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Shooting the Messenger

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Former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind tells Salon that he saw and heard firsthand how the Bush administration laid out plans to silence the media. He was given a lot of access to the White House when President Bush first took office in 2001. The press handling strategy he saw emerging then was to weaken the credibility of the media. That would make it easier to get out an unquestioned partisan messages. He calls the Payola Pundit scandal and others signs of that.

The Salon article argues that the White House has a two-fold purpose in diluting news coverage:

“Weakening the press weakens an institution that’s structurally an adversary of the White House. And it eliminates agreed-upon facts, the commonly accepted information that is central to public debate.”

On the first point, the purpose of a strong press is to question government and other public institutions to keep them honest.

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute once pointed out to me that no country with a free and agressive press has ever seen a famine. He said the reason was that the media keeps the bean-counters honest — so there are enough beans to go around. If the media’s own honesty is called into question, those governmental institutions can get away with a whole lot more.

And by muddying the water on facts, political philosophy can be converted to “sound science,” partisan attacks can be framed as “truth,” or “patriotism.” There are no indisputable facts — such as “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Everything is reduced to opinion.

The problem with shooting the messenger is that politicians may shoot themselves in the foot. Damaging an institution like the press — so important it was the only business protected in the Bill of Rights — for short term political gain can hurt your causes later on. Once damaged, the institution with weakened credibility in questioning the Bush administration would be just as weak if there is a Hillary Rodham Clinton or John Kerry administration in 2009. And in less of a position to question dismantling the current administration’s gains.

The GOP might want to hope for good press in the next election — instead of none at all.

[Crossposted at Watching Washington]
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About Terry Turner

  • http://adamantsun.blogspot.com Steve S

    Good post. I’ve complained for months now about the co-opting of words, like equating liberalism with terrorism or communism, to propaganda machines like Talon News, Sinclair or Fox, to the Bush administration paying pundits, to right-wing bloggers slapping themselves on the back when they ‘bring down’ a liberal voice, it’s all part of a bigger picture. An assault on communication/speech of opposing ideologies/theorems. It’s to make it so there is only one voice.

    Now, if you thought about it, whatever one’s overall agenda is, if it is truly a good one for everybody, you wouldn’t need to resort to this to accomplish your political goals, would you? What other countries in history have made it so there is only one voice? What happened to these countries?

  • Eric Olsen

    very important stuff Terry, thanks, and I agree with the concern.

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Would you equate free media with independent media? As one can easily infer, media the world over can rarely be called independent, being beholden to various interests – business, commercial or ideological.

    The freedom of the press therefore is a function of these interests competing with the public’s right to know. How many stories have been stifled because of these interests, and conversely how many stories have got out because one or more individuals broke the policy

    Good post

  • Maurice

    I’ve never been a fan of conspiracies because nobody can keep a secret. The idea that there was some sort of conspiracy to harm the media seems silly. There has been some damage to the media but it was self inflicted (Jason Blair, Dan Rather).

    There are so many media sources (all competing with each other) that I think it would be impossible to have any meaningful influence on them.

  • http://adamantsun.blogspot.com Steve S

    I never said conspiracy. There might not be a bunch of men plotting strategy under a dim bulb in some basement, but there is clearly a multi-pronged assault on the dissemination of information from the airwaves to the university grounds, as I listed some above. That can’t be denied, because that isn’t a secret, it’s happening right before our eyes.

  • http://www.booklinker.blogspot.com Dean

    Beyond the political manipulation of the media, a subtler and more corrosive influence is the corporate ownership structure permeating the news.

    The consolidation of print, television, radio and Internet media into the control of a handful of companies has the potential for a much wider manipulative bent then direct political influence. It can occur without consultation, without even any overt conspiracy between the companies to control the content – driven by the twin elements of the marketplace return and markt control.

    By way of example – witness the ongoing “Hollywoodization” of the news and the stories they cover. Does anyone realistically think that the Michael Jackson trial is worth the ink or coverage devoted to it?

    The recent Scott Peterson trial was a perfect example – a husband murdered his wife. Not to belittle the event for the people involved but it happens weekly – what aspect of the Peterson case made it worthy of wall-to-wall coverage by CNN and others?

