Sunday, June 12, 2005

Full court press on the press

From the ruthless effort to purge a contrived liberal tilt from public broadcasting to the cynical flogging of Newsweek magazine, the self-righteous Right is succeeding brilliantly in the most ambitious campaign to chill the press in modern history.

In the latest effort to bullyrag the media into submission, a Republican-dominated House subcommittee last week voted to cut in half the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Not content to combat dangerous Blue State-thinking among adults, the lawmakers, evidently anxious to shield impressionable young minds from the yellow peril and the red menace, also gutted the funding for Big Bird and Clifford the Red Dog.

The punishing budget cuts, which exceed even those requested by the zealously media-phobic White House, elegantly complement the administration’s successful effort to put Right-thinking politicians in charge of the previously apolitical organization that dispenses much of the funding for the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio.

[UPDATE on 6.24.05: Although cuts have been restored in a new draft of the spending bill the assault on public broadacsting continues across several fronts, including the appointment of Patricia S, Harrison, the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, as CEO of the previously politically neutal CPB.]

Twisting the truth with its trademark disdain for reality, the administration and its adherents have concocted a preposterous calculus that appears to define “liberal bias” as anything less red-blooded and less blood-thirsty than the hypertensive hyperbole hyped 24/7 by the Fox News Channel.

The worst part about the mugging of public broadcasting is that this unfair charge puts a high-minded group of distinguished professionals in a no-win position. If they ignore the story, the administration gets to peddle it unchallenged. If they cover it, they not only lend it undeserved credence but also expose themselves to fresh criticism for being biased in reporting on their bias.

Karl Rove, the prize bull(y) plucking the ventriloquist strings at the White House bully pulpit, knows he can fool most of the people most of the time by slip-sliding around the truth and relentlessly powering forward whatever self-serving constructs are required to achieve political rapture for the rich and Righteous.

The subtlety and skill of Der Maestro’s prestidigitation was on full display when Newsweek was forced to retract a technically incorrect story that nonetheless appears to have spoken volumes about the abuse of the prisoners being held indefinitely without due process at the remote U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Make no mistake: Newsweek was right to pull back the story when its single unnamed source waffled, and, yes, it should have done a better job of reporting in the first place.

For the record, however, note that a Pentagon report, which was released late on a Friday night a couple of weeks after the Newsweek flap, did confirm a number of desecrations of the Muslim holy book by Americans at Guantanamo. Among the admitted incidents was an episode in which a guard's urine somehow came through an air vent and splashed on a detainee and his Quran.

Seizing on Newsweek’s stumble, the Bush administration managed to turn Newsweek’s error into the story, thus de-emphasizing the real issue: The unconscionable treatment of the 540 souls being held, for the most part without charges, at an isolated American base in Cuba. Along the way, the administration took the press down another notch in public esteem, not that it had much further to go.

Like a tai-chi master performing at a serene level of perfection, Der Maestro let the negative energy of the initial Newsweek charge flow past him. Rather than aggressively disputing the charge, the administration asked for the proof behind it. When Newsweek’s story started unraveling, Der Maestro and his minions turned the negative energy against the magazine, amplifying Newsweek’s embarrassment by emphasizing the deadly riots in Afghanistan that erupted in reaction to the story.

No sooner did Newsweek back off, then it was time to quietly release on the eve of a sleepy summer weekend the report admitting to the several abuses of the Quran at Guantanamo. Although the Pentagon’s findings would have been damning if they had come to light in the absence of the Newsweek story, they seemed less offensive when compared with the discredited allegations published in the magazine.

Score another round for Karl Rove. In his skillful handling of this episode, he (a) took the edge off a potentially damaging story, (b) made the press, not the administration, the problem and (c) further undermined the credibility of the press so as to inoculate the administration from future negative publicity.

This approach has become a familiar practice for the Bush administration, whose flagrant manipulation of facts and "news" demonstrates a contempt for the truth (and the voters) that surpasses anything I have seen in 35 years as a producer and consumer of the news.

Throughout the Bush administration, reporters have been placed in an impossible position of having to treat bald-faced government misinformation – like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, No Child Left Behind, Medicare drug cards, etc. – as legitimate issues.

The rules of journalism require the press to play it straight, treating government assertions as fact, even when they are calculated distortions or outright lies. In the absence of the ability to independently confirm the existence of the WMDs, the press, following the long-standing rules of journalism, was obliged to report on the WMDs as though they existed.

When the fabrications subsequently are revealed, the press, not the deceptive policy makers in the White House, is blamed for getting it wrong. Capitalizing on the ongoing manufactured crises of credibility, the White House and its adherents excoriate the media for unreliability and bias. Thus, the stage is set for things like the ambitious assault on public broadcasting.

The concerted attack on the press has achieved sensational results. Even fair-minded individuals, who ought to know better, now accept as an unchallenged fact that the media is inaccurate and biased.

Yes, our democracy is threatened by the spread of misinformation. But don’t blame the press. Blame the Pres and the partisan cadre in our government that thinks nothing of manipulating the truth to terrorize and deceive the electorate for fun and political profit.

There’s nothing new, of course, about government officials playing it fast and loose. What is unusual and terrifying in this case is that the press, our first and best line of defense against such shenanigans, has been weakened by the assault on it. With its motivations and reliability widely questioned, the media, which should be mad as hell, has become increasingly passive and deferential, if not downright defensive.

The truth in these troubled times, accordingly, has been left to the mercy of Karl Rove. Mercy!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Testify, brother, testify!

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"manipulating the truth to terrorize and deceive the electorate for fun and political profit"

oops, I thought you were talking about Dan Rather.

Journalism is no longer delivered on the level, and the public knows it. Why should one side be subsidized by congress. make npr sell ads to the spin doctors they already work for.

2:05 PM  

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