Saturday, May 31, 2008

McClellan and the 'Enablers'

For all the press attention swirling around Scott McClellan's explosive tell-all, there's a brewing back story that's making Katie Couric and Charles Gibson squirm. And they're not alone.

Few were surprised that McClellan's book exposed a Bush administration "political propaganda campaign" that mislead the American public about the war in Iraq. Some question the former press secretary's loyalty and timing, but no one -- with the obvious exception of the White House and its apologists -- questions the factual basis of his claim.

But McClellan takes it one further, implicating mainstream media for its role in "enabling" this propaganda. "The national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House" in spreading the president's case for the war, McClellan writes. The mainstream media didn't live up to its watchdog reputation. "If it had, the country would have been better served."

This should be a shock to everyone. The president's own spokesman (whose hands aren't clean by any means) lays a large share of the blame for Bush's pro-war propaganda on the media's "deferential" treatment of White House spin.

Still, many in the media refuse to admit that they were anything but dogged in challenging the White House's case for the war after September 11. Some, however, are starting to see things differently.

Pro-War Pressure from Execs

Media Culpa?

Thursday night, CBS anchor Katie Couric confronted McClellan' during an interview. She claimed that, while still at NBC, she asked a tough question about the Iraq war and was rebuffed by McClellan. According to Couric, the press secretary then called one of her bosses and threatened to deny her future access to the White House press gaggle.

But earlier Couric told her colleagues on the CBS News Early Show that McClellan's indictment of a complicit media is "a very legitimate allegation."

"I think it's one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism," she said. "And I think there was a sense of pressure from corporations who own where we work and from the government itself to really squash any kind of dissent or any kind of questioning of it. I think it was extremely subtle but very, very effective."

On Wednesday night, CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin said that network executives at MSNBC had pushed her not to do hard-hitting pieces on the Bush administration as the nation readied for war.

"The press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation," Yellin told CNN's Anderson Cooper.

ABC News' Charles Gibson isn't admitting as much. "I think that the media did a pretty good job of focusing and asking the questions," he said. "It was just a drum beat from the government, and I think it's convenient now to blame the media, but I don't," he added. (This from the same anchor who called his questioning during ABC's now infamous April 16 debate "tough and intelligent").

It's the System, Stupid

It's telling that mainstream journalists are in a quandary over the role their media organizations played to "enable" propaganda, and whether they individually are indeed a part of the problem. Many genuinely are trying to do their jobs but are constrained by a corporate structure that promotes reporters with cozy access to political and economic power, while discouraging those whose questions and investigative reporting might rock the boat.

The roots of the problem extend beyond the performance of one or another reporter to a news industry that allows itself to be manipulated and cajoled by dishonest leadership. "Too many media outlets continue to tell the politically and economically powerful, 'Lie to me!'" write Bob McChesney and John Nichols in a Nation op-ed to be published next week.

According to McChesney and Nichols, responsible journalists have little say in setting the lead stories for large outlets. "The calls are being made by consultants and bean counters, who increasingly rely on official sources and talking-head pundits rather than news-gathering or serious debate."

The Situation Right Now

For all of their posturing, the Courics and Gibsons of the network newscasts are the fading faces of a system that's perilously broken. It's not just reflected in the declining audience for traditional news formats, but in the issues that they cover -- and those that they choose to ignore.

This gathering problem can no longer be shrugged off by prominent members of the media.

McClellan's memoir comes on the heels of an April 20 New York Times exposé, which revealed an extensive -- and likely illegal -- Pentagon program to recruit pro-war "military analysts" for nearly every major news outlet in America. Many in the newsrooms knew of these pundits' ties to the Pentagon -- as well as their involvement in lucrative military contracts -- but didn't bother to reveal the obvious conflicts of interest to their viewers.

While the story received scant coverage in the mainstream media, more than 100,000 activists have written their members of Congress to urge an investigation into the media's role in spreading pro-war propaganda. Bloggers and independent media are also still covering this issue, refusing to let Big Media off the hook

Congress has promised to investigate the Pentagon's role in the scandal, but it shouldn't end there. People should demand more of the companies that assume the mantle of journalism, but fall far short of its ideals.

Our democracy is in peril when mainstream media fail to question the official view and put the interests of ordinary Americans first.

This watchdog role is especially critical during a time of war and elections -- the time that we're in right now.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A House Divided, United or Just Confused


I've been wanting to test Vizu's free polling tool. Yesterday I found my first question when I came across this Hoboken brownstone. It got me wondering whether this was more than just one house divided -- that perhaps there was another message behind the posters. (Click here to see an enlarged version)

Take the poll below, add your comments to the thread, tell me what you think.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Free Speech in the 21st Century

Freedom of the press extends only to those who own one -- or so the saying goes. It once rang true in a world ruled by newspaper chains, radio and television broadcasters, and cable networks.

But the Internet has changed all that, delivering the press -- and in theory its freedoms -- to any person with a good idea and a connection to the Web.

Backyard Auteurs

This extraordinary twist to "mass media" has catapulted many an everyday YouTube auteur to celebrity-status while turning ideas born in a garage or dorm room into Fortune 500 companies. It is the reason so many Americans are now passionate about protecting their right to choose on the Internet. But it's also triggered a backlash from the old regime -- media corporations that built their empires upon controlling the ebb and flow of information in America.

This list of media giants includes the nation's largest phone and cable providers, who provide a portal to the high-speed Internet for more than 98 percent of residential users in America. Now they want to be more than just a window to the Web. These companies have proposed a closed scheme of Internet fees and filters that affords them the final say over which ideas make it to the top of the heap.

Say "goodbye" to indy rock bands breaking big via a backyard YouTube video and "hello" to censored rock-and-roll courtesy of AT&T's "Blue Room."

Open v. Closed -- A Clash of Cultures

This closed business model has proven a financial windfall for the gatekeepers of traditional media. But it comes at a too heavy a cost to the millions of Americans who see the open Internet as the 21st Century's catalyst for free speech and opportunity.

It's against the backdrop of this clash of cultures -- open versus closed -- that an unusual series of official events have occurred this year.

Washington -- where lobbyists for Comcast, AT&T and Verizon have long had the home-field advantage -- recently witnessed an extraordinary series of public meetings and congressional hearings on the fate of the Internet. If you listen carefully, you might actually hear the people's interests being represented. They are certainly being expressed.

The 110th Congress has called Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Chad Hurley, the founder of YouTube, to testify in favor of Net Neutrality -- the principle that safeguards the Internet against blocking and censorship from Internet service providers. In recent weeks, leading consumer and Internet rights advocates, Silicon Valley's top entrepreneurs and Hollywood's creative community have testified that an open Internet is vital to the health of our economy and democracy.

The Federal Communications Commission has gone one further, venturing beyond the Beltway to take the public temperature on the Internet.

At hearings in Cambridge, Mass., and Palo Alto, Calif., the agency got an earful; hundreds of Net Neutrality supporters stood before the microphone to condemn Comcast's recent efforts to block people from using peer-to-peer applications, which make possible the sharing of videos and other rich media without the need for corporate media to broker the content. One after the other. people called on the federal agency for basic protections against Comcast's brand of digital discrimination.

The New Free Speech Movement

They are not alone. A growing movement of Internet users is pushing for legislation to stop would-be gatekeepers from re-routing the free-flowing Web. It has attracted millions of supporters ranging from to the Christian Coalition of America, from independent rockers OK Go to the executive producer of the TV show "Hannah Montana."

Our voices are starting to rise above the din of lobbyists that too often drowns out genuine public debate in Washington. It's now up to our elected officials to act.

The official inquiry on Net Neutrality has given a public voice to the remarkable consensus in favor of free speech and user choice on the Web. And it may turn out to be more than show. The bipartisan "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" is making its way through the House at this very moment. It is a bill that takes into account the many voices that have spoken out since Net Neutrality became a much-debated principle.

Fundamentally, this bill recognizes that we must establish baseline protection for an unfettered Internet. It doesn't call for Web regulation, but gives the public the power to stop the old regime from turning the Internet from a revolution of the many into a funnel for the few.

And that's a freedom worth fighting for.