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Why We Need Fiercely Independent Media Critics

4:03 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

The most renowned media critics are usually superficial and craven. That’s because — as one of the greatest in the 20th century, George Seldes, put it — “the most sacred cow of the press is the press itself.”

Upton Sinclair

Society needs strong, independent media critics like Upton Sinclair.

No institutions are more image-conscious than big media outlets. The people running them know the crucial importance of spin, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to promote media criticism that undermines their own pretenses.

To reach the broad public, critics of the media establishment need amplification from . . . the media establishment. And that rarely happens unless the critique is shallow.

The exceptions can be valuable. The New York Times publishes articles by a “public editor” — an independent contractor whose “opinions and conclusions are her own” — and the person now in that role, Margaret Sullivan, provides some cogent scrutiny of the newspaper’s coverage.

But on the whole, the media critics boosted by big media — inward-facing ombudspersons and outward-facing journalists on a media beat — have been conformists who don’t step outside the shadows cast by the institutions paying their salaries. And they’re not inclined to question the corporate prerogatives of other media firms; people in glass skyscrapers don’t throw weighty stones.

A year ago, the Washington Post, then still under the ownership of the Graham family, abolished the ombudsperson job at the newspaper after four decades of filling the position with a rotating succession of seasoned — and conformist — journalists. The change was a new twist in a downward spiral, but it wasn’t much of a loss for readers.

The Post’s first ombudsman, who took the job in 1970, went on to many years of management roles for the Washington Post Company and then returned to being the ombudsman in the late 1980s. During his second act, he wrote columns denouncing the Newspaper Guild union that was in conflict with the company — while he praised the firm’s management.

In sharp contrast, the best media critics are truly independent. And so, they’re rarely seen or heard via large media outlets.

The death of Doug Ireland six months ago brought back vivid memories. Ireland was a first-rate media critic as well as a deft reporter, astute progressive strategist, path-breaking gay activist and incisive political analyst. Last fall, after he died, one moving tribute after another emerged.

Ireland’s work as a critic of U.S. news media shined fierce light on realities of propaganda systems in our midst. He was part of a precious continuum of media criticism from the political left over the last century. It’s a de facto tradition worth pondering, to grasp its historic vitality — and relevance in 2014.

A hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair made a pioneering jump that many others were to emulate in later decades. He was a writer who became an activist — including a media activist — as he realized that words on pages and volumes of books would not be enough to overcome the brutal greed of the era’s robber barons.

As a witness to atrocities against working people and their families, Sinclair launched a nonstop battle against the press lords and their most powerful wire service, the Associated Press. Sinclair’s 1919 book The Brass Check – self-published and widely read — was a manifesto against the entire capitalist media system of the day. If the prisoners of starvation and exploitation were to arise, they needed to overcome the weaponry of lies, distortions and omissions.

Into the footsteps of Upton Sinclair walked someone who came to media activism not as a novelist but as a journalist. The young reporter George Seldes had covered World War I for the Chicago Tribune and later became the paper’s Berlin bureau chief. Beginning in 1921, Seldes covered the nascent Soviet Union for two years before his stories about suppression of non-Bolshevik revolutionaries got him kicked out of the country.

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Repression of Whistleblowers: Making It Easier to Attack Syria

5:36 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Without whistleblowers, the mainline media outlets are more transfixed than ever with telling the official story. And at a time like this, the official story is all about spinning for war on Syria.

Every president who wants to launch another war can’t abide whistleblowers. They might interfere with the careful omissions, distortions and outright lies of war propaganda, which requires that truth be held in a kind of preventative detention.

By mid-week, media adrenalin was at fever pitch as news reports cited high-level sources explaining when the U.S. missile attacks on Syria were likely to begin, how long they might last, what their goals would be. But what about other (potential) sources who have documents and other information that contradict the official story?

It’s never easy for whistleblowers to take the risk of exposing secret realities. At times like these, it’s especially difficult — and especially vital — for whistleblowers to take the chance.

When independent journalist I.F. Stone said “All governments lie and nothing they say should be believed,” he was warning against the automatic acceptance of any government claim. That warning becomes most crucial when a launch of war is imminent. That’s when, more than ever, we need whistleblowers who can leak information that refutes the official line.

There has been a pernicious method to the madness of the Obama administration’s double-barreled assault on whistleblowers and journalism. Committed to a state of ongoing war, Obama has overseen more prosecutions of whistleblowers than all other presidents combined — while also subjecting journalists to ramped-up surveillance and threats, whether grabbing the call records of 20 telephone lines of The Associated Press or pushing to imprison New York Times reporter James Risen for not revealing a source.

The vengeful treatment of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, the all-out effort to grab Edward Snowden and less-publicized prosecutions such as the vendetta against NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake are all part of a government strategy that aims to shut down unauthorized pipelines of information to journalists — and therefore to the public. When secret information is blocked, what’s left is the official story, pulling out all the stops for war.

From the false Tonkin Gulf narrative in 1964 that boosted the Vietnam War to the fabricated baby-incubators-in-Kuwait tale in 1990 that helped launch the Gulf War to the reports of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction early in this century, countless deaths and unfathomable suffering have resulted from the failure of potential whistleblowers to step forward in a timely and forthright way — and the failure of journalists to challenge falsehoods in high government places.

