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From fake news to Fox News to the New York Times...
Inside the media propaganda mill

March 25, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

NICOLE COLSON and ALAN MAASS explain the dismal state of the mainstream media in the U.S. today--and argue for the importance of an independent alternative.

IT'S THE media news equivalent of a TV dinner--pre-packaged, and not very good for you. The Bush administration has been sending out "video news releases" designed to resemble independently reported broadcast news stories--so that local TV stations can run them without editing.

According to a report by the New York Times, at least 20 federal agencies have churned out hundreds of such segments since Bush first came into office--in apparent violation of provisions in annual appropriations laws that ban "covert propaganda."

They are like government infomercials--only instead of hawking rotisserie ovens or exercise machines, they sell the administration's latest policies on the "war on drugs," "regime change" in Iraq, or the relaxation of environmental regulations.

One segment produced by the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, was sent out to TV stations in January 2004 to tout the administration's Medicare prescription drug benefit plan. Local news anchors were even provided with a scripted lead-in to the segment, which shows Bush signing the legislation creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit, as a "reporter," Karen Ryan (formerly a real reporter for ABC and PBS), says that "all people with Medicare will be able to get coverage that will lower their prescription drug spending."

Public health advocates say that's simply not true. According to critics, the plan is a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry--with an estimated 61 percent of new Medicare dollars spent to buy more medicine ending up as profits for the drug makers, according to a study by two Boston University professors.

Yet millions of people wound up seeing Karen Ryan's Medicare "report" on the 40 or more stations across the country that ran some or all of it--most without any disclaimer that the "news" came straight from the Bush administration.

Other Bush administration "news" features included stage-managed segments--with interviews conducted by the State Department--on the "liberation" of Afghan women a year after the U.S. invasion, and a June 2003 piece that showed the U.S. military distributing food and water to the people of southern Iraq. "After living for decades in fear, they are now receiving assistance--and building trust--with their coalition liberators," an unidentified narrator concludes.

The practice isn't limited to the Bush administration, either. Officials in the Clinton White House put out "fake news," too.

And California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office recently admitted to sending out at least five pieces last year to shill for an end to mandatory lunch breaks for workers, cuts in the number of nurses at hospitals, cuts in teacher pay and more. The lunch-break segment included an interview with a restaurant manager, but didn't mention that the manager works for a chain that donated $21,000 to Schwarzenegger's campaign--and that faces a $10 million lawsuit over its handling of employee lunch breaks.

In three separate rulings over the past year, the General Accounting Office (GAO) declared that the segments qualify as unlawful "covert propaganda," since most viewers are never made aware that the prepackaged reports come from the government. Yet the Justice Department and Office of Management and Budget sent a memo instructing all executive branch agencies to ignore the GAO findings.

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THE PROBLEM isn't simply that politicians are trying to deceive the public by putting out their "spin." It's also a question of the willingness of the news media to go along with it.

There's the obvious example of conservative cable pundit Armstrong Williams, who was paid $241,000 by the Education Department to push the administration's No Child Left Behind Act--and syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher, who got $41,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services to defend Bush's marriage initiative. "Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?" Gallagher told the Washington Post in January. "I don't know. You tell me."

But the truth is that the corporate media today has proven mostly willing to shill for war--or nearly any other Bush administration policy--for free.

Despite the right's claim about a pervasive "liberal bias," today's biggest media stars are mostly conservatives--like Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage or Ann Coulter. The top-rated cable TV news network is, of course, Fox News--which seems to have never met a Bush administration policy it didn't approve of.

As Karen Ryan--the former journalist who appeared in the Bush administration's fake news segments--told the New York Times, making the transition wasn't that difficult. "I just did what everyone else in the industry was doing," she told the Times, adding later that being in video news releases is " almost the same thing" as being a real journalist for network television.

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MANY PEOPLE know and despise Fox News. Its slogan "fair and balanced" is a national joke. Yet even traditionally "liberal" media outlets have proven pliable to the manipulators of public opinion in Washington.

