Friday, February 25, 2005

The Unstopable Machine

Jay Rosen chimes in on the propaganda machine. He also plugs MediaCitizen for having exposed Gannon's White House maneuvers. Salient points:

"There's a difference between going around the press in an effort to avoid troublesome questions, and trying to de-unseat the idea that these people who call themselves 'journalists' have a legitimate role to play in politics. Ashcroft was out to unseat that idea about the traditional press. He wanted it out of the picture."
"Even more of a charade these days are the daily briefings held by White House press secretary Scott McClellan, whose robotic adherence to repeating the predetermined messages of the day -- no matter what questions come his way -- as driven some correspondents to despair."
"What all the memorable scandals of the past thirty years—real and fake alike, from Watergate to the Clinton impeachment—have had in common is that the opposition party controlled at least one house of Congress, which gave it the power to hold hearings and issue subpoenas. If Bush ends up having an easier time of it in his second term than any of his two-term predecessors since F.D.R., it won’t be because the scandals aren’t there. It’ll be because the tools to excavate them are under lock and key."
"There is a varied, national, forceful, coordinated campaign to . . . to try to create doubt about the long-held and long-respected work of the mainstream media. Absolutely. So that Americans believe that what we do and say, what the mainstream media offer, is not of value, is not honest, is not factually accurate. And [that we are] not in any way connected to strong traditions of American public dialogue, that we've been co-opted, that we're not objective, and that essentially we are carrying forward an agenda."
"An illegitimate press demands not only national scorn but practical replacement. It is in this sense that 'Jeff Gannon' deserved his press pass, Armstrong Williams deserved his $240,000, and Ketchum public relations deserved $97 million of taxpayer money to help the Bush Administration communicate the message. (My sense is that the big uncovered facts in this scandal are to be found there, in the $97 million pot of post-press money that went to Ketchum, a PR firm willing to bend the rules, and help create a replacement for real journalism."
The White House and its media allies, echoing a deep-rooted conservative antagonism toward the so-called liberal media, say they are simply countering its bias. But critics charge that the White House, along with partners like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting, organizations whose allegiance to the Republican Party outweighs their commitment to journalism, is actually trying to permanently weaken the press. Its motivation, they say, is twofold. Weakening the press weakens an institution that’s structurally an adversary of the White House. And if the press loses its credibility, that eliminates agreed-upon facts — the commonly accepted information that is central to public debate.

These comments combined tell a tale of a Fourth Estate in decline as the Bush administration acts with impunity to manipulate the mainstream media while effectively discrediting and even punishing dissenters.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Brent Gloats, Lawmakers Cower, Democracy Suffers

Obscenity in Action
In his latest column for the right-wing press, First Amendment nemesis Brent Bozell III gives a titillating rundown of television's flirtation with lesbians. From tongue-locked beach beauties on "The O.C." to a gay doctor coming out to her mother on "E.R.," lesbian issues have taken over the airwaves in February. It’s broadcasters' blatant bid to spice up primetime and draw more viewers during sweeps month, Bozell complains. And he’s right about that. But so what?

As always Brent and his trenchant neo-nannies at the Parents Television Council are good for a laugh as they attempt to pour disinfectant over our airwaves. What gets me is the apparent and perverse glee they take in recounting “unseemly” acts for their lily members. A visit to the Parents Television Council website can be more fun than surfing porn.

But the humor goes flat when one sees how effective Bozell and his army of prigs have been. They've chalked up victory after victory as they strong-arm our nation’s regulators and lawmakers to abide by their obscene disregard for our Constitution.

The passage last week of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 is due in large to Bozell’s uncanny ability to leverage the latest prime time “wardrobe malfunction” to mobilize hundreds of thousands of letter writers. The resulting onslaught of email has Congresspeople and FCC bureaucrats running for cover, shamefully incapable of defending that document upon which our nation was built. Certainly none in the majority were willing to stick their neck out on behalf of our First Amendment and risk the wrath of the PTC, the American Family Association and other blinkered zealots who rein over the chill political climate that now pervades inside the Beltway.

Incoming Education Secretary Margaret Spellings did much to ice the deal earlier this month when she threatened to take back federal grant money if PBS didn't deep-six an installment of the children's show "Postcards from Buster" that featured a cartoon character’s visit to two lesbian families in Vermont.

To cover their grubby tracks, lawmakers cite FCC broadcast license agreements, which loosely obligate television broadcasters to serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity" in exchange for access to a slice of our airwaves. This gives us a legal basis for action, they claim. But many in Washington plan to take their crackdown beyond broadcasters to fine cable producers whose content strays into forbidden territory. Stay tuned for more . . . or less as the case may be.

Now, Bozell is gloating over another victory won on the backs of “shocked” lawmakers in the House. The legislation moves next into the Senate, thanks to Kansas Republican Sam Brownback and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, where it faces scant opposition. These great defenders of our rights are legislators we Americans voted into office -- who upon serving took an oath to "defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." [emphasis added]

While we still have the right, it's time Americans mobilized to vote them out.

Friday, February 18, 2005

The Hoisting of PBS' Head

In Their Sites
Welcome to the Bush II era of media intimidation. This new political front is turning "the chill that has already descended over our nation’s media into a deep freeze." But some media are suffering the cold worse than others, which raises questions about selective targeting by "conservo-drones" out to score political points against their nemeses in the "liberal media," while awarding others with a pass.

First, the Public Broadcasting Service caves to our new Secretary of Education and slashes an episode of "Postcards from Buster," which has the asthmatic bunny visiting lesbians in Vermont. Now, PBS is bleeping American soldiers who dare curse while on patrol in Iraq. The cowering bureaucrats at PBS have decided to censor next Tuesday's "Frontline" documentary about the war in Iraq, removing 13 expletives uttered by soldiers.

The producers of the "Frontline" program in question wrote a memo to executives at PBS calling on them to stand firm and broadcast "A Company of Soldiers” intact, as it was intended:
We believe what is at issue is not the particulars of this case, but the principle of editorial independence. Because overreaching by the FCC is at its heart a First Amendment issue, all programs are at risk, whether art, science, history, culture, or public affairs.
Rather than fight the good fight for our First Amendment, PBS President and CEO Pat Mitchell has decided to decamp from the network at the end of her term. But before ducking out, Mitchell has announced that public television will conduct a “strategic assessment” of their children's lineup “We will create new and even better standards for programming" for children, Mitchell told a congressional subcommittee on Thursday.

Translation: "strategic assessment" = more scrubbing of PBS content.

Meanwhile, Fox plans to go ahead with the airing of a Simpson’s episode "There's Something About Marrying," in which Springfield legalizes same-sex marriage and Homer cashes in playing minister. One would expect swift condemnation from the Washington conservatives who slammed Buster and, earlier, SpongeBob SquarePants. Don’t count on it, these prigs won't waste their powder during sweeps, especially with a program broadcast on Fox News Channel's sister network. They're out to spill PBS' blood.

Which tells you some about the real motivation lying behind the new McCarthyism. It's not about making our airwaves safe for lily Christians, but about punishing media that the right believes slants in the opposite direction.

Kay McFadden writes: "Better for Mitchell to quit before American public television comes to resemble Al-Jazeera or state-run TV in Russia by reflecting the government's ideology instead of the taxpayers' diversity."

