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By David Podvin
The sweet illusion that a free press exists in America has once again brutally collided with the bitter reality that journalistic freedom is severely limited by financial considerations. Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone has ordered his CBS broadcasting subsidiary to cancel its scheduled airing of the docudrama “The Reagans” because the show’s impartial tone had generated objections from the Republican Party. Viacom is dependent upon the GOP for the broadcasting deregulations and tax cuts that sustain the corporation, so it acceded to the demand that the offending program must never appear on CBS. Technically, Viacom had the constitutional right to financially self-destruct by alienating its benefactors and incurring the consequences of being disobedient. Realistically, Redstone opted for self-preservation by submitting to government pressure, just as businessmen routinely capitulate in Third World dictatorships that make no star spangled pretense of liberty.
Redstone has now publicly granted to the Republicans the same de facto veto authority over his network’s entertainment programming that the GOP has long privately possessed over the news division. In the aftermath of 9/11, CBS News Managing Editor Dan Rather granted an interview to a European periodical in which he cryptically complained that American journalists were “not allowed to tell the truth”. Rather refused to elaborate on the factor that was inhibiting them, but the Reagan docudrama fiasco has elaborated for him. The incident is the latest evidence that the autonomy claimed by the communications conglomerates is a mirage. The reality is that, for America’s media companies, the bottom line trumps all other considerations, and maintaining their profits requires submitting to the Republican politicians who champion corporate welfare.
The general perception of the docudrama surrender has been that CBS caved in to conservative activists, but this analysis ignores that the network has long been notorious for its dismissive attitude toward viewers’ objections to programming content. Liberal columnists who condemn CBS for accommodating right wing agitators like Grover Norquist are missing what Deep Throat called “the overall”. Redstone’s personal involvement shows that this was not a case of the company mollifying activists - this was a matter of Viacom genuflecting before its financial patron, the Republican Party. It was GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie who personally demanded and received cancellation of the program. While Redstone couldn’t care less about alienating Norquist, he could not afford to provoke Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, House leader Tom DeLay, or the Republican administration that dictates corporate tax and broadcasting deregulation policy.
Several years ago, CBS aired a docudrama about President John F. Kennedy in which JFK was presented in an extremely negative light. This is the same CBS that has been labeled “the most liberal of all the broadcast networks” by conservative media critic Brent Bozell. It is clear that, even at the most liberal mainstream media outlets, there exists a double standard in which Democratic icons are fair game for critique while their Republican counterparts are not. The same duplicity is apparent in the political coverage that is presented by America’s corporate newsrooms, and for the same reason: money. When Redstone was interviewed last year, he defined Viacom’s mission as “increasing shareholder value to the maximum extent possible”. That goal would be obliterated if the fine print in the next FCC ruling were to be written in a way designed to benefit network competitors News Corp and General Electric and Disney at Viacom’s expense.
The docudrama incident also reveals that the federal government and the corporate media develop official storylines from which dissent will not be tolerated. In this case, the gospel is that Ronald Reagan is the American equivalent of the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Lenin – he is the Father of the Revolution who must be presented to the public as an infallible deity. When Viacom/CBS failed to toe the invisible (but very real) line that separates being “mainstream” from being “fringe”, it was slapped down, prompting its chairman to promise to be more servile.
Specious official storylines of greater significance than Reagan’s legacy are constantly developed and force-fed to the American people. A recent example is the pre-war claim about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was a contrivance that the government and the corporate media jointly marketed to the public. The official storyline was that Iraq posed an imminent danger to the United States. The corporate media – all of it – knew without being told that to deviate from the Republican-approved version of reality would guarantee being rebuked and forced to back down, which is what just happened to Viacom. The companies that report news share a mercantile interest compelling them to conform to the acceptable (and profitable) establishment viewpoint, and this factor produces an echo chamber in place of journalism.
The incestuous relationship between the GOP and the corporate media serves to subvert democracy by providing the public with narratives that are designed to ensure the desired electoral result. One unified message currently under development posits that former General Wesley Clark is morally and psychologically unfit to be president of the United States. During the last few weeks, the mainstream media has repeatedly libeled Clark as a liar and derided the general for being a pompous egotist whose all-consuming ambition has left him contemptibly out of touch with reality.
It was inevitable that the major broadcast and print outlets would target Clark for the journalistic equivalent of the Rodney King treatment. The arrival of a Democratic military hero on the political scene has created a serious problem for George W. Bush, and therefore has created a serious problem for the multinational communications conglomerates that are dependent on Bush for government largesse. Using any previously accepted historical measure, Bush has been a miserable failure during his tenure in office. He has presided over the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history, stewarded the economy to a net loss of almost three million jobs, created the largest budget deficit ever, and overseen three consecutive years of increases in violent crime. To retain power, he must now frighten the electorate into believing that the Democrats are dangerously weak on defense, particularly as it pertains to the terrorist threat.
The presence of General Clark on the Democratic ticket would jeopardize Bush’s political survival. Clark has already proven to be a credible authority on defense matters who is extremely persuasive in placing the blame for the events of September 11, 2001 directly where it belongs – on the commander-in-chief. As Washington political analyst Charlie Cook said just after Clark announced his candidacy, "For the White House, it is particularly important that Clark's credibility be impeached as soon as possible." In order to ensure that Bush maintains the ability to continue to transfer public wealth to the communications industry, America’s corporate media has recently begun the essential task at hand: the destruction of Wesley Clark.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore are men of substance whom the mainstream media could not subdue by reporting facts, so the men were slimed beyond recognition using rumor, innuendo, and outright lies. Clark’s impressive personal and professional background has also left America’s journalists without the necessary ammunition to damage him by telling the truth. That has not proven to be a deterrent. Clark announced his presidential candidacy less than two months ago, but the negative storyline is already forming and will soon dominate the coverage.