There are no “good old days” to point to, no eras when an abundance of whistleblowers and gutsy reporters thoroughly alerted the public and subdued the power of Washington’s war-makers. But we’re now living in a notably — and tragically — fearful era. Potential whistleblowers have more reason to be frightened than ever, and mainline journalists rarely seem willing to challenge addiction to war.

Every time a president has decided to go to war against yet another country, the momentum has been unstoppable. Today, the craven foreshadow the dead. The key problems, as usual, revolve around undue deference to authority — obedience in the interests of expediency — resulting in a huge loss of lives and a tremendous waste of resources that should be going to sustain human life instead of destroying it.

With war at the top of Washington’s agenda, this is a time to make our voices heard. (To email your senators and representative, expressing opposition to an attack on Syria, click here.) A loud and sustained outcry against the war momentum is essential — and so is support for whistleblowers.

As a practical matter, real journalism can’t function without whistleblowers. Democracy can’t function without real journalism. And we can’t stop the warfare state without democracy. In the long run, the struggles for peace and democracy are one and the same.

Our Twisted Politics of Grief

2:32 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

9/11 Smoking WTC Tower

Our politicized grief over 9/11 continues to cost lives worldwide.

Darwin observed that conscience is what most distinguishes humans from other animals. If so, grief isn’t far behind. Realms of anguish are deeply personal—yet prone to expropriation for public use, especially in this era of media hyper-spin. Narratives often thresh personal sorrow into political hay. More than ever, with grief marketed as a civic commodity, the personal is the politicized.

The politicizing of grief exploded in the wake of 9/11. When so much pain, rage and fear set the U.S. cauldron to boil, national leaders promised their alchemy would bring unalloyed security. The fool’s gold standard included degrading civil liberties and pursuing a global war effort that promised to be ceaseless. From the political outset, some of the dead and bereaved were vastly important, others insignificant. Such routine assumptions have remained implicit and intact.

The “war on terror” was built on two tiers of grief. Momentous and meaningless. Ours and theirs. The domestic politics of grief settled in for a very long haul, while perpetual war required the leaders of both major parties to keep affirming and reinforcing the two tiers of grief.

For individuals, actual grief is intimate, often ineffable. Maybe no one can help, but expressions of caring and condolences can matter. So, too, can indifference. Or worse. The first years of the 21st century normalized U.S. warfare in countries where civilians kept dying and American callousness seemed to harden. From the USA, a pattern froze and showed no signs of thawing; denials continued to be reflexive, while expressions of regret were perfunctory or nonexistent.

Drones became a key weapon—and symbol—of the U.S. war trajectory. With a belated nod to American public opinion early in the century’s second decade, Washington’s interest in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan did not reflect official eagerness to stop killing there or elsewhere. It did reflect eagerness to bring U.S. warfare more into line with the latest contours of domestic politics. The allure of remote-control devices like drones—integral to modern “counterterrorism” ideas at the Pentagon and CIA—has been enmeshed in the politics of grief. So much better theirs than ours.

Many people in the United States don’t agree with a foreign policy that glories in use of drones, cruise missiles and the like, but such disagreement is in a distinct minority. (A New York Times/CBS poll in late April 2013 found Americans favoring U.S. overseas drone strikes by 70 to 20 percent.) With the “war on terror” a longtime fact of political life, even skeptics or unbelievers are often tethered to some concept of pragmatism that largely privatizes misgivings. In the context of political engagement—when a person’s internal condition is much less important than outward behavior—notions of realism are apt to encourage a willing suspension of disbelief. As a practical matter, we easily absorb the dominant U.S. politics of grief, further making it our politics of grief.

The amazing technology of “unmanned aerial vehicles” glided forward as a satellite-guided deus ex machina to help lift Uncle Sam out of a tight geopolitical spot—exerting awesome airpower in Afghanistan and beyond while slowing the arrival of flag-draped coffins back home. More airborne killing and less boot prints on the ground meant fewer U.S. casualties. All the better to limit future grief, as much as possible, to those who are not us.

However facile or ephemeral the tributes may be at times, American casualties of war and their grieving families receive some public affirmation from government officials and news media. The suffering had real meaning. They mattered and matter. That’s our grief. But at the other end of American weaponry, their grief is a world of difference.

In U.S. politics, American sorrow is profoundly important and revs up many rhetorical engines; the contrast with sorrow caused by the American military could hardly be greater. What is not ignored or dismissed as mere propaganda is just another unfortunate instance of good intentions gone awry. No harm intended, no foul. Yet consider these words from a Pakistani photographer, Noor Behram, describing the aftermath of a U.S. drone attack: “There are just pieces of flesh lying around after a strike. You can’t find bodies. So the locals pick up the flesh and curse America. They say that America is killing us inside our own country, inside our own homes, and only because we are Muslims.”

A memorable moment in the film Lincoln comes when the president says, “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” A daring leap for a white American assessing race in 1865. Truly applying the same Euclidean theorem to grief would be just as daring now in U.S. politics. Let’s face it: in the American political culture of our day, all grief is not created equal. Not even close.