End Note: I initially had some trepidation about drawing comparison between the campaign against PBS ("Buster") and the pass given Fox ("Simpsons"). After all, it was Fox that received the highest FCC fine in 2004 for an episode of "Married By America" that included people licking whipped cream off strippers' bodies. But given this administration's taste for propaganda and message control, it's not a stretch to assert that they also favor a double standard when it comes to punishing the media.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Where's The Public Outrage?

Leonard Pitts, Jr. wonders why the American public isn't more outraged by Jeff Gannon's ability to gain access to the White House:
Bush spokesman Scott McClellan has pleaded ignorance, saying that, "In this day and age, when you have a changing media, it's not an easy issue to decide, to try to pick and choose who is a journalist.'' Which is patently ridiculous. Contrary to the press secretary's Hamlet-like agonizing, it's not all that hard to know who is and is not a reporter.

If an individual reports for a recognized media outlet that observes customary standards of journalistic integrity -- even if it tends to view the world through a conservative or liberal editorial prism -- that person is a reporter.

But if the person works for an outlet that simply promotes, or advocates for, one political party or another, then the line between reporter and shill has been well and truly crossed.

It's not brain surgery. So you'll have to forgive me for not extending the benefit of the doubt to McClellan. My problem is that he speaks for an administration with a long record of manipulating truth and propagandizing the public.

These are the folks who pay pundits to say nice things about them. The ones who pressure scientists to change science that conflicts with political goals. The ones who ignore their own experts when confronted with information they'd rather not
believe. And this is a president whose press conferences occur with only slightly more frequency than ice storms do in Key West, who ducks hard questions posed by actual reporters, preferring to bat slow pitches tossed by citizens prescreened for their support.

So planting a party stooge among the real reporters hardly seems out of character. The thing is, a government that is not scrutinized by an energetic and adversarial press is a government that is not accountable for its actions.

A government that is allowed to create its own reality is a government that can get away with anything.

Sinclair Goes Digital and Multiplies

Read my analysis of Sinclair's plans to leap forward into the digital TV world, now up on AlterNet. Also check out Paul Schmelzer's investigative piece on conflict of interest within Sinclair's newsrooms.

New York Times Swings Late, and Misses

The biggest news from the digital frontier may be the advent of Community Internet – low-cost, high-speed broadband services provided by municipal governments and community groups via local networks.

Hundreds of cities and towns – from Philadelphia and San Francisco to Granbury, Texas, and Scottsburg, Ind. – recognize broadband Internet access as a public necessity, no different from water, gas or electricity. Especially in rural and underserved urban areas, Community Internet promises to narrow the digital divide.

Telecom and cable companies are pushing laws across the country that would restrict local competition and cut off consumer choice. This newsworthy battle finally graced the front-page of the New York Times on Feb. 17, with a story pegged to Philadelphia’s ambitious plans to turn the city into “one gigantic wireless hot spot.”

The real problem with James Dao’s piece wasn’t its tardiness – other papers covered similar ground months ago – but the way the Times failed to question the true motivations of its sources.

The first quote in the story goes to Adam Thierer, identified as “director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and the author of a soon-to-be-released study criticizing the Philadelphia plan.” He tells the Times: “The last thing I’d want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility.”

Dao fails to note that the Cato Institute is funded by Verizon, SBC Communications, Time Warner, Comcast and Freedom Communications — all companies seeking to put a stake through the heart of homegrown broadband systems. Thierer is little more than an industry sock puppet.

Dao then goes on to interview David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, who asks: “Is it fair that the industry pay tax dollars to the city that are then used to launch a network that would compete with our own?”

Fair enough. But again, Dao fails to alert readers to Cohen’s web of interests that might impugn his integrity. In a previous incarnation, Cohen served as chief of staff to then Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell. Rendell has since moved into the governor’s mansion, while Cohen jumped to the private sector.

But Cohen still has Rendell’s ear, which might explain why the governor ignored widespread public opposition and signed a bill into law last December that prevents other Pennsylvania communities from offering competitive broadband services. Though the Philadelphia plan secured a last-minute reprieve, the rest of the state got shafted.

And Comcast – so concerned about the spending of its tax dollars – is more than happy to take public handouts. To finance the Comcast Center, which will be Philadelphia’s tallest skyscraper when it’s completed in 2007, Rendell put together a state aid package worth $42.75 million. The state Department of Community and Economic Development kicked in another $12.75 million in grants and tax credits. Dao doesn’t mention it.

But Dao does give Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe the chance to remind readers that “government doesn’t do service well.” Tell that to the 40 percent of Philadelphians without access to broadband service.

Dao later wrote in an email to MediaCitizen that he was aware of Cato's funding and David Cohen's background. "But unlike bloggers who have unlimited space, I had to make editorial choices," he wrote. "This story was being relentless cut, and my choice was between retaining details about Philadelphia's program and adding asides about Cato or David Cohen's background. I went with the program details."

Dao is free to prioritize those aspects of the story he finds most important. But it's hard to understand why he would choose to downplay this unseemly tale of collusion between corporations, state government and coin-operated think tanks like Cato and the dubious New Millennium Research Council, which are at the center of a well-funded campaign to paint municipal broadband as an affront to American innovation and free enterprise.

In fact, the opposite is true. Community Internet creates free-market competition, allows consumer choice, and encourages entrepreneurs through public-private partnerships. Municipal networks are proving a win-win for local politicians: They're relatively cheap to build and city officials gain points from bringing technology – and resulting economic opportunity – to neighborhoods that are often passed over by commercial providers.

As Dianah Neff, Philadelphia’s chief technology officer, asked of Verizon and Comcast in a recent column for ZDNet: “When was the last time they were elected to determine what is best for our communities? If they’re really concerned about what is important to all members of the community, why haven’t they built this type of network that meets community needs or approached a city to use their assets to build a high-speed, low-cost, ubiquitous network?”

All good questions. Perhaps the Times should have explored them further.

(written with Craig Aaron of Free Press)

Gannon, Sartre and Shylock

Pen Pals
GOPUSA, the conservative Website linked to the still percolating Jeff Gannon propaganda scandal, was touched by an earlier controversy: In 2003, the Eberle-owned site frequently published a columnist accused by critics of trafficking in anti-Semitism, according to an article by E.J. Kessler (registration required).

Columnist "Sartre" -- working, like "Jeff Gannon" under a pseudonym -- had this to write about financier George Soros:
Pen Pals
No other single person represents the symbol and the substance of Globalism more than this Hungarian-born descendant of Shylock. He is the embodiment of the Merchant from Venice.... If Soros is correct when he says a 'supremacist ideology' guides the White House, what would you call the practices of the archfiend of Free Enterprise? The Soros deception would make Shylock proud...."
As is their practice, GOPUSA has crawled further under their rock, scrubbing the site of all of the "Sartre" stories in question. You can sample his bigoted vitriol at other right wing websites, including Ann Coulter's favorite ranting ground,

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Obscenity On The Hill

At last, The Hill is talking media. Unfortunately, the discourse came in advance of a losing effort to kill a House indecency bill that will increase fines for broadcasters who cross a Republican drawn line for propper content. Representatives tussled in advance of the vote over such key issues as media consolidation, Armstrong Williams, Sinclair, the Department of Education, Rupert Murdoch, campaign coverage, advocacy ads and a lot more, making for a spirited debate on issues that are important to many of us involved in media reform.

