|IT'S THE MEDIA, STUPID!
The Republican Noise Machine: Right-wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy (Crown; 2004)
David Brock, former right-wing insider and attack dog who came clean in his previous book, Blinded by the Right, is now exposing media malpractice at www.mediamatters.org. The Republican Noise Machine is available at your favorite bookstore.
Why does the Republican Party control all three branches of government? Why do fewer people identify with the Democratic Party today than at any time since the New Deal? Why does conservatism seem to be the people's choice and liberalism a cult of pointy-headed professors, environmental wackos, and Hollywood kooks?
David Brock's answer is: It's the media, stupid.
If you've ever wondered why the country has taken such a hard right turn or why so many people robotically repeat the same catalog of ignorant opinions and outright lies, David Brock has the answer in his new book, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy. Liberally borrowing from propaganda machines of the pastmost notably that of the former Soviet Uniona vast "alternative" media has been created by a handful of right-wing tycoons over the past thirty years that has effectively propagandized a significant segment of the population.
Developed to counter perceived bias in the mainstream media, this new media delivers bias on steroids. With no purpose other than advancing an agendathe right-wing agendathis media has ditched traditional journalistic standards of objectivity and the search for truth and replaced them with flimsy "research," intellectually dishonest opinions, and slanted news. Bullied by scorn and charges of "liberal bias," the mainstream media has followed suit in a growing trend toward "balance" that has increasingly allowed opinion and patriotic bluster into the mix.
The effect has been a media landscape that begins to resemble the state-run machines of totalitarian governments and a public so misinformed it is incapable of acting on reliable information in its own self-interest, an alarming turn of events in a supposed democracy.
A virtual textbook on the art and craft of propaganda, Brock's book catalogs the array of techniques currently in use by persuaders on the right through a vast matrix of think tanks, TV pundits, radio talk show hosts, publishers, Internet sites, and cable networks such as Fox News. The reader will follow the development of the modern conservative movement from its foundation in frustration with a media that often ignored or laughed off its viewpoint to its current dominance of the culture. Confident that their point of view was intuitively correct, liberals twiddled their thumbs and watched in disbelief as their political influence evaporated. Coordinating the movement, Brock reports, archconservative mastermind Grover Norquist holds weekly meetings where conservative leaders engineer the latest spin....
Although not endorsing the idea of "a vast right wing conspiracy," Brock writes that the character assassinations and false rumors that seem to afflict any and all opponents of the right wing prove a "pattern." Brock asks us to:
• Consider the emergence of a media empire that, while appearing to be part of the mainstream media, are in effect merely an arm of the Republican Party injecting right-wing talking points into the news.
Typical of this pattern was the deluxe treatment Al Gore received during the run-up to the 2000 election. Formerly considered by colleagues as an "overly earnest Boy Scout," Gore was quickly converted into a pathological liar and nutcase suffering from various delusions, most notably that he "invented the internet." Although the attacks were based on manufactured distortions, mainstream outlets soon joined in the daily pounding and Gore's "honest/trustworthy" ranking plummeted although his opponent, Bush, had "shaded the truth and misstated facts throughout the campaign on everything from the size of Gore's federal spending proposals to his own record as governor of Texas." "Among white, college-educated, male voters, Gore's 'untruthfulness' was cited overwhelmingly as a reason not to vote for him...."
• Consider propaganda factories, masquerading as not-for-profit think tanks in pursuit of legitimate academic inquiry, set up by conservative billionaires solely to further business interests, the wealthy, and the cultural right. Think tanks with a mission to provide "research," based on bogus claims, cooked statistics, or other gimmicks, for no purpose other than rebutting academic studies, law professors, scientists, weapons inspectors, etc. Think tanks to invent buzzwords and semantic tricks like "junk science," "flat tax," "trial lawyers," "family values," "activist judges," "trickle down," "political correctness," "school choice," etc., to subtly manipulate sympathies and change the meaning of the debate. By 1997, the top conservative "think tanks" such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute were, on average, cited in the mass media almost three times more often than other sources. In a recent campaign speech, even President Bush routinely cited a fallacious A.E.I. report to bash his opponent's health care insurance plan as though it were from an independent, reputable source.
