|Montreal, July 6, 2002 / No 106|
by Ralph Maddocks
From time to time I have written about the ever growing authoritarian nature of the states in which more and more of this world's citizens live. Few, especially the Founding Fathers of the USA, would have believed that so many of the Amendments to the US Constitution would ever undergo such wrenching reinterpretation. Statements by many higher echelon officials in the USA leave little or no doubt that those tenets, formerly held so dear by our neighbours, are destined to become simply memories of another age as they fall more and more into disuse.
Those of us who, once upon a time, were captivated by the power and individualism of the US press, particularly its highly regarded investigative journalists, now see no evidence of that potent inquisitiveness any more. It is as if the entire US media body ingests daily a dose of some stupefying opiate. Watching press conferences has become unbelievably soporific, so banal are the questions. Follow-up questions are rarely asked and are hardly ever incisive. The journalists seem to be almost disinterested, acting as though they have no real business being there. Have they received orders not to ask embarrassing questions?
Laws on freedom of the press were conceived originally to defend the media from attacks by the State. The First Amendment to the US Constitution exists expressly to protect controversial speech from government suppression. Surely, the best way to counter speech which the government does not like is to counter it with the verifiable truth. Coercion is not the solution. Can it be that the threat is now coming from major transnational corporations who are pursuing some other agenda? All these kinds of questions feed the conspiracy theorists and they have never been more active than now.
Our left-wing friends have long complained about concentration in the media, and in essence there are probably less than a dozen companies controlling the majority of US information outlets. Earlier combinations such as those of Time, Warner & Turner; Viacom, Paramount & Blockbuster; Westinghouse & CBS; GE & NBC; Capital Cities, ABC & Disney; News Corp. & Triangle & 20th Century Fox & Metromedia TV; Gannett & Multimedia; AT&T, NCR & McCaw: SBC & Pacific Telesis; GTE & Contel; United Telecommunications, Sprint & Centel, etc., have been superceded by further combinations from within that group.
Despite this concentration, no one claims that any firm in the USA exercises domination and political linkage such as exists in Italy (Berlusconi's Fininvest), Mexico (Televisa), or Brazil (Globo). In fact, in the USA, while the number of available slices of the pie appear to be decreasing, the pie may be getting bigger.
At first glance there would seem to be considerable concentration in television with major companies like CBS, formerly the home of illustrious journalists like William L. Shirer and William Morrow, owned by Viacom. Viacom is a conglomerate that owns, among other entities, MTV, Showtime, Nickelodeon, VH1, TNN, CMT, 39 broadcast television stations, 184 radio stations, Paramount Pictures and Blockbuster Inc. One might have expected that CBS's investigative show, it's famed 60 Minutes, would have found the many theories surrounding the events of 9-11 a gold mine in which to exercise their excavatory talents. Perhaps there is still time.
The relative newcomer Fox News Channel is owned by Rupert Murdoch, a right-wing Australian who already owns a meaningful portion of the world's media. Murdoch's network has close ties to the Republican Party, and among his "fair and balanced" commentators are people like Newt Gingrich. NBC is owned by General Electric, one of the largest corporations in the world and a major contributor to the Republican Party. GE has substantial financial interests in weapons manufacturing, finance, nuclear power and many other industries. The third major TV outlet is ABC, owned by the Disney Corporation, hardly an organization wholly concerned with collecting and disseminating a balanced view of the news.
Of course, conventional radio probably reaches more people than does television, and luminaries such as Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Michael Reagan, Pat Robertson, Michael Savage and Laura Schlessinger are but a handful of the voices that, day after day, parrot incessantly their right-wing view of the world. The central problem with all this concentration in television may not be just that it brings a right-wing bias to its news and programming. It is not even the transmutation of politics and government into entertainment and sensationalism. Nor is it a matter of control among this small group, the owners are free to say, or not say, whatever pleases them. What is odd though is the collusion which seems to exist; one might have expected one or other of them to attempt to gain some market advantage over their competitors by opening up discussion. The real and more serious problem is that the average American may now have far too little access to alternate views of events in order to make up his or her own mind.
In early June, President Bush gave a speech which in another time would have brought the protesters into the streets. On this occasion it evinced hardly a comment. Bush said that "Thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us," adding by way of explanation that "this terrible knowledge requires us to act differently." What he meant by acting differently is doubtless the creation of an enormous federal bureaucratic structure to compile and filter data applicable to US citizens. Data which will be collected by innumerable federal and state government law enforcement offices, and commercial bodies such as banks, insurers and direct marketing firms. To this mixture will be added regular reports from the NSA, the CIA and the FBI.
