What’s Wrong With This Picture?

There is an abundance of morbidity engulfing the media in these days before the new year. Death is the new Life of the of the party. From James Brown to Gerald Ford to the freshly executed Saddam Hussein. But let’s not forget that December of 2006 was also the deadliest month of the year for American soldiers in Iraq. And it wasn’t so good for Iraqis either.

But the media soldiers on in it’s inimatable fashion, finding ever new ways to stun the senses. Last night, shortly after the Hanging of the Year, the debate began as to whether photos and video of Saddam’s demise should be broadcast or published. But they didn’t even wait for the debate to get heated up before hyping such broadcasts with teasers and promos. Here’s how Fox presented it:

But perhaps a more interesting visual account was this from CNN:

What’s wrong with this picture?

A solemn moment that is puncuated by the network’s crawl – a quote from Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie:

“It was an Iraqi operation from A to Z. The Americans were not present during the hour of the execution. They weren’t even in the building.”

“From A to Z” – ? Why would an Iraqi asserting that Americans were out of the loop use a descriptor from the English alphabet? This is perhaps a picked nit, but it just seems that this language illustrates how closely Americans are aligned with everything that is occurring in the land they are occupying, whether they want to admit it or not.

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Gerald Ford’s FOIA Veto

The passing of former President Gerald Ford will produce a torrent of retrospectives and remembrances. The media will undoubtedly focus on the Nixon resignation, the end of our “long national nightmare,” and the pardons that probably cost Ford the election in 1976. But there is a lesser known story that may have an even longer reach. It’s a story that touches on some of the core values of our liberties and introduces us to a cast of characters that remain on stage today.

The original version of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966 was a controversial document that prevailed despite some bitter debates and opposition by President Johnson. As Johnson’s press secretary, Bill Moyers, describes it:

“LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets; hated them challenging the official view of reality. He dug in his heels and even threatened to pocket veto the bill after it reached the White House.”

This was not an uncommon point of view for presidents, who are generally protective of their executive privileges. Nonetheless, Johnson signed the bill, but its form at the time made it nearly impotent.

Congress endeavored to shore up FOIA and produced legislation to amend it in 1974. The bill was dumped in Ford’s lap at the commencement of his promotion to the White House. Ford’s position on the new bill was that it was negative on its merits but could be problematic to veto in the wake of his ascension to the presidency. He had promised open and honest government, and vetoing a Freedom of Information Act might not be viewed as consistent with either openness or honesty.

Ford eventually was persuaded to veto the bill with the help of a trio of advisors: his Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld; his deputy Chief of Staff, Dick Cheney; and the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Antonin Scalia. An ominous early assemblage of an evil cabal we know only too well today.

The veto was overridden by Congress and the amendments became law. In the intervening years it has proven to be an invaluable tool to rein in the kind of government arrogance and abuse that is exemplified so well by the Nixon era that preceded its passage.

It’s just too bad that the people responsible for the veto could not also have been overridden so that today we would not have to be suffering still from their destructive, self-serving, and hostile policies. Thousands of American families, and hundreds of thousands in Iraq, have paid dearly for their misguidance. We should keep those families in our thoughts and prayers, today and going forward, just as we do the Ford family.

White House Orders Propaganda Broadcasts

“No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by Congress.”

Since 1951, that prohibition on the funding of propaganda within the U. S. has been enacted annually. It’s a straight forward ban on the expenditure of taxpayer dollars intended to deceive and manipulate taxpayers. While there are many examples of deceptive communications by the government and its accessories (i.e. Judith Miller, Armstrong Williams, and Fox News), there remains a distinction between that and products deliberately intended to influence foreign audiences. For example, Voice of America, whose broadcasts are not permitted within the U. S.

The Bush administration, however, would never let 56 years of law and precedent stand in the way of its venal designs. As reported by the Miami Herald

“Taxpayer-funded TV and Radio Martí are spending $377,500 to air select programs on South Florida broadcast stations over the next six months, using loopholes in a law that prohibits the propaganda channels from distribution within the United States.”

