Friday, October 29, 2004

Culture Wars

I suppose if I was getting paid to do this blog I would write it every day. But I'm not. I intend to build it into an experioment in branding, but that is down the road. Right now, as with 99% of the blogs out there, it is just a place for me to spew forth.

I got in an interesting fight with my mother recently. Now it must be understood that Mom is the person who taught me my politics, taught my my spirituality, and then went off and became a born again republican. She spends most of her time now praying for my soul, for which I am eternally grateful, as I need all the help I can get. Where once our politics were identical they are now completely at odds. She wrote me asking what it was like teaching media studies durring this election, wherein there is so much anger and hatred being expressed by both sides. She also brought up the New York Times as an example of a media organization which, she says, sellects stories based on an anti-Bush political agenda.

With the comment on anger and hatred I kind of opened up with my own, which while hardly on the level of some on the far left or right, is still fairly intense over some issues. Mom ws distressed. What can I say, I'm no longer in California: I live in New York now, and we don't hold back.

But the comment about the Times bothered me, because it is not what I have experienced in the past. Now I have my problems with the Times. I was one of those infuriated with their uninformed and dismissive obituary for Jaques Derida recently, and signed a petition in protest of what they wrote. Furthermore, in the area of integrity, they have had some black eyes. To their credit when it was discovered that one of their reporters had been making up sources they acknowledged it imediately and fired the guy, a much better response the the "circle the wagons" aproach adopted by CBS with regard to the recent forged memos. What I think about the Times, however, is not the issue. What my students think of the Times is.

Up at CCNY I give an assignement every semester on newspapers and how different papers cover a story. I assign my students to buy coppies of the three major dalies here in New York, the Post, the Daily News and the Times. They must pick a story covered in all three papers on the same day and compare and contrast the editorial styles of each of the papers. I ask them to comment on headlines, language, objectivity, writing style and the ammount of information to be gleaned from each. The results are amazing. Students, most of whom when they entered the class read either the News or the Post, are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that the Times is the better paper; better written, more informative, and more objective. Only 3% of my students every say they prefer the Post after having compared all three, and fewer then that prefer the News. Now, the purpose of this assignment is not to increase the Times circulation. It is to demonstrate the differences between a traditional broadsheet like the Times and a tabloid style paper like the Post and the Daily News. That 97% of my students come to the conclusion that the Times is more objective then the Post is hardly surprising: the Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is every bit as partisan as his Fox News Network, and has long been his personal soapbox on conservative issues. However, that better then 99% of my students come to the conclusion that the Times is more objective the the Daily News is very interesting, as the News tries hard to occupy the center of polcitical discourse on most issues (at least what passes for the center in New York City).

The accusation that the Times picks its stories based on a political agenda is, I think, not borne out by the facts. To those who ask why the Times ran a story about missing explosives in Iraq, I answer that the story is news (reports today indicate that the missing explosives were likely their when US troops occupied the site imediately after the invasion, taking som of the wind out of the conservative's sails). Bush supporters claimed this was an unfair, partisan attack against their candidate, but they always claim that whenever they get bad news. Complaints such as this are yet another piece of anti-news propoganda spread by conservative idealogues who, at leaast since Nixon, have been antagonistic toward the press. They seem to believe that if a newspaper covers any story critical toward them or their agenda it shows the media as a whole to be pawns of a radical liberal elite. Conservatives do not want an objective press--or rather, their definition of objecvity is limited to "anyone who agrees with me." The current administration's relationship with the press is indicative of conservative attitudes toward the third estate. The preisdent rarely holds press conferences or interviews. When he does grant an interview it is usually to someone who will not challenge him, like Bill Oreily (with good reason, as shown by his gaff in an interview with Matt Laur, when Bush said he didn't think the war on terrorism could be won). As I've said before, this administration seems to have taken Orwell's 1984 as an instruction manual on how to run a country, including how to control the flow of information. A free and objective press is dangerous to George Bush.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Education President

We're going to talk about books for a moment. I'm reading one right now. It's called The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence. That's Lawrence of Arabia. It is his account of the Arab revolt during World War I, and it is almost one thing like the movie staring Peter O'Toole.

