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Monday, April 21, 2008

A War of Words

About a year ago, a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that, despite having 24/7 news and the internet, Americans weren't any more knowledgeable about current events than they were twenty years ago. This study was generally seen as an indictment of cable news networks like CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News. After all, people who can get the news anytime they want should be more informed -- it's supposed to be up-to-the-minute and "breaking now" news, right?

There was one demographic who stood out in the study. "...the survey respondents who seemed to know the most about what’s going on -- who were able to identify major public figures, for example -- were likely to be viewers of fake news programs like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report," The New York Times reported, "Those who knew the least watched network morning news programs, Fox News or local television news."

If you've watched TDS and TCR, this might not seem all that likely to you. Both shows are only one hour, four nights a week. They tend to focus on the big story of the day, but that day is usually yesterday, since the shows aren't broadcast live. "Informative" isn't a word you'd use to describe them.

Except on one issue; media criticism. Both are brilliant and biting in their criticism of the news industry -- and TV news in particular. People who watch these shows would have finely honed BS filters. It's not that these shows inform viewers better than the actual news media, it's that these shows teach viewers to be better news consumers. It's unlikely that a Jon Stewart fan could watch FOX News for more than fifteen minutes without laughing out loud at how wrong it all was.

That's never been as important as it is now. I used to wonder what it would be like to live in a propaganda-shaped world, where you pick up Pravda, read a story, and try to determine whether it's true or not.

I don't wonder that any more. The New York Times broke a story in their sunday edition about the Bush administration, military analysts, and news networks.

... To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.

The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.

In response to this story, middle east expert Juan Cole echoes a post I wrote friday. "It is these secret networks of corrupt agents of influence that have Orwellized our society in recent years," he writes. "And it will go on unless the public wakes up and demands a change. If you see a network or cable news segment with only Establishment commentators (i.e. two retired generals, or one and someone from the American Enterprise Institute), then get up an email campaign to complain to the anchor. Threaten an advertiser boycott. Our country is in danger from this stuff..."

Get mad as hell. Don't take this anymore.

Unfortunately, our country has been in danger from this stuff for a long time. "[I]t is difficult to take the article's underlying points seriously as though they are some kind of new revelation," writes Salon's Glenn Greenwald. "And ultimately, to the extent there are new revelations here, they are a far greater indictment of our leading news organizations than the government officials on whom it focuses."

The media is supposed to be our BS filter. We shouldn't need to be experts at weeding out the propaganda from our daily news. That's what these guys are for. We shouldn't be getting raw data from a TV news show, we should be getting the filtered and refined product. As it is now, the idea of "objectivity" (which is a modern development, it's not written anywhere in some dusty tome of journalistic ethics) forces the media to tell "both sides of the story" -- even when one side is complete crap. Worse, they present you with information that's half truth and half lie, and never bother to tell you which is which. Accuracy is, apparently, bias.

Adding to this problem is that many in the media are for sale. I remind you of right wing talk radio hack Armstrong Williams, who was paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars by the Bush administration to promote "No Child Left Behind" in 2004.

And the Bush administration doesn't see the media as an essential part of a functioning democracy. In a 2005 article (The Propaganda President), Slate editor at large Jack Shafer wrote, "Every administration has warred with reporters, but Bush's is the first to challenge the very legitimacy of the press... Bush regards the press as a filter -- an unnecessary one. 'I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and somehow you just got to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people,' he said in October 2003 during a media push in which he gave interviews to five regional broadcasters about his Iraq policy because he disliked the national news coverage."

Even the news that "military analysts" are propaganda pushers isn't news. In 2000, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting warned that "several officers from the US Army's 4th Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) Group at Ft. Bragg worked in the news division at CNN's Atlanta headquarters last year, starting in the final days of the Kosovo War." I guess the bright side is that CNN's propaganda dealing is bipartisan, depending on who's in the White House at the time.

Here's a crazy idea. Why don't we agree that the bedrock of journalistic ethics be reporting truth? It's a sad commentary on the media as it stands that this would mark a revolutionary shift in focus. How about we care less about what the government believes we should think and more on giving us the truth it takes to make up our own minds?

What I despise about propaganda is that it's as reality-altering as any drug, as untrue but convincing as a hallucination. Without any real information or truth, this democracy thing can't work. You might as well drop a hit of acid before you go to the polls, then vote based on what the giant blue toad tells you. If we live in a world that isn't actually real, in which nothing is true or untrue, we're voting for the most comforting lie.

When shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report represent sobriety in a propaganda-drunk world, something's got to change or something's going to give.

Democracy cannot work this way.


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