The nation's largest media corporations are now poised to gain dramatically greater control over what Americans watch, listen to and read. A February 19 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit nullified two longstanding government regulations limiting the scope and size of media companies that use the public airwaves. If the decision stands, there will no longer be limits on the same company owning television stations and cable franchises in the same market. The court also ordered the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider a rule barring a TV network from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience.
The end result of this latest deregulation wave could be, in the words of Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union, "the most massive consolidation in media this nation has ever seen." The only good news in the appeals court's ruling was its rejection of a claim by media company lawyers that regulation of media monopolies is itself unconstitutional. This means that even as FCC chairman Michael Powell seeks to repeal the remaining regulatory limits on media monopoly, Congress could reassert its authority over communications law. Some powerful legislators, including Senator Ernest Hollings and Representative John Conyers Jr., want to do just that. But they are going to need public pressure from a real media reform movement if they are to have any hope of converting their fellow members to a fight for Americans' right to a diverse media.
With the looming prospect of one or two giant media conglomerates controlling almost all our news and entertainment, the survival of alternative, noncommercial media outlets becomes more important than ever. One of them--Pacifica radio--has famously been rocked by internal problems and requires support from all who care about independent media. The Nation is deeply committed to the Pacifica ideal of independent broadcasting (at both the national and local levels) and has many friends and longtime contributors involved in the network in various capacities. Now that an Alameda County Superior Court judge has replaced the old board with an interim body charged with restoring harmony and solvency to the battered network, it's vital that those of us in the penumbra of the Pacifica community do what we can to help the new cast of characters be true to the Pacifica ideal.
Recent events--including the axing of Pacifica Network News, the firing of KPFK station manager Mark Schubb, the suspension of Marc Cooper and the cancellation of his daily show on KPFK (Cooper is a contributing editor of this magazine and also the host of RadioNation)--suggest that all is not pacified at Pacifica. Further, the network is saddled with a debt of $4.8 million, partly as a result of litigation during the recent troubles.
We'll have a report in an upcoming issue on the latest developments. Meanwhile, Pacifica remains a beacon of independent thinking and progressive values in a sea of conglomeratized and homogenized media. Readers who have strong views on Pacifica's future course should convey them to their local station. For those of you who wish to send contributions to offset the alarming deficit: Make out checks to Pacifica Foundation and mail them to Pacifica Radio, Attention: Accounts, 2390 Champlain St. NW, Washington, DC 20009.
One of the pitfalls of publishing a weekly journal of critical opinion at a moment when the political culture has drifted to the right is that there is so much of which to be critical that we often don't take time out to count our blessings, hail our heroes and salute our comrades in arms. Add to that the liberal left's propensity for internecine warfare (see our editorial on page 3) and the temptation to pass over those guilty of committing good works is often too great to resist. So, let us take a moment to cheer two local heroes whose good works, not incidentally, have benefited Nation writers, among many others, over the years.
First, Bill Moyers. For years, his documentaries, speeches and articles have illuminated such subjects as the way money distorts politics, how secrecy perverts liberty and how, under the flag of free trade, NAFTA has permitted multinationals to undermine democracy. As Moyers (quoting John Dewey) wrote in our pages, it's not easy to interest the public in the public interest. In recent weeks Moyers has been the target of a Weekly Standard demolition job and a misguided assault by the Washington Post's Sebastian Mallaby. He must be doing something right.
Second, Jeff Chester, one-man monitor of concentration among the communications conglomerates, reminds us how we were almost deprived of the good works of Norman Lear. Citing a Writer's Guild of America statement on harmful vertical and horizontal integration in television, he notes that Norman Lear (and his colleague Bud Yorkin) made two pilots for ABC of the controversial series All in the Family. ABC kept asking him to water it down, soften it, blur the edges. Lear refused and took the series to CBS, where he was allowed to follow his vision and create one of the groundbreaking shows of all time. As the WGA notes, "He could do that only because he owned it. Today, the network would have an ownership position and would be able simply to fire Lear and replace him with a writer and producer who would do what they wanted." As a result Lear made his fortune and has used it, among other things, to purchase one of the few surviving original versions of the Declaration of Independence and to found People for the American Way, which fights to put the principles of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights into practice. A recent example: turning the national spotlight on a Bush court nominee with an abominable civil rights record, as described by John Nichols in this week's issue.