I bring it up because I would like to know if our president has read it. It is entirely possible that he has. It's been around for years and it is the type of old boy tome they liked up at Yale back in the day. Lawrence says some interesting things about war in Arabia. He says the war was won once the preaching began. The killing was incidental. Their strategy was to fight a guerilla war. The Turks, with their tanks and armored cars and long supply lines and huge armies could move large numbers of troops around, hold Medina and Mecca, flex their muscles all over Arabia, but Feisal and his army would just go where the enemy wasn't, attack them where they were weakest, and occupy those lands the Turks weren't on. The Turks could have the one percent of Arabia they were standing on at any given time and Lawrence and Feisal would operate in the other 99%. The Turks simply could not win. It was a strategy that had worked for George Washington before Lawrence and for Ho Chi Mihn after him, and it famously worked for Lawrence as well.

He also goes to great lengths to describe the conflicts between the various tribes and religions in Syria (which at the time included Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Damascus, Israel, Gaza and Palestine as well as parts of Turkey). In some places Christians lived well with Muslims, in other places they did not, how the Jews in Jerusalem were not the same as the Jews farther north, how their hatred for each other was centuries old and intractable.

It's an interesting book because so much of what Lawrence wrote about is still true. We drove to Baghdad at lightening speed, but we did not stop to occupy the lands we passed through. We created long and fragile supply lines running through the desert. We have ceded control of large parts of Iraq to insurgents because we simply can't be everywhere at once.

The media doesn't really cover this story. In spite of conservative cries to the contrary, the Bush administration's attempts to control negative information about the war have been largely successful. Only rarely do any news organizations cover the literally hundreds of insurgent attacks which have occurred every one of the past few months in Iraq. Unless it is a big bomb in the green zone, or one that kills Americans or high government officials, we don't hear about it. If we did America would know that any pretense of control we have in Iraq, and pretense of our being welcome their by the general populace, any pretense that Iraq is stable or moving toward stability, is a big fat lie.

So I wonder, has Bush read this book? I would think you'd want to read a book by someone who was so successful in Arabia before you invaded an Arab nation. I don't think he read it, because he's doing every stupid thing the Turks did.

Oh, wait! His father wrote a book about this too, one in which he said he couldn't invade Iraq because there would have been no exit strategy. Guess G.W. didn't read that one either.

Which brings me back to my question: what kind of books does Bush read? We know he can read. He graduated from Yale, which ain't easy. He famously does not read newspapers. I assume he reads the Bible, but does he read anything else? As far as I can tell, the Bible not withstanding, Bush doesn't read. He can read, he just doesn't read.

It is one of the great hypocrisies of this administration full of hypocrisies that the education president does not read.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Equal Time

Sinclair Broadcasting owns 62 local televison stations throughout the US. They are affiliated with several (perhaps all) of the broadcast networks. Some of their stations are in key battle ground states for the upcoming election. So why should we care?

We should care because Sinclair, like Newscorp and Clear Channel, has a lot of media clot and no scruples when it comes to abusing its power. Sincliar plans to preempt prime time programing to broadcast without commercials a doccumentary called "Stolen Honor" which is highly critical of John Kerry's anti war protests when he returned from Viet Nam. The doccumentary is a blatant hit piece masqurading as news, directed by a former aide to Homeland Defense secretary Tom Ridge. Sinclair, which earlier this year refused on its ABC stations to air a doccumentary showing he flag draped coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq, insists that it has every right to broadcast the anti-Kerry doc because it is "newsworthy."

They are hypocrites. They have no news division, and yet they claim to be journalists. They obviously have an agenda, and yet they hide behind the "objectivity" of news broadcasting.

The central argument of Stolen Honor is that Mr. Kerry's protest ammounted to treason, gave aid and comfort to the enemey, emboldened North Viet Nam and, perhaps most damning, encouraged the North Viet Namese to keep American POWs longer then they otherwise would have, submitting them to continued torture and, in some cases, causing their deaths--the blame for which the film lays squarely at Mr. Kerry's feet (this according to press releases, no one has actually seen the film or heard the arguments yet). Last week a vice president of Sinclair compared the broadcast network's to Holocaust deniers for not taking up the issue of Kerry's complicity in the deaths of American POWs. This earned him a well deserved rebuke from the Anti Defamation league.