The loophole that is being asserted here provides an exception for broadcast dissemination that is considered “inadvertent.” But it is implausible to suggest that broadcasts over South Florida radio and television frequencies would produce only inadvertent exposure to U. S. audiences. These channels are, in fact, intended for U. S. audiences.

Particularly disturbing is the statement by the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Pedro Roig, that the decision to air these programs was, “taken at the White House.” This was corroborrated by Jorge Luis Hernández, director of broadcast operations for OCB, who said that the White House pushed for these broadcasts on local Miami stations. Though disturbing, it is not surprising with the knowledge that the federal agency that oversees the OCB, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), is chaired by the corrupt BushCo henchman, Kenneth Tomlinson.

There may be even more to this than simple propaganda. Joe García of the New Democratic Network believes that the financial arrangements in this matter have another unscrupulous purpose:

“This is a fraud. This is using taxpayer dollars for a political payoff to benefit the most Republican and politically charged radio station in Miami. They know well that the station isn’t heard in Cuba, because Cuba transmits Radio Rebelde over the exact same frequency.”

This news, coming as it does just days after the recess appointments of two more Bush cronies to the BBG suggests a massive escalation in Bush’s War on Truth. If our nation’s corporate dominated media were not already so compromised and ineffective, these events would constitute a major scandal. As it is, most Americans will hear little or nothing about it. That’s the way good propaganda works.

[Note: Sen. Lautenberg authored a bill to Stop Government Propaganda (S. 266) and to permanently codify the language at the top of this post. The bill was introduced in February of 2005 and went straight to the Judiciary Committee where it has languished ever since. We’ll see if there is any progress when the gavel passes from Sen. Specter (R-PA) to Sen. Leahy (D-VT)]

More Bush Cronies Get Recess Appointments

This president, who has repeatedly demonstrated his disdain for democracy and the rule of law, is again bypassing the senate to install a pair of unqualified and partisan cronies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The BBG is the agency that oversees federal media operations like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America.

On the heels of his re-nomination of the corrupt Kenneth Tomlinson to chair the Board, the president has now used his executive power to plant Warren Bell and Mark McKinnon on these boards while the senate is in recess. Neither of these appointees are suitable for service on the board and both would likely have failed to get confirmed by the senate. Allow me to introduce you to these new board members.

Warren Bell, appointed to the CPB:

As a television producer and writer, he worked on programs like “According to Jim” and “Coach.” He had a reputation as an outspoken and controversial conservative. He has had no experience managing the sort of administrative operation that would be expected of a board member and no experience in public television. What he does have is a record of provocative statements that call into question his temperment and impartiality. Here are some choice excerpts from columns he wrote for the National Review Online…

“I could reach across the aisle and hug Nancy Pelosi, and I would, except this is a new shirt, and that sort of thing leaves a stain.”

“I am thoroughly conservative in ways that strike horror into the hearts of my Hollywood colleagues. I support a woman’s right to choose what movie we should see, but not that other one. I am on the Right in every way.”

Mark McKinnon, appointed to the BBG:

As a consummate Republican insider, McKinnon was the media director for both Bush presidential campaigns. His Maverick Media collected half of the campaign funds paid to the top 50 recipients of Bush/Cheney spending – totaling over $170 million. He is also vice-chairman of Public Strategies, Inc., a Texas-based lobbying and political-image firm. Amongst other things, PSI has lobbied in support of Video News Releases that are distributed to television stations for them to run without identifying the source, which is commonly a government agency or an invested corporation. He also has no professional credentials requisite to the duties he will now assume.

While Bell’s strident partisanship is problematic, McKinnon’s appointment seems even more troubling. His career has been spent almost exclusively on getting Republicans elected to office or winning legislative plums for big business. More recently, McKinnon was hired as chief media advisor for John McCain’s aborning presidential campaign. I have been unable to ascertain if he intends to serve on the board and run McCain’s media at the same time. That would be ethically questionable in my opinion. But that hasn’t stopped them before.

