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Quarter Mil for a Shill:
So Much for a Free Press

by Mark Drolette
January 24, 2005

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The Bushies really should have come to me before bribing -- uh, hiring; no, no, I was right the first time -- right-wing commentator Armstrong Williams to shill for the federal No Child Left Behind Act in his newspaper columns and on his radio and TV show “The Right Side.” According to Eunice Moscoso of the Cox News Service, Williams raked in $240,000 for his best Fox faux facts impersonation.

I would have saved the administration (well, us taxpayers, actually) a wad of scratch by charging a lot less than ol’ Army.  True, my political views are about as conservative as Dubya’s speech is eloquent, and (understatement just ahead) I’m also not quite as well-known as Williams (whom Moscoso identifies as “a prominent black conservative voice” with columns appearing in “various newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, USA Today and the Washington Times”), but perhaps the White House has some connections in the media somewhere and could put in a good word with somebody willing to help an eager, wet-behind-the-ears, 48-year-old corporate media rookie get started on his way to talking head stardom and mountains of unearned cash.

Nah, just kiddin’.  For one thing, I could never assist in promoting the hideous Bush agenda. Not unless, somehow, I was doing it unwittingly, like, say, if I’d been beheaded per orders from Dubya (or, more likely, Karl Rove) and my noggin was then displayed on one of those spiky-things in the White House fence as a warning for journalists not to start taking all that First Amendment stuff too seriously.

For another, I also happen to know, unlike the old Armster, that the number one asset of any journalist worth his/her pay off -- er, paycheck -- is credibility.  And just how do I know this?

Well, I sure didn’t learn it in journalism school, which could possibly be because I never went.  Just attribute it to intuition; either that, or the fact I apparently have at least one functioning gray cell somewhere.  (Conspiratorial, whispery voice here: One doesn’t have to be Albert Einstein, or even Alfred E. Newman, to figure it out.)  Thus, when “in an interview, Williams attributed his mistake to a lack of training in journalism” (as reported by David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times), he’s only diggin’ that hole deeper.

The most basic problem, of course, is that Williams is obviously not a journalist but still plays one on TV.  With my sincerest apologies to members of the world’s oldest profession, he’s a whore -- a very dangerous, democracy-destroying whore -- much more suited to joining the streetwalkers union than any to which real journalists might apply.  (Chances are slim, though, the hookers would take him; professional integrity, you know.)

Williams, however, still seeks to semantically split hairs while in damage control mode when he claims, per Moscoso, “that although he [is] a commentator, and not a journalist, he still should abide by the same ethical standards.”  (Funny how ethics come up after checks have been cashed and beans spilled.)

Whatever he decides to call himself, he’s still a member of the media, the now-verified government house organ that systematically dishes swill to millions of Americans who regrettably believe that the (dis)information they receive can somehow better qualify them to participate in America’s (now-dead) democratic system.

Naturally, the White House has trotted out its standard reply when it’s been popped yet again, claiming that Graftgate is an “isolated incident.”  ‘Fraid not: this is far from the first time the Bushies have been caught shamelessly shelling to shills to sugarcoat shitty shenanigans.  Here are other “apparent efforts by the Bush administration to influence media coverage,” per Mosocso:

“The General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said…that the Office of National Drug Control Policy broke federal law when it produced and distributed packaged news segments about drug use among the nation's youth.  The GAO said the videos, broadcast by nearly 300 stations, amounted to ‘covert propaganda’ because they were not identified as government-made.”

“The GAO scolded the White House in May [2004] for creating television news spots that promoted the new Medicare law, which is intended to help older Americans with the costs of their prescription medicines.  The segments had actors posing as television reporters.”

“Also last year, the Department of Education paid a public relations firm to rate the reporting on the No Child Left Behind Act of writers from 13 newspapers so that those with low scores could be ‘targeted for doing more education about the issue.’”

“Television news shows in more than 20 cities last year included a pre-packaged, favorable story about the federal student loan program that wasn't identified as taxpayer-financed.  The story was prepared as a ‘video news release’ for the Department of Education by Ketchum, Inc.”

One thing about criticizing the Bushies: It’s almost impossible to engage in hyperbole.  (The qualifying “almost” almost isn’t necessary.)  “Democracy-destroying” and “(now-dead) democratic system” are not flippant lip-flappings.  Laurence W. Britt’s article “Fascism Anyone?,” appearing in the Spring 2003 issue of Free Inquiry magazine, lists fourteen “basic characteristics” of fascist regimes (this is number six):

A controlled mass media.  Under some [fascist] regimes, the mass media were under strict direct control and could be relied upon never to stray from the party line.  Other regimes exercised more subtle power to ensure media orthodoxy.  Methods included the control of licensing and access to resources, economic pressure, appeals to patriotism, and implied threats.  The leaders of the mass media were often politically compatible with the power elite.  The result was usually success in keeping the general public unaware of the regimes’ excesses.”

Personally, I kind of think “bribing media pundits” would fit rather nicely inside that “methods” part.  ‘Course, maybe that’s just me.

A free press is essential to keeping a democratic system healthy and its government honest.  This latest sleazy episode only confirms further that American corporate media are a definite part of the problem and cannot be counted on to help provide the solution needed to chase the dark shadow of fascism now cloaking our nation.  (A rare exception is Frank Rich’s scathing take on the Williams matter in the January 13 New York Times -- in the, uh, Arts section, sensibly.)

How many more Williamses are there?  Who are they?  How long have they been feeding Americans taxpayer-bought-and-paid-for-government-propaganda-as-news?  Given the Bush administration’s non-record in telling the truth and its absolute obsession with secrecy and spin -- plus its ability to unfailingly demonstrate it possesses not one lick of morality -- I feel uncomfortably comfortable in predicting we’ve seen but the tip of the iceberg.

Personal reflection upon the recent death and tragic story of investigative reporter Gary Webb finally drove it home for me: The American press is not going to “wake up” and save us.  We, the people, must challenge the corporate media with a communications network of our own, and the Internet is the obvious candidate to be its central component.  We must all assist as much as we can with donations of money and/or content to worthy “alternative” media websites.

The Bushies are no dummies (well, with one notable exception): They and their filthily wealthy right-wing pals and partners have, for years, sought (and now gained) control of the media in the United States because they know that controlling the media means controlling the message, and controlling the message is a proven means of controlling the masses.  We must as quickly as possible gain the media upper hand to disseminate our message -- the truth -- to have any kind of a shot at regaining control of our political destiny.

Make no mistake: This is a fight for our freedom.  Though actual terrorists who wish to injure the United States undoubtedly exist beyond our borders, those who are best positioned to bring this country forever to its knees are headquartered well within its boundaries: at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I’ll give Georgie Bush and the Bushie Bunch this much, however: They couldn’t make it any simpler for those of us who comment on today’s American political landscape to do so, because searching for a topic just isn’t a problem and a lot of columns roll right on out.  I even sometimes wonder if media critics during Mussolini’s regime had it this easy.

What, you can’t name any?  Neither can I.  Which is actually kind of the whole point. 

Mark Drolette is a political satirist/commentator who lives in Sacramento, California. He can be reached at: Copyright © 2005 Mark Drolette. All rights reserved.

Other Articles by Mark Drolette

* Lifetime Detainment: No Pros, All Cons
* J. Kenneth Blackwell: A Man All for Democracy, Except, Uh, When He’s Not
* The Mother of All Reports
* Are We There Yet?

* To the Viktor Go the Spoils