Sunday, May 19, 2019

Where did the tradition of journalists speaking truth to power go?

Requiem for a (sort of) free press in the U.S

Image Credit: Chelsea Nesvig/flickr

It’s easy to let time and nostalgia get in the way of remembering what American journalism was really like back in the last century. Certainly it was not all Watergate and Pentagon Papers exposés, and even those two prime examples of the media’s standing up to government threats and taking on the powerful were not easy to get past the owners and managers of the media and into print and on the air.

That said, it’s clear to me – a journalist who’s seen a lot over my 47 years in the business – that what we have today in the US in terms of what passes for journalism in the corporate mainstream is a pale imitation of what we had back in the 1960s and ‘70s.

We got a glimpse how badly the profession and the news media themselves have decayed in a complaint made public Friday by a reporter who quit NBC News.

William M. Arkin, a long-time investigative reporter at NBC News, offers a scathing criticism of the employer he left after 30 years with the network. In an email message to his NBC News bosses and to the colleagues he is leaving, Arkin, one of the few reporters in the mainstream media to insist, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq by US forces, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – the argument the Bush/Cheney Administration used to justify a war of aggression against that country in 2003 – wrote:

            “I argued endlessly with MSNBC about all things national security for years, doing the daily blah, blah, blah in Secaucus, but also poking at the conventional wisdom of everyone from [Chris] Matthews to [John] Hockenberry. And yet I feel like I’ve failed to convey this larger truth about the hopelessness of our way of doing things, especially disheartened to watch NBC and much of the rest of the news media somehow become a defender of Washington and the system.”

Author of the book American Coup, about the encroaching fascism of the Patriot Act and the whole sprawling federal post-9/11 Homeland Security operation, Arkin wrote, referring to the failure of the Obama administration to offer any real change or to slow or reverse that fascist trend:

“Somewhere in all of that, and particularly as the social media wave began, it was clear that NBC (like the rest of the news media) could no longer keep up with the world. Added to that was the intellectual challenge of how to report our new kind of wars when there were no real fronts and no actual measures of success. To me there is also a larger problem: though they produce nothing that resembles actual safety and security, the national security leaders and generals we have are allowed to do their thing unmolested. Despite being at ‘war,’ no great wartime leaders or visionaries are emerging. There is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict. And though there might be the beloved perfumed princes in the form of the Petraeus’ and Wes Clarks’, or the so-called warrior monks like Mattis and McMaster, we’ve had more than a generation of national security leaders who sadly and fraudulently have done little of consequence. And yet we (and others) embrace them, even the highly partisan formers who masquerade as ‘analysts’. We do so ignoring the empirical truth of what they have wrought: There is not one country in the Middle East that is safer today than it was 18 years ago. Indeed the world becomes ever more polarized and dangerous.”

He concludes:

“For me I realized how out of step I was when I looked at Trump’s various bumbling intuitions: his desire to improve relations with Russia, to denuclearize North Korea, to get out of the Middle East, to question why we are fighting in Africa, even in his attacks on the intelligence community and the FBI.  Of course he is an ignorant and incompetent impostor. And yet I’m alarmed at how quick NBC is to mechanically argue the contrary, to be in favor of policies that just spell more conflict and more war. Really? We shouldn’t get out Syria? We shouldn’t go for the bold move of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula?  Even on Russia, though we should be concerned about the brittleness of our democracy that it is so vulnerable to manipulation, do we really yearn for the Cold War? And don’t even get me started with the FBI: What? We now lionize this historically destructive institution?”

A good indication of how badly the corporate media have fallen, becoming in effect, propaganda organs for the National Security State, is how the long pursuit of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is reported in the national media. Over the years, Assange’s Wikileaks creation provided the US media and the American and global public with some of the most important stories of the era – from the hard visual evidence of unpunished US war crimes in Iraq to epic political corruption on a global scale in the Panama Papers, and to evidence, in the form of purloined Hillary Clinton and Democratic National Committee emails, of both massive pay-to-play corruption on the part of the Clinton Foundation and of a corrupted Democratic presidential primary that deliberately skewed the whole campaign in favor of Clinton, fatally sabotaging the upstart campaign of her rival Sen. Bernie Sanders. Yet instead of winning Pulitzers for his organization’s investigative efforts, which led to headline stories in US, British and other countries newscasts and newspapers, news organizations, have toed the official government line in shamelessly attacking and smearing Assange, dismissing his legitimate fear of facing decades of prison or worse at the hands of US federal prosecutors who have a secret indictment waiting for him if they can get Ecuador to toss him out of their Embassy in London where he currently has asylum.

When I was a young reporter in Los Angeles, working for the Chicago Tribune-owned Los Angeles Daily News as a county government bureau chief, I found myself accused by the paper’s managing editor of being “anti-business” because of an article I wrote highlighting how the county employee pension fund was invested heavily in the very same Fortune-100 companies that U of C students up and down the state were occupying administrative offices over, demanding that they be removed from university investment portfolios because of their support for South African apartheid policies.

