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January 23, 2005 - Another Means of Engineering Conformity

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George Monbiot in the item referenced below answers the question - How did a fantasy president from a world of make believe come to govern a country whose power was built on hardheaded materialism?


His answer is that the press caved in.


On that CBS business – how they fired four folks and Dan Rather retired after touting some memos, showing Bush received special treatment and may have been AWOL during the Vietnam War, turned out to be questionable -  “… I think it is safe to assume that if the network had instead broadcast unsustainable allegations about John Kerry, none of its executives would now be looking for work. How many people have lost their jobs, at CBS or anywhere else, for repeating bogus stories released by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth about Kerry's record in Vietnam? How many were sacked for misreporting the Jessica Lynch affair? Or for claiming that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear weapons program in 2003? Or that he was buying uranium from Niger, or using mobile biological weapons labs, or had a hand in 9/11? How many people were sacked, during Clinton's presidency, for broadcasting outright lies about the Whitewater affair? The answer, in all cases, is none.”


Generally?  The role of the media corporations in the US is similar to that of repressive state regimes elsewhere: they decide what the public will and won't be allowed to hear, and either punish or recruit the social deviants who insist on telling a different story. The journalists they employ do what almost all journalists working under repressive regimes do: they internalize the demands of the censor, and understand, before anyone has told them, what is permissible and what is not.”


Harsh?  You find this all here:


A televisual fairyland 
The US media is disciplined by corporate America into promoting the Republican cause
George Monbiot, The Guardian (UK), Tuesday January 18, 2005


The opening is this –

On Thursday, the fairy king of fairyland will be recrowned. He was elected on a platform suspended in midair by the power of imagination. He is the leader of a band of men who walk through ghostly realms unvisited by reality. And he remains the most powerful person on earth.


How did this happen? How did a fantasy president from a world of make believe come to govern a country whose power was built on hard-headed materialism? To find out, take a look at two squalid little stories which have been concluded over the past 10 days.


This is followed by an explanation of the sorry mess at CBS, where the producer was fired, and three CBS executives were forced to resign, ending with this:


The incident couldn't have been more helpful to Bush. Though there is no question that he managed to avoid serving in Vietnam, the collapse of CBS's story suggested that all the allegations made about his war record were false, and the issue dropped out of the news. CBS was furiously denounced by the rightwing pundits, with the result that between then and the election, hardly any broadcaster dared to criticize George Bush.


… You can say what you like in the US media, as long as it helps a Republican president. But slip up once while questioning him, and you will be torn to shreds. Even the most groveling affirmations of loyalty won't help. The presenter of 60 Minutes, Dan Rather, is the man who once told his audience, "George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where."  CBS is owned by the conglomerate Viacom, whose chairman told reporters: "We believe the election of a Republican administration is better for our company."  But for Fox News and the shockjocks syndicated by Clear Channel, Rather's faltering attempt at investigative journalism is further evidence of "a liberal media conspiracy".


Yeah, those liberals who control American thought – overwhelming the poor, outnumbered conservatives, who only hold the presidency, both house of congress, and the majority in the Supreme Court.  Whatever.  You just need to redefine what is meant by an oppressed minority.


Monbiot says too this is not the first time this has happened.


In 1998, CNN made a programme which claimed that, during the Vietnam war, US special forces dropped sarin gas on defectors who had fled to Laos. In this case, there was plenty of evidence to support the story. But after four weeks of furious denunciations, the network's owner, Ted Turner, publicly apologized in terms you would expect to hear during a show trial in North Korea: "I'll take my shirt off and beat myself bloody on the back."  CNN had erred, he said, by broadcasting the allegations when "we didn't have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt".  As the website wsws.org has pointed out, it's hard to think of a single investigative story - Watergate, the My Lai massacre, Britain's arms to Iraq scandal - which could have been proved at the time by journalists "beyond a reasonable doubt".  But Turner did what was demanded of him, with the result that, in media fairyland, the atrocity is now deemed not to have happened.


Then Monbiot covers the Armstrong Williams story.  He’s the commentator - America's Black Forum and syndicated newspaper columns - who had secretly signed a $240,000 contract with the US Department of Education "to regularly comment" on Bush's “No Child Left Behind” legislation and to make sure Education Secretary Ron Paige and other department officials “shall have the option of appearing from time to time as studio guests.”  Your tax dollars at work.  (Aside: Some of us who are former teachers call the “No Child Left Behind” Act the “No Child Left Alive” Act.)


Monbiot says Williams says his "mentors" were Lee Atwater and Strom Thurmond, and says Armstrong’s broadcasting career has been dedicated to promoting extreme Republican causes and attacking civil rights campaigns.  Maybe so.  I hadn’t followed him that much.


The conclusions Monbiot draws?  


These stories … are illustrations of the ways in which the US media is disciplined by corporate America.  In the first case the other corporate broadcasters joined forces to punish a dissenter in their ranks. In the second case a corporation captured what was once a dissenting programme and turned it into another means of engineering conformity.


The role of the media corporations in the US is similar to that of repressive state regimes elsewhere: they decide what the public will and won't be allowed to hear, and either punish or recruit the social deviants who insist on telling a different story. The journalists they employ do what almost all journalists working under repressive regimes do: they internalise the demands of the censor, and understand, before anyone has told them, what is permissible and what is not.


So, when they are faced with a choice between a fable which helps the Republicans, and a reality which hurts them, they choose the fable. As their fantasies accumulate, the story they tell about the world veers further and further from reality. Anyone who tries to bring the people back down to earth is denounced as a traitor and a fantasist. And anyone who seeks to become president must first learn to live in fairyland.


Is the press that carven?


