Friday, July 08, 2011

Some Transparency into Conservative Media Influence and Methods

by Gary Berg-Cross

As I’ve said before, our tribe of Secular Humanists, atheists, freethinker etc. are (by and large) a skeptical and critical-thinking lot. We like to know how things work and what’s behind it. We don’t like a superficial story and learn from experience and we like to pass on insights that come from that experience. We don’t like people who bend the facts or hype things into hot button stories. We like the Greek and Enlightenment constructions of fairness and balance more than what comes from ideological media. We are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to alternative views but are willing to adopt hypotheses based in evidence. But even for us living in a torrent of “information” sometimes it takes a scandalous crisis to provide transparency to expose how things really work and confirm lingering suspicions. For a brief time scandal raises attention enough to get the news media to pierce through the din of what seems like distracted coverage of important topics. In such circumstances non-main stream analysis gets presented and events sometimes confirm minority-view hypotheses. We see the uncomfortable reality of how things like power and ideology weave together to make business as usual.

Examples of post-crisis illuminations include the eventual exposure of how the Iraq war was sold to us by the Bush Administration’s with a mix of co-opted news media, the relations people financial interests and politicians or financial institutions and rating agencies that precipitated an economic crash and rolling unemployment as far as the political eye can see. In each case bad policy and politics had disastrous consequences and we many of us got the story from the 4th estate too late. Maybe these should have been obvious to us, and it was to some, but skeptical voices were generally muted in the larger conversation while the megaphone was turned up for official policy. Sadly our largely corporate media largely reflected an inside elite view with a fine tuned skepticism that was largely reserved for non-conformist voices (see my Thoughtful and Shallow Skepticism more more on this aspect of skepticism. Afterwards we get closer to the real story leading to a feeling of frustration and new questions. Matt Taibbi framed the new post-Wall Street meltdown question in the title of his Rolling Stone article - Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail? He is not the only one to observe that no top banker (or bank) has faced serious consequences for their actions in the financial crisis:

Lehman Brothers hid billions in loans from its investors. Bank of America lied about billions in bonuses. Goldman Sachs failed to tell clients how it put together the born-to-lose toxic mortgage deals it was selling. What's more, many of these companies had corporate chieftains whose actions cost investors billions — from AIG derivatives chief Joe Cassano, who assured investors they would not lose even "one dollar" just months before his unit imploded, to the $263 million in compensation that former Lehman chief Dick "The Gorilla" Fuld conveniently failed to disclose. Yet not one of them has faced time behind bars.

Yet inside the institutions and media many knew that there would be an eventual problem. They were just afraid to be the first to blow the whistle. There can be consequences for bucking the consensus of powerful people before it is fashionable. There is all that opposition that can be thrown at a skeptical voice. You can be sued, for example - Analyst Was Punished For Blowing The Whistle On Wall Street . Indeed when powerful people escape responsibility for their actions it is a message to future whistle blowers and allies. The message is "don’t bother; we punish the messenger of bad news". This is sometimes describe as “no good deed goes unpunished”. At the least groups with power can drag it out so that many can’t sustain the effort. In 2004, a Wall Street banker blew the whistle on abusive tax shelters used by Enron and other big companies. He testified about his experience before Congress (anonymously as “Mr. ABC”) noting that a big problem with whistle blowing is that even federal agency’s seem intimidated about battle giant companies. After all, the big guys have networks of friends in high places, loud lobby voices and the ear of the Media (think Fox and the Wall Street Journal). There is “resistance to take seriously outside information from knowledgeable insiders.” This side of Wikileaks not everyone yields to the threat, but it is likely that many are chilled. In the 2010 election we lost many progressive voices including a very ethical Russ Feingold, who opposed against FISA, and a vigorous Alan Grayson, who was outspoken against things like Too Big to Fail banks. Neither endeared them to various lobby groups backed by enormous financial power of multinational/national corporations and out of state interests. There are host of organized interests that can go after people. Some are targeted by religious groups, others by the NRA gun lobby, anti-government groups or financial interests. The message is to not speak up on issues of the dogs will come out. That was the case with Feingold & Grayson and earlier with Cynthia McKinney who was targeted by AIPAC for calling for a degree of fairness and balance in our Middle East policy. For all of these reasons important topics go without serious discussion.

I was reminded of this complex of reporting, intimidation, political connections and punishment when I read about the scandal around Murdock’s British News of the World (NOW), a rough and tumble tabloid, famous for manufacturing the wrong kind of news, but also part of a news group pushing a political ideology.

Here in the States we have seen the propaganda techniques used to influence the American public. Now one (and probably more than one) British component of the News Corp empire seems to have slipped from the merely sleazy, indecent and immoral to the illegal. Phone hacking of private voice mail which apparently has been going on six years since the London bombings, which saw 52 people murdered and 700 injured. Reluctantly it seems after being pressed to stop earlier investigations, the police are investigating whether the mobile phones of several of those who lost family members in those attacks were hacked by private investigators hired by the News of the World. Getting the inside scoop never seemed so sleazy and we are now hear that as many as 4000 people may have had their phone messages listened to. The British accepted a loss or privacy for celebrities, but finally the scope of invasion has exceeded the public taste and the dam has broken. For a discussion of various privacy issues involved see What price privacy now?).