The newly passed Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 will increase fines broadcaster fines for unseemly content from $32,500 per violation to $500,000. The new rules will also do away with warnings handed out for a performer's first offense. A "three strikes" clause in the legislation would require the FCC to consider license revocation after three violations for indecency. Jonathan Rintels of the Center for Creative Voices in Media writes:
The exponential increase in “indecency” fines for broadcasters, and the application of those fines to performers on their first offense, will turn the chill that has already descended over our nation’s media into a deep freeze. Today’s vote was a tragedy for creative artists. More importantly, it was a tragedy for the American public.
In advance of the vote, several members attempted to add amendments, "including reinstituting the fairness doctrine, rolling back media consolidation, and even delaying erectile dysfunction ads until after 10 pm," according to a report by John Eggerton.

Similar "poison pill" amendments helped kill the same bill last year, the righteous House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton effectively blocked these to see this one through.

"Democrats accused Republicans of protecting corporate media giants and their sometimes biased broadcasts by excluding debate on consolidation and other issues," Eggerton writes of the often heated discussion prior to the vote.

Democrats Louise Slaughter and Lynn Woolsey called for a return of the fairness doctrine, saying that declining standards of fairness and truth in broadcasting are a bigger indecency. News people passing off opinion as news, that's indecent, Slaughter told other Representatives, or "paying to advocate opinions on the public airwaves without disclosure, I call that indecent," she said. "One-sided documentaries designed to impact an election without equal time. That's indecent and dangerous."

Barney Frank pointed to the Department of Education's pressure on PBS to drop an episode of "Postcards from Buster" featuring lesbian parents as an incident that has fueled the pervasive climate of self-censorship across the country. Democrat Frank blamed the majority party as firing up the "censorship of free and open debate."

While much of this boiled down to partisan grandstanding over amendments that were doomed from the outset, it's impressive at least to hear talk of a better media system playing a larger part in our national discourse. Sadly, it was as a part of a losing cause.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Keepin It 'Real'

A Death for the Nielsens
Najai Turpin, a contestant in "The Contender" a new NBC reality series about boxing scheduled to start next month, committed suicide Monday in Philadelphia. NBC executives claimed -- no doubt under the advice of their lawyers -- that the suicide was unrelated to the show, which they would air as planned, starting March 7.

Turpin who was raised in Philadelphia's tough inner-city is survived by a girlfriend and their young daughter Anje. According to "The Contender" website, Turpin saw the show as "a real shot to get out of the ghetto and says they will have to kill him to beat him." [emphasis added]

This suicide recalled an incident that almost derailed "Survivor" before the wildly popular series could air in America. Sinisa Savija, a contestant in an early version of the show made for Swedish television, committed suicide after he was the first person voted off the island. A Swedish court subsequently found that the producers of the program were not responsible for Savija's death.

I'm guessing that Turpin was voted off "The Contender" as well. He and his next of kin are locked into a network contract that has them sworn to silence about the results of the reality show competition, in an effort not to spoil the broadcast finale. They needn't worry about Turpin talking, now.

Mark Burnett, the show's executive producer, said Turpin's death changes nothing as far as the program is concerned. "I'm not even going to make any edits because it's real."

Real? It seems "reality" mogul Burnett could use a lesson in the meaning of the word.’s Rick Reeno takes Burnett's remorse one further, “should Turpin win [in the episodes to be aired] and keep winning, the suspense could generate heavy ratings for the show.” Anything to keep the Nielsens happy.

I hope that Anje and her mother know a good lawyer.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Battling the 'Sock Puppets'

A growing number of American cities and towns are queuing up municipal wireless networks to provide affordable and fast Internet access to residents. But they're facing increasing opposition from players for the telecom industry, which seeks to consolidate its control over the "last mile" of broadband access to American homes.

Municipal Internet projects pose a threat to industry fiefdoms because they offer citizens a relatively cheap alternative to commercial ISP's costly and incomplete services. Moreover, they're easy to implement and administer and, as a result, growing more popular with local politicians and citizens. Viewed in light of day, the industry's recent putsch to quash local access is an undemocratic effort to stifle innovation and consumer choice.

Still, homegrown efforts to link up citizens may be on the losing side of this important battle.

As reported earlier in this space, major telecoms -- eager to dominate the multi-billion-dollar ISP market -- have begun to stake out territory wherever municipal broadband had begun to take root. They seek to frame community wireless projects as "costly mistakes" that are an afront to the American ideal of free enterprise.

Don't believe a word of it.

"Access to the Internet today is as much a necessity of life as the more traditional services and should be available to all," writes Jonathan Baltuch, an economic development consultant from St. Cloud, Florida, a city that provides its citizens with a wireless network covering 30 square miles. Baltuch emailed MediaCitizen to explain how St Cloud's network has proven everything but a "costly mistake":
Here is an interesting St. Cloud economic stimulus factoid: Average St Cloud residential annual Internet access cost -- $450, Average St Cloud residential annual property tax bill (city portion only) -- $300. By the city providing this one service to its residents the average household savings will be 50% more than the average tax bill for all city services. Further the $3 - $4 million per year that is leaving the city to flow to corporate headquarters all over the country will stay in the local economy.
Verizon, in particular, has been aggressive in snubbing such civic WiFi efforts wherever they emerge. But the company is not alone. Other large commercial telecom services such as Comcast, Qwest and SBC -- whose tentacles reach well into the pockets of legislators in all 50 states -- are arguing that municipalities have no business serving as ISP's, that such initiatives are against citizens' best economic interests, and that telcos should be granted the first right to refuse municipal WiFi projects that overlap where their commercial services are available.

The industry is working with pliant legislators in statehouses from Pennsylvania to Nebraska, Iowa and Indiana and elsewhere to draft opaque legislation that quashes municipal efforts to provide local neighborhoods and businesses with access.

Mouthing the Words Verizon Wants to Hear
Now a collection of coin-operated think tanks have taken up their master's call to produce biased research that can be used to preempt grassroots Internet initiatives. A quick check of the money behind these nominally independent research groups reveals them to be industry "sock puppets," tasked with a clear mandate to serve those who foot the bill. Already, city officials in Hermosa, CA are citing one of these reports, by the dubious New Millennium Research Council, in an effort to push back against local WiFi plans. Another story by Dennis Welch in Tempe's East Valley Tribune cites the NMRC study to discredit that city's proposed network. The NMRC is "an independent project" of Issue Dynamics, Inc. a consulting firm, which fronts for several large telecom clients.

The Cato Institute is expected soon to release its own report attacking municipal wireless. Cato, receives money from Verizon Communications, Time Warner, Inc, SBC Communications, Comcast Corporation and Freedom Communications -- all companies seeking to put a stake through the heart of homegrown broadband systems.

“There is, however, much less consensus about these sorts of government projects today than there was during the heyday of federal support for high-technology research back in the 1970s and 1980s,” writes Lee Gomes in Monday's Wall Street Journal. Gomes repeats the charge that both big phone companies -- which have lobbied in state legislatures to outlaw these networks -- and conservative Washington think tanks -- which tend to oppose activist-government initiatives -- are joining forces.