The idea here seems to be to provide an additional layer of insurance against the intelligence and communications failures involving both the CIA and FBI, which Congress is now investigating in secret. However, according to the White House, the new Homeland Security Department will not have access to raw data from the above agencies, but will rely instead on whatever edited summary reports they happen to volunteer. This can only mean that any important data which those agencies fail to recognize, will also remain unrecognised by the newly created Department. If this is indeed so then we may eliminate the possibility that the purpose stated is the real purpose. The real purpose, quite clearly, is to be the acquisition of data, its mining and manipulation on an impressive scale.
The Department will bring together in one marquee the Secret Service, the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), US Customs, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), among others. It will employ some 170,000 federal employees and enjoy a budget of $37 billion, though the White House insists that it will be budget neutral, meaning that existing and planned federal revenues will simply be redistributed. If a bureaucracy of that size does remain budget neutral it will be the first time it has ever happened in the history of mankind. Still, that is the way it is being sold to Congress.
Intelligence agencies are notorious for failing to share information. Hardly surprising in a field where information is power. This is a cultural problem which is not going to be solved by placing them under the authority of one person or even that of a co-ordinating agency. As one commentator put it "Anyone who imagines they can be brought together as one big happy family is smoking, and inhaling."
George W. Bush doesn't seem to be fighting a "war on terror" at all, he is using the so-called "war on terror" to justify more centralization of government power, to subvert the US Constitution, to disperse citizen's liberties and to weaken US national independence. Indeed, it appears that Republican administrations are able to get away with things which the Democrats when in office dare not do, seemingly because of the inane notion that the Republican Party is "conservative."
During the Second World War there were of course restrictions on information of a military nature as well as careful presentation of the news for domestic consumption. However, the US experience in Vietnam led to the government's restrictions on the press during the Persian Gulf War. The complete exclusion of journalists during the most important stages of the Grenada and Panama invasions took government secrecy to a new level. All were very conspicuous examples of the US government's iron-fisted tactics.
Disturbingly there have been concerted campaigns to impugn the patriotism and integrity of journalists who write stories critical of US foreign policy. Such crude forms of coercion by the security bureaucracy are not the only source of danger to an independent press. Equally serious is the danger posed by the government's abuse of the secrecy system to control information flows and prevent disclosures that could cause the population to question the wisdom of current policy.
It is much easier to classify something as secret than to allow the simple truth to emerge to embarrass the bureaucracy or, more importantly, their political masters. It is easy also to combine this with coercion, such as threats to prosecute under espionage statutes both those who leak classified information and those who publish it. Even more insidious are the attempts by officials to entice journalists to become members of the "team" rather than allowing them to fulfil their roles as sceptical watchdogs of the government.
All too frequently, members of the media have succumbed to these entreaties and become little more than a cheering section for dubious policies. This became clear during both the Gulf War and the US intervention in Somalia, until sober second thought emerged after disaster had struck in the latter. As mentioned earlier, government efforts to use the press as a conduit for propaganda, or as a means of silencing its critics, were once confined to situations of grave emergency. Times such as when the nation was fighting for its very survival, as in the Second World War. During the Cold War though, these policies slowly became the standard during small conflicts and even during periods of peace.
These habits of manipulation and intimidation have continued through the post-Cold War period, with alarming implications for the spirit of the First Amendment. So while freedom of the press in the USA may not yet have completely expired, it is mortally wounded and, unless it is to become an item in the history books it needs massive transfusions of candour to restore it to full health.
If and when this will happen is hard to predict, certainly it will not be anytime soon. Indeed, at the same time as the veteran FBI Agent Coleen Rowley was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, President Bush, in his prime-time televised address, was introducing a provision in the bill to create a Homeland Security Department seeking to exempt its own employees from whistleblower protection, the very same law that helped to expose intelligence-gathering missteps before September 11.
The legislation before Congress contains a provision allowing the director of the proposed agency to waive all employee protections in Title V, including the Whistleblower Protection Act. This is the act which protects government employees from retaliation or losing their employment for speaking out on waste, fraud and abuse. Without this protection Ms Rowley is most unlikely to have testified about the shortcomings of the FBI. This exemption would ensure that the government will be even better placed to do as it pleases without fear of having its mistakes revealed, or being held accountable in any way. Sources will dry up and the press will be further restricted in its efforts to bring the truth to the people even it wished to violate the prohibition about disclosure.
So what does explain the reluctance of the press to investigate and report on the many unanswered questions surrounding recent events? Have they been warned off? Has the Bush Administration managed to create a climate of fear such that even normally hard-headed newsmen, their editors and owners fear reprisal? Has this same Administration managed to complete the destruction of mutual trust among American citizens? Is there collusion among the owners to deprive the public of explanations? While it is hard to arrive at a definitive conclusion, one thing is very clear. We, and they, have become seemingly willing members of a participatory fascism.
|<< retour au sommaire||