A Televisual Fairyland
The US Media is Disciplined by
Corporate America into Promoting the Republican Cause
by George Monbiot
The Guardian /UK, 1/18/05 (commondreams.org)
On Thursday, the fairy king of fairyland
will be recrowned. He was elected on a platform suspended in midair
by the power of imagination. He is the leader of a band of men
who walk through ghostly realms unvisited by reality. And he remains
the most powerful person on earth.
How did this happen? How did a fantasy
president from a world of make believe come to govern a country
whose power was built on hard-headed materialism? To find out,
take a look at two squalid little stories which have been concluded
over the past 10 days.
The first involves the broadcaster CBS.
In September, its 60 Minutes program ran an investigation into
how George Bush avoided the Vietnam draft. It produced memos which
appeared to show that his squadron commander in the Texas National
Guard had been persuaded to "sugarcoat" his service
record. The program's allegations were immediately and convincingly
refuted: Republicans were able to point to evidence suggesting
the memos had been faked. Last week, following an inquiry into
the program, the producer was sacked, and three CBS executives
were forced to resign.
The incident couldn't have been more
helpful to Bush. Though there is no question that he managed to
avoid serving in Vietnam, the collapse of CBS's story suggested
that all the allegations made about his war record were false,
and the issue dropped out of the news. CBS was furiously denounced
by the rightwing pundits, with the result that between then and
the election, hardly any broadcaster dared to criticize George
Bush. Mary Mapes, the producer whom CBS fired, was the network's
most effective investigative journalist: she was the person who
helped bring the Abu Ghraib photos to public attention. If the
memos were faked, the forger was either a moron or a very smart
It's true, of course, that CBS should
have taken more care. But I think it is safe to assume that if
the network had instead broadcast unsustainable allegations about
John Kerry, none of its executives would now be looking for work.
How many people have lost their jobs, at CBS or anywhere else,
for repeating bogus stories released by the Swift Boat Veterans
for Truth about Kerry's record in Vietnam? How many were sacked
for misreporting the Jessica Lynch affair? Or for claiming that
Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear weapons program in 2003?
Or that he was buying uranium from Niger, or using mobile biological
weapons labs, or had a hand in 9/11? How many people were sacked,
during Clinton's presidency, for broadcasting outright lies about
the Whitewater affair? The answer, in all cases, is none.
You can say what you like in the US media,
as long as it helps a Republican president. But slip up once while
questioning him, and you will be torn to shreds. Even the most
groveling affirmations of loyalty won't help. The presenter of
60 Minutes, Dan Rather, is the man who once told his audience"
"George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions and,
you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell
me where." CBS is owned by the conglomerate Viacom, whose
chairman told reporters: "We believe the election of a Republican
administration is better for our company." But for Fox News
and the shockjocks syndicated by Clear Channel, Rather's faltering
attempt at investigative journalism is further evidence of "a
liberal media conspiracy".
This is not the first time something
like this has happened. In 1998, CNN made a program which claimed
that, during the Vietnam war, US special forces dropped sarin
gas on defectors who had fled to Laos. In this case, there was
plenty of evidence to support the story. But after four weeks
of furious denunciations, the network's owner, Ted Turner, publicly
apologized in terms you would expect to hear during a show trial
in North Korea: "I'll take my shirt off and beat myself bloody
on the back." CNN had erred, he said, by broadcasting the
allegations when "we didn't have evidence beyond a reasonable
doubt". As the website wsws.org has pointed out, it's hard
to think of a single investigative story - Watergate, the My Lai
massacre, Britain's arms to Iraq scandal - which could have been
proved at the time by journalists "beyond a reasonable doubt".
But Turner did what was demanded of him, with the result that,
in media fairyland, the atrocity is now deemed not to have happened.
The other squalid little story broke
three days before the CBS people were sacked. A US newspaper discovered
that Armstrong Williams, a television presenter who (among other
jobs) had a weekly slot on a syndicated TV show called America's
Black Forum, had secretly signed a $240,000 contract with the
US Department of Education. The contract required him "to
regularly comment" on George Bush's education bill "during
the course of his broadcasts" and to ensure that "Secretary
Paige [the education secretary] and other department officials
shall have the option of appearing from time to time as studio
It's hard to see why the administration
bothered to pay him. Williams has described as his "mentors"
Lee Atwater - the man who, under Reagan's presidency, brought
a new viciousness to Republican campaigning - and the segregationist
senator Strom Thurmond. His broadcasting career has been dedicated
to promoting extreme Republican causes and attacking civil rights
What makes this story interesting is
that the show he worked on was founded, in 1977, by the radical
black activists Glen Ford and Peter Gamble, to "allow black
reporters to hold politicians and activists of all persuasions
accountable to black people". They sold their shares in 1980,
and the program was later bought by the Uniworld Group. With Williams's
help, the new owners have reversed its politics, and turned it
into a recruitment vehicle for the Republican party. Williams
appears to have been taking money for doing what he was doing
These stories, in other words, are illustrations
of the ways in which the US media is disciplined by corporate
America. In the first case the other corporate broadcasters joined
forces to punish a dissenter in their ranks. In the second case
a corporation captured what was once a dissenting program and
turned it into another means of engineering conformity.
The role of the media corporations in
the US is similar to that of repressive state regimes elsewhere:
they decide what the public will and won't be allowed to hear,
and either punish or recruit the social deviants who insist on
telling a different story. The journalists they employ do what
almost all journalists working under repressive regimes do: they
internalize the demands of the censor, and understand, before
anyone has told them, what is permissible and what is not.
So, when they are faced with a choice
between a fable which helps the Republicans, and a reality which
hurts them, they choose the fable. As their fantasies accumulate,
the story they tell about the world veers further and further
from reality. Anyone who tries to bring the people back down to
earth is denounced as a traitor and a fantasist. And anyone who
seeks to become president must first learn to live in fairyland.
George Monbiot's website is www.monbiot.com
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.
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