As a result of this two-pronged campaign to stamp out local innovation and widen the moat around the industry's existing services, America has fallen to the back of the pack of developed nations in providing broadband to their citizens. If industry gains a controlling hand in this battle, we will continue to lag behind more consumer friendly nations in Asia and Western Europe in offering access to the full array of online options.

MediaCitizens need to mobilize now in support of community Internet. You can learn more by visiting our coalition partners at Free Press, Consumers Union and, linking up with others who are building municipal wireless networks in your neighborhood and helping build a media of, by and for the people.

Or check out a community wireless network in action. Sascha Meinrath helped build the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network (CUWiN) using the same "WiFi" equipment available off-the-shelf for homes and offices, but he and his colleagues put it on rooftops to connect neighbors over several square miles.

Sour Grapes?

Born again libertarian Vox Day (pseudonym anyone?) has taken a break from his usual outrage to gloat over the Jordan resignation: “Jordan's accusation made no sense at all,” he writes. “Because if American troops were going to target journalists, those topping the list would almost surely be the left-liberal elites working in New York City and Washington, D.C. The legacy media has hated the American soldier since Vietnam...”

Vox's anger at the “New York Times and by the ABCNNBCBS cabal” seems to stem not only from a belief that liberals are leading America on a “long march toward lethal socialist utopia,” but also from his failure last year to sell his column to a single newspaper. Vox says he’s the victim of a vast left-wing media conspiracy. Or could it be that he’s just a crappy writer in need of a heavy dose of anger-management counseling?

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Bloggers Nail Another Skin to the Wall

Deer in the Headlights
CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan quit Friday night amid an on- and off-line furor over remarks he allegedly made about American soldiers intentionally killing journalists in Iraq. Jordan delivered the remarks while sitting on a January 26 panel of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. While an actual tape of his comments has yet to be released, an attendee seeded news of the event in the blogosphere and ignited a firestorm.

Jordan submitted his resignation under escalating pressure from above and below, claiming he sought "to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished by the controversy over conflicting accounts." Jeff Jarvis doesn't get why Jordan had to go:
If he had been upfront about what he said from the start; if he had demanded that Davos release the tape and transcript; if he had admitted to putting his foot in his mouth and apologized and said he was wrong; if he'd done that, he'd still have a job.
Jay Rosen at NYU has a round up of events leading up to Jordan's departure, David Gergen explains the context in which Jordan's remarks occurred, while CNN reporter-turned blogger Rebecca MacKinnon suspects that the as yet unreleased Davos tape of his comments would have put a final nail in Jordan's coffin. MacKinnon adds:
"I am amazed that anybody in this day and age still expects a gathering of more than 10 people to remain off the record. . . . The point is, there are clearly some real tensions and disagreements about what's been taking place on the ground in Iraq -- and why. As a member of the audience during the now-infamous panel, one thing was very clear to me: bad feeling between U.S. servicepeople and journalists in Iraq is coloring news coverage."
Another thing has become clear: Hunting down journalists -- not in Iraq, but on the net -- has become the newest bloodsport.

As Howard Kurtz [also a CNN employee] notes in Saturday's Washington Post, bloggers Jonah Goldberg, Hugh Hewitt and Michelle Malkin began hammering Jordan almost immediately after Davos attendee Rony Abovitz posted an online account. The Washington Post and Boston Globe published stories Tuesday and the Miami Herald, AP and Wall Street Journal chimed in on Thursday. It soon became pundit fodder for talk shows on Fox News [ingloriously featuring my colleague Danny Schechter], MSNBC and CNBC.

The problem is that much of the story was driven by those seeking to score political points. Any new and accurate information that they uncover is just a byproduct of the hunt.

This controversy mounted as mainstream news reporters fed off the blogs; their resulting coverage stoked the ranting pundits on the endless cable talk shows. The media storm then spun back into the blogosphere, which ratcheted the frenzy up another notch. And so on.

Former CNN News Group Chairman Walter Isaacson told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Jordan was dedicated to "the value of hard reporting by real journalists who braved going out into the field, like he so often did, rather than merely opining. It's ironic that he was brought down partly by talk-show and blogging folks who represent the opposite approach and have seldom...ventured out to do...frontline reporting."

Bertrand Pecquerie, Director of the World Editors Forum, [and someone who has written articles for me at] is concerned that the blogosphere has raised the specter of a much-reviled American Senator. “Real promoters of citizen media [blogs] would have to take some distance with those who have fuelled and organized the Eason Jordan hatred. If not, the 'new era of journalism' opened by the blogosphere will appear as the old clothes of American populism,” Pecquerie writes in a post at editorsweblog. He later explains that by "American populism" he is referring the 1950’s communist witch hunts of US Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Bertrand is a champion of old-school journalism, a passion that manifests itself often in seemingly dated assaults on American bloggers. Take his McCarthy call with a grain of salt, knowing that his mandate at the WEF is to protect the interests of his members: established newspeople.

Still, we are now seeing the rise of a unruly media watchdog, which may have the effect of muzzling more journalists who want to speak out.

The left got their trophy head in Jeff Gannon on Tuesday, now the right are hoisting theirs. Meanwhile the public cynicism about journalism grows. Perhaps the biggest victim in all of this is the credibility of those many reporters who do do honest work.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Gannon's White House Maneuver

A person close to the Standing Committee of Correspondents, the press body that oversees the distribution of credentials on Capitol Hill, forwarded me documents pertaining to Talon News and Jeff Gannon's application rejection in 2004. According to the documents, James Guckert, "who writes under the name Jeff Gannon, of Talon News," applied for Capitol Hill credentials at the beginning of 2004. In the minutes from a Standing Committee meeting, a member describes Gannon and Talon News as follows:
Talon News is an on-line news service owned by Bobby Eberle. He said Mr. Eberle told him Talon News is an all-volunteer news service, though since Mr. Guckert’s application was submitted, a stipend was arranged that would provide more than half of Mr. Guckerts [sic] income in an effort to comply with the gallery's requirement that correspondents be paid, full time employees of the organization for which they are applying. Mr. Keenan said Talon News is the primary news supplier for GOPUSA, also owned by Mr. Eberle, and provides its news service at no charge to other organizations.
The Standing Committee agreed to write a letter to Mr. Eberle "seeking more information regarding the Talon News' relationship with GOPUSA, its corporate structure, and funding." According to the source, Eberle and Guckert failed to respond to this request and the Committee on April 7, 2004 voted unanimously, 5 to 0, "to deny the application for credentials of James Guckert."

According to a letter the Committee then wrote to Gannon's boss Eberle, the rationale for rejecting Talon News was the lack of clarity on its political affiliation:
The application for accreditation to the press galleries states that “members of the press shall not engage in lobbying or paid advertising, publicity, promotion, work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the Federal Government.” Talon News has not demonstrated to the satisfaction of the committee that there is a separation from GOP-USA/Millions of
Without Capitol Hill credentials, Gannon/Guckert had no chance of getting a permanent pass at the White House. According to the source, all applicants for a White House permanent pass are vetted not just by the Congressional Press Gallery, but also by the FBI and Secret Service. Day passes, on the other hand, do not require this degree of scrutiny. Applicant must only submit their full name, Social Security number and birth date.

