie North would be a Senator from Virginia.

Until recently, journalists were as interested in what people did as in what they said; they cared as much about how things actually were, as they did about how they were presented. And so they dug into stories, they searched for facts not just quotes, and truth and accuracy were deemed as important as balance and impartiality. They knew, in short, that when the emperor is indeed naked, it is neither biased nor partisan to say so. And it worked to keep leaders from both parties from straying too far from the truth.

But today’s reporters act more like a 5th grade ADD sufferer deprived of Ritalin. What? Orange alert? Drop the Richard Clarke interview and pick up the duct tape. Swift Boat pseudo news that had been debunked 20 years ago? Skip that Duefler Report. Let the Silbermann-Robb report blame the CIA for Bush’s mendacity? OK. We’ll forget those pesky generals, DOE weapons experts, Air Force experts, current and former CIA agents, and State Department Intelligence analysts talking about lies, distortions, deceptions and political pressure on the part of the administration. Anything new on Terri?

And that’s another thing that makes us mad. In a he-said, she-said news world, the press is at the mercy of any number of wag-the-dog tactics and fake values debates designed to shut off inquiry and protect politicos.

And how is it that the mainstream press lets right wing whackos ignore truths and tell lies? Why is it left to Jon Stewart to show the epidemiology of talking points as they spread from the right wing think tanks working with the White House to Fox faux-News, O’Reilly’s entertainment show, and Limbough’s Lying hour to ultimately infect the public discourse?

Why is it that Stewart’s fake news show seems the only one capable of finding lies on tape and showing them to us? There’s no shortage. There’s Dick and Rummy and Condi and Wolfy and even George himself telling us about meetings that didn’t happen; links that didn’t exist; weapons that weren’t there. And now we have notes from British intelligence revealing that as early as July, 2002 the administration was saying it was going to "fix" intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion.

For that matter, we have tape of them knowingly lying about the costs of the pharmacy bill, and we know they threatened ti fire the government actuary in charge of forecasting costs when he wanted to set the record straight. We know they outed a covert CIA agent as a revenge tactic. We know that there’s a trail of memos justifying torture, extraordinary rendition and other jack-boot tactics that leads straight to the most senior levels of the Pentagon and the White House. One of them was signed by our sitting Attorney General when he was White House Counsel.

But here’s what makes us angriest. The press has allowed Mr. Bush to fundamentally rewrite foreign and domestic policy under a cloud of deception, distortion, and deceit.

Iraq was never about WMDs, or al Qaeda links or "immediate threats" – it was part of a broadly conceived and highly pugnacious neoconservative foreign policy.

Tax cuts were never about "your money," budget surpluses, budget deficits, or economic stimulus. They were – and are – part of a stealth attempt to "drown the beast", to shrink government by starvation.

The Clear Skies Initiative isn’t about protecting the environment, it’s about protecting energy companies.

The Healthy Forest Initiative isn’t about healthy forests, it’s about cutting down trees in pristine wilderness areas.

Social Security privatization is not about rescuing Social Security, it’s about killing it.

Now, it may be that Americans want a country in which the tax burden is shifted from corporations and the ultra-rich to families, workers and individual wage earners. Perhaps we want to cut government services and gut environmental protections, and impose trillions of dollars of debt on our children and our children’s children. And it may be that we want a belligerent foreign policy in which we eschew the UN; reject treaties and alliances; unilaterally launch preemptive wars and encourage the resumption of a nuclear arms race by undercutting the Non-proliferation Treaty with plans to develop new nuclear weapons.

Heck, it’s possible that we’re willing to ignore real threats to our homeland such as enough unprotected lose nuclear material to make 40,000 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs. We might even prefer to spend $300 billion in Iraq, while our borders remain porous; our ports, schools, power and chemical plants remain unprotected; our first responders underfunded; and bin Laden roams free.

But it’s doubtful. And that’s why Mr. Bush and friends want to accomplish their objectives by a stealth attack on the media and the truth.

As liberals, all we want is an honest debate. There is an intellectual case to be made for smaller government, an unconstrained private sector, and an economy that is single-mindedly built around rewarding success and ignoring those who fall by the wayside. And there is a perspective that shares John Bolton’s vision of a US as having a responsibility to use its military might aggressively and unilaterally throughout the world. And its conceivable that there’s a case to be made for imposing environmental devastation and multi-trillion dollar debts upon our children.

That’s the debate this country should be having. These are serious issues that raise fundamental questions. But, as long as the press gives "... the lie the same prominence and impact that truth is given..." by allowing impartiality, objectivity, and balance to trump truth, accuracy and context, we won’t have that debate, and our country and our system of governance will be the poorer for it.

And that makes us really mad.

By John Atcheson posted 12 May 05

John Atcheson has written extensively on politics and policy and his writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The San Jose Mercury News, The Memphis Commercial Appeal and several other papers, as well as various wonk journals. He has over 30 years experience in government and with the nation's premier think tanks.


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