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(DV) Goldsmith: Scandology 101







Scandalology 101
by Patricia Goldsmith
January 17, 2006

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Nothing is more stultifying than one-party rule. It’s a simple rule of perception that unchanging sameness -- they always win, no matter what -- dulls the senses. My feeling is that right now the American people are taking a little breather. They got through the war on Christmas and that’s enough for now. The Dow Jones hit 11,000 for the first time since 9/11. People are drinking more, smoking more, sleeping. Burrowing into their families. Going to see Brokeback Mountain (I highly recommend it). Working. Above all, they are ignoring. They are tuning out the political process, because it is nothing but nonsense and stuff they can’t do anything about. 

They same is true for activists. Constant focus on the puppets who are out front can only lead to feelings of futility. We have to start thinking about the players behind the scenes. It’s time to go back to the beginning and try to understand our enemy. Time to consider the question, who is the enemy. 

For example, I’ve gotten into the unconscious habit of thinking of journalists as reluctant accomplices to this rightwing takeover, as unhappy, hijacked professionals much like the experts in the State Department -- and, for that matter, the experts throughout government. I think that because I forget that the media are their own best apologists. The truth is, the corporate media are leading this revolution, not merely following along and scavenging.  

Consider the Abramoff scandal. This is undeniably the worst corruption scandal in our country’s history, easily out-doing Tea Pot Dome, not only because it’s international in scope, but because it represents the engineering of what Tom DeLay modestly refers to as permanent majority status. That spectacular feat was accomplished by means of the so-called K Street Project, which mandated that the Republican Party and all its members would henceforth deal only with Republican lobbyists. 

I realize the Democrats are blameless only because they were ruthlessly cut out of the action, but it’s still a treat watching Wolf Blitzer trying to twist the facts to fit the bipartisan scenario demanded by the RNC talking points of the day. I highly recommend this video of Blitzer interviewing Howard Dean for a little comic relief.

It’s time we learned the rudiments of “scandalology,” as John Dean calls it in his excellent book, Worse Than Watergate. For a scandal to be a scandal, Dean says, the media must certify it. When Newsweek’s Howard Fineman said of Bill Clinton at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, “We have to wonder whether we can continue to respect ourselves as a people if a man like this remains president,” he was expressing exactly the kind of moral outrage that makes a scandal.  

If the media have the power to manufacture a crisis, as with the Clinton impeachment, conversely, “if the media learn of a transgression and fail to react, there is no scandal.” In a very real sense, our mass media establish the rules governing public and political decency.  

In that regard, Plamegate set a benchmark in the journalistic management of Bush-based scandals: suddenly, after years and years of hearing about the “character issue,” the accepted standard for press censure of a president became criminal indictments. And even after the indictment, pundits argued that the indictments were too few, or for puny crimes (i.e., perjury instead of treason).  

Bob Woodward was one of those publicly scoffing at the seriousness of the charges. The Washington Post quoted Mr. Woodward as saying of Plamegate that ultimately “there is going to be nothing to it. And it is a shame. And the special prosecutor in the case, his behavior, in my view, has been disgraceful.” Furthermore, Woodward warned, Fitzgerald “made a big mistake” in going after Judy Miller. 

But that was before someone in the White House tipped Fitzgerald that Woodward knew about Plame even before Libby did. After he got caught, Mr. Woodward started singing a much less bellicose tune. Suddenly it was “pretty frightening” that Judy went to jail. 

“I hunkered down,” Woodward said in an interview. “I’m in the habit of keeping secrets. I didn’t want anything out there that was going to get me subpoenaed.” 

Woodward is, of course, famous for his part in the prototypical media scandal of our times, Watergate. One could argue that the arc of Woodward’s career perfectly describes the whole trajectory of media in the electronic age. In the early seventies, the media landscape was highly diversified. Virtually all cities and most towns had their own independent newspapers. There were a large number of independently owned radio stations, rooted in the communities they served, and FCC regulations for radio and television included the now fairness and equal time doctrines. 

In the seventies, the Times published the Pentagon papers and the Post competed with the Watergate story. The regulated press performed their function as economic competitors to each other and adversaries to unbridled and secretive government. Because of the press, Richard Nixon resigned. The political class did their bit, too, certainly, but the press acted as the public conscience. The press enforced and enacted respect for the law. 