This may explain why Gannon/Guckert went through the daily accreditation process while reporting from Pennsylvania Avenue. Gannon allegedly was the only reporter to skirt the rules that way, obtaining day passes month after month. Eric Boehlert writes that day passes were intended to provide flexibility for out-of-town journalists who might need to cover the White House for a day or two. For nearly two years Gannon worked this loophole to avoid being excluded.

The Committee documents also make it pretty clear that the White House and the Congressional Press Gallery knew that Gannon was Guckert and didn't seem to care about his use of a pseudonym, something Press Secretary Scott McClellan confirmed during Thursday's White House briefing. McClellan also said:

I don't think it's the role of the press secretary to get into picking or choosing who gets press credentials. . . I've never inserted myself into the process. He, like anyone else, showed that he was representing a news organization that published regularly, and so he was cleared two years ago to receive daily passes, just like many others are. The issue comes up -- it becomes, in this day and age, when you have a changing media, it's not an easy issue to decide or try to pick and choose who is a journalist. And there -- it gets into the issue of advocacy journalism. Where do you draw the line? There are a number of people who cross that line in the briefing room.

So where does the Gannon fiasco lead us? There remain legitimate concerns as to whether the administration "crossed the line" to provide favorable treatment to the erstwhile correspondent. Don't take on face value McClellan's statement on Thursday that President Bush innocently "called on people as he came to them" during the January 26 press conference. We know that this White House tightly scripts all of Bush's press events -- including often instructing Bush to call on journalists from a pre-determined list -- and that Gannon's softball question was well timed with the White House's hard charging campaign on Social Security.

Throw Me a Life Line, Jeff
We also know that until they recently were exposed people within Bush's White House had no qualms paying media journalists to flack for the president's policies. Indeed, Ken Auletta revealed last year that this administration views the press as "simply another interest group" that can be prodded and lobbied to do the president's bidding.

What we don't know is to what extent the White House's intense efforts to choreograph the press, circumvent the "filter" and manipulate the message involved Gannon. He comes across as a dubious, rank amateur and I would be surprised if they thought of him as useful in any way. However, in March 2004, Gannon did claim to have been handed classified documents that named Valerie Plame as a C.I.A. operative -- a leak that is part of an ongoing investigation by independent prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

Someone within the administration must have thought of Gannon as a useful tool then. This relationship with the man from Talon may very well have continued until the January 26 press conference and beyond.

= = = = =
: Get a taste of Gannon's brand of journalism.

= = = = =
1:50pm, Feb 11 Update: Brian Montopoli puts it about right
:". . .this isn't a media bias issue, no matter how hard you spin it. (And there isn't much these days that critics won't try to spin as a media bias issue.) No one, after all, is trying to ban Fox News or Helen Thomas from the briefing room. Gannon asked questions designed not to get information from Bush but to demonstrate his allegiance to him, not to mention his disgust with Democrats and his own ostensible colleagues. Real journalists, the ones who belong in press conferences, know that access to a president is a rare gift, and they know enough not to squander it. Gannon threw away his opportunity in favor of self-aggrandizing partisan spectacle. He put himself and his agenda ahead of the public good, and he did it in a manner so egregious that he left little doubt of his intentions."

= = = = =
5:50am, Feb 15 Update: Five members of the White House Correspondents' Association plan to meet with Bush's press secretary Scott McClellan today to discuss tightening the White House press-credentialing process. Writes Joe Strupp of E&P: "The meeting follows the recent uproar over James Guckert, a former White House reporter for the GOP-linked Talon News, who had used the name Jeff Gannon and drawn criticism for asking partisan questions."

Ron Hutcheson, WHCA president and a Knight Ridder reporter said that too much has been made of Gannon/Guckert's link to gay porn and prostitution websites. "You should take out the porn connection. That has nothing to do with anything, Hutcheson said. "Playboy has naked women, but they have done some damn good journalism. It is the journalistic endeavor that should be looked at." Hmmmmm . . . . . .

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Gannon Quits After Blogger Inquiry

The Talon News correspondent at the center of a scandal over his White House press credentials quit Tuesday night amid a growing online investigation into his history, including allegations of involvement with several websites appearing to support gay pornography and promote male prostitution. Now he's biting back, calling those who dug up personal details about his past, haters of free speech. Did the blogger horde cross the line on this?

A Right Show of Gratitude
Jeff Gannon (a pseudonym) announced on Tuesday night via his personal website that he had found it "no longer possible to effectively be a reporter for Talon News. In consideration of the welfare of me and my family I have decided to return to private life."

It's this "private life" that may have precipitated Gannon's departure. In the last ten days, Investigative bloggers at World O'Crap, Daily Kos and Eschaton have dug up evidence that implicates Gannon as the owner of web domains,, and, which are registered under the same owner as Gannon's home page Two of the three web addresses are no longer active. The third,, requires registration before viewing the content. It now appears that the person registered as the individual owner of these domains, James Dale Guckert of Wilmington, DE, and Jeff Gannon are one in the same.

One hour prior to his resignation, MediaCitizen sent an interview request to the would be correspondent. As part of the request, I outlined a series of questions regarding Gannon's background in journalism, his relationship to members of the White House staff, to Talon News' parent company GOPUSA, as well as to the Wilmington company, Bedrock Corporation, which is the registered owner of the websites in question. Gannon resigned within an hour of receiving these questions. This was MediaCitizen's second request for an interview as a follow up to our earlier report.

Gannon's decision to leave Talon News may be related to the news site's frequent stance on issues pertaining to gay rights, marriage and adoption. A recently discovered photo, allegedly depicting the former correspondent, suggests a conflict between his lifestyle and the homophobic beliefs of many of his colleagues at the conservative news site. For their part, Talon News yanked Gannon's bio from their website nearly two weeks ago -- after many bloggers began to scrutinize the news service. (Here's the cached bio). While blog investigators at Daily Kos claim that the image in question depicts Gannon, this has yet to be confirmed.

We needn't take the issue of Gannon/Guckert's personal life any further. This is not a story about sexual orientation but about the viability of our Fourth Estate in the face of increasing efforts to disguise propaganda as straight news. By willfully serving as the White House shill -- lobbing softball questions to Press Secretary McClellan and President Bush and lifting, wholesale, sections of administration and GOP press releases to present them as "news" -- Gannon rightly came under harsh scrutiny.

His decision to leave Talon News was his own, but it was aided along by a well mobilized blogosphere, intent on shedding more light on this man's duplicitous role as a White House correspondent.

= = = = =
3:00pm Update: It's become clear that Gannon's real name is James D. Guckert, which raises another question: How does someone operating under a pseudonym gain such close access to the President of the United States? The Congressional Press Galleries, White House Press Office and, perhaps, the Secrete Service do background checks on all credentialed and "day pass" journalists. Somewhere along the line someone inside the White House knew Gannon wasn't Gannon, but they gave him a waiver anyway. Were special favors granted to Gannon that wouldn't have been granted to a real journalist? Congresswoman Louise Slaughter has written the President to learn more. Gannon's was denied credentials to cover Capitol Hill after the Standing Committee of Correspondents raised questions about Talon News' editorial independence. Questions Gannon/Guckert would not answer.