These appointments will not expire until the end of the next congressional session. That’s a lot of time to inflict a lot of damage on our nation’s public media. They will also have additional opportunities to damage our international standing through partisanly manipulated broadcasts by an administration that has virtually demolished our reputation as it is.

I truly hope that I can impress upon you the potential for harm that exists, not merely from these unconscionably inappropriate appointments, but from the president’s willful avoidance of Constitutional process. Any responsible senator ought to be concerned about this usurpation of their jurisdiction. And responsible citizens should be calling their senators now to urge them to be responsible.

Sean Penn Gets First Amendment Award

The public spirited artists and entertainers of the Creative Coalition honored Sean Penn this week with their First Amendment Award. The acceptance speech he delivered was so moving and comprehensive that I don’t want to clutter it up with my extraneous commentary. So I’ll just provide a few choice excerpts and implore you to go read the whole thing for yourself.

“We depend largely for information on […] issues from media industries, driven by the bottom line to such an extent that the public interest becomes uninteresting.”

“And should we speak truth, we stand against government efforts to intimidate or legislate in the service of censorship. Whether under the guise of a Patriot Act or any other benevolent-sounding rationale for the age-old game of shutting down dissent by discouraging independent thinking and preventing progressive social change.”

“And, where is the accountability on behalf of the American dead and wounded, their families, their friends, and the people of the United States who have seen their country become a world pariah. These events have been enabled by people named Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice, as they continue to perpetuate a massive fraud on American democracy and decency.”

“Let’s give the whistle-blowers cover, let’s get the subpoenas out there, and then, one by one, put this administration under oath. And then, if the crimes of ‘Treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors’ are proven, do as Article 2, Section 4 of the United States Constitution provides, and remove ‘the President, Vice President and…civil officers of the United States’ from office.”

I purposely left out some of the best stuff. Go read it.

AP: Top News Stories of 2006

Editors and news directors in The Associated Press have voted for what they consider to be the top stories of 2006. Time magazine may be a little disappointed that none of the top finishers validated it’s selection of YOU as Person of the Year. I myself am disappointed that violations of the Constitution, in the form of warrantless wiretapping and snooping on financial transactions, didn’t make the cut. Those were big stories that go to the heart of American liberties. Here’s the whole list:

  1. Iraq
  2. U.S. Election
  3. Nuclear Standoffs
  4. Illegal Immigration
  5. Scandals in Congress
  6. Saddam Convicted
  7. Mideast Fighting
  8. Rumsfeld Resigns
  9. Airliner Plot
  10. Disaster in Darfur

At least Darfur squeeked in at the bottom, edging out Global Warming. The only real dud was the journalistically anti-climatic conviction of Saddam Hussein. Is there anyone who thought there would be an acquital?

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YOU Are Time’s Person Of The Year?

In it’s homage to You, TIME informs us that it is no longer…

“the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species.”

As a member of a species whose collective destiny is in dire need of reshaping, this news is received with cautious optimism.

Along with the Internet there has come a surge in popularity for collaborative media. The problem with TIME’s analysis is that it’s several years too late. 2006 was a great year for YouTube, but all of the other examples cited, from MySpace to Wikipedia, and a bounty of blogs, were viable and growing long before TIME’s taking notice this year. You could easily go back to the presidential primaries of 2004, when candidates and independent advocates were organizing and fundraising, to observe this new media’s maturing significance. And that significance extends far beyond the trivialities of MySpace, restaurant reviews, and other leisure activities on which TIME seems to focus. There’s nary a mention of citizen media or education.

TIME itself captures the award for cop-out of the year by declining to honor any of the people that made these innovations possible, choosing instead to praise everyone, no matter what their level of participation. So I assume that the producers of the lonelygirl15 videos on YouTube are partying right along with former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Perv), an avid social networker.