Thirty years down the road things have changed just a bit. Now Woodward is not only a managing editor at the Post, but he has a sweetheart deal where he can sit on scoops he gathers for his books in return for serializing them first in the Post. Good for him, bad for us. Very, very bad for us, as it turns out. The hero of Watergate has become a wealthy businessman. 

But that’s only possible because of a lot of other changes that have occurred. It took years of work, years of capitalist indoctrination -- greed is good, greed is good, greed works -- but bit by bit the FCC regulations designed to prevent the kind of propaganda machine built by the Third Reich have been chipped away: equal time, fairness, the laws against consolidation and monopoly. The result: Rupert Murdoch’s dark parody of equal time and fairness, “fair and balanced” news. 

George W. Bush is Rupert Murdoch’s star personality, and worth every damn billion. 

Rupert Murdoch is the undeniable leader of the corporate media consortium; all the other networks have been good and Foxified. Roger Ailes, Murdoch’s news genius, is rolling out the Fox method to the network affiliates, closing up any gaps in their total control of the message. (There can be no greater compliment from a pundit than that someone’s “on message.”) Fox is certainly holding up the broadcast end of the Total Information Awareness campaign, with emphasis on the word total.  

Public Broadcasting, however, has the potential to surpass even Fox. Think what a network under the control of a Republican Congress and a Republican White House will one day be capable of doing. Money buys a very long view. 

Until recently, it’s my feeling that a lot of the control exerted was purely economic. By insisting that newsgathering and journalism -- which in the past had been viewed as loss-leaders and part of the price of doing business -- achieve profit margins similar to the selling of soap and cereal, corporate executives effectively insured superficial coverage without ever taking a red pencil to an editorial. According to an article in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta (October 10, 2005), high profit targets and consequent cuts in personnel have been at the heart of a conflict at the LA Times.  

The corporate executives in the case scoff at such an elitist caricature of the dispute:  

Journalists express dismay that bottom-line pressures are reducing the quality of news coverage. What this actually means is that when competition is intense, providers of a service are forced to give the consumer what he or she wants, not what they, as proud professionals, think the consumer should want, or, more bluntly, what they want. 

But now, taking the next step, failure to hit profit targets not only means cutting people, but direct intervention in shaping editorial content, a significant benchmark in corporate management of the message. Tribune chain executives cashiered the LA Times liberal columnist Robert Scheer in favor of a rightwing columnist Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism. (Have you noticed that there’s been a lot of rightwing effort to co-opt and nullify the word fascist lately?) Scheer says that the publisher who fired him, Jeff Johnson “is an accountant who cares nothing at all about a free press and cares nothing about journalism, he’s a right winger who supported the war ... who told people two years ago he couldn’t stand a word that I wrote.” 

The entire Knight-Ridder chain, which includes the Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Miami Herald, is allegedly facing sale because of irritation in some quarters with the negative stories they’ve been breaking. The feeling on the right seems to be if you don’t like the news, buy a paper and change it.  

The White House’s demand that news services doctor the transcript of a Scott McClellan press conference is another benchmark of sorts. If we ever get used to them tinkering with the public record, reality itself may become obsolete. 

It’s time to start attacking the messengers. When Chris Matthews tells us that George W. Bush sometimes glimmers with “sunny nobility,” you know that the only economic competition in this market is in seeing who can kiss the most neocon butt, proof positive that media giants are no more capable of self-regulation than the coal mining industry.  

Here’s another Matthews nugget: “Everybody sort of likes the president, except for the real whack-jobs, maybe on the left.” And another: “I think this is the brilliant political move here by the president, forcing the Democratic carpers and complainers to come forward, and say, ‘Alright, you don’t like my strategy for victory in Iraq? Vote against it. Go ahead, make my day.’ This is Clint Eastwood stuff.” 

I have to ask myself, do they have something on this guy, or was he born this way? I hope for his sake it’s the former. This is the voice of the left on the network news channels, folks. When is someone going to have the guts to ask Matthews point-blank when he runs one of these numbers if he’s getting payola. 

To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the media is the scandal. 

Patricia Goldsmith is a member of Long Island Media Watch, a grassroots free media and democracy watchdog group. She can be reached at: plgoldsmith@optonline.net.