We take our hat off to Bill Moyers and Norman Lear.
What the Islamic fascists do, and what they believe, and what they intend, are three aspects of the same one-dimensional thing. It is ludicrous to accuse them of being untrue to themselves or their cause. The usual rush to "understand" Pervez Musharraf's difficulties seems to supply a partial explanation for this moral feebleness.
How to Honor Pearl
The Federal Communications Commission is presently conducting an inquiry--a "rulemaking"--to determine whether to relax, or even to eliminate, the remaining few regulations that limit how many me
The divergence in British and US views on the Middle East has become acute.
Some magazines have an identity problem, and some don't. The New York Review of Books doesn't, as you may have noticed. It's relentlessly highbrow, which is how we like it. For the most part. But every once in a while, a little bit of pop culture creeps in, hooray, and then the editors do their best to hide it. In the February 14 issue, for example, there's an ebullient review of Stephen King's Dreamcatcher, among a million other of his books, by the always bubbling and boiling John Leonard. But the cover gives no hint that this amusement lurks within. Instead, it plugs yet another review of yet another book on Anthony Blunt (Blunt and Kim Philby are to NYRB what the Beatles are to Rolling Stone: no issue complete without at least one mention, even if it has to be in the personals); a searing legal indictment of Bush's military tribunal "concept" by Aryeh Neier, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch; and, smack in the center, a piece by John Updike on Gustav Klimt in New York, the exhibit at the new Neue Galerie on Museum Row in New York.
Updike's review is fine, but it gives me the feeling, again, that there are two sides to the man: Updike the great writer, and Updike the whiny curmudgeon who hangs out in New York, goes on taxing trips to China and believes he heard the twin towers "tinkle" to the ground from his vantage point in Brooklyn. Thus the Klimt review begins with a litany of complaints about traffic flow at the museum and the placement of the bookstore and gift shop on the ground floor (where else would they be?), with the brave Updike thrusting forward like a great beaky bird through the plebes. "As stated," he writes, "the café, with windows on Fifth Avenue, was thriving; in my haste to get to the art I missed the bookstore and 'design shop.'"
I'm glad the King review is there as a counterweight to the difficult walk amid the gifts and the latte drinkers and the Austrian furnishings, but it shouldn't be a secret kept from newsstand buyers. Leonard's encompassing review includes the funny and instructive story of King buying a table at the National Book Awards for himself and John Grisham (among others), who will never be invited or granted such a prize by what Leonard, borrowing a fine word from King, calls "those shit-weasels, the anal-retentive literary establishment." Not at the table, and not on the cover.
I've always been a coward, and the events of September 11 have not alleviated the problem. I own: one roll of duct tape, a medium-sized Leatherman tool, a small flashlight, seven surgical masks, a box of latex gloves, many cans of beans and a box of Carnation evaporated milk, all bought in the aftermath of that day. I admit it's not total coverage. But then, I am not much of a survivalist. Five months after the attacks, I went through some of the post-9/11 magazines, and I now know why survivalism is not for me. A person who depends on one box of Carnation (which, I have learned from my reading, lasts only six months) should not go on living on an earth that will be filled with post-Armageddon survivalists. We could not be friends. They call knives "edged weapons."