Furthermore, by choosing You, TIME rejected other candidates for “the person who most affected the news or our lives, for good or for ill, this year,” Candidates like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his growing influence in the Middle East and nuclear aspirations; Al Gore, whose documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” rocked the eco-house; or even the founders of the year’s true web sensation, YouTube. That’s right – TIME threw over all of that as well as Iraq, Darfur, North Korea, and the Democratic takeover of Congress, for You. You, lounging on your sofa in your underwear with a bag of Fritos in your lap. And You, cowering in your cubicle hoping your boss doesn’t catch you reading this. And You, trying to figure out how to attach this to an email to 400 of your dearest friends. (Hint: Just use this link). You’re all Person of the Year.

Given the rank absurdity of this selection, why then did TIME choose You? Seriously, I know You and, frankly, I’m not impressed.

The explanation starts with the magazine’s inability to perceive its own demise. TIME is an old media, dead tree, anachronism, grasping for relevancy in a world that is passing them by. So they are paying their respects to the new Electronic Godfather on the block with the hope that it will keep their little shop safe. At the same time, they are putting everyone who picks up their magazine at a newstand on the cover. I think they really believe that if you see yourself in the strip of mylar stuck to the surface, that you’ll be unable to resist forking over five bucks for your own copy.

Perhaps the most profound revelation in TIME’s essay about You, is the part where they admit that…

“You can learn more about how Americans live just by looking at the backgrounds of YouTube videos-those rumpled bedrooms and toy-strewn basement rec rooms-than you could from 1,000 hours of network television.”

Those of you who’ve seen 1,000 hours of network television know only too well how true that is (and you may want to leave the apartment once in a while). But I’m not sure whether that’s a tribute to YouTube or an indictment of television. Well, actually I am sure.

Howard Kurtz Defends His Own Kind

In his Media Talkback online forum, Howard Kurtz takes questions from readers. Unfortunately, at least in this instance, he doesn’t actually answer them:

Pennington, N.J.: Why do we keep having people who were wrong on Iraq giving advice on TV? MTP this week had a politician and two Times columnists who have been consistently wrong. Why not have Russ Feingold, Paul Krugman, and Bob Herbert who were and still are right.

Howard Kurtz: If you banned pundits or politicians who were wrong about something from further TV appearances, the newscasts and talk shows would have a near-impossible time finding guests.

Note to Howard: The questioner did not ask about or propose banning anyone from TV. This was a reasonble inquiry as to why there is such an abundance of bunglers being presented as experts. Your answer implies that it doesn’t matter if a pundit is a serial screw-up. Is it really too much to ask that TV commentators demonstrate an ability to correctly analyze the issues they are invited to discuss?

Another questioner later asked much the same thing and Kurtz still didn’t comprehend, responding:

Howard Kurtz: A majority of both houses of Congress went along with the president’s war resolution, and a majority of news organizations supported the war and the argument that Saddam had WMD. So you had an awful lot of people who were wrong. Some of the publications have run mea culpas, and some of the politicians — John Kerry and John Edwards leap to mind — have said they were wrong to support the war. But I don’t think anyone has completely been let off the hook. Both politicians and pundits have had to account for the stance they took in 2002 and 2003.

Note to Howard: The fact that there were “an awful lot of people who were wrong” only reinforces the need to identify the few who were right and to bring their superior analysis to the fore. Despite your assertion, I can’t think of a single pundit that has had to account for an erroneous stance, even though there were an awful lot of them. I am also unable to think of a single pundit that has been rewarded for having been correct.

This illustrates one of the fundamental shortcomings of modern journalism, particularly the broadcast variety. The same faces are rotated throughout the TV schedule regardless of what they have to say or their credibility (or lack thereof). Once you’ve been admitted to the fraternity, you’re tenured and can rest assured that there is no professional lapse that will result in your removal. This creates an insular community that defends itself from outsiders and forgives its member’s failings. At the same time, it insures that diversity and dissent are dismissed, especially if it contradicts the established order.