When the story was not published – the first time I’d had that done to a story I’d written – I complained about the ME’s justification for the censorship to my Executive Editor. He met me for lunch and counseled having local County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who represented the largely black Watts region of the county, get credit for the story instead of presenting it as the result of my and the paper’s own investigative work. I said I would be quitting my job over that, explaining that I couldn’t work for a paper that had such poor journalism standards and that offered such a critique of an employee.

Of course I was objectively “anti-business” in the sense that I saw the profit-obsessed workings of giant corporations like GM, Exxon and IBM in propping up a repressive racist regime in South Africa as criminal! But I was reporting fairly on the statewide student protest against that scandal, and saw how the county’s pension fund, which served a large number of African-American workers, was guilty of the same ethical blindness in its portfolio of investments. I felt it was a timely and important story.

I have many friends in the journalism profession who have similarly left or lost jobs for insisting on upholding journalistic integrity in the face of corporate pressure not to report a story. There are many more cases where reporters taking such stands led to stories being published over the objections of senior managers.

I’m afraid, however, that that battle is being lost today. The mere fact that Arkin’s public resignation from NBC is so dramatic shows how rare it is for working journalists to take a stand today. Perhaps it is because jobs in the news media are so much harder to come by in an era of mass layoffs, downsizing and the folding of so many news organizations. Back in the late ‘60s it wasn’t exactly easy to get a start in journalism (it took me a year to land a reporting job after graduating from college), but it was at least possible, and for those who had experience, leaving one job for another was not that difficult. In my own case, I didn’t have to be particularly heroic in taking a stand when my article was blocked at the Daily News. I was able to move quickly from that job to one as an investigative reporter/producer at KCET-TV’s “28-Tonight” investigative news program, actually earning a slightly higher salary into the bargain.

That would be harder to do these days.

Still, the cost of media concentration and corporate consolidation has been dear when it comes to truth and access to reliable and critical information about what is going on in the country and the world. The level of ignorance among the American public about critical issues like the metastasizing police state apparatus, about US imperial policy around the globe, about the vast political power of the military-industrial complex, about the true scale of the threat posed by climate change, and even about such things as the real scale of entrenched poverty in America, is incredible. It is why there is such public support for more spending on law enforcement, for cutting of welfare programs like Food Stamps and Medicaid, for attacks on immigration, and for ending laws limiting carbon emissions by vehicles, power plants and factories.

It’s not that there aren’t sources of accurate information about all these things and more in the alternative media sphere – online publications that practice quality journalism like Counterpunch, Consortium News, Truthdig and this publication, ThisCantBeHappening.net – but because people have to actively search out those sources of information, while the corporate media are readily available and in-your-face on newspaper front pages and on TV, they can’t really compete. This is true even with the help of social media, which tend only to reinforce the views of those who are already convinced, effectively amplifying the divide between the informed and the misinformed.

In my own work, I’ve seen how this works most recently with the cover story I just did for the Nation magazine. Exposing how the Pentagon has, for decades, been committing an epic fraud in its “accounting for its vast expenditures on war and weapons, the article: “Exclusive: The Pentagon’s Massive Accounting Fraud Exposed” elicited tremendous response in the alternative media, with literally dozens of local and national radio news programs asking for interviews, and many online news sites running links to the full story on the Nation’s website. Yet to date, not one single corporate media news department has reported on the story, either citing the Nation, or having their own staff report on it. No corporate newsroom or program host has asked to schedule an interview. Not one, although this story explains that the Pentagon has been literally fraudulently and deliberately making up its budget numbers in submissions to Congressional oversight committees, creating over $21 trillion in fake numbers over the course of just 17 years with the goal of deceiving Congress and the public, and getting ever higher budget allocations unjustifiably.

The only mainstream news organization to even mention the story was the Washington Post, and then it was only to attack newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for tweeting, only slightly inaccurately, that the Nation article showed there was enough “secret funds” available at the Pentagon to finance two-thirds of the cost of a Medicare-for-All program for ten years. Ironically, the Post “fact check” column said the Nation article was “accurate,” but that Representative-elect Ocasio has “gotten it wrong.”

One would think that if the Nation article “had it right,” someone at the Post would have then reported on the story itself, but that was not of interest to the Bezos rag in DC. Only trashing a new progressive, self-described socialist member of Congress was on the agenda there.

And that’s basically where things are now with our national news media. Some news organizations like MSNBC, CNN, the NY Times and the Washington Post may think that attacking the Trump administration and its policies counts as being bold and journalistically upstanding. But standing firmly for the Establishment – especially when it comes to U.S. imperial policies and U.S. militarism, and keeping any serious critique of what we, back in the ‘60s, disparagingly and accurately referred to as “the System,” safely beyond of the realm of broad and accepted public discourse – as they are simultaneously doing,  gives the lie to their self-serving mischaracterization of the supposedly commendable  “Fourth Estate” role they are playing.

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