Of course, all the survivalist and mercenary magazines are pro-gun, and they seem to think that having a gun will somehow help you in the next new world. In Terrorism Survival Guide's second issue, an article about choosing the right firearm tells families that "self defense has reached a level in this era of murderous terrorism that to be unarmed is equivalent to surrendering to ruthless evil." It's hard to imagine how a handgun would help as a skyscraper flattens to the ground, but I suppose the civil unrest that might follow could justify it. (And I did like the look and name of that Black Widow .22 Magnum, which weighs in at just over 6 ounces and is only 5 inches long and would fit quite snugly next to my Leatherman and flashlight.) As ever, Soldier of Fortune is the most interesting of the wacko military mags. Like Aryeh Neier--to whom you can safely say its writers are not too often compared--it abhors Bush's military tribunals, and its March issue contains a semi-thought-provoking piece on Johnny Michael Spann and Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, with most of the ideas and attitudes taken from Seymour Hersh's piece on Tenet in The New Yorker last fall. Hersh and SOF: another unusual team. But then again: The World Has Changed. You can tell it has, because in the photo of a young girl and her Barbie doll in Terrorism Survival Guide's article "What Do We Tell Our Kids?", the girl is wearing a supermodern protective plastic helmet, and Barbie has on a pink tank top, lace skirt and gas mask.
There's a new niche magazine: Heeb, the New Jew Review. Intended to stir up controversy, this sparky and slightly inane newcomer will reignite the old, old controversy over what it means to be Jewish. If it means skateboarding and deejaying and graffiti-writing, I've blown it completely. But there are some great things in here, too: a wrong-minded but amusing meditation on the use of Jews in The Simpsons; a lovely homoerotic paean to Allen Ginsberg, with a moving photo of the great one in his bathrobe, cooking; a twisted essay on Pizza Hut's new Twisted Crust pie, which the writer insists is a reference to the swastika (Hakenkreuz, in German, or twisted cross); someone's old bubbe reviewing the latest pop music ("Oh, I love that beat!"). Heeb takes only a minor interest in the major crisis facing Jews today--there's a short bit (in a department called Underground Oslo) on the Old City Peace Vigil, a small interfaith group that is bravely keeping up a protest in the shadow of the Western Wall. Everything in this eye-catching magazine is irreverent, but only a teaspoonful is important. Still, it's a rare pleasure to see my people not take themselves too seriously. Oh, and it has a centerfold of Neil Diamond. Not nude, but the mutton chops are swell; he's like a luscious pinup from another lifetime.
The McLaughlin Group is about to "celebrate" its twentieth anniversary. We might as well "celebrate" the discovery of anthrax.
The show flatters itself--and its corporate sponsor, GE--that it is providing some kind of public service. It's even offered on PBS in many cities, and its website features such faux educational trappings as classroom guides and discussion-group questions, along with $50 golf shirts. And while ratings have dropped steadily and precipitously for the past seven years, that is due largely to the fact that it has very nearly taken over our media world. Entire cable networks are devoted to its ethos, and even the old reliables of respectable political discourse--like NBC's Meet the Press and CBS's Face the Nation--are dancing to its dissonant tune. Before McLaughlin, public affairs television programs were often dry and pompous, but with the exception of the painfully pompous Agronsky and Company, they were devoted to the proposition that reporters--like everyone else--should appear on news programs only when they've learned something of value of which most people are unaware (hence the word reporter). The McLaughlin Group transformed this essential qualification from specialized knowledge to salable shtick. Not only television but journalism itself has never recovered.
As evidence of how little education, expertise or good, old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting matters in this universe, consider McLaughlin himself. Before building his television empire, he earned his fame as a Jesuit sex lecturer. He ran a hapless Senate race in 1970 in Rhode Island as a McGovernite Republican--yes, you read that right--but still managed, with Patrick Buchanan's assistance, to land a job in the Nixon White House. There, in priestly garb, he defended the Unindicted Co-Conspirator as "a moral man, thirsting for truth." Nine days before Nixon's resignation, McLaughlin predicted that Watergate would soon be viewed as a "mere footnote to a glorious administration."
Aside from talk-radio and religious writings, McLaughlin's most significant brush with journalism was a brief stint as Washington editor of National Review, where he would sign his own name to the work of the NR's interns and research assistants. But the show turned him into a superstar in Reagan's Washington. He bullied and humiliated fellow panelists and terrorized his young staff members, at least three of whom felt themselves to be victims of his sexual harassment. According to the court documents of the lawsuit Linda Dean filed against him, McLaughlin told her that he "needed a lot of sex" and "would take care of every material desire" she had, as he fondled her "intimately and against her will." Dean was fired, but her lawsuit resulted in a private settlement. (I guess this would be as good a place as any to plug the second edition of my book Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy from Cornell University Press.)
