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The news you don’t know, and what to do about it

Forgive me for being so presumptuous, but I suspect that even the well informed are unaware of some of the most remarkable international news in recent weeks. Now if this supposition is correct then ask yourself, dear reader, for we will surely agree about the significance of the following — whether a corporate dominated media and democracy are indeed compatible?

My three selections are all American in origin but it goes without saying, at a time when there are extraordinary renditions and secret prisons on every continent, global in their import.

On 9 June Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich spent five hours on the floor of the House of Representatives reciting 35 articles of impeachment against George Bush ranging from electoral fraud to illegally invading Iraq. Despite considerable opposition from his own party, who appear only too willing to have it buried in red tape, Kucinich has vowed to re-introduce the motion every 30 days until hearings are held.

On 17 June the Senate Armed Services Committee met to analyse previously classified documents that show how senior officials in the Bush administration countenanced the use of torture, even though every branch of the military raised concerns about its legality. It was revealed that six years ago, the general council for Donald Rumsfeld’s department of defence started “reverse engineering” the US military’s preparation of pilots to withstand trauma at the imagined hands of rogue regimes, so as to become an integral part of the interrogation of detainees in their own custody. Simultaneously, a number of high-ranking government lawyers signed off opinions sanctioning this departure from a variety of international laws. Minutes from a meeting held in Guantanamo, for instance, reveal that a senior CIA lawyer told those present, “[Torture] is basically subject to perception. If the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong”.

On 18 June the group Physicians for Human Rights published a 130-page report, Broken Laws, Broken Lives, providing medical evidence substantiating claims of torture by eleven men held in US prison camps overseas. The report is shocking to say the least: One detainee describes being sodomised with a broomstick and then made to howl like a dog while a soldier urinated on him. All men were released without charge.

This damning statement by a now retired Major General, Antonio Taguba, who first investigated the abuse at Abu Ghraib, prefaces the report:

“After years of disclosures by [note] government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account?”

Is a motion by a Congressman to impeach a US President, the concern of the military about the illegality of its own systemic instructions, or the stomach churning details of a report on torture compiled by doctors from Cambridge, Massachusetts, not headline news? Where then are the analyses, the comments and the debates?

I searched the New York Times, a paper of gravitas if not “of record”, and there was not one editorial opinion pertaining to the above, just five reports consisting together of about 2292 words. To give you give an indication of how inadequate that is I will have at end of this sentence written 549.

But let’s say, to be fair, because I cannot possibly survey the entire world wide web, that there are indeed a few commentators who have joined the dots: Gavin Younge’s recent analysis in the Guardian a case in point. So what? Is none of this worthy of being printed on the first page of a newspaper and thereby — exactly, say, like Zimbabwe in the case of the same New York Times — grab the attention (CIA say torture “basically subject to perception”) of a wider audience?

I’m also not highlighting the exceptions to the rule here.

How many know that a Spanish court has charged three US soldiers with the murder of a couple of journalists in, what is claimed, was a deliberate attack on the Iraqi hotel that they and other unembedded media were staying in 2003, and that the US refuses to extradite them; or that a number of cameramen in the employ of Al Jazeera, CBS and AP, including Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Bilal Hussein, have been imprisoned; or that only one journalist — a single journalist — on assignment for Mother Jones, covered the full court martial of the highest ranking officer charged in the Abu Ghraib scandal, and that he got off with a mere reprimand?

Naomi Wolf in her book, The End Of America: Letter Of Warning To A Young Patriot, makes the case that American reporters are facing an increasing number of investigations and subpoenas, and that this has intimidated some members of the fourth estate. The fascistic drift of this current US administration, and the extent of the resultant fear, is certainly part of any explanation.

Another recent example of the neglect of noteworthy news was a speech by the veteran journalist, Bill Moyers, delivered at the National Media Reform Conference in Minneapolis on 7 June. Moyers provides a structural analysis and the bulk of his critique is directed against the corporate media:

“As conglomerates swallow up newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, and broadcast outlets, news organizations are folded into entertainment divisions. The “news hole” in the print media shrinks to make room for ads, celebrities, nonsense…and the news we need to know slips from sight”.

Recently, for instance, the new owner of the Tribune Company, Sam Zell, told his journalists at the Los Angeles Times that he does not have a perspective about the civic responsibilities of newspapers. “I am a businessman. All the matters in the end is the bottom line”, he said. True to his word Zell is, according to the Wall Street Journal, planning on eliminating 500 pages of news a week from across his twelve newspapers.

This degeneration — what the investment firm of Piper Jaffray approvingly calls the new business media model of “communitainment” — is not unlike a capitalist Pravda wherein information is first and foremost capital, and loyalty to the self-interest of oligarchs determines what’s fit to print for the public.