    It was marketed, blatently and explicitly marketed, as newsworthy by the media, irrespective of the actual importance of the trial. You had movie-of-the-week content – the nice-middle-class, white female victim and a scheming amoral husband. You didn’t see wall-to-wall news coverage of some poor Vietnamese immigrant who’s husband killed her in the same way, nor will you because it wouldn’t pull in the ratings. CNN and other media outlets are now addicted to trial television and they exploit these events to the detriment of covering hard news. I’ll bet if you surveyed people on the particulars of the Peterson case, they could tell you more about it then they could recent events in Iraq…

    The point is that the media is a commercial animal no matter that they portray themselves as defenders of the faith – “They ain’t that no more”. They don’t need to directly conspire with each other or the political influence-peddlers to turn the news into something marginal or irrelevant, they just need to compete and chase the dollar…if they get that by giving us bread and circuses, then they will give us bread and circuses…not news.

  • Eric Olsen

    good points Dean – how do we force the media to save us (the audience) from our baser instincts?

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    >>By way of example – witness the ongoing “Hollywoodization” of the news and the stories they cover. Does anyone realistically think that the Michael Jackson trial is worth the ink or coverage devoted to it?

    Blogcritics owners Eric and Phillip, maybe? It’s the “spotlight” news on the site sections now and has been important for Eric to cover these last few months simply for the blog traffic (I admire his intellect too much to think he actually cares). When even the non-corporate media succumbs to the drivel – well, it’s a long way back up that hole.

  • Eric Olsen

    there are aspects of the case I find genuinely fascinating, but it’s also for the traffic

  • http://viewpointjournal.com David Flanagan

    How exactly is the media silenced? If you look at the media overall in this country, I think it can be argued that it has never been stronger.

    I think what some in the media DON’T like is being questioned. Before conservative radio, Fox News, conservative Internet sites, and, of course, Blogs, liberals had the lion’s share of the media voice.

    Now they don’t, and they hate it. I’m not very sympathetic to their plight.

    The new Sheriff in town is the “Open Source Media.” The Blogosphere. And it is this open source media that has many mainstream journalists off-balance.

    Here is the Open Source Media’s message to the MSM: “Tremble all ye wolves who enter here.”

    If you want a perfect example of why I believe Suskind is full of crap, just read this fascinating WSJ article, entitled, “Remember Al Qaqaa?

    Thanks,

    David

  • http://viewpointjournal.com David Flanagan

    My apologies, the article is from National Review.

    Thanks,

    David

  • Maurice

    Well said, David. I was thinking those things loudly but not expressing them.

  • Eric Olsen

    the issue isn’t anyone being silenced or the availability of opposing views – we all those those are more reaily available now than ever between the Internet, cable and satellite, etc – the issue is whether or not the administration is purposely poisoning the well, and/or buying favorable coverage under the table

  • http://adamantsun.blogspot.com Steve S

    The new Sheriff in town is the “Open Source Media.” The Blogosphere.

    Apparently, the FCC and the White House disagree with you, and are now going to reign in the blogosphere.
    source

    Note that depending on the details, even forwarding a press release can be punishable by a fine if they get their way.

    So that’s the latest, you can now go back to continuting your delusion that the White House is not attacking multiple forms of media.

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    To be fair, this regulation of hyperlinks to political candidates’ web sites, etc. is falling under the Campaign Finance Reform Act [McCain-Feingold], which was a bipartisan effort.

    The problem with the legislation, even though most of it passed the Supreme Court sniff test, is that it DOES restrict speech, by design. So I think it was bad legislation to begin with.

  • http://adamantsun.blogspot.com Steve S

    To be fair, this regulation of hyperlinks to political candidates’ web sites, etc. is falling under the Campaign Finance Reform Act [McCain-Feingold], which was a bipartisan effort.

    I don’t think it’s fair though. A blog is considered your online diary or journal, it’s personal property. What’s to stop me from putting up a small map to the Democratic hq if I wanted, on my front lawn? I can’t do that under the Campaign Fianance Reform Act? (not that I want to, but what if I did? It’s similiar to a hyperlink)

    Restricting links is not only restricting speech, it is restricting access to information too.

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    I agree wholeheartedly, Steve. The law is a bad law and should never have been passed. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court doesn’t agree with you or me on it.

    What I meant about being fair, though, was that this particular restriction/control on speech isn’t coming from the White House. It’s coming from a law that was supported heartily by both Dems and Republicans.