Among employees NOW is infamous for relentless pressure for attention gathering “results” (aka News) including paying police officers for information. But it may be part of a much larger cultural picture of how powerful interests operate and have compromised if not corrupted society at several levels. According to a government report the younger James Murdoch approved a 700,000-pound payment to a phone-hacking victim that was accompanied by a non-disclosure agreement. This smells of an organize a "cover-up." Consistent with this, there are claims that NOW paid off police officers investigating this and that police backed off of investigations and cooperated with NOW for favorable news NOW coverage. There are reports that this was partly due to bribes, but also to avoid being the target of unfavorable press and/or to avoid political pressure. Why political pressure? Well Murdock's empire can apply so much pressure that candidates don't even temp crossing him. Prime Minster Cameron's has links with former Murdoch executives most notably Andy Coulson, deputy editor of NOW in 2000. In 2007, Coulson was hired by David Cameron as the Conservative Party's director of communication. He was tasked with the Foxian idea of bringing a bit of tabloid liveliness to Cameron's staid party. Or you could say make it more like the contemporary Republican Party. Andy Coulson became a key adviser in Cameron’s campaign. Cameron needed a press person and as a Labor party leader put it:

"Coulson is ruthless and will go to any lengths to serve his master. I will be his master and he my attack dog" It worked and Cameron is now a PM. Coulson knew how to get the message out to the people, but also how to make the opposition look bad.

Pols need to avoid such negative coverage (based in oppositional analysis) and thus we have see even liberal politicians courting Murdock’s media. For decades British pols have had to had to develop some working (if not close) relations with Murdock if only to avoid being tarred in the tabloids. Labor’s Tony Blair flew to Australia to address a meeting of News Corp executive in the mid-1990s as he sought to woo Mr. Murdoch for his up eventual campaign. Hillary Clinton seemed to have a similar “understanding” with Murdock during her campaign:

"They have a respectful and cordial relationship. He has respect for the work she has done on behalf of New York. I wouldn't say it was illustrative of a close ongoing relationship.” See Rupert Murdoch Loves Hillary Clinton.

It's a forms of soft corruption and acceptance of a dubious practice. I personally saw some changed atmosphere when in 2008 I had conservative friends of mine smilingly tell me that I would be surprised of who they liked in the Democratic primary. Like Murdock they were switching from all those negative things they said and believed about Hillary in the 90s. That’s when conservatives marshaled supporters and paid consultants to investigate the Clinton’s. People look into all aspects of a target's life including legal or criminal, medical, educational, financial, public, private and military service and voting records, as well as prior media coverage. Now it's emails and voice mail too. For Hillary that opposition research and propaganda was then. Now she is RELATIVELY OK.

But the message is chilling to other candidates who on the liberal side risk being knocked out over things that don’t seem to trouble Newt G or others.

So it is a good thing to be getting a bit of transparency into how power media and politics works. Hopefully people will pay attention and assimilate the message. Be skeptical and consider the sources.

For a time the public is being informed about the way things work. Hopefully we won’t be distracted by the next Big News Thing such as politician’s bus trips or the details of a big religious breakfast meeting. There are more important things to understand in these times and we can't afford to lose fair, and on balance, quality people like a Feingold or a Grayson.


Don Wharton said...

Al Gore would have been President instead of Bush if were not for Fox News. Our nation and the entirety of our world dynamics would be substantially different if the bias, lies and twisted corruption of that bunch had not created their consequences.

lucette said...

What about Gore? Did he really want to be President? His decision on which counties should be included in the recount made him the predetermined loser. And maybe the satisfied, happy loser. He did not fight intelligently and did not feel any obligation to the people who voted for him.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

In something as complex as a national election that are a huge range of factors that lead to the outcome. When things are close we can pick out one or two that contributed and say THAT was the difference. They all are, but it is natural to look at NEW factors and trends. Voter suppression in FL and TX was also a factor and why did Gore lost TN?

Gary Berg-Cross said...

The impact of bottom line, ideological outlets like FOX is captured in a posting called "Why I quit my job" but Canadian CTV reporter Kai Nagata.

Consider Fox News. What the Murdoch model demonstrated was that facts and truth could be replaced by ideology, with viewership and revenue going up. Simply put, you can tell less truth and make more money. When you have to balance the interests of your shareholders against the interests of the viewers you supposedly serve, the firewall between the boardroom and the newsroom becomes a very important bulwark indeed. CTV, in my experience, maintains high standards in factual accuracy. Its editorial staff is composed of fair-minded critical thinkers. But there is an underlying tension between “what the people want to see” and “the important stories we should be bringing to people”. I remember as the latest takeover was all but finalized, Bellmedia executives came to talk about “growing eyeballs” in the “specialty channels”. What they meant was, sports are profitable – so as long they keep raking in cash, we can keep funding underperforming assets like our news division.