The issues here are numerous. This large media conglomerate is using its ownership in a blantant attempt to affect the outcome of the election. Television news is supposed to be objective but here is a station owner abusing his influence. Also, under FCC regulations, stations are supposed to offer equal time to candidates for election when broadcasting something critical of them. Sinclair says it did this by offering Mr. Kerry a seat on a pannel which would discuss the film for fifteen minutes following its broadcast. FCC chairman Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, said this was sufficient, as though fifteen minutes in a forum where Mr. Kerry was sure to be attacked by other panelists could counter a two hour doccumentary. The DNC has taken action against Sinclair claiming that by broadcasting the film wthout commercials it ammounted to an in kind contribution to the Bush campaign, barred by campaign finance laws. Calculating the revenue from lost prime time commercials on 62 local stations, the dollar ammount is huge. None of this seems to matter to the appointed republicans who control the FCC.

Finally, as a current and former FCC comissioner, both Democrats, have said, this is an example of media consolidation run amok. For years critics have been saying that de-regulation allowing people or corporations to own several different stations in different markets concentrated media, including news, editorial opinion and access to information in too few hands. Just as Clear Channel was able thoruhg its broad radio station ownership to censor Howard Stern and the Dixie Chicks, so too Sinclair is able to use its ownership of 62 television stations to spread the politicl opinion of its executives and directly attempt to influence the outcome of the presidential campaign. We are supposed to have laws to protect us against this kindof thing, but the FCC is obviously in the pocket of the Republican Party and the lion has no teeth. Given the outrage over a mistake by Dan Rather in not authenticating some doccuments in a story about President Bush, you would think conservatives who were calling for Mr. Rather to be fired would be equally outraged about Sinclair's actions, but they couldn't be happier--proving that they are hyporcites as well and that, in this case at least, it has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with the truth.

So I have a solution: Sinclair runs Stolen Honor in prime time without commercial interuption just like they want to, but the next night they have to run Farenheit 9/11.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Tangled Webs

What a world we live in! The Bush Administration has gone after their best friend at the New York Times, Judith Miller, over sources. Miller has been called a 1st amendment Martyr by Slate reporter Jack Shafer because of her refusal to name her sources for an article she was researching on the Valerie Plame case to a federal grand jury. The LA Times at has written a good piece on whether or not her case meets the guidelines handed down by the Supreme Court as to when a reporter must reveal her sources, but the larger issue here is why go after her? They claim they want to find out who outed Plame as a CIA agent, but since she didn't even write a story on the issue, and Robert Novak did, why is she the one being held in contempt? Could it be because Novak is one of the most important conservative columnists in America, an even bigger ally then Miller? Remember, Miller was one of the few reporters to back up the administrations rationale for going to war in Iraq, reporting on Iraqi WMD programs and using sources which were later shown to be untrustworthy. Perhaps they're going after her because when no weapons were found she blamed our government for botching the job. Perhaps they're going after her simply because she works for the New York Times. Perhaps, maybe, they even believe it is the just and legal thing to do.

But that is not the problem. The problem is what the LA Times called in the same article the Bush Administrations war against the press. This administration hates the press, hates public scrutiny, hates being challenged, hates all those things which make American democracy work. Bush rarely grants interviews and when he does it is usually to conservative reporters who are going to give them softball questions. They have bullied and intimidated their critics, including the press, every time an objection has been raised to their policies. Their slash and burn tactics of discredit, confuse and destroy have been brought to bear not only against Richard Clarke and Plame's husband Joseph Wilson IV, but also against reporters like Miller and against the news media in general. Not since Nixon has a president struck such an antagonistic position toward the press (though in Nixon's case it proved to be true that they really were out to get him).

