Stung by a New York Times exposé, the Defense Department has temporarily suspended a program of spoon-feeding war propaganda to retired military officers, who then regurgitate the swill on broadcast and cable TV. That’s good news. But not good enough. The Times scoop gives new meaning to the term “late-breaking news.” More than five years into a war that was spun into being and that continues to be spun as a surging success, top journalists are shocked, shocked to learn that there is spinning going on. And while the Pentagon may change its PR practices–prodded by House Armed Services Committee chair Ike Skelton’s complaint that it is “basically using [retired officers] as pawns to spout the Administration’s talking points of the day”–the American people are still stuck with “please lie to me” mass media that invite manipulation by government and well-connected private interests.
There are always honorable exceptions, but the tendency of the corporate press is to serve as stenographer for the powerful rather than the muscular check and balance intended by the country’s founders. Rapid consolidation has brought us dumbed-down media, with broadcast and cable networks that rarely challenge the status quo, even as they maintain their monopolistic stranglehold on the airwaves. What do the people get in return? A diet of “news” and commentary with retired generals telling us quagmire wars are going well, former CEOs telling us a sputtering economy is “basically sound” and former political aides telling us presidential campaigns are about lapel pins and made-up scandals.
It is no great leap to go from a former general defending Administration strategies for Iraq to former White House counselor George Stephanopoulos turning an ABC News “debate” into a rehash of Jeremiah Wright sound bites, “ties” to 1960s radicals, a Bosnian airstrip or whatever else steers the discourse away from crucial matters like war, recession, skyrocketing gas prices and healthcare costs, and the global food crisis. (Soon after the ABC moderators were roundly criticized for trivializing that forum, the TV pundits were back at it again, resurrecting the Reverend Wright “controversy” after the pastor made a series of public appearances.) The constant is a major media system that, with all too few exceptions, sacrifices real journalism for access and abandons debate on real issues for manufactured controversy.
What should we do when Big Media fails democracy? First, don’t let it get even bigger. As News Corp attempts to grab a third New York-area newspaper–the venerable Newsday–Rupert Murdoch and other press barons are lobbying to strike down the historic ban on newspaper ownership of broadcast outlets in local markets. Eliminating that barrier would reduce diversity, competition and journalistic quality even further. The Federal Communications Commission has voted to begin dismantling this and other longstanding media ownership limits, but the Senate Commerce Committee has pushed back, endorsing a “legislative veto” of the FCC move.
The full Senate and the House should move swiftly to reject more consolidation, but they can’t stop there. Congress should investigate the Pentagon’s propaganda programs with an eye to determining whether laws were broken, especially regarding the sharing of classified information. Congress should also broaden its investigation into how the Administration and its media allies have politicized communications. And the presidential candidates should stop playing the media’s game and start addressing the role Big Media has played in debasing rather than illuminating this historic election.