Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- January 2. 2004

Don't Give Up on the Media

By Ernest Partridge 
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers



The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers... [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper."

Thomas Jefferson

We must not give up on the media – we must not assume that the media’s shameless promotion of George Bush is immutable -- for if the corporate media continues its present course and repeats its performance of 2000, Bush has a lock on the election.

In case you haven't noticed, even now the mighty pro-Bush-GOP Wurlitzer is well into its overture. Remember the Gore caricature -- self-promoter, reinventor, and liar ("inventing the internet" and all that)? Now consider the emerging media portrait of Howard Dean: radical-liberal, erratic, negative, angry, and a fore-ordained loser. (John Kerry has now been disqualified for the highest office by the media. Why? He "looks French," puts Swiss cheese in his Philly sandwiches, and pays too much for his haircuts, does his own manicures. Serious stuff).

And now the latest meme: Democrats are "deranged." The theme was introduced, almost simultaneously, by Charles Krauthammer, Tucker Carlson, William Safire and David Brooks, and now resounds in cable (so-called) "news" channels and AM radio. (See Maureen Farrell: "America Unhinged").  Were one of a paranoid bent (i.e. "deranged") one even might suspect some sort of coordination in this attack, say by the RNC and the White House Rovians.

Meanwhile, regarding The Shrubster, the media has uttered scarcely a peep about Harkin Oil, AWOL, the deficits and national debt, the coming demise of government services, the Medicare scam, the sellout of the environment, the 9/11 coverup, the missing WMDs, and the absent Saddam-Bin Laden connection, etc.

Stalin could ask no more of Pravda.

And yet, despite all that, we must not give up on the media. The corporate media presents a formidable obstacle, but with persistent, dedicated, and above all intelligent action by the progressives, that obstacle can be compromised and overcome.

We have this much going for us. First of all, our message need not replace or overwhelm the Bushite propaganda, it need only find a modest place in the media pages and airwaves. The few progressive media such as The Nation, Democracy Now!, and the like, however honorable and dedicated, are not enough. Their voices are rarely heard beyond “the choir.” But if the opposition views were afforded a fair access to the mass media, even while facing a two-to-one disadvantage in print space and air time, the opposition would still prevail. The truth, morality and validity of the progressive message is that powerful, as the right-wing media machine well knows.

Second, the right-wing is attacking our most cherished institutions and civic values – public education, our constitutional rights, economic justice, religious tolerance, political civility – and yet dares to call itself  “conservative.”  Surely, among the corps of working journalists, there must be a significant remnant of individuals who remain aware of their responsibilities as citizens of a once-free country, and who must be alarmed by the erosion of civil liberties and economic opportunities in a country to which they claim loyalty.

Third, unlike the press in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which was both financed and controlled by the government, the American media, as commercial enterprises, depend upon the support of the public. If the prevailing policies and messages of that media are rejected by even a significant minority of the public, the media must either change or suffer financial losses.

Finally, the plain fact is that the policies of the Republican administration and party are leading the United States directly toward economic collapse, civil rebellion, and international ostracism. In terms of stark self-interest (morality and loyalty aside), the behavior of the media publishers and owners is simply irrational.  When the ship of state and its domestic economy sinks, all hands on board will sink with it. The owners and managers of the mass media either fail to understand this, or, if vaguely aware, care only for the immediate future or feel unable to reverse this tragic course as events take control. If even a few media executives come to their senses, recognize the precipice ahead, and use their voices to avoid it, then perhaps a significant portion will follow.

Breaching “The Great Wall.”

The corporate media have, at great expense and with consummate skill, thrown up a vast levee of falsehood, slander, spin and distraction, beyond which lies a sea of authenticated fact (e.g. about global warming), political tradition (our Constitution and Bill of Rights), morality (fairness and compassion) and public interest (education and social services). So far, the levee has held, and the mighty GOP media machine is determined to hold it through November 2. But surely some keepers of the levee, if they have a scrap of reality principle in their heads, must endure sleepless nights contemplating the precariousness of their situation. A slight breach in the dyke can quickly grow to a flood. Or, to change the image, a snowflake can set off an avalanche. The progressive opposition must pound relentlessly against the barrier until it cracks. Repeat, over and over: “Bush lied, and our soldiers died.” “Iraq reconstruction” is nothing more than a massive money laundering scheme whereby tax revenues flow into personal fortunes. Bush’s “tax relief” is “reverse Robin-Hoodism” – stealing from the poor to give to the rich. The bill for Bush’s deficits will be taken out of your pensions and will be presented to your children and grandchildren. Once Bush’s adoring masses begin to grasp just one or two of these stubborn truths, the others become plausible, and once it becomes “fashionable” to doubt the media hype, the flood will follow.

