THERE'S NO FUNCTIONING DEMOCRACY WITH NO FUNCTIONING PRESS
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It took a whiff of gay sex and the fear of bloggers gone wild to get the corporate press somewhat interested in the story of James "Jeff Gannon" Guckert, the phony reporter who somehow spent nearly two years infiltrating the White House press corps at the behest of the Republican Party.
Combined with the revelations over the past couple of months of three B-list conservative columnists - Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McMannus - getting caught taking payoffs from the government to spread Bush administration propaganda and there suddenly is an awareness that perhaps the White House hasn't been playing fair.
Then you remember the phony tv news reports last year touting benefits of President George W. Bush's Medicare prescription drug plan that had Karen Ryan and Alberto Garcia - employees of the Department of Health and Human Services posing as journalists - and find out that they got their money from the same place Armstrong Williams did, the Washington PR firm Ketchum Communications, which received $97 million of the Bush administration's $250 million it set aside for selling its political ideas. We don't know where the rest of the money ended up.
Then you remember that the Pentagon tried to set up a department of misinformation, the Office of Strategic Influence, to create its own fake news for global distribution. That never got off the ground, but if you subscribe to Dish Network, you can watch The Pentagon Channel and see military propaganda round the clock.
But you look at the press coverage that the Bush administration has gotten over the past four years and you wonder, what's the point? Why pay off columnists, plant fake journalists in the White House press room or fabricate fake news reports when the vast majority of the unbribed, non-fake reporters on the White House beat are doing a fine job on their own telling people exactly what the Bush administration wants them to hear.
President Bush has set a new standard for dealing with the press, or as he calls them, "the filter." He and his White House staff hold the press in utter contempt. As White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told The New Yorker last year: "They don't represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function."
As a result, access to the Bush team is tightly controlled. If a reporter does get to talk with someone, they will likely hear the approved talking points of the day recited by rote. Every public event is completely scripted and held in front of hand-picked loyalists. Reporters that don't play along get frozen out.
Stonewalling reporters and attempting to de-legitimize journalism is one thing. The Bush administration's fetish for secrecy is another. They have worked tirelessly to hide from public view many of the federal government's operations and reverse a decades-long trend of more openness in government.
If pressed, they will cite the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the reason for making increasing amounts of information unavailable to citizens. But the drive toward increased secrecy was underway from the first day President Bush took office, and only accelerated after Sept. 11. The number of documents classified by the Bush administration has increased by more than 50 percent since 2001.
As a matter of policy, the Bush administration has decided to be an advocate of greater secrecy. It has narrowed the reach of the federal Freedom of Information Act. Agencies are now encouraged to delay and discourage anyone seeking information and charge exorbitant fees for research and copying. If all else fails, agencies are told to find whatever technical grounds necessary to reject the requests outright.
And still, the Bush administration feels the need to fake the news, pay off reporters and manipulate the press. Perhaps Robert Parry of Consortium News is correct when he recently described what the Bush administration is doing as "the 'Putin-izing' of American politics, where one side's dominance of media, financial resources and the ability to intimidate opponents is overwhelming - as now exists in Russia under President Vladimir Putin."
For all the usual whining by conservatives about the evils of the liberal media, the conservatives have assembled a powerful media apparatus of its own and it's forcing the major news outlets to swing rightward. They have succeed in changing the game to the point where facts no longer have inherent value and are seen as biased if they conflict with the policy goals of conservatives.
It's no secret that journalists get their careers and reputations damaged or destroyed if they report on information that conflicts with the conservative spin. The fear is pervasive and real at the highest levels of the corporate media food chain. The result is that most of what we see, hear and read reflects what the Bush administration wants us to see, hear and read. You can find dissenting viewpoints, but it takes more effort to find them than the average person is willing to spend.
However, the question remains that if you already have that much power to control the news, why do you need to fake it?
From the lies to convince the nation of the need to invade Iraq to the lies about the need to privatize Social Security, it takes more than the tightest news management ever seen to get away with it all. You have to lie, lie and lie some more. Lie constantly and with the straightest of faces. Be so brazen with your lies that you practically dare the press to call you on it, all the while knowing that they won't because too many reporters are too scared to do so. Nothing less than complete control of the message will do for the Bush White House.
It seems almost old fashioned to think of the press as a critical piece of a functioning democracy. But it is. And when it can't do its job, we all lose and the Bush administration becomes a step closer to achieving its dream of total dominance of national politics - a one-party state where elections are just for show, where Democrats have little chance of winning and all the traditional checks and balances on power have withered away.
The people's right to know no longer seems to matter and even more disturbing, too many people don't care. The Bush administration is happy to encourage this apathy. They'll do anything, including bribery and trickery, to ensure that the American people won't notice and won't care about the destruction of their democracy.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.