The New York Times is a case in point. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Times reporter Judith Miller was ahead of the media pack in promoting the Bush administration's claims about Iraq's supposed "weapons of mass destruction"--on the word of an Iraqi scientist who not only confirmed the existence of Iraqi chemical weapons, but described Iraq's links to al-Qaeda.

The claims were fabrications--which isn't surprising, since Miller's main "source" appears to have been Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, a favorite of Bush administration hawks who once touted him as a possible future leader in occupied Iraq.

Miller isn't apologizing, though. "My job was not to collect information and analyze it independently as an intelligence agency;" she told the New York Review of Books last year. "My job was to tell readers of the New York Times, as best as I could figure out, what people inside the governments who had very high security clearances, who were not supposed to talk to me, were saying to one another about what they thought Iraq had and did not have in the area of weapons of mass destruction."

Too bad Miller and the great liberal "paper of record" never gave the same weight to the criticisms of the U.S. war leveled by former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei or any of a number of other experts who said from the beginning that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction.

A paper like the New York Times might disagree with some aspects of the right's agenda, but it also shares many of the same assumptions, such as the "right" of the U.S. military to invade other countries--or of corporations to dominate people's lives.

As recently retired anchor and supposed liberal Dan Rather told the Boston Herald in 1991,"We're gutless. We're spineless. There's no joy in saying this, but beginning sometime in the 1980s, the American press by and large somehow began to operate on the theory that the first order of business was to be popular with the person, or organization, or institution that you cover."

Mainstream newspapers, magazines and television news departments all claim to be impartial--even Fox News does. But the truth is that the media are for-profit institutions. CBS, NBC and ABC are owned by giant corporations--Viacom, General Electric and Disney--that expect their news divisions to make money, like any other product.

As Amy Goodman, host of the Democracy Now! radio program, told Socialist Worker in 2002, "The media are the establishment. This is not a separate entity. The media are the same corporations that profit from war. During the 1991 Gulf War, at that time, CBS was owned by Westinghouse, and NBC was owned by General Electric. They made most of the parts for most of the weapons used in the war, so it's no accident that what we were watching on TV was a military hardware show. The media are the establishment, and they reinforce the establishment opinion. As Noam Chomsky says, they manufacture consent. And in times of war, they manufacture consent for war."

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IF GOODMAN is right, then it's easy to understand why conservative voices dominate the mainstream media today. As one source at ABC told TV Guide when ultra-conservative John Stossel was picked to head the news program 20/20, "These are conservative times...the network wants somebody to match the times."

This reality flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that the press is supposed to be a watchdog--safeguarding the interests of the public against the rich and powerful.

For most people, the golden era of the media was the 1970s--culminating in the investigation of the Watergate scandal that forced a disgraced President Richard Nixon from office.

But while Watergate is remembered today as a triumph of liberal journalism over a corrupt right-wing government, the establishment media--including the liberal Washington Post, which led the way in uncovering Watergate--had largely ignored the Nixon administration's heavy-handed repression against civil rights and antiwar activists. It was only when the administration began going after the Democratic Party and the media itself that the press took on Nixon in earnest.

"Protecting the public interest" often takes a backseat to protecting the government's interest--as former Post owner and publisher Katherine Graham explained at a meeting of CIA recruits in 1988. We "live in a dirty and dangerous world," said Graham. "There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets, and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows." In other words, the public's right to know extends only so far as the government--and those who run the media--decides it should.

The need for an alternative media--one that exposes the truth and that questions the assumptions the mainstream media take for granted--is greater than ever. And one is developing, especially on the Internet, where so many people now turn to get the real facts and to gain access to alternative views.

But even a strong alternative media, by itself, can't stop a war or bring down a president whose policies are causing misery for millions. For that, we need mass movements--against the war, for civil rights, for women's rights, against corporate greed--that can show our strength not just on the page or through the airwaves, but in the streets.