The genuine journalists whom McLaughlin casts as foils on his show tended to hate his guts but could not walk away from the unmatched buck-raking opportunities it spawned. While McLaughlin appearances paid a pittance, they came with invitations from corporate sponsors to recreate the show at conventions for five figures a pop. Mediocrities like Morton ("Ronald Reagan is a kind of magic totem against the cold future") Kondracke and Fred ("I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority") Barnes quickly developed celebrity cults. The more ambitious among them--like Kondracke, Barnes, Robert Novak and Chris Matthews--eventually used their newfound status to jump-start their own carnival-barking careers on rival networks. The warhorse Jack Germond stuck it out for fifteen years, at considerable cost to his self-respect as an honest reporter but considerable benefit to his income. (When Germond learned that the program would be distributed internationally, he replied that the panelists could now rejoice in "dumbing down the world." McLaughlin promptly benched him.)
In addition to debasing the culture of journalism, the McLaughlin monster also aided its corporate sponsors and conservative friends in shifting the foundation of political debate into the heartland of Reagan country--where it remains to this day. The group set up a center of gravity in which two right-wing ideologues, Buchanan and Novak, were "balanced" by the wishy-washy neoconservatism of Kondracke and the bourbon-laced, no-nonsense nonpartisanship of Germond--a down-the-line reporter with no political axes (or axises) to grind. McLaughlin acted--and I do mean "acted"--as referee. The net result was to bestow respectability on views that had only recently been the exclusive property of the caveman right and to marginalize liberalism beyond "responsible" debate.
The group's ideological legacy is hardly less significant than its deleterious impact on the civility of our discourse. I wonder how valuable it was, on a scale of one to ten, to George W. Bush in the late fall of 2000 to have a conservative punditocracy parroting James Baker's arguments before his case reached the Reagan/Bush-packed Supreme Court. And I wish I could predict whether Bush would have been able to shift the budget debate away from his showering trillions in tax breaks on the wealthy toward the alleged trade-offs between money for the war on terrorism versus that for health, education and the environment, without the spawn of the McLaughlinites marching in lockstep--like a parade of Stepford Wives--to the drumbeat of the Republican right wing. The ultimate public service of The McLaughlin Group has been to make it nearly impossible for anyone to speak to public issues on television except to repeat the most banal, and frequently conservative, clichés--albeit accompanied by snappy and self-serving wisecracks. Why not genuinely honor this signal achievement on its anniversary and start making calls to PBS and its local affiliates demanding that they stop wasting our precious contributions and tax dollars to broadcast it? Will it work? No predictions, there, I'm afraid, given the size of GE's sponsorship. But I promise you'll feel better about yourself.
Black pathology is big business. Two-thirds of
teenage mothers are white, two-thirds of welfare
recipients are white and white youth commit
most of the crime in this country.
George W. Bush's State of the Union address has laid bare his Administration's political strategy. It is to manipulate the grief, anger and patriotism inspired by September 11 to fit the contours of the right-wing Republican agenda of September 10. What that Day of Infamy means to George W. Bush & Co. is more tax cuts for the wealthy, more money for wasteful weapons schemes and the back of their proverbial hand to those who suffer the misfortune of not being rich in Bush's America.
Viewed under any other rubric, Bush's speech--received so rapturously by a well-stroked punditocracy--is entirely incoherent. Does war demand sacrifice? Let's give more tax breaks to the rich. Did stateless terrorists attack us wielding only box cutters? Let's build a nonfunctional $250 billion missile defense system. Does the bond market demand fiscal responsibility for sustained growth? Suppose we spend down the surplus, raid the Social Security trust fund and create deficits of a size unseen since the bad old days of Reagan/Bush. Do we need allies now more than ever in the fight against terrorism? Why not alienate all of them with a unilateral declaration of a global war against an imaginary "Axis of Evil"--nonsensically invoking Hitler and Tojo for good measure? Never mind that Iraq, according to the CIA, has not attempted a terrorist act against us in nearly a decade, or that Iran and Iraq hate each other, or that Iran has democratic elections (and the winner even gets to be president) and that North Korea has nothing to do with any of this. Just to be safe, perhaps we'd better give a pass to friendly terrorists like the Russians, currently engaged in the wholesale rape and pillage of Chechnya, and China, doing a quieter but more effective job in Tibet.