• Consider media moguls hiring pundits to write such aptly named screeds as Arrogance, Bias, Slander, and Treason, and then buying up tens of thousands of copies to create the impression these are noteworthy books. Dozens of fallacy-ridden books, plugged into the right-wing network, have shot to the top of the charts through bulk sales, book club giveaways, magazine subscription bonuses, and fawning talk radio chatter.
• Consider the most watched cable news network, Fox News, treats President George W. Bush like a member of the family but caricaturizes challenger John Kerry as a waffling Frenchman. Meanwhile, things are going swimmingly in Iraq with "big, fat fish coming out of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers," and "the Baghdadi equestrian club open for business." "U.S. soldiers have less of a chance of dying from all causes in Iraq than citizens have of being murdered in California," Brit Hume crowed. In a study conducted by PIPA at the University of Maryland in October 2003, a pattern of "the more you watch, the less you know" was discovered....
• And finally, consider a co-opted mainstream media that, emulating the "successful" Fox News Channel, increasingly does no better. Jumping on the bandwagon for war in Iraq and repeating administration misstatements, they failed to uncover the truth. Instead of showing the daily horrors of war and asking tough questions, the networks hired generals to tell us about logistics and what weapons should be deployed. Such was media compliance that no real opposition to Bush's Iraq misadventure gained any traction, even among Democrats, and, in the period between 9/11 and the Iraq War, even criticism of the president or his policies became "unpatriotic," resulting in boycotts, accusations of anti-Americanism, firings, and a general chilling of dissent. Meanwhile, in a classic case of conflict of interest, parent corporations of media outlets that insufficiently investigated the case for war and then became cheerleaders for it are enjoying fabulous profits from that war. In recent months, both The New York Times and The Washington Post have belatedly issued apologies for failing to cover the Bush administration's rush to war with the skepticism and investigative diligence it deserved. Nevertheless, false pro-war assertions from Republican leaders still go unchallenged by the mass media and a widespread belief in this disinformation continues unabated.
A crucial factor in staging the right wing takeover of the media was the creation of a belief in the myth of "liberal bias." Tens of millions have been spent to inculcate the idea, which is now assumed by most Americans to be a proven fact, resting most famously on a flawed study released in 1996 by the Freedom Forum (see Resources below). Even 47% of all Democrats buy into it, although a convincing case of the opposite can just as easily be made. Ironically, the fact that so many believe in "liberal bias" is a tribute to right-wing power in the media.
It may be said that all news, all journalism, is biased. Right-wing pundits will say that this is the end of the story; everything is biased and right-biased media are just balancing existent left-biased media: balance rather than objectivity should be the journalistic standard. However, this idea represents a major break from the traditions of professional journalism.
Schools of journalism have always taught that the most important standard of journalism is objectivity. When these schools were established it was assumed that democracy depends on the informed consent of the people, and informed consent depends on accurate information impartially gathered and presented. Thus, the mission of journalism was seen as providing citizens quality information, impartially, on which to base their decisions. Constitutional provisions allowing for an independent, investigative media to protect the public from the powerful had been set in place by the nation's founders, and it was the duty of the media to fulfill this mandate. This is the defining difference between media that serve the public interest and state-run propaganda machines. The goal of objectivity, however unattainable, must be sought. Democracy, it was thought, depends on it.
Balance, on the other hand, had enjoyed an important, but problematic role in the media....
The primacy of judgment and objectivity didn't work for the right, however. Their ideas were not automatically validated by impartial inquiry. The standards themselves would need to be changed: balance would have to replace impartiality. Under this standard essentially no standard at all any crackpot theory that promoted the right-wing cause could get equal time in the name of balance. Opinion, which can't be proved wrong, could stand next to responsible journalism as though it were equally valid.
