Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

"Media Notes #1: The media is part of the story," June 11, 2007

The media have become part of the story. They are no longer merely purveyors of the story.

The Vietnam war gave rise to two—and eventually three--separate streams of media criticism. First there were people loosely associated with the left who wanted more information, more accurate information, any information at all that was for real or even a sincere effort at honesty.

In 1962, I was a second-year college student when one of the graduating fourth year expressed his dismay in a back-in-my-day outburst against the youth of his times. It seems that when he had started his college career—that would have been in 1958—his peers generally took what the government said as true unless proved otherwise. But by 1962, much to his patriotic bewilderment, it had become the standard response official pronouncements—especially by the president, who was Kennedy at the time—to believe that it was probably a lie.

For students trying to figure out the world, it was beginning to seem that to assume official dishonesty might be a quicker path to the right answer.

Keep in mind that just a year before, in 1961, a few weeks into his presidency, Kennedy had overseen the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation (April 17.)

The Cubans had presented evidence to the United Nations as early as October 1960 that the United States was hiring and training mercenaries.

On April 12, 1961, Kennedy told a press conference unequivocally that the United States had no intention of intervening in Cuban affairs.

Five days later, the Bay of Pigs invasion commenced.

In an attempt to make the attacks seem to have been initiated by defectors, American planes had been disguised to look like Cuban ones. One had been shot full of holes in Nicaragua and was piloted into Miami by Mario Zúñiga who was offered to the press as a Cuban defector.

However, important details were missing or wrong. To its credit, the press exposed so much of the truth, that the masquerade failed to bamboozle any but the most gullible members of the public.

In an episode that foreshadowed Colin Powell's 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, Adlai Stevenson, the American ambassador to the UN in 1961, flatly denied the Cuban ambassador's charges about the attack. He even showed official photographs to support the defector’s story.

Still, the truth came out within a few hours and Stevenson, a popular Democratic governor of Illinois who had lost two presidential elections to Eisenhower, was humiliated. He later learned that Kennedy had referred to him as “my official liar.”

Stevenson later called it the most "humiliating experience" of his public life, saying he felt "deliberately tricked" by his own government.

Just days later, on April 29, Kennedy approved the deployment of 400 Special Forces troops to South Vietnam, where they were supposed to train and advise local soldiers. But the press soon revealed that “train and advise” meant American soldiers, like today's military contractors, were also shooting and leading operations.

Within two years, more than 16,000 American troops would arrive in Vietnam. It was a time of rapid fire political failures. The idealistic JFK was presiding over the largest arms buildup in US history. The construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the resumption of atmospheric nuclear testing were to follow in short order.

The Establishment press later referred to a phenomenon they like to call the Credibility Gap—capitalized. It was a polite, technically-hip-sounding way for the press to accept an unprecedented volume of official lies by unusually high-level people about crucial events injected into the public discourse, all without the press appearing either to take sides or to be complete suckers for authority.

People threw up their hands and demanded after being lied to so persistently, “Where can you go to find out what is going on?”

The second stream emerged to fill the Credibility Gap with what we called “the underground press.” Today, we usually drop the word press. The intervening years have seen an explosion of media types—blogs, podcasting, and other internet applications; text messaging and other applications of cellphone technology; cable; satellite and high-density digital storage like DVDs, mp3s and flash memory. So instead of press, we usually talk about media or sometimes journalism.

The years have also seen numerous attempts to co-opt, appropriate, and legitimize the “underground.” For its part, the second stream is no longer an underground one, but the proliferation of media types—and possibly our own philosophy—prevent us from being mainstream. Hence “alternative.”

We might also call ourselves and our ideas independent, or innovative, subcultural, new, exploratory, investigative, underground, critical, non-partisan or objective.

At the risk of seeming pedantic, I will admit that it seems to me the choice of words matters for at least three reasons. First, naming is strategic. The way we describe ourselves becomes a daily mantra that strongly influences how we see ourselves and hence, what we become, even what we can entertain to become; what we take on and what we do not; and how we then proceed to approach both.

Second, the way we describe ourselves sets up the way we will be seen by others, and in that sense creates the imperatives of our ethics. It creates our audience, and the whole set of social relations that positions us to act and be acted upon, to respect and engage others in dialog, to seek and even occasionally to find peace (the good, the true, the beautiful)—or not, and so on.

Third, the issue of definitions and the choice of descriptive words is not academic. Nor is it merely a question of spin. In substance, it is an issue of having good tools for understanding ourselves and our relations to the rest of the world.

What, then, is "alternative—or independent--media"? What are its operating principles? How shall we understand what we are doing and by what name shall we call it? What are the main features of our undertaking?

We began to discuss these issues two weeks ago at the beginning of the KCR membership drive with Bill Metcalfe moderating a Forum on Independent Media that began with his interview of Amy Goodman and went on to a panel of spoken-word programmers including Zoe Creighton, Suzy Hamilton, Jon Steinman and me. That panel is available on the World Report website and Bill is going to replay it later this morning. I hope we will stimulate you to discuss these questions in the KCR community and beyond.

I would begin by making a few personal observations. Since the origins of the underground press, I believe there have been three main developments. The first, which I have already discussed, is the proliferation of different types of media—fax, digital streaming, satellite radio and so forth.

The second is the emergence of the underground into the light of day. This is the most difficult, and so I have the least to say about it.

The third main event, in my opinion, is the publication of the most innovative critique of the mainstream media that I know of: Manufacturing Consent, by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (Pantheon 1988).

Herman and Chomsky broke new ground by analyzing propaganda "where the media are private and formal censorship is absent;...where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest."

Before Herman and Chomsky, the analysis of propaganda had a distinctly rhetorical and Aristotelian flavour. It tended to concentrate on "countries where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, [where] the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the ends of a dominant elite." Americans were surprised to learn that, despite the difference in details, the same was true of their own media.

It seems to me there is no alternative journalism until disillusion with the mainstream has reached a critical point. The founding rabble of underground journalism sensed this in the demand to learn “Where can I find out what is really going on?” But Chomsky and Herman took that to a new level.

Canada is not part of their discussion. In particular, there is no CBC, no Don Cherry, and no troublesome neighbour known amicably in public discussions as The Elephant.

Critique of mainstream media reveals a repetition of patterns, consistent weaknesses in the government they serve.

We have no such analysis for the Canadian press and Canadian foreign policy.

Largely as a result of Herman and Chomsky’s work, the United States and to a much lesser extent the UK and France now have media watchdog organizations that monitor a wide range of issues. FAIR, the home organization for Counterspin, which airs on this station at 7 am on Thursdays, is the one probably most familiar to KCR listeners. There is no media watchdog in Canada. I can tell you from my own fitful forays into that field that we desperately need one.

A third and very influential stream of media criticism developed mainly after the war. It was associated with the voluminous Freedom House study of the media's role during the Tet Offensive which accused the press of undermining public confidence in the war. It embraces the view that the role of the press, especially in wartime, is to promote and enhance whatever may be the government's program.

These would be interesting topics to discuss and to use as a springboard for talking about how we have done what we have done so far; what we tried to do or hoped to do; how we think it is best done; how it all affects the choices you make in doing a show, deciding who to interview, what topics to mix with what, the questions to ask, the music, the spontaneous parts, the tone, the sense of being part of, wanting to serve somehow a larger community.

And beyond that, as a springboard for talking about what concerns us all, how we can learn more of what we need to know, so that we can continue this learning and these discussions and do what needs to be done.

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