Sunday, June 26, 2005

The right's push to rein in the press


I doubt many informed Americans -- independents and moderate Republicans as well as Democrats -- would mistake Chuck Hagel for a liberal. The Nebraska Republican, a possible presidential candidate, has backed the United Nations nomination of John Bolton and steered clear of the dozen so-called Democratic and Republican moderates in the Senate who forged a compromise to duck the "nuclear option" threatened by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to keep Democrats from filibustering judicial nominees.

If you asked Sen. Hagel, I'll bet he'd label himself a conservative. But Hagel, a veteran, doesn't march in lockstep with his party or its president. He's more than once criticized presidential policies that have turned Iraq into a sinkhole of savagery for American troops and a fiscal and morale drain with no exit strategy. For that criticism, The New York Times reported, Fred Mann awarded Chuck Hagel an "L" for liberal. That's right. Not "M" for moderate or "I" for independent. "L" for liberal.

Now you may well wonder who Fred Mann is. He's not a household name. He is a government "consultant" paid $14,170 by the Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to spy on the guests of Bill Moyers' "Now" and classify them as liberal or conservative. Tomlinson would tell you this is part of his plan to make public television more "fair" and "balanced." You may be familiar with that term. Rupert Murdoch has made many millions using it as the logo for his right-wing propaganda machine pawned off as news: the Fox Network.

Then again, you may not care. Certainly Mann's second-rate spying seems a harmless and rather piddling practice at first disclosure. His check was hardly enough to pay for a modest congressional junket to South Korea or Northern Ireland. But keep in mind that Mr. Tomlinson is the man who this week appointed a former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee as president of the corporation, whose umbrella covers PBS and National Public Radio. Keep in mind the rash of revelations earlier this year of so-called reporters on the payroll of various public agencies of the government. Keep in mind the power of so-called independent bloggers who with remarkable coordination pushed Eason Jordan to resign as top news executive of CNN and Dan Rather to hasten his resignation as anchor for CBS News. Yes, keep those things in mind and the outline of something more insidious begins to emerge.

Where one news spy made news, others could well be in the shadows. Where a handful of paid journalists for traditional media outlets caused a stir, others could well be operating in the relative obscurity of the blogosphere, ready to wave their flag as citizen-journalists rather than propagandists for the White House or one of its political arms.

Having taken control of Congress and the White House, America's right wing knows it need only control the courts and the media to win the quadrafecta: Control of the US government's decision-making apparatus and much of what is said about it. Though that's an ominous thought, I'll grant that even avid conspiracy-theorists on the left probably would concede it won't be easy to pull off in this country. But then, I never thought I'd be reading popular opinion polls that suggest a majority of Americans aren't terribly troubled by American troops and interrogators torturing suspected -- note the operative word is "suspected" -- terrorists.
A public's rights, I'm suggesting, are only as good as public's concern that they being upheld.

There are some small signs of late that the public -- that indefinable mass -- is getting a bit more restless and the press a tad more courageous. Dick Cheney has been roasted for saying the Iraq war is in its "final throes." It looks like John Bolton will need to sneak in the back door to take over the post of United Nations ambassador. The president's popularity is near its nadir and support for his social security plan is lower. And the forever polite and apologetic Democrats even showed the nerve to call for Karl Rove's resignation. (Which, of course, they didn't get.) These are but a few of the signs that America's drift toward autocracy may be stalling.

But push back by press and public could prompt the president's men to push their agenda that much harder. In the arena of news, that would mean efforts to slow independent public broadcasting by trying to control it from within and to intimidate traditional media by what I suspect are paid plants on talk radio and in the blogosphere. The question is, will the news media continue to cover these pressure on themselves as they build? Or will they duck?

Writing about the situation in public broadcasting, New York Times Sunday columnist Frank Rich writes: "The intent is not to kill off PBS and NPR but to castrate them by quietly annexing their news and public affairs operations to the larger state propaganda machine that the Bush White House has been steadily constructing at taxpayers' expense."

I hope people outside and inside government are watching -- and as Rich suggests, singing.
"What's most likely to save the independent voice of public broadcasting from these thugs," he writes, "is a rising chorus of Deep Throats."

And what's likely to counter the growing and well-orchestrated chorus of right-wing talk show hosts and bloggers is investigative reporting that checks out who they are, where they're getting their talking points, and whether and by whom they are being paid.


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October 1, 2005 at 8:40 PM  

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