With the right wing media systematically presenting an all-spin zone, and the mainstream corporate media warped by the "balance" imperative or merely reflecting commercial interests, Brock makes an excellent case that the media are no longer serving democratic ideals and that there is a vital need for truly independent media.
While this book brilliantly illuminates an issue of fundamental importance to the American public and provides historical background that is missing in less thoughtful treatments, a couple of minor caveats must be noted. The book does throw around labels such as Far Right, neocons, etc., which are ill-defined and seem too much like the rhetoric Brock is lambasting, and he represents the right as putting up a monolithic front when, in reality, there are differences among the pundits he cites and many currents in the conservative stream. Some will be unable to forgive Brock the self-admitted sins of his previous life "I was delivering a truckload of nonfacts, half-truths, and innuendos..." but he more than makes amends in this well-researched tour de force that convincingly makes the case for a Republican noise machine that distorts every public issue in every news cycle to the detriment of democracy.
Propaganda Pollutes Journalism
It is not possible for us to gather the news for ourselves: no one personally witnesses the events of the day; no one investigates and verifies the facts that become available. We depend on the media to do this for us. We choose our sources of information, take what they say on faith, and make our decisions accordingly. But how do we know if our favorite sources of news deserve our trust?
Propaganda machines of the past were often not very effective. Everyone knew they were all spin, all the time. But these are much more sophisticated times and modern propaganda in America has advanced to a fine artit manipulates the national agenda and tilts elections. Media organizations with agendas are deliberately blurring the lines between journalism and propaganda. Billions of dollars are at stake. At its "best," this propaganda is so subtle people don't even realize it.
How To Fight Back
It's not usually feasible to investigate every media story, but you can make an attempt to take the authors' motivations, alliances, and commercial interests into account. Fight media pollution by getting your news from a wide variety of sources: broadcast, print, online, and whenever possible, directly from colleagues and friends. Look past the broadcast news headline services and opinion-dominated radio. Don't ignore a story just because you happen to disagree with the commentator; look for honest brokers of information. Become super-sensitive to "spin." Avoid news sources that generate more heat than light on a topic.
The bottom line: Don't take anything at face value, sample a wide variety of sources, and keep asking questions.
Send your comments to reviewer Douglas Fox in care of email@example.com.
Check out Brock's website, which provides much documentation of the right-wing media empire and the misstatements of a host of conservative icons, at http://mediamatters.org/, and his mea culpa, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative (Crown, 2002).
Excellent resources on the concentration of media ownership, hyper-commercialism, inadequate journalism, and the blurring of lines between news, opinion, and entertainment are The Problem of the Media, by Robert McChesney, and The New Media Monopoly, by Ben H. Bagdikian.
For more on the "liberal bias" controversy, see What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, by Eric Alterman (Basic Books, 2003), which provides ample research that the media is not dominated by liberal voices; that indeed, conservatives have been quietly thrilled for years about their success in controlling the national agenda through the media. The Freedom Forum poll is deconstructed in Chapter 2.
Also see Robert Greenwald's documentary movie, Out-foxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, for an exposé of Fox News's "race to the bottom" in television news as revealed by former Fox employees who were forced to push management's right-wing agenda or lose their jobs. "To suggest that the on-air talent and producers are free to report the news as they see fit is disingenuous at best," an anonymous employee says. Greenwald's other documentaries, Unprecedented and Uncovered, cover media failures during the 2000 election and the Iraq War.
Tired of fluff and right wing spin? For a daily dose of news from a source decidedly not pro-government or pro-corporate, listen to Democracy Now! hosted by journalist Amy Goodman on Pacifica Radio, "the only independent media network in the U.S." An excellent introduction to Goodman and the independent media is her book, The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media that Love Them (Hyperion, 2004). More at http://www.democracynow.org/
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