The real scandal of Rathergate

AS DAN Rather ended his tenure as anchor of CBS News this month, all the media talk was about the bizarre scandal that shredded his reputation last year. A segment narrated by Rather for Sixty Minutes II used documents that were exposed--suspiciously enough, on right-wing Internet blog sites within minutes of the show airing--as forgeries.

Mind you, the information in the forged documents and the contention of the segment--that Bush's family connections got him into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, and that he then skipped out of a long stretch of duty--had been verified by other journalists. But after the Sixty Minutes II show, a scandal that threatened Bush's re-election campaign disappeared--replaced by a scandal that forced Rather into semi-early retirement.

And not only that, but in choosing to air the revelations about Bush's Guard duty, CBS canceled a more important segment about how administration officials used manufactured documents to build a fraudulent case that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Africa to build nuclear weapons. In the wake of Rathergate, that story, too, faded.

The right wing rejoiced in smearing Rather--to their minds, an icon of the supposed "liberal media." But Rather summed up his real role in a comment shortly after the September 11 attacks: "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."

Rather never apologized for that remark, though he did recognize--tellingly, in an interview with Britain's BBC, not during one of his own newscasts--the consequences of reporters accepting where "to line up."

"What we are talking about here--whether one wants to recognize it or not, or call it by its proper name or not--is a form of self-censorship," Rather said in May 2002. "It starts with a feeling of patriotism within oneself. It carries through with a certain knowledge that the country as a whole felt and continues to feel this surge of patriotism within themselves. And one finds oneself saying: 'I know the right question, but you know what? This is not exactly the right time to ask it.'"

As long as the media are dominated by corporate power and cozy relationships with Washington's powerbrokers, the time to ask the "right questions" will never come.

Did the White House need a shill?

THE REAL question people should be asking about Jeff Gannon/James Guckert--the right winger who posed as a White House reporter from a Republican-connected Web site absurdly called Talon News--isn't how he got into the press room.

That's obvious enough. As Bruce Bartlett, an aide during the Reagan presidency, pointed out on a journalism Web site, if Guckert got press credentials under a false name, "the White House staff had to be involved in maintaining his cover."

No, the real question is how a Republican plant could remain unnoticed for so long by the legitimate members of the White House press corps, supposedly the cream of the crop of U.S. journalism.

"The answer," as left-wing author Dave Lindorff wrote on the CounterPunch Web site, "is that his puffball questioning of the president was not that different from the questions that are routinely asked by the mainstream reporters in that gaggle of fine suits and well-coiffed hair...In a group of real reporters, Gannon would have stood out like a sore thumb, but there aren't too many real reporters operating in Washington these days."

"Gannon" served up plenty of puffballs for Bush and his spokespeople--often enough, at the unusual moments when White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was facing tough questioning, and needed to change the subject.

He was also a conduit for every smear concocted by the Republican attack machine. There are unanswered questions about Guckert's involvement in the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame--who was identified to the media by unknown White House officials in retaliation for her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, criticizing the Bush administration's race to war.

"Mr. Guckert has at times implied that he either saw or possessed a classified memo identifying Valerie Plame as a CIA operative," wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich. "Might that memo have come from the same officials who looked after 'Jeff Gannon's' press credentials? Did Mr. Guckert have any connection with CNN's own Robert Novak, whose publication of Ms. Plame's name started this investigation in the first place?"

In the end, Gannon got away with all that. He was only caught when his "other life"--as a $200-an-hour escort, advertised on X-rated Web sites--was uncovered.

The real scandal is how well Guckert fit in as a White House "journalist." For example, Guckert asked Bush at a press conference earlier this year: "Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy...How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"

Compare that to legitimate reporter Bill Sammon of the Washington Times at Bush's press conference last week: "Mr. President, you faced a lot of skepticism in the run-up to the Iraq war, and a lot of criticism for miscalculating some of the challenges of postwar Iraq. Now that the Iraq elections seem to be triggering signs of democratization throughout the broader Middle East, do you feel any sense of vindication?"

One thing the administration certainly can feel a sense of vindication about is the lapdog character of the White House press corps.

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