The question is really very simple, Howard. Shouldn’t those who are more frequently correct be invited back more often than the brain-dead, ideologically compromised, elite pundicrats that endlessly litter the television landscape? You know, all of your buddies?

O’Reilly’s No-Spin Green Zone Holiday Tour

From the official web site of the Multi-National Force – Iraq, comes this nausea inducing press release:

Camp Striker dining facility becomes ‘No-Spin Zone’

“In a war that has perhaps been even hotter in debates than it is on the streets of Baghdad, the one constant in the media has been ‘spin.’

“It was fitting, then, that Bill O’Reilly, host of the Fox News talk show “The O’Reilly Factor” – dubbed the ‘No Spin Zone’ – came to visit the Camp Striker, Iraq dining facility Dec. 15.”

As if our long-suffering troops don’t have enough hardships to endure, now they have to eat with Bill O’Reilly. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a mad rush to volunteer for patrol duty that evening. The streets of Baghdad may indeed be a lower risk assignment. At least they would offer some relief from The Fester who is unlikely to ever venture out onto them.

O’Reilly also visited Kuwait where he spoke to soldiers and signed autographs. The caption to this photo (click to enlarge) describes a special treat he bestowed upon his audience:

“Some of the servicemembers asked O’Reilly about his own tour of duty in Kuwait during Desert Storm.”

Retelling these stories might have been a source of pride for Bill, comparable to when he received his Peabody Awards for journalism. It would have been, were it true. But Bill never served in the military and thus, there was no tour of duty during Desert Storm. Just as there were no Peabodys. I have a certain empathy for O’Reilly because I know how hard it is to build a mythology around oneself when all you have is a good imagination and a resume of lies. (I still can’t convince people that I painted Van Gogh’s “Irises”, taught Hemingway to fight, and fathered Angelina Jolie’s baby).

While O’Reilly was regaling the troops with flights of fiction and signing copies of the book he’s currently promoting, Al Franken was entertaining them along with the rest of the USO performers. This is Franken’s seventh USO tour. As Franken is fond of saying:

His wife doesn’t like him going to Iraq so she always says, “Bill O’Reilly doesn’t go to Iraq,” and he says, “Honey, that’s not fair. Bill O’Reilly doesn’t have any talent.”

It seems O’Reilly and Franken missed each other in Kuwait by a day, which may be for the best because there is already too much sectarian disharmony in the region. Perhaps the best way to keep those two from encountering each other would be to end this disgraceful war so that neither will ever have to make these trips again.

Fox Makes Regan Walk The Plank

Judith Regan, the third rail of publishing, has been fired by HarperCollins, the Murdoch-owned division that ran ReganBooks. This seperation is ceratinly the consequence of her having shepherded one of the most despicable projects ever to be conceived in popular media: O. J. Simpson’s, “If I Did It.” Her termination notice was a two line memo from HC’s CEO Jane Friedman:

“Judith Regan’s employment with HarperCollins has been terminated effective immediately. The REGAN publishing program and staff will continue as part of the HarperCollins General Books Group.”

I won’t waste much sympathy on Regan, who has made a fortune releasing vile books by contemptable authors. And, no doubt she will land on her cloven hooves as the tabloid rags of the world bid for her depravity.

But I will register this one condolence for the injustice thrust upon her as she is made a scapegoat for the misdeeds of many others. The accumulated list of guilty parties ought to include HC’s Friedman, as well as the programming execs at Fox Entertainment, their corporate handlers at News Corp, and even Daddy Rupert himself. All of these players were giddily salivating at the prospect of the impure profits pouring in from this profane project. Yet none of them have been called to task for their participation.

News Corp thinks it can wash its hands of this matter by sacrificing Regan. Conveniently, they are not closing up shop at ReganBooks, so they will be able to continue dumping the same kind of garbage into the literary landfill for which Regan was noted. And the pollution of the intellectual environment will continue unabated.