By relentlessly proclaiming that Bush is “unbeatable” in the 2004 election, the media is attempting to foist a self-fulfilling prophecy upon the public. This must be forcefully resisted. Bush can, in fact, be beaten, and if such a belief and resolution is widely accepted, the overthrow of the House of Bush evolves from possibility, to probability, to near inevitability. In politics, perception is reality.

Poisoning the Well.

Attention of the progressive opposition must be directed to the media itself. Thoughtful criticism can be effective, but ridicule even more so. No doubt about it, the US media appears ridiculous to journalists abroad, and the American media must constantly be reminded of this. Pratfalls by the “establishment” media should be exposed and publicized: noteworthy among these are the eight-year failure to find a scrap of corruption in the Clinton’s “Whitewater” investment, the groundless charges against nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, and Judith Miller’s promotion of the Iraqi WMD myth. Significantly, all the above were initiated and promulgated by that beacon of journalistic rectitude, the New York Times.

The media must be constantly and publicly reminded of its shameless bias in the 2000 presidential election. On the one hand the media failed to report Bush’s personal misbehavior, his manifest incompetence, and his maladministration as Texas Governor. On the other hand the media concocted slanders against Al Gore, including the infamous smears that Gore had claimed to have “invented the internet” and to have “discovered” Love Canal. A significant and influential segment of the public must put the media on notice that such behavior will not be tolerated again. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice ... not gonna fool me again.”

Editors and publishers like to tell the public that their credibility is the most cherished resource. Well, they have squandered that credibility, and we should let them know this. The Russian people have shown us the way. After decades of lies from Pravda and Izvestia, the Russian public simply ceased to believe the servile state media, and looked to the BBC and the Voice of America for reliable information. The same message should be delivered to the American whore media, as more and more of our fellow citizens turn to the Internet and to our Canadian and British cousins for the kind of responsible journalism that we once expected from our own media.

Define the contest as “above partisanship.”

Bush’s assault against our Constitution and our civil liberties, his dogmatic disregard of scientific facts and basic economic realities, his besmirching of our international reputation, and his stream of shameless lies to the American people, should put this upcoming contest beyond the realm of party politics. This election should no longer be perceived as just another bout of Democrats vs. Republicans. Moderate Republicans must finally face the fact that they no longer have a party. The advocacy of constrained government, personal privacy and accountability, international cooperation, and fiscal responsibility, once championed by the Republican Party, has now been taken over by the Democrats. Many Republicans and Libertarians have come to realize this – John Dean, Kevin Phillips and Senator Jim Jeffords come immediately to mind – and they are beginning to suspect that their best hope of recapturing their party is to promote the defeat and repudiation of the dogmatists and radicals that now control the GOP.

If a general public perception emerges that Election 2004 is no longer about Democrats vs. Republicans, but instead is recognized to be about the very survival of the American political system, then a coalition of authentic patriots will evolve that even the mighty media and Bush’s campaign millions can not overcome. Indeed, that coalition might well break the wall of media solidarity, as principled journalists defect and join it.

The Ed Murrow Moment.

Journalism is a volatile profession, singularly susceptible to dramatic initiatives by individual journalists. From history, John Peter Zenger, Thomas Paine and Lincoln Steffens immediately come to mind.

The just-completed century contained a multitude of journalists who, on their initiative and with the support of their editors and publishers, dramatically and favorably altered history. Among them: Edward R. Murrow who facilitated the well-deserved fall of Senator Joe McCarthy; Walter Cronkite, whose public statement of the futility of the Viet Nam War led LBJ to say “if I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the public;” Woodward and Bernstein, whose persistent investigation exposed the Watergate scandal and led to the resignation of Richard Nixon.

If ever there were a time for another “Murrow Moment,” this is the time. There is an abundance of potential Murrows in the commercial TV networks, well-placed to perform a public service of comparable significance. All that they lack is initiative, allegiance to principle, and courage.