Some of the most egregious examples of this inherent conflict between capitalist media and the democratic interest are to be found in the interlocking of Internet companies and Chinese totalitarianism: Cisco has supplied the hardware for the Great Firewall, Google has built a made-to-order Chinese search engine, Microsoft has removed political blogs, and Yahoo has handed over e-mail account information that has led to the arrest of, among others, a prominent Chinese journalist.

And then there is, of course, Rupert Murdoch who, for fear of upsetting Beijing, personally intervened to prevent Harper Collins from publishing the book it had acquired from the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. Bruce Dover, Murdoch’s then Vice-President in China, says Murdoch bellowed, “Kill the ****ing book”. The Chinese were, apparently, impressed by this “anticipatory compliance” because, as it turns out, they didn’t even know about the book’s existence in the first place!

What the above aptly demonstrates is that when profit is put before liberty itself, then accuracy and veracity cannot function. And without a deep commitment to that horse-and-buggy couple, neither can democracy, for as Wolf points out, “the [fundamental] fascist lie is the assertion that truth is not a marker anymore”.

Here’s another question — that is all too telling: Which presidential candidate favours impeachment and would be prepared to see George Bush prosecuted “for criminal and anti-constitutional behaviour” even after he leaves office?

He’s the one you won’t hear much of or see much written about? That’s right: Ralph Nader. And the black out that surrounds his message of “subordinating corporate power to the sovereignty of the people” is a study in capitalist censorship.

Nader’s “irrelevancy”, it should be noted, is not intellectual or moral but, because he’s the only candidate who problematises the two faces of a one-party corporate system, structural. He is simply too challenging of corporate interests to be given his fair share of time in the corporate media. To adapt Marshall McLuhan: The capitalist medium is the only message.

Just consider all these distortions and elisions and you will understand why Moyers is troubled about the future of democracy in America. His speech in Minneapolis, redolent of the great American journalist Edward R. Murrow, deserves to be read by many more people:

“Why does it matter? What does the media do, anyway? I’ll let an old Cherokee chief answer that. I heard this story a long time ago – of the tribal elder who was telling his grandson about the battle the old man was waging inside himself. He said, “It is between two wolves, my son. One is an evil wolf: Anger, envy, sorrow, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is the good wolf: Joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The boy thought this over for a minute, and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee replied simply: “The one I feed.” Democracy is that way: The wolf that wins is the one we feed, and the media provides the fodder”.

The most definitive example of the malevolent wolf is of course the invasion of Iraq, based on the fraudulent lies not just of politicians but of the media. Let’s not forget how all of Murdoch’s 175 newspapers spanning three continents editorialised in favour of the war. Let’s not forget that their master’s voice told us that, “The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy… would be $20 a barrel for oil”. And let’s not forget how Dick Cheney afterwards thanked the media for its services.

The funny thing is that, after over 1 000 000 mostly civilian dead, Iraq — pretext, context and reality — is no longer news. In a recent article in the New York Times you can read why US coverage of Iraq is being “massively scaled back”. It’s a “financial” decision we are being told. Remember what Wolf said about truth? It’s just not a marker anymore.

Permit me to return for one moment to Congressman Kucinich who has asked America, “What are we afraid of, that we’re afraid to look into violations of law by this president?” The answer is not to be found in the brutal detention without trail of, according to the US government own figures, at least 26 000 people, but in the very stranglehold that corporate media has on the body politic. Kucinich’s motion was referred to the House Judiciary Committee and this is what the otherwise sympathetic Chair, Congressman John Conyers, said:

“There is a very stark reality that with the corporatisation of the media, we could end up with turning people who should be documented in history as making many profound errors and violating the Constitution from villains into victims”.

And this reservation and timidity from the head of a body with jurisdiction, mind you, over administrative practice and civil liberties!

The good news — amongst the very, very bad — is that there are alternatives. After all, how was I able to find the information for this post?

So in conclusion, I thought I would share my regular public media fodder so that, hopefully, we can better debate with access to better information how to solve the interrelated problems we face wherever we are. In doing this we start to produce — to borrow an Eastern European word for an effective response to Pravda journalism — reliable samizdat, or self-publishing, in a variety of forms, not least of which is conversation.

In the same way I appreciated the courageous independence of the Weekly Mail, and the Vrye Weekblad to speak truth to Apartheid, I am today obliged to the following in helping to evaluate whether what’s in a mainstream newspaper is indeed the news:

  • AlterNet
  • Bill Moyers Journal
  • Democracy Now
  • Electric Politics
  • Z-Net