Bush's hyperbolic oration, inspired no doubt by the vanity and indiscipline of his speechwriters, recalls another President's politically inspired scare tactics. In late 1947 Clark Clifford and James Rowe instructed Harry Truman, "The worse matters get, up to a fairly certain point--real danger of imminent war--the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis the American citizen tends to back up his President." The result was the famed war scare of 1948, in which that accidental President started trumpeting "the critical nature of the situation in Europe," the necessity for "speedy action," the "great urgency" of the problem of the Soviet threat. He did this even though, as State Department counselor Charles Bohlen explained in a confidential January 1948 memo, the government considered its position "vis-à-vis the Soviet better now than at any time since the end of the war."
As in 1948, we face a military threat that requires a vigorous, but proportional, response. And the government has no more critical responsibility than the defense of the "homeland." But once again the disjunction between those ends and the eternally expansive means proposed by Bush is so vast as to render transparent the political motivations behind it. Karl Rove nearly admitted as much when he recently advised a group of Republican activists to use the war in Afghanistan to win elections here at home. The Evil Empire has expired, but the Evil Axis is open for praxis.
As Slate reported, the response overseas to Bush's speech was almost uniformly disapproving, with editorialists condemning the "Hate of the Union" (The Guardian); the "distinctly disturbing" message (The Independent); a tone "more martial than ever" (Libération); containing "no hint here that he understands that he is talking of sovereign nations" (the Sydney Morning Herald).
Alas, foreigners don't vote. In fact, Americans don't vote until long after favor-seeking corporations like Enron have decided which candidates to fund in exchange for favors and after pundits have chewed up and spit out the issues and candidates sufficiently to determine who is a serious, responsible candidate and what might be prudently said about the issues on the campaign trail. For the latter reason, it is rather alarming to notice that conservative extremism has become so commonplace that even on allegedly nonpartisan broadcasts, it is treated as conventional wisdom.
Take the minor but emblematic example of CNBC's coverage of the Bush speech. The network's deal with the Wall Street Journal allows genuine reporters to provide viewers with a respite from the constant stream of analysts and CEOs showing up to hawk their portfolios and jack up stock prices. But as everyone but the network's executives seems to know, the Journal is really two newspapers: one with a crack news staff and one with a crackpot editorial staff.
During the Clinton Administration, no nutty rumor or oddball allegation about the President was deemed too goofy to publish by those editors. I have on my shelf six fat volumes containing some 3,000 pages of the Journal's editorial page fulminations regarding an Arkansas land deal called "Whitewater" in which both Clintons were found to be innocent of any criminal conduct by Republican-appointed special prosecutors. And yet following Bush's speech, the editors were invited by CNBC to comment on Bush and the Democratic respondent, Richard Gephardt, with no balance at all. To go as far left as the Journal editors are to the right, CNBC would have to convene a roundtable featuring Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Fidel Castro.
Were any CNBC viewers surprised to hear that Paul Gigot thought Bush gave "a muscular speech, a speech of old-fashioned muscular virtues--justice, honor, courage, responsibility"? Or Susan Lee's view that Bush had been "very polished...very laserlike...extremely intense," with "fantastic" rhetoric she found to be "incredibly manly and muscular"? How generous, too, of Gigot to note that Gephardt had given "a good speech...for one reason. It basically said: I agree with the president." Robert Bartley didn't think it mattered. "You know, Bush is going to win again the next time out." But didn't the sane portion of Bartley's newspaper publish its own poll showing that "a clear majority" of Americans would choose "delaying the already enacted tax cuts for the rich" to protect domestic programs? "That's a loaded question," says Bartley. Planted no doubt by an evil pollster with an axis to grind.