Monday, June 2, 2014

Death of the Fourth Estate

CBS' Bob Schieffer hobnobs with actress Claire Danes at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Real journalists do not enjoy--nor do they seek--this sort of access to power and celebrity.

The vacuous shell that has become of American journalism was on full display last week during NBC's savagely hostile interview with Edward Snowden. Indeed, Brian Williams's attempted takedown of the former National Security Agency (N.S.A.) contractor-turned-whistleblower proved an embarrassing backfire given Snowden's calm, thoughtful, reasoned responses to his host's vacuous, uninspired questions.

At one point during the interview, Williams held up what he called a "burner" cell phone--or a temporary, disposable phone typically used by drug dealers (and, apparently, NBC reporters...) which is meant to be promptly discarded after use so as to avoid detection--and asked Snowden what specific information the N.S.A. could obtain from it.

Snowden did not miss a beat. "Well, that's got to be the most expensive 'burner' I've ever seen," he said of Williams's high-end smartphone.

This brief segment, incidentally, was the only part of the interview that focused on the actual details of the N.S.A. surveillance programs Snowden went to such heroic lengths to reveal to the American public. The majority of the piece centered exclusively on Edward Snowden himself--his early life, his politics, his exact title at the N.S.A., and other biographical details. In fact, NBC's much hyped, exclusive interview is titled, "Inside the Mind of Edward Snowden,"--not say, "Inside the U.S. Surveillance State."

This tactic of focusing almost entirely on the character of the whistleblower, the activist, or the reporter--be it Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, or Glenn Greenwald--has become the media's default approach to dealing with whistleblowers. The goal is always the same: Shoot the messenger, ignore the message. Ergo, Assange, we are told, is an "anti-social egomaniac,"; Manning, a sexually confused youth; and Greenwald an "activist journalist," (as if any other kind exists) whose reporting is driven by his political agenda rather than facts.

The point is to discredit the source of pertinent government crimes or abuses of power. Call them disloyal, unpatriotic, or accuse them of enabling "the enemy." And, even if this personal smear campaign fails, the corporate media have still succeeded in shifting the discussion away from the actual content of the crimes, themselves. From the media's perspective, it is a win-win strategy. And Williams's interview deviated little from the playbook.

Williams wastes no time with his accusatory questioning. In fact, he kicks the interview off not with a question, but a declarative statement: "A lot of people would say you have badly damaged your country."

He follows this up with a slight variation on the previous statement, quoting former N.S.A. Director Keith Alexander who claims Snowden has done "significant and irreversible damage to the nation...." Williams makes no mention of the fact that Alexander lied outright to a congressional committee concerning the N.S.A.'s illegal spying last fall.

Could it be that G.E.-owned NBC--one of the world's largest weapons manufacturers and, as such, a major proponent for the Iraq war--is just as "agenda-driven" as Greenwald?

"Journalism," wrote George Orwell, "is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations."

Brian Williams is no journalist--not in the traditional sense of the word. Neither is Scott Pelley, Katie Couric, Bill O' Reilly, David Gregory, Charlie Rose or Rachel Maddow. They are, at best, celebrities. At worst, they are facilitators of corporate propaganda.

Williams, for instance, makes $13 million a year hosting NBC's Nightly News. His net worth is placed at $40 million. This sort of money is unheard of for actual reporters like Amy Goodman, Seymour Hersh or Jeremy Scahill.

Furthermore, Williams has repeatedly appeared on popular TV shows like 30 Rock playing himself or a parody thereof. While this sort of sitcom moonlighting shows Williams is not afraid to poke fun at himself, it nonetheless begs the question: is he a journalist or an entertainer? (Williams's daughter, Allison Williams, stars on HBO's Girls so it must run in the family.)

Williams was ranked the second "most trusted" TV news reporter in America in a 2009 Time magazine readers poll. The Comedy Central satirist, Jon Stewart was number one. While some media scholars objected to Stewart's inclusion in the poll among "serious" reporters, it makes perfect sense, really. The only difference between Stewart and the "Establishment" reporters he routinely sends up, is he openly acknowledges everything on his show is a joke.

Six corporations currently determine all of the news we read and watch: Disney (ABC), Newscorp (Fox News/Wall Street Journal), CBS Corporation (CBS), General Electric (NBC/Comcast), Time Warner (CNN/HBO/Time Magazine) and Viacom. Not only does this sort of mega-merger consolidation significantly decrease the number and diversity of voices in the mainstream news, it is the antithesis of a free and independent press.

"[J]ournalists are not in control of the instruments they play," writes Bill Moyers, in the introduction to his excellent essay collection Moyers on Democracy (Anchor Books, 2008)

As conglomerates swallow up newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, and networks, and profit rather than product becomes the focus of corporate effort, news organizations... are folded into entertainment divisions. The "news hole" in the print media shrinks to make room for advertisements, and stories needed by informed citizens working together are pulled in favor of the latest celebrity scandals because the media moguls have decided that uncovering the inner workings of public and private power is boring and will drive viewers and readers away to greener pastures of pabulum. Good reporters and editors confront walls of resistance in trying to place serious and informative reports over which they have long labored. Media owners who should be sounding the trumpets of alarm on the battlements of democracy instead blow popular ditties through tin horns, undercutting the basis for their existence and their First Amendment rights (p. 5-6).

Real journalism--the kind television entertainers like Williams know nothing about--rarely makes reporters rich. Real investigative reporting is tedious, time consuming, and often expensive. It requires a fierce loyalty to the truth, no matter how unpleasant that truth may be. Truth is not to be confused with the corporate media's professed journalistic "objectivity." Truth is rarely nestled comfortably between the "right" and "left" or two similar opposing viewpoints. Truth, in the words of the late Molly Ivins, "has the oddest habit of being way the hell off on one side or the other."

Without a free and independent press--one that speaks truth to power, is fiercely critical of authority, and remains steadfastly committed to truth and journalistic integrity--democracy is not possible. We are reduced to captive, ignorant prisoners in Plato's metaphorical cave, entertained by the shadows on the walls.

Yet we are living in an era of unprecedented crackdown on journalists and an attempt to criminalize, through draconian laws like the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the very work they do. The Obama administration has overseen more prosecutions of government whistleblowers than any other administration in history. President Obama has invoked the 1917 Espionage Act twice as many times as all previous presidents combined.

This has created a chilling effect among government insiders and sources. As a result, according to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, "Investigative reporting has come to a standstill."

Independent muckraking journalism has played an integral role in American history. From Ida Tarbell's expose on John D. Rockefeller in the early 20th century; to Upton Sinclair's inside look at the unsanitary, inhumane working conditions in the Chicago meat factories chronicled in The Jungle; to I.F. Stone and Edward R. Murrow's takedown of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s; and Seymour Hersh's horrific revelations of the My Lai Massacre in the Vietnam War and, years later, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse in Iraq.

"It is the responsibility of journalists to go where the silence is," writes Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman in her book, Breaking the Sound Barrier (Haymarket Books, 2009), "to seek out news and people who are ignored..."

She continues:

What is typically presented as news analysis is, for the most part, a small circle of pundits who know so little about so much, explaining the world to us and getting it so wrong. While they may appear to differ, they are quibbling over how quickly the bombs should be dropped, not asking whether they should be dropped at all (p. 1).
So do not labor long over NBC's recent corporate assault on democracy. It is, in the end, so much bread and circuses for a dying empire.

You can watch Brian Williams's entire interview with Edward Snowden below.

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