= = = = =
3:30pm Update: Once again, Talon News has "scrubbed" its site. Apparently, we were sending too many people to their homophobic reporting (stories linked to in the fifth paragraph above). They have removed the stories in question along with most other material describing their relationship with Gannon save a brief explanantion of his resignation. Thankfully, one of Mediacitizen's readers alerted me to the scrubbing and pointed me to an archive where they may now be read. I have re-inserted these new links above. Note: There's a job opening at Talon.

= = = = =
8:00pm Update: NPR's "All things Considered" has broadcast an interview with Gannon that also features some comments on the matter from me. They've posted the segment on their website. There, you also can listen to the complete, unedited interview with Gannon -- very strange -- or read the transcript here. More than anything, he comes across as someone way out of his depth. I also understand that the ever thorough Eric Boehlert of is planning a story on this for tomorrow which looks into the White House process for credentials. Update: here it is.

= = = = =
6:00am, Feb 10 Update: Wilmington News Journal's Jennifer Brooks landed a post resignation interview with Jeff Gannon-cum-James Guckert, who complains that he's the victim of a witch hunt by free-speech haters like MediaCitizen. "I asked a question at a White House press briefing and this is what happened to me," Guckert told The News Journal. "If this is what happens to me, what reporter is safe?" I doubt any real reporters lost sleep last night thinking they could become the next Guckert. However, those, who hide their true identities and political agendas behind Washington press passes, have reason to worry. Ousting phony journalist has become the new bloodsport of the blogosphere.

= = = = =
6:45am, Feb 10 Update: Former aides to ex-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle were among those cheering Gannon/Guckert’s abrupt resignation, according to political watchers at The Raw Story. Gannon wrote extensive diatribes against the South Dakota Senate race. Former Daschle aides claim that the writer was essentially “carrying water” for Sen. John Thune’s successful campaign. “He and Thune’s campaign worked hand in hand,” said one former Daschle aide. “This guy became a dumping ground for opposition research.”

= = = = =
5:55pm, Feb 10 Update: A source close to the Standing Committee of Correspondents, the press body that oversees the distribution of credentials on Capitol Hill, sent me documents pertaining to Jeff Gannon's application and ultimate rejection in 2004. This sheds some light on the process and explains why Gannon/Guckert used "day passes" to report from the White House for two years.

= = = = =
6:28am, Feb 11 Update: The right-wing message machine has shifted into overdrive in its efforts to spin the Gannon/Guckert scandal as a story about the "liberal media" ganging up to stifle the free speech of someone who doesn't share their view. Witness the carefully chorographed back and forth among conservo-pundits on last night's "Special Report" with Brit Hume. The right's master narrative is in play here, as mouthed by Bill Sammon: "Jeff asked openly conservative-leaning questions. What it comes down to is this rankled the White House press corps because most of them are liberal and ask questions from a liberal perspective." These pundits seem to think that repeating "liberal media" a million times over will somehow make it true.

= = = = =
5:40am, Feb 12 Update: The Wilmington News Journal this morning reveals that the man from Talon has waded even deeper into shark-infested waters: "James D. Guckert, who reported under the pseudonym Jeff Gannon, failed to pay Delaware more than $20,700 in personal state income tax from 1991 through 1994." According to documents filed in Superior Court in Wilmington, Guckert owes $9,484 in taxes; $7,697.69 in fines and $3,560.71 in interest. This goes to questions of credibility. Since the fiasco broke Gannon/Guckert has made several unsubstantiated claims to defend his honor. Rather than providing evidence to back them up, Gannon/Guckert has asked the American public to take him on his word. That's asking a lot.

= = = = =
9:00pm, Feb 14 Update: It gets a whole lot seedier . . . Frankly, I believe his whoring at the White House was a crime worse by many degrees.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Feeding the 'Conservo-Drones'

Have you heard about Ward Churchill yet? You will. The obscure University of Colorado ethnic studies professor is featured in an Associated Press story that's running today in more than 40 dailies across the country. He's at the core of a well orchestrated controversy sparked in part by comments he wrote three years ago about the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Poster Child of Convenience
In one essay, written in 2002, Churchill compared 9-11 victims to infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann -- calling them "Little Eichmanns" for working in the World Trade Center as "technocrats of empire." In another, Churchill has called the terrorist attacks against the United States "a natural and unavoidable consequence of unlawful U.S. policy." These comments have resurfaced in the past two weeks casting Churchill into the center of a media storm, which has caused several universities to cancel scheduled speeches by the professor; Churchill’s also received death threats and been vilified as a hate-monger by two governors, talk-show hosts and lawmakers. The blogosphere has ripped him to shreds and, now, the University of Colorado is considering firing him.

I have read Churchill's defense of his comments, and he's well off base to be sure. But what’s of particular interest is not the stridency of his writing, but the manner in which the right-wing echo chamber has fashioned the scholar as a poster child for “loony liberal” academia, which they claim has America's intellectual community in a headlock.

Malcolm A. Kline, a conservative commentator for the media watchers at Accuracy in Media, writes, “Americans should know that there are a platoon of 'Little Churchills' in colleges and universities throughout the United States.” Kline goes on to condemn a long list of American academics for suggesting that the US may have been partly to blame for the War on Terror. Is Kline suggesting that we muzzle all scholars who express opinions about the war not in step with the Bush Administration?

After reading a recent Los Angeles Times article on Churchill, Kevin Drum investigated how a story about an obscure academic infiltrated mainstream news coverage and became an effective right-wing tool for attacking "liberal" institutions.

Drum’s is an account of the right-wing echo chamber in full effect, but he also pegs The New York Times for lending credence to the conservative buzz saw by running a prominent story on Churchill:
The right wing machine pushed, the New York Times responded, and then the rest of the press followed. Within days, the previously insignificant Ward Churchill had become a household name and a virtual poster boy for lefty nihilism based on something that no one on either the left or right had cared a whit about in the three years since he wrote it. Truly an object lesson for us all.
Prior to the Times’ January 31 story, coverage of the Churchill story was almost exclusively in the domain of conservative outlets including the Murdoch-owned New York Post (January 27), Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News Channel (January 28) and Moonie-owned Washington Times (January 29). The Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune Review weighed in on January 30. The AP story blanketing the nation this morning makes no mention of this right-wing provenance.

Paul Waldman at Gadflyer writes:
The moral of the story isn't just the Times' unrivalled agenda-setting power. Obviously, there are conservo-drones in the basement of Heritage or AEI or FOX whose job it is to scour the wires and every little news outlet searching for cases where somebody -- preferably a professor or someone associated with the entertainment industry -- says something unpatriotic, freedom-hating, or just plain stupid. This item can then be fed to all the nodes of the Noise Machine, enabling them to vibrate with outrage for days on end.
And it doesn't end at the gates of the rabid-right asylum. The Associated Press story is running today on the pages of the Arizona Daily Sun, the Akron Beacon Journal, the Louisiana Times Picayune, the Grand Forks Herald, the Wilmington Morning Star, the Myrtle Beach Sun News, the San Luis Obispo Tribune and other newspapers near you. The message machine can mark up another victory as it rolls across America. . .