They need not fear financial ruin. The leading media TV “celebs” – the Brokaws, Jenningses, Rathers, Koppels, Wallaces, et al – are all millionaires many times over, well beyond normal retirement age, and surely more than ready to enjoy an opportunity to write a few books. In the movie “The Insider,” I recall Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) telling Jules Bergman (Al Pacino), something like “I’m past the age of thinking about career goals – now I think about legacy.” Well, its time for these anchoring worthies to think about their legacies – and about their obligation to the country and the profession that has served them so well. Now, its payback time!

American journalism today is, with very few noteworthy exceptions, a disgrace. As a recent study from the University of Maryland  has demonstrated, the more an individual watches cable news stations, the more misinformed he or she is about the justifications of the Iraq war. That study and others like it should be a wake-up call to the news industry. Yet somehow it isn’t. Instead, these studies validate the success of the media as instruments of state propaganda.

And yet, American journalism has a noble history. Only the journalists can restore the profession to the honor it once held. Are there none that are prepared to do so? Is the entire journalistic profession in America totally devoid of discerning patriotic individuals, prepared to take chances? In the past, many American journalists have risked their liberties, as still others have given their lives in defense of freedom. Is it asking too much for a few well-healed and well-placed individuals to risk their jobs?

Today, our laws, our rights, our national wealth, and our national reputation are eroding before our very eyes. Within the television networks, Bill Moyers stands virtually alone as a voice of protest. When individuals of lesser stature speak out, such as Bill Maher, Phil Donahue and MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield, they are reprimanded and silenced. But just imagine Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel on camera, pulling out a privately prepared statement from his jacket and ignoring the teleprompter, and then telling it like it really is – warning the public of the disasters ahead to which the Bush policies are surely leading us.

Impossible? Inconceivable? For the vast majority of media celebrities, this is no doubt the case. But all it takes is one brave soul, or two, or three, and the others will follow. Morrow and Cronkite had the moral courage to obey the demands of conscience, and damned the consequences. Is there no one of comparable moral stature in the mass media today? We shall see.

Such an individual would be fired on the spot, of course. But what a profound statement that firing would make! Imagine next the significance of that celebrity joining public television or, still better, the progressive cable network that Al Gore is reportedly launching next month.

The most astonishing feature of the Bush administration lies, corruption, profligacy, illegality and subversion of our cherished political institutions, is that none of these things are secret – these outrages are all “out there” to be readily recognized and contemplated. Amazingly, the Busheviks and their media toadies appear to be not in the least embarrassed or threatened by the disclosure of these conditions. Why should they if, as these outrages keep on coming, the public “takes it” while the media distracts us with tales of Kobe, Jacko and Laci Peterson.

How much is too much? Is there a breaking point at which the public says “enough!” and “throw the bums out!” Or do we all, instead, just meekly stay in line as we march down this road to national ruin?

Once again, history tells us of moments of dramatic change, as the bended stick breaks, the snowball sets off the avalanche, the trickle at the dyke leads to collapse and the flood.

Think again of the hopeless odds facing Gandhi, Mandella, M. L. King, Andrei Sakharov. Recall that as the new year began in 1992, Poppy Bush’s approval ratings were in the high 80s, and few Democrats wanted the nomination and with it the certainty of a humiliating defeat in November.

If the Bush is to win in November, his campaign and his media allies must maintain the levee of lies, spin, smear and distraction that holds back the sea of facts, morality, economic justice, national reputation, and yes, of authentic patriotism. When you pause and think of it, that’s a rather tall order.

The whole rotten structure of Bushevism, however impressive on the surface, is vulnerable to assault by facts, by appeals to simple decency, compassion, justice and patriotism, and in no small part by well-aimed barbs of ridicule. Goliath is fearsome, but he could fall in an instant.

If this is to happen, the media must play a decisive role. However dismal its performance today, the journalistic profession has a history of coming to the rescue of democracy, albeit belatedly, in its time of peril. And just a few well-placed individuals might be all that it takes.

And we progressive citizens have a crucial role to play. We must plead, demand, protest, and boycott the media lackeys and their sponsors, and conversely we must support the emerging media voices of progressive dissent and their sponsors. As we boycott the scoundrels, we must tell them so. And as we support the dissenters, we must also tell them so.

We must not give up on the media, for if we do we might, in effect, be conceding the election to George Bush.

Copyright 2003 by Ernest Partridge

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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .