SOMETIMES, DEMOCRACY IS THE LAST REFUGE OF A SCOUNDREL
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Times have changed since Dr. Samuel Johnson said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Democracy is the last refuge now.
The First Amendment to the Constitution says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press. But it doesn't say that the powerful can't manipulate the press until it is destroyed or self-destructs.
The press is democracy's first line of defense against corruption and tyranny. Whether we get our news from the newspapers, the Internet or television, we depend on good reporting and thoughtful editing to tell us what is happening in the world.
The press may be many things - corporate-owned, profit-minded and risk-averse, certainly - but every day in our country and around the world, reporters are struggling to uncover and tell the truth. Many risk their lives in the hope that the truth will make their readers free - or, at least, a little freer. Last year 129 journalists and media employees were killed in the line of duty.
But if a party in power - such as our current Administration - does not want an informed citizenry - if, in fact, an informed citizenry is the last thing it wants - then what? Since the press is protected by the First Amendment, they must destroy its credibility. That is what the Republican right-wingers have brilliantly done.
The destruction has been on-going. From the first whining about bias in "the liberal media," to the establishment of a Republican television channel, Fox News, to spew out lies and character assassinations, to an attempt to destroy the Freedom of Information Act, to eliminating presidential press conferences, to denying government access to all but the true believers, the meek and the hand-chosen, the Republican right has done a terrific job of stifling the free flow of information.
The media has been complicit in its own destruction. Afraid of the bullying of the Bush Administration; egotistic; protective of their bottom lines; caught up in conventional wisdom; in love with their fortunes, perks and access - yes, Big Media has been easy to manipulate. And the more it allows itself to be weakened, the less people trust it. In a recent Gallup poll on job ethics, journalists ranked just above car salesmen.
With the press weakened, the Bush Administration has been able to govern with big lies - weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example, or the current manufactured "crisis" in Social Security.
Lately, a few of this Administration's press manipulations have been revealed; in the light of day, the worms and roaches found wriggling in this West Wing aren't very pretty.
First in the spotlight was Armstrong Williams, a conservative African-American political commentator and co-founder of Graham Williams Group, a public relations firm in which the Graham is Stedman Graham, Oprah Winfrey's long-time boyfriend. Williams, it turned out, was paid $240,000 by the Dept. of Education to flog the president's No Child Left Behind initiative.
How crazy is that? Let me count the ways. First, federal law prohibits covert government publicity or propaganda campaigns - and this one clearly reeks of propaganda. Second, Williams was paid to lie to us with our own money. Third, Williams is a Republican shill anyway - he would do it for free. Fourth, Williams's Web site claims, (according to The New York Times), that he focuses on such issues as "the restoration of morality in today's society." Maybe Oprah could do a show about this?
Having a newspaper column - having a public voice - is an honor. In return, the public expects columnists to do their own reporting, think things through, and then write sincerely. When they sell their columns, they stop being columnists and start being whores.
No sooner had Williams been unmasked than the conservative, pro-family, stay-together-no-matter-how-bad-it-gets columnist Maggie Gallagher was caught writing pamphlets for the government. Gallagher, like most women, was paid less than the men - she only got $21,500 for selling out. Maybe that could be a new column topic for you, Maggie - equal pay for equal work?
The story then became more insidious. Last week, we learned that a fake journalist, James Guckert, writing under an assumed name, Jeff Gannon, and working for a right-wing opinion Web site posing as a news organization, Talon News, was given an all-access White House press pass so he could ask questions the White House wanted asked during press conferences. Later information established that he is also a male prostitute who started several gay prostitution sites that show him nearly nude in come-on ads.
A free press is the hallmark of a democracy. By trying to corrupt, intimidate and manipulate it, the Bush Administration has shown us just how little respect for democracy they really have, here and in Iraq. What they care about is power and control.
After Dr. Johnson said patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel, the cynic Ambrose Bierce amended it with, "I beg to submit that it is the first." Then H.L. Mencken jumped in: "But there is something even worse: it is the first, last and middle range of fools."
If you substitute "democracy" for "patriotism," I beg to submit that you have the situation in America today. Whether your political views are right, left or center, your news sources are being corrupted, you mind is being manipulated, and you should be outraged.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.