Nico writes us from Montréal –


The state and business are in bed together in the same torrid union the founding fathers found revolting with the church and the state.  Hardly surprising that media giants reward gloss and punish dissent. 


As a young foreign national in Washington 30 years ago, I wondered why Russians were so profoundly aware of the propaganda in their society, while Americans bought into everything served them by their own media.


Bush's second election brings the church back into the fold, affirming the zealot trinity of state, church & industry, and the overwhelming role of faith-based America. 


Maybe Michael Moore and Mel Gibson should change topics for their next movies.  Gibson could cover role of faith in Bush America, while Moore a movie that compares the radical teachings of Jesus with the co-opting of this new religion into the state by Constantine at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.


Bush as Constantine?  Interesting.  But that aside, yes, we do not like to consider we may be subject to blatant and stupid propaganda – and pay our taxes so we may be so deceived.


Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, with close ties to CNN, comments too, but goes the other way –


First of all, that question itself: "How did a fantasy president from a world of make believe come to govern a country whose power was built on hard-headed materialism?"


The basic problem with this question has something to do with where it's coming from, which is the mind of someone who doesn't quite understand what this country is all about.


I think non-Americans in general, and Europeans in particular, suffer under the misapprehension that this country was built on "hard-headed materialism" - probably because, as time went on, we Americans certainly have become very materialistic.


In reality, the United States was settled and later developed by dreamers who wanted more than they had, and who, it could be argued, were too dimwitted to know they couldn't get what they wanted - and also too self-involved to listen to anyone who told them they shouldn't.


This may have ended up giving us a pretty good land in which to live, but it also gave us highways clogged with fuel-hogging and environment-polluting SUVs, the drivers of which mostly voted for George W. Bush.


But secondly, it's also worth cautioning that, as a rule of thumb, you should take only with a grain of salt any opinion about American news media expressed by someone who spells "programme" with slightly too many letters.


I'm not forgetting that some Americans found Iraq-invasion coverage more to their liking on BBC.  (Which, need we remind ourselves, also had its own legal and credibility problems concerning that war.)  Nor am I saying there isn't at least some truth to the idea that mainstream American media, especially broadcast outlets, are sometimes cowed by the right to occasionally try to maintain the balance by leaning too far away from the left.  (There's a wonderful quote I once read that came from a conservative who confessed that, in most cases, the right criticizes the media in the way an athlete complains about the referee, simply in hopes that a few friendly calls he doesn't deserve might now and then come his way.)


Still, I would argue, this doesn't happen nearly as often as this George Monbiot guy thinks it does, certainly not to the extent that US broadcasters become cowering self-censoring lackies of a repressive state and its corporate sponsors.  As one who has worked a few decades in and around American media, I can tell you the world he describes is the real fantasy.


That CBS thing, versus all those other examples of stories reported in the media in which nobody got fired: The obvious but crucial difference was that the other stories were not the result of a media outlet's personal "enterprise," but merely reported what was being said by others.  Also worth noting here: Almost all, if not all, of those stories - including those of the Swifties and the Niger yellowcake, for example - were themselves subsequently impeached far and wide in the media.  Some viewers followed those follow-up stories, but most of the rest, for reasons of their own, apparently voted Republican.


Unfortunately for CBS, their "memos" story was based pretty much on their own legwork, so any questions of the veracity of their source material had to be directed to themselves.  (In fact, as much as CBS might or might not have wanted to fire all those Swiftboat guys, it was outside their jurisdiction anyway.)


The same could be said about CNN's "enterprising" Tailwind story about Vietnam, for which the evidence, as I recall, was thin as chicken stock to begin with, and seemed to almost wholly rest on the recollections of an aged general who, by the accounts of those who knew him, was apparently suffering from dementia.  (By way of full disclosure, I must tell you that when my own mother was suffering from dementia in the last years of her life, she insisted the Bush family borrowed money from us and used it to go kill orphan children in Bakersfield, California. Call me a Bush lap dog if you will, but I just didn't buy her story.)


I've never heard that Dan Rather quote, but wouldn't be surprised if it were true.  Rather says enough silly things in one year to fill a large book, and most of them are cited by conservatives to prove he's anti-Republican.


I've also never heard that quote from Viacom's CEO (presumably Sumner Redstone), but it's not really out of place for a conglomerate boss to say something like that.  In fact, he is probably quoted elsewhere saying that Viacom does not, and never will, interfere with the news coverage delivered by its subsidiary, CBS.  From what I know of UK media, the practice of news outlets openly backing one side or another in a political debate is commonly accepted, but that sort of thing is very much frowned upon over here.


(I also don't recall that Ted Turner quote, but as I remember, he had by that point already been pretty much stripped of all power by a merger that left him less than a figurehead in the company that bore his name.)


Monbiot's piece ends with, "anyone who seeks to become president must first learn to live in fairyland."  No, just anyone who wants to appeal to the same voters Bush appealed to, and who has no intention of reaching those who ended up voting for Kerry.


The fact is that the woman who worked for the now-deceased guy who was alleged to have written those National Guard memos did apparently confirm to CBS after the fact that the memos themselves were probably not valid, but also said that even if he didn't write them, they accurately reflected his opinions.  And the fact that this last part, which sounds to me like the more important story, got lost in all the excitement about Dan Rather, to me, says more about the audience than the media.


So once again, as I've mentioned here before but it bears repeating: The problem may not be with our media, it may be with ourselves.


Maybe so.  How does the song go?  What a fool believes he sees?


What CBS used to be – reduced to a roll-up storefront door on Hollywood Boulevard on a bright Sunday morning, just when the homeless fellow who sleeps at its base wandered off.

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Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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