*****

We might say ’twas ever thus: countries and ethnic groups mourn their own while yawning or even rejoicing at the agonies of some “others.” And when grief weighs in on the U.S. political scale, the heaviness of our kind makes any other secondary at best. No wonder presidents have always been wary of red-white-and-blue coffins at Andrews Air Force Base. No wonder “Bring our troops home” is such an evergreen slogan of antiwar activism. If the only grief that matters much is American, then just getting Americans out of harm’s way is the ticket. The demand—like empathy for the war-torn grief of Americans—is vital. And grievously incomplete.

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A Letter I Wish Progressive Groups Would Send to Their Members

2:47 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

Dear Progressives,

With President Obama’s second term underway and huge decisions looming on Capitol Hill, consider this statement from Howard Zinn: “When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators, it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them.”

With so much at stake, we can’t afford to forget our role. For starters, it must include public clarity.

Let’s face it: despite often nice-sounding rhetoric from the president, this administration has continued with a wide range of policies antithetical to progressive values.

Corporate power, climate change and perpetual war are running amok while civil liberties and economic fairness take a beating. President Obama has even put Social Security and Medicare on the table for cuts.

Last fall, the vast majority of progressives voted for Obama to prevent the presidency from going to a Republican Party replete with racism, misogyny, anti-gay bigotry and xenophobia. Defeating the right wing was cause for celebration. And now is the time to fight for genuine progressive policies.

But let’s be real about our current situation. Obama has led the Democratic Party — including, at the end of the legislative day, almost every Democrat on Capitol Hill — deeper into an abyss of corporate-driven austerity, huge military outlays, normalization of civil-liberties abuses and absence of significant action on climate change. Leverage from the Oval Office is acting as a brake on many — in Congress and in progressive constituency groups — who would prefer to be moving legislation in a progressive direction.

Hopefully we’ve learned by now that progressive oratory is no substitute for progressive policies. The soaring rhetoric in Obama’s inaugural address this week offered inspiring words about a compassionate society where everyone is respected and we look out for each other. Unfortunately and routinely, the president’s lofty words have allowed him to slide by many progressives despite policies that often amount to a modern version of “social liberalism, fiscal conservatism.”

The New York Times headline over its front-page coverage, “Obama Offers a Liberal Vision in Inaugural Address,” served up the current presidential recipe: a spoonful of rhetorical sugar to help the worsening austerity go down. But no amount of verbal sweetness can make up for assorted policies aligned with Wall Street and the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

“At their inaugurals,” independent journalist I.F. Stone noted long ago, our presidents “make us the dupes of our hopes.”

Unlike four years ago, Obama has a presidential record — and its contrasts with Monday’s oratorical performance are stark. A president seeking minimally fair economic policies, for instance, would not compound the disaster of four years of Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury by replacing him with Jack Lew — arguably even more of a corporate flack.

On foreign policy, it was notably disingenuous for Obama to proclaim in his second inaugural speech that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war” — minutes after completing a first term when his administration launched more than 20,000 air strikes, sharply escalated the use of weaponized drones and did so much else to make war perpetual.

Meanwhile, the media hype on the inaugural speech’s passage about climate change has lacked any indication that the White House is ready to push for steps commensurate with the magnitude of the real climate crisis.

The founder of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, Daphne Wysham, points out that the inaugural words “will be meaningless unless a) the Obama administration rejects the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline; b) Obama selects a new EPA administrator who is willing to take action under the Clean Air Act to rein in CO2 emissions from all sources; c) he stops pushing for dangerous energy development deep offshore in the Gulf, in the Arctic and via continued fracking for oil and gas; d) he pursues a renewable energy standard for the entire country; and e) he directs our publicly financed development banks and export credit agencies to get out of fossil fuels entirely.”

The leadership we need is certainly not coming from the White House or Congress. “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus,” Martin Luther King Jr. observed. The leadership we need has to come, first and foremost, from us.

Some members of Congress — maybe dozens — have shown commitment to a progressive agenda, and a larger number claim a progressive mantle. In any event, their role is not our role. They adhere to dotted lines that we should cross. They engage in Hill-speak euphemisms that we should bypass. Routinely, they decline to directly confront wrong-headed Obama administration policies. And we must confront those policies.

If certain members of Congress resent being pushed by progressives to challenge the White House, they lack an appreciation for the crucial potential of grassroots social movements. On the other hand, those in Congress who “get” progressive social change will appreciate our efforts to push them and their colleagues to stand progressive ground.

When we’re mere supplicants to members of Congress, the doors that open on Capitol Hill won’t lead very much of anywhere. Superficial “access” has scant impact. The kind of empowered access we need will come from mobilizing grassroots power.

We need to show that we’ll back up members of Congress who are intrepid for our values — and we can defeat others, including self-described “progressives,” who aren’t. Building electoral muscle should be part of building a progressive movement.

We’re in this for the long haul, but we’re not willing to mimic the verbiage or echo the silences from members of Congress who fail to challenge egregious realities of this administration’s policies. As Howard Zinn said, our role is to challenge, not fall in line.