In his speech to last spring’s National Media Reform Conference in St. Louis, Bill Moyers accused the Bush Administration not merely of attacking his highly regarded PBS program NOW but of declaring war on journalism itself. “We’re seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable,” explained Moyers. With the November resignation of Moyers’s nemesis, Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) board chair Ken Tomlinson, amid charges of personal and political wrongdoing and a host of other recent developments, it becomes increasingly clear that this White House is doing battle with the journalistic underpinnings of democracy.
To be sure, every administration has tried to manipulate the nation’s media system. Bill Clinton’s wrongheaded support for the Telecommunications Act of 1996 cleared the way for George W. Bush’s attempts to give media companies the power to create ever larger and more irresponsible monopolies. But with its unprecedented campaign to undermine and, where possible, eliminate independent journalism, the Bush Administration has demonstrated astonishing contempt for the Constitution and considerable fear of an informed public. Consider the bill of particulars:
§ Corrupting PBS. Tomlinson’s tenure at the CPB, which annually distributes $400 million in federal funding to broadcast outlets, was characterized by an assault on the news operations of the Public Broadcasting Service in general, and Moyers in particular, for airing dissenting voices and preparing investigative reports on the Administration. His goal was clearly to fire a shot across the bow of all public stations so managers would shy away from the sort of investigative journalism that might expose Bush Administration malfeasance. On November 15, on the heels of Tomlinson’s resignation, the CPB’s inspector general issued a sixty-seven-page report documenting Tomlinson’s repeated violations of the Public Broadcasting Act, CPB rules and the CPB code of ethics with his political meddling, though it stopped short of calling for prosecution, or of examining the link between Tomlinson’s actions and White House directives.
§ Faking TV News. Under Bush Administration directives, at least twenty federal agencies have produced and distributed scores, perhaps hundreds, of “video news segments” out of a $254 million slush fund. These bogus and deceptive stories have been broadcast on TV stations nationwide without any acknowledgment that they were prepared by the government rather than local journalists. The segments–which trumpet Administration “successes,” promote its controversial line on issues like Medicare reform and feature Americans “thanking” Bush–have been labeled “covert propaganda” by the Government Accountability Office.
§ Paying Off Pundits. The Administration has made under-the-table payments to at least three pundits to sing its praises, including Armstrong Williams, the conservative columnist who collected $240,000 from the Education Department and then cheered on the ill-conceived No Child Left Behind Act.
§ Turning Press Conferences Into Charades. Bush has all but avoided traditional press conferences, closing down a prime venue for holding the executive accountable. On those rare occasions when he deigned to meet reporters, presidential aides turned the press conferences into parodies by seating a friendly right-wing “journalist,” former male escort Jeff Gannon, amid the reporters and then steering questions to him when tough issues arose. They have effectively silenced serious questioners, like veteran journalist Helen Thomas, by refusing to have the President or his aides call on reporters who challenge them. And they have established a hierarchy for journalists seeking interviews with Administration officials, which favors networks that give the White House favorable coverage–as the frequent appearances by Bush and Dick Cheney on Fox News programs will attest.
§ Gutting the Freedom of Information Act. As Eric Alterman detailed in a May 9 report in these pages, the Administration has scrapped enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act and has made it harder for reporters to do their jobs by refusing to cooperate with even the most basic requests for comment and data from government agencies. This is part of a broader clampdown on access to information that has made it virtually impossible for journalists to cover vast areas of government activity.
§ Obscuring the Iraq War. In addition to setting up a system for embedding reporters covering the war–which denied Americans a full picture of what was happening during the invasion–the Defense Department has denied access to basic information regarding the war, from accurate casualty counts to images of flag-draped coffins of US dead to the Abu Ghraib torture photos.
§ Pushing Media Monopoly. The Administration continues to make common cause with the most powerful broadcast corporations in an effort to rewrite ownership laws in a manner that favors dramatic new conglomeratization and monopoly control of information. The Administration’s desired rules changes would strike a mortal blow to local journalism, as media “company towns” would be the order of the day. This cozy relationship between media owners and the White House (remember Viacom chair Sumner Redstone’s 2004 declaration that re-electing Bush would be “good for Viacom”?) puts additional pressure on journalists who know that when they displease the Administration they also displease their bosses.
In his famous opinion in the 1945 Associated Press v. US case, Justice Hugo Black said that “the First Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society.” In other words, a free press is the sine qua non of the entire American Constitution and republican experiment.
The Bush Administration attack on the foundations of self-government demands a response of similar caliber. Under pressure from media-reform activists Congress has begun to push back, with a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate Commerce Committee to limit the ability of federal agencies to produce covert video news segments and to investigate Defense Department spending on propaganda initiatives. But until the Administration is held accountable by Congress for all its assaults on journalism, and until standards are developed to assure that such abuses will not be repeated by future administrations, freedom of the press will exist in name only, with all that suggests for our polity.