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Actually, let’s go in the other direction and put MSM on a level playing field with OSM (open source media – stinker of a term, really).

    Remove barriers, regulations, oversight from MSM and watch the sparks (and advertisers) fly.

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    Oh, also, under the Campaign Finance Reform Act, you still can make the links to a candidate’s website. It’s just that it might now be seen as a monetary contribution to that candidate — they seem to need to put a monetary value on a web link. As a private citizen, you can only contribute a certain amount directly to a candidate, I believe. So the weblinks will “count” toward your contribution total. If you already maxed out on your contributions, you might not be able to add a link to the candidate’s web site because that link would put you over the maximum allowed.

    It’s ridiculous.

  • Tom French

    It is scary that the BuSh team wants to restrict information. The only reason for that is to escape scrutiny. This doesn’t fot in ith his,” I’m smarter than Americans, trust me and don;t ask questions” policies. It is more scary that most people make no effort to check multiple media outlets to cross check information. It seems that most people tune into, or read whichever media source supports, their particular viewpoint, and they are done.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    What no one has pointed out here is that Ron Suskind is a paranoic, heavily partisan tool, and shouldn’t be taken seriously as a journalist.

    Dave

  • http://adamantsun.blogspot.com Steve S

    I see. Yes, it’s not ‘masterminded’ by the White House. But the interview does state that the commission’s vote on this falls along party/ideological lines. This is more of that assault on the media I was talking about but yes, Bush might not have his fingers directly in this pie, although he’s certainly involved in the overall assault. Certainly the White House pushing for the vote to go a certain way wouldn’t be out of the question. It would be hypothetical, but feasible.

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    Yes, it’s not ‘masterminded’ by the White House. But the interview does state that the commission’s vote on this falls along party/ideological lines.

    But it’s actually the reverse of what you’re thinking. The Republicans wanted to appeal the judge’s decision that said the internet could no longer be excluded from McCain-Feingold regulations. They didn’t get enough votes from the Democrats on the commission to be able to appeal.

    Here’s a blurb:

    Smith and the other two Republican commissioners wanted to appeal the Internet-related sections. But because they couldn’t get the three Democrats to go along with them, what Smith describes as a “bizarre” regulatory process now is under way.

    But Smith didn’t think that the Democrats were voting for partisan reasons [i.e., because the regulations would help the Democrats and/or hurt Republicans]. He said it reflected ideology, rather than party:

    I don’t think the Democratic commissioners are sitting around saying that the Internet is working to the advantage of the Republicans.

    One of the reasons it’s a good time to (fix this) now is you don’t know who’s benefiting. Both the Democrats and Republicans used the Internet very effectively in the last campaign.

    So, as much as I agree that the White House has purchased favorable media coverage while working to quiet dissenting voices, I don’t think that this McCain-Feingold case is part of that trend.

  • http://adamantsun.blogspot.com Steve S

    I don’t think the Democratic commissioners are sitting around saying that the Internet is working to the advantage of the Republicans.

    I read that sentence three times because it didn’t make sense to me. Well, it didn’t make sense because I misread the part before it.

    Now that it’s the Democrats that are opposing it, I can see their motivation behind it, it’s probably more because of the Swift Vets misinformation campaign and the mass emailings from political activist groups like Focus on the Family, rather than blogs. I still disagree with the vote, but the vote’s attempt might be to make a dent in the propaganda machine.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    >>What no one has pointed out here is that Ron Suskind is a paranoic, heavily partisan tool, and shouldn’t be taken seriously as a journalist.

    Dave you complete nothing. Just throwing around accusations and insults like that’s all you’ve got in life is, um …..

    Oh, wait. Nevermind. Carry on. Suskind’s a what now?

  • Eric Olsen

    while I have clearly stated my concerns about the administration vis-a-vis the media above, we all know the “propaganda machine” flows in both directions. It is not exactly fair and square to say it’s less egregious is the Democrats backed this Internet Campaign Finance nonsense than it would be if the Republicans were behind it: sounds like situational ethics to me.

  • http://adamantsun.blogspot.com Steve S

    I don’t think it’s less egregious if it’s the Democrats. I said I still disagree with the vote, but that I can see a possible motivation behind the vote.

    Seeing the (possible) motivation shouldn’t be construed as ‘endorsement’. I can see the motivation behind some murders, but I certainly do not condone murder.

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