The first line of attack against the general is that he is “mentally unfit” to lead America. The Washington Post is initially assuming the lead role in discrediting Clark, and its resident presidential briefing book thief, George F. Will, has labeled Clark “deranged”. Mr. Will contends Clark accused the White House of a conspiracy to knock him off CNN, a charge that Will presents as proof that the general is a lunatic. Clark never actually made any such accusation, but that fact is subservient to the bigger picture: the Post pays Will a lot of money to help shape the national political debate in a way that best enhances the corporation’s bottom line.
That is precisely what the columnist was doing by beginning the process of demonizing Clark. Will’s false allegation was designed to get the media ball rolling on the “Clark Bays At The Moon” storyline, and it worked. His assertion that Clark’s sanity should be an issue has been picked up by Fox News and some of the television pundits. If the 2000 campaign serves as a precedent, they will soon be joined in questioning the general’s mental health by ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the other major media outlets.
Will’s fable has already become a staple of openly Republican talk radio, that sleazy netherworld of fictive ranting which was an accurate leading indicator of the blatantly absurd media attacks launched against Clinton and Gore. The cesspool that is conservative talk radio may be at the low end of the media food chain, but it is vitally important in amplifying storylines. Ominously for Clark, the mantra being chanted on talk radio is: “Some people have voiced concern about the general’s mental stability.”
Of course, the “some people” being referenced actually consist of one (1) bow tied, pseudo-intellectual partisan deceiver. However, four years ago it only took one shameless liar at The New York Times to start the avalanche of lies that eventually engulfed Al Gore. The Will slur against Clark is being constantly repeated, so unless it is aggressively challenged, the “Gore Claims To Have Invented The Internet” phenomenon will take effect as fact is supplanted by the repetition of fiction.
The second dimension of the press assault on Clark tars him as being “dishonest”. In a reprise of the smearing of Gore, the Washington Post printed this statement that was syndicated across America: "There are an awful lot of people," said a retired four-star general, "who believe Wes will tell anybody what they want to hear and tell somebody the exact opposite five minutes later." This is a classic example of using innuendo to assail someone’s honor without the slightest shred of proof. It is not journalism – it is calumny, but that doesn’t matter to the Post, which knows it must alter the truth to enhance the storyline.
One of America’s highest profile journalists is currently straining mightily to popularize the charge that Clark is dishonest. The chief political correspondent of the Washington Post Company’s Newsweek magazine is Howard Fineman, who wrote in September that Clark said he would have become a Republican “if only Karl Rove had returned my calls.” Fineman’s objective, reliable sources for this devastating proof that Clark is a rank opportunist were Bill Owens and Marc Holtzman. Owens is the reactionary Republican governor of Colorado. Holtzman is a former member of Owens’ cabinet.
After Fineman’s targeted character assassination hit the newsstands, it was echoed by the major television networks. Fox News loudly demanded to know more details regarding Clark’s relationship with Rove. Finally perceiving a scandal that merited full disclosure, the Bush administration immediately released phone records showing that Clark had never called Rove at the White House. Brit Hume was soon on the air thundering that Rove could not have returned Clark’s calls because Clark didn’t call! According to the pundits, all of this Lewis Carroll-style nonsense led to an incriminating syllogism: If Clark said he called Rove without mentioning where he called him, and Clark didn’t call Rove at the White House, then Clark had provably been deceptive. It was this line of reasoning that led the nation’s chattering class to conclude that General Wesley K. Clark is a LIAR! LIAR! LIAR! in the nefarious tradition of Carter and Mondale and Dukakis and Clinton and Gore and Anyone The Democrats Nominate Next.
Clark responded by saying the two Republicans had mischaracterized his remarks, which is highly plausible since it seems unlikely that a Democratic presidential candidate confided to a pair of Bush supporters that he lacks any sincere political convictions. However, the entire point of this convoluted ritual was to establish that Clark is dishonest. Therefore, regardless of the plausibility of his explanation, the emerging storyline is that there are serious questions about Wesley Clark’s willingness to tell the truth and whether he can be entrusted with high public office.
An unsubstantiated allegation by Republicans, supported by nonexistent Republican evidence, all reported and analyzed as fact by employees of the corporate media that is beholden to the Republican Party and – VOILA! – yet another Democratic liar is born. Rove desperately wants to prevent Clark from being on the Democratic ticket, so these machinations will accelerate in frequency and intensify in malice as the campaign continues.
This squalor is what passes for journalism in present-day America. It could be dismissed as superhuman incompetence if only the quid pro quo were not so unavoidably obvious: huge taxpayer-subsidized profits for the media giants in exchange for Republican control of what Americans get to see and hear. Such expediency is a perversion of the system Madison and Jefferson had in mind when they insisted a free press must thrive in order to maintain the well-informed electorate that is essential to a properly functioning democracy.
For all practical purposes, freedom of the press in America is a comforting myth. The vast majority of citizens make political decisions based on false information received from corporate news organizations that are loath to report anything that alienates the Republicans who control the industry’s future. Raging against this corporate amorality by calling it cowardice misses the essential point: it is commerce. Corporations ultimately do not care about politics or journalism – they care about money.
The existence of that pressure point offers the potential for positive change. In order to restore ethics to journalism, people who value democracy will have to fight back. Patriots must find a method for conveying to the communications conglomerates that an intolerable monetary price will be exacted if their news organizations continue to lie. Honorable reporting will make a comeback the moment it becomes more lucrative than dishonorable reporting. Until that happens, the overwhelming financial pressure being exerted by the Republican Party guarantees that mainstream American journalists will continue substituting partisan propaganda for reality while veering ever further to the right.
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