This president clearly tries to do more then stay on message. He tries to control the message and, more then that, to stamp out dissent. He may believe that a free press is essential to a free state, but he doesn't act like it. The current occupants of the White House are openly antagonistic toward the press. In another display of their contempt for the constitution they swore to uphold, this administration acts as though it is the press' job to act as mouth pieces for administration policy and cheerleaders for administration actions, and when things go against them and the press has the gall to act independently or objectively these guys turn into Liberty Valance, breaking up the newspaper office, destroying the printing press, and horse whipping Edmund O'Brien. The attack on Judith Miller is just one part of the big picture.

Rent the DVD.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


Let's get off the whole election roller-coaster for a minute. I sat here this morning and watched NASCAR president Mike Helton explain in the driver's meeting at Kansas City why he felt it necessary to dock Dale Earnhardt Jr. 25 points in the standings for swearing during an interview right after he had won last week's race at Talladega. He said that in today's climate, and he acknowledged that the climate changes every day, that they simply cannot allow profanity on their broadcasts. They had docked two other drivers 25 points earlier in the year for the same offense, and they could not make exceptions for anybody. But it was much bigger then just being fair. It moved NASCAR's most popular driver from first place to second with seven races to go. Fact: if Dale Jr. Loses the championship by less then twenty-five points there will be a small riot at Homestead on the last day of the season.

If you've never been to a NASCAR race you don't realize how rabid Dale Jr.'s fans are. The stands at Dover two weeks ago, the last race I attended, were a sea of Budweiser red. When Dale Jr.'s fans thought he was cheated out of a win by a late caution at the first race at Talladega this year, handing the victory to his arch rival Jeff Gordon, fans pelted the track and Gordon's car with debris. If they feel junior was cheated this time, expect an even bigger reaction. Fans are upset. So are drivers. Tony Stewart has been the loudest, calling the penalty "insanity," but all the drivers think the penalty was grossly unfair. Personally I think it is just bad business. In its efforts to make NASCAR more fan friendly and spread its popularity beyond the South East, NASCAR is castrating its drivers. These are (for the most part) men and need to be allowed to act like it. The popularity of this sport has always been built on personality as much as speed, and in trying to Disnify its attraction NASCAR is turning its drivers into the slick, overproduced cardboard cut-outs of drivers you see next to the beer display in the grocery store. The only possible result is that the new interest in NASCAR outside its traditional region will begin to wane while its core fans will be turned off by having their heroes neutered. As Bill Maher said last night, you got to let rednecks be rednecks. NASCAR insists that it applied its rules fairly in docking Dale Jr. 25 points. Bull. It applied the rule evenly, but not fairly, because the rule is unfair to begin with. You need to let people be themselves.

But the issue here is much more serious. As Helton indicated, this fine is the result of the "current climate" and that climate is brought on by by the FCC, an FCC in the administration of George Bush, which panders to his conservative Christian Base (yes, this base overlaps with NASCAR's, but that's not the point). With Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Superbowl (which I continue to believe was calculated to sell the album she had coming out at the time--and it worked), and the outrage that followed, the conservatives were emboldened on this issue and the FCC moved to clamp down on obscenity. In the same week that NASCAR penalized Dale Jr., the conservatives finally succeeded in driving Howard Stern off of Broadcast Radio, as he announced he was moving to Sirius (more on that next week). The FCC had a long campaign against Stern and his raunchy show and had, through a series of exorbitant fines over the past few months, convinced Clear Channel, the nations biggest Radio broadcaster, to drop Stern from its stations (Clear Channel's power of censorship is enormous, just ask the Dixie Chicks). When looked at in the broader context, Dale Jr.'s penalty is part of a pattern of censorship which has been going on since Mr. Bush took office and increased markedly after the Superbowl last January. It is the newest front opened in the Culture War (that's the war that the conservatives declared on the rest of us). They want to be able to control speech in this country, to sanitize it, to make it "family friendly" and to promote clean 1950s style America--not one that actually existed in the 1950s--that would be too dirty, too real, for their tastes--but the one you saw on 1950s television. A white bread morality which never existed in America except in people's dreams.

