THOLOS OF ATHENA

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

REPRESSION BEGINS AT HOME


Photograph: Cesar / pbase.com / The Protest of Bush's Inaugural, Washington DC, 2001



What if it were possible to interrupt history and rewrite it? This is not farfetched. A nation in the grips of repression is especially susceptible to this kind of re-scripting. And repression is a process which aims for several goals at once. It de-legitimizes the past. It disqualifies selected voters; it diminishes political alternatives by rigging the public agenda; and it depresses or skews citizen participation by manipulating and encouraging a climate of fear.

With the notable exception of Florida's vote-tampering in 2000, this has not been especially conspiratorial. Repression under George W. Bush has been a frontal assault, using the timely instruments of propaganda, divide-and-conquer, economic attrition against the politically vulnerable class, and an especially vulgar manipulation of America's mainstream press.

There has been ineptitude in reporting, particularly television, to match the ineptitude of the Bush Administration. Seasoned and well-informed internet commentators, like Bob Somerby, have challenged the laziness and awkward corruption of some familiar news people.

Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, identifies "trivialization and bias" in TV news;..."but they're related" he adds.

"...everyone knows that Teresa Heinz Kerry told someone to "shove it,", writes Krugman, "though even there, the context was missing. Except for a brief reference on MSNBC, none of the transcripts I've read mention that the target of her ire works for Richard Mellon Scaife, a billionaire who financed smear campaigns against the Clintons - including accusations of murder. (CNN did mention Mr. Scaife on its Web site, but described him only as a donor to "conservative causes.") And viewers learned nothing about Mr. Scaife's long vendetta against Mrs. Heinz Kerry herself." (NYT, 07/30/04)

"A Columbia Journalism Review Web site called campaigndesk.org, says its analysis "reveals a press prone to needlessly introduce Senators Kerry and Edwards and Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, as millionaires or billionaires, without similar labels for President Bush or Vice President Cheney." (ibid)

"Somewhere along the line, TV news stopped reporting on candidates' policies, and turned instead to trivia that supposedly reveal their personalities. We hear about Mr. Kerry's haircuts, not his health care proposals. We hear about George Bush's brush-cutting, not his environmental policies." (ibid)

"In short, the triumph of the trivial is not a trivial matter. The failure of TV news to inform the public about the policy proposals of this year's presidential candidates is, in its own way, as