Monday, February 07, 2005

Thanking Tinseltown for Four More Years

A Right Show of Gratitude

Right-wing activists at Citizens United have raised enough money to erect at least three billboards within spitting distance of the Kodak Theatre, host to this month’s Academy Awards ceremony. The billboards, which thank liberal Hollywood for driving voters to Bush, are a publicity stunt that's playing well in conservative circles. They're just one part of the right's relentless campaign to paint the movie industry as elitist and anti-American, and Hollywood stars as bumbling actors out of touch with the red-state reality of the American heartland. (photo: Cinemocracy)

One billboard features Barbra Streisand, Ben Affleck, Sean Penn and other progressive actors in sheepish poses under the headline "W. Still President. Thank You Hollywood." The message is meant as a slap to those members of the Hollywood establishment who campaigned vigorously to oust Bush from the White House.

The mastermind behind the Tinseltown taunt is right-wing hatchet man David Bossie. His Citizens United Foundation, a subsidiary of Citizens United, bills itself as "a non-partisan, non-profit research and education foundation. . . . dedicated to informing the American people about . . . traditional American values, including: the Constitution as the supreme limit on federal power, a strong national defense as the primary role of the federal government; free enterprise as the economic system that has enabled the American people to attain and maintain an historically high standard of living; belief in God and Judeo/Christian values as the fundamental attribute of our way of life; and the recognition of the family as the basic social unit of our society."

Bossie, is actually a dirt mover for the Republican Party; and he has a history to prove it. In 1998, he was fired from his job as an investigator working for Representative Dan Burton (R-IN) on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee in 1998. Bossie was canned, as the Washington Post subsequently reported, for his role in releasing doctored transcripts of former Clinton administration official Webster Hubbell's prison conversations -- an ethical violation that caused even Newt Gingrich to blush.

According to Eric Boehlert, Bossie's MO during the Starr investigation was to lob "scattershot allegations" at an over-eager press corps that rarely bothered to fact-check his attacks before running them in their news outlets.

Democratic strategist James Carville once said, "[Bossie] made collective fools out of about 80 percent of the national press corps." He has since commanded media attention for making other unsubstantiated claims, including a statement that former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was closer to the Democratic and not Republican Party, and that he had evidence that proved Bill Clinton was responsible for the September 11 attacks.

That a prankster like Bossie has managed to maintain visibility in Washington, particularly among the press, is one of the sad truths of our enfeebled Fourth Estate.

The 2004 publication of Bossie's quickie rant -- "The Many Faces of John Kerry: Why This Massachusetts Liberal is Wrong for America" -- is another affront to Citizens United's "non partisan" billing. None of the Foundation's -- filled with non-partisan platitudes necessary to substantiate the organization's 501 (c) 3, tax exempt status -- seems to be taken seriously.

Next on Bossie’s hit list is "Hollywood liberals." While the billboards seem to contradict Citizens United's allegedly "non-partisan" stance, they are a brilliant effort to get across a central Republican talking point: that the elite entertainment establishment -- on both left and right coasts -- is at odds with red-meat America.

Now the right-wing has glommed onto the billboard story to further push their notion that Tinseltown is the mouthpiece of a liberal agenda: "Already, word of the billboards has Hollywood in a tizzy and the Citizens United campaign has been featured on CNN and Fox News,” boasts right-wing news service NewsMax.

"Making the experience more painful for the disappointed Hollywood big wigs is the location of the three billboards -- their proximity to the Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards."

Clearly, the right is hoping this story will gain more traction in traditional press, amplifying their anti-Hollywood message for more to hear. If past experience is any guide, Bossie will succeed in making this a mainstream news item. The Billboards went up on February 1 and will run through the month. The Academy Awards occur on the 27th. Let’s see how far this hot-air balloon flies.

Dead Speed Metal Granny in RIAA's Sites

Your death won’t stop the Recording Industry Association of America from serving papers. Lawyers representing a spate of record companies filed suit against an 83 year-old woman who died two months ago, claiming that she made more than 700 rap and rock songs available to other file swappers via the Web.

A crack team of industry lawyers and investigators have revealed that Gertrude Walton, by day an aged woman who couldn’t turn on a computer, morphed by night into a music-sharing pirate called "smittenedkitten" – downloading rap and speed metal for cheap and easy listening.

"I believe that if music companies are going to set examples they need to do it to appropriate people and not dead people," Walton’s daughter Robin Chianumba told the Associated Press. "I am pretty sure she is not going to leave Greenwood Memorial Park to attend the hearing."

Chianumba told reporters that Walton had a long illness before her death and was not into rap or rock music. Walton objected to having a computer in the house and didn't even know how to switch a computer on. A RIAA spokesman admitted last week that Walton was likely not the "smittenedkitten" in question. They plan to withdraw their subpoena.

Better yet they can give up on their costly legal witch hunt and instead accept that P2P music file sharing is here to stay. Andrew Orlowski discusses discusses several new schemes, including a digital pool or flat fee system, that might work better for all, in the here now and hereafter.

Dan Gillmor has another read: "Maybe these 'mistakes' aren't mistakes at all. Maybe they're designed to get publicity, to make sure that we all get the message that the music companies are willing to be totally unscrupulous -- and not at all careful about aiming their lawsuits at actual infringers."

"Could they be that sleazy?" Gillmor asks. "Hard to believe, but then suing dead people is pretty far-fetched in a normal universe."

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Flesh Trade

Getting a Head Start in Advertising
Amber Rainey of Myrtle Beach sold her pregnant belly on eBay for $4,050. The buyer, internet casino, is using their newly leased real estate to promote online gambling. Last Thursday, Amber fielded questions about treating her body as a billboard while a skin artist temporarily tattooed the ad onto her expanding belly. also provided Amber with tickets to tonight's Super Bowl. Their marching orders: get that belly on TV. If Amber succeeds, the $4,050 fee would be money well spent by the casino; more traditional TV advertisers are shelling out $2.4 million a go for a 30-second spot during tonight's spectacle.

Amber is not alone. According to Sean Salai, a growing number of people are going online this month to auction advertising space on their bodies. Houston bikini model Shaune Bagwell has offered to sell her cleavage on eBay. As of Sunday morning, bidding stood at $10,900. According to the Houston Chronicle, the bikini model has “room for a lot of logo.”

I wonder whether Jarvis would file this under his "exploding" advertising theory, whereby citizens take control of their commercial surroundings by becoming the ad. See also: This Space to Let and Annals of Advertising: I.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Web Diplomacy

Citizens of China and Vietnam are doing something heretofore unheard of. They're hashing out territorial differences via a China People's Daily web forum. The debate was sparked by the killing last month of nine Vietnamese fishermen (the Chinese call them "pirates"), who were shot by Chinese police in the Gulf of Tonkin (China calls it the "Northern Gulf"). In dispute is the tract of water where the killings occurred. The two not-so-friendly socialist brethren have overlapping historical claims to this sea -- and to the oil deposits that lie beneath. And despite decades of tightly-scripted diplomacy to resolve the territorial dispute, neither is willing to concede an inch.

Similar Flags, Different Clams
In both countries, public discourse about territorial authority over the Gulf and its adjoining South China Sea is almost exclusively the province of stiff-suited apparatchik from their respective foreign ministries. Any citizen who dares discuss the issue in terms that stray from his governments' tersely worded stance, runs the risk of interrogation our even imprisonment.

Unfurling Vietnam's Control
I know from personal experience. In the 1990s, while the managing editor of Vietnam's largest English-language weekly in Hanoi, I was required as a matter of routine to submit all copy to an operative from Vietnam's Ministry of Culture and Information. Mr Dung scrubbed all mention of the dispute and replaced all references to the "South China Sea" with the Vietnamese-correct version, "The Eastern Sea," before I could go to press. I once discussed this arrangement over the phone with a fellow journalist and was visited soon thereafter by my minder from Hanoi's Ministry of the Interior who leveled a series of questions about my intentions.

Such is the tense state of play between China and Vietnam. And issue number one is their seemingly intractable and competing claims to the common waters off their shores.

Which is why I'm watching the People's Daily web forum. It appears to be an somewhat open discussion between average Minhs from both countries. Some are critical of the Chinese Givernment, though, I'm certain that the webmasters at the Daily (the official outlet of the Chinese Communist Party) are monitoring the posts to be certain no one crosses the line too far. And many of the posts are by Chinese planted shills, posing as Vietnamese citizens (Le Xuan and Nguyen Long for example) to argue on behalf of Beijing. Still, it's an astounding development given the history of repression that, sadly, both nations share.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Lobbing Softballs and Grenades

An interesting side story in the Washington media is now moving towards center stage. It involves the fight raging this past week between the conservative propagandists at Talon News and the progressive watchdogs at Media Matters for America. The right-wing "Freepers" have added their own fire as well. Now that The Boston Globe is covering the dispute, expect other media to follow.

David Brock of Media Matters lobbed the latest grenade with a January 31 letter to Press Secretary Scott McClellan asking that the White House revoke the press credentials of Talon's Jeff Gannon. "Mr. Gannon and Talon News appear to be political activists rather than actual journalists, and as such should not be presented to the public as an independent news agency," Brock writes.

Gannon: The White House's Other Pet
Brock lists several conflicts of interest to build his case that Gannon is little more than an administration house pet, planted in the White House press gaggle to loft the occasional "softball" to the Secretary and cheerlead for Bush policy. McClellan has found going to Gannon especially useful when other journalists in the pack are being less cooperative.

Called on by President Bush as last week's press conference began to turn sour, Gannon -- who calls himself "a conservative journalist embedded with the liberal Washington press corps" -- attacked Democratic Senate leaders and called them "divorced from reality." Was that a question?

Chief among Gannon's infractions according to Brock is his tendency to lift large portions of RNC and White House press releases verbatim and without attribution for inclusion in several of his Talon "news reports." Brock concludes his letter to McClellan by drawing comparison to other pseudo-journalists with an agenda: "Now more than ever, the public needs to be certain that the White House isn't using fake 'journalists' to manipulate public opinion. Revoking Mr. Gannon's credentials would be a good first step in that direction."

McClellan told The Globe that Gannon has not been issued -- nor requested -- a regular "hard pass" to the White House, and instead has come in for the past two years on daily passes. "Daily passes, he said, may be issued to anyone who writes for an organization that publishes regularly and who is cleared to enter the building."

Contacted by Editor & Publisher, Gannon admitted having a conservative viewpoint, but said most of the White House press corps "have liberal leanings that are reflected in their questions and their news stories. I don't think anyone in that room is free of bias. They all reflect their own personal views or the editorial policy of the organizations they represent. I think I am no more or less partisan than any of my colleagues." This has been Gannon's standard retort -- made repeatedly via his personal website and Talon News. It's the cynical your-bias-justifies-my-bias argument that undermines the Fourth Estate.

"Would [the White House] let Joe Lockhart or someone who works for the DNC come in and do that? I don't think so," Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times, told E&P. "They ought to get legitimate members of the fourth estate, not political hacks on either side."

The frat-house flamers at are mounting a more juvenile defense of Gannon including taunts, sexual jokes about Brock and that favorite saw about the "liberal media," which if repeated often and in shrill tones might begin to sound like the truth . . . or so they believe. Others in the right-wing bell jar are trying to mobilize hundreds of fellow "Freepers" to apply for White House press credentials to stack the journalistic deck for Bush. Again, read the prevailing cynicism about journalists, which has swept up conservatives to such an extent that they choose only to believe news stories that justify their blinkered world view. The rest is just the "liberal media" going at it again.

Daily Kos has asked his blog troops to investigate Gannon and Talon News further by digging up dirt regarding the website's finances. Most of the money comes via Bobby Eberle's GOPUSA, a company with ties to the Texas Republican Party. GOPUSA states as its mission "to spread the conservative message throughout America." Though Eberle has claimed on MSNBC's Scarborough Country that GOPUSA and Talon News are separate companies, they overlap heavily.

After Media Matters showed that employees of Talon and GOPUSA have extensive political backgrounds but no journalism experience of note, Talon News pulled its employees' biographies from its website. This action in tself seems more an admission of Gannon's guilt than any accusation from his foes on the left.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Fairness Doctrine's Fifth Act

 Tilting at Windmills?
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter of New York is betting on the public outrage over recent payola pundits and media bias to help spur interest in her plan to revive the Fairness Doctrine. But she faces an uphill battle, especially in a Washington that is increasingly in the thrall of big media money and influence.

On January 26, she introduced the Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting Act, or FAB, which would revive the Doctrine with new licensing requirements for broadcasters. Rescinded in 1987 by the Federal Communications Commission, the original doctrine made sure that radio and television broadcasters covered political topics with fairness and balance.

It ran afoul of a powerful broadcast lobby, that worked over an industry-friendly Reagan administration, tucked their bottom-line motivations behind First Amendment rhetoric and killed the fairness rule. To be sure, there are some legitimate concerns about free speech that need to be addressed if Slaughter's FAB is to succeed, but it might have more than a fighting chance if she and her cohorts play the public interest card right, by reaching out to grassroots and mobilizing multi-partisan support from the bottom up.

The success of the Reagan administration in overturning the Fairness Doctrine ushered in a new age of talk radio, writes Eric Boehlert, "allowing stations to broadcast one political point of view day after day, week after week. As (Democratic Congressman Maurice) Hinchey and others point out, talk radio has spurred a rightward tilt of the press." Since 1987, Washington's media lobby has further consolidated their hold on the capital, aided by hundreds of millions of industry dollars from media colossi such as General Electric, Viacom and News Corp.

Three Congressional attempts to reinstate the doctrine since 1987 died at the hands of vetoing presidents, pliant lawmakers, arm-twisting lobbyists and, in 1993, by the demagoguery of radio Icarus Rush Limbaugh, eager to scuttle any rule that would require him to look beyond his own nose for content. This time around, the same forces are lining up to bulldoze Slaughter's FAB.

While the Congresswoman and her allies face long odds, indeed, they're not just tilting at windmills. The media lobby may have underestimated those newly empowered media citizens beyond the Beltway -- the same Americans who came out en masse to protest the FCC's clandestine effort to relax the media ownership rules in 2003. A well orchestrated grassroots campaign -- employing local hearings, email campaigns and viral online organizing -- might succeed where Washington has failed, and break the industry's DC headlock on this issue.

To learn more about becoming involved, visit, a project involving coalition partner Media Access Project.