Censorship of any kind of speech is a bad idea. It is not only wrong, it simply doesn't work. Part of Mike' Helton's message this morning was that, no matter what your personal beliefs about speech and how you talk when you are at home or hanging out with your friend's NASCAR has not only the right but the responsibility to censor its drivers. This is seriously misguided, not only from a business standpoint but from a moral and constitutional standpoint as well. History has shown that in the case of vices like sex, drugs, profanity, gambling, and NASCAR's own stock in trade speed, trying to suppress the activity usually only makes the problems associated with those activities worse. But there is a bigger issue here even then that, a political issue, an issue of a powerful corporation threatening the livelihood of someone based on something they said in an interview.

Wal Mart exercises its power as the number one distributed of DVDs and video tapes in America by insisting that R rated movies be censored before they will carry them. Disney tries to silence dissent against President Bush by refusing to release a documentary critical of him, Fahrenheit 9/11, the summer before the election. CBS, bowing to political pressure from conservatives, pulls a film about President Reagan from broadcast and puts it on a cable network with a much lower viewership. Writers of books critical of the United States position toward the Middle East over the past twenty years are excoriated on the floor of the House of Representatives. Foreign Relations departments in universities which do not adhere to a strict government approved pro-US curriculum have their funding threatened. The largest radio network in the country refuses to play Dixie Chicks albums after the criticize the president at a concert in Europe. Howard Stern is driven off the air and Dale Jr. is docked 25 points for an expletive. Taken all together this pattern is frighteningly Orwellian.

Some of the instances of censorship listed above were government initiated, which is covered by the First Amendment, others were corporate censorship, which is not. So to some of the censorship is of political speech, which has more protections, while some was of profanity (or pornography or obscenity, whatever you want to call it), which has less. Robert Bork once wrote that the first amendment only applies to political speech and therefore pornography has no protections, but this is just another example of Orwellian doublespeak. When you outlaw a speech act, when you make certain words (George Carlin's famous seven words you can't say on TV) illegal then getting on TV and saying those words becomes an act of protest, a political act, and Dale Jr.'s and Janet Jackson's and Howard Stern's speech becomes political and censoring the speech becomes political censorship, an effort to silence those with whom you disagree, a stifling of debate, a chilling of public discourse.

And this is why not only should Dale Jr. Be given back his 25 points but why we gotta vote these yahoos out of office. And so we made it back to the election again.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Good Morning America

Here in America we go through this dance ever four years in which two slick salesmen, with a crackerjack support crew, give us the ultimate sell job. They try to sell themselves to us. If enough people buy they get a cool address on Pennsylvania Avenue for the next four years, the greatest collection of toys in the world (what boy hasn't wanted his own real army to play with?), and good tee times at Pebble Beach for the rest of his life. Not to mention the girls. Many of them seem to be turned on by this whole "most powerful man in the world" thing. The suits, the security, the army, the house, the women, everything--it is the biggest power trip in the world. In the media we pander to these yahoos. Even when, as in last night's debate, the candidates address the issues, clearly outline their differences and challenge one another on their positions (both of them did a very good job last night), we are more interested in handicapping a horse race then reporting on a presidential race. But the real whores of all this are the spin doctors. The spin begins early in a debate, one or two days ahead of time. Talking points go out to both sides in anticipation of what they expect from the other guy. How many of Mr. Bush's boot lickers last night, immediately after the debate, described Mr. Kerry as "haughty?" It was obviously what they'd been told to say by Karl Rove's spin team, and they all marched in lock step and stayed on message. The same was true of Kerry's troops. Both sides insist that their side won. It is not in the way my mom and my girlfriend see that their side has won, hearing what they want to hear from their guy and insisting the other guy looked like a blithering idiot (and yes, they will be voting for different candidates in November). The spin guys, both the pros in each campaign, the media whores like Sean Hannity and Michael Moore, and us bloggers, try to influence how people saw the debate by insulting the other guy and glorifying our own. We bald face lie to you because we know that if it gets into the Saturday papers that our guy has won the debate it could influence the polls on Sunday and, hopefully, the vote. It's all garbage. It doesn't mean anything. But this is a horse race--or a whore's race--not a presidential race, and we will whip our mount down the home stretch. And when, as last night, both candidates truly looked presidential, we do a huge disservice to everyone who listens to us by slinging mud instead of discussing their positions. But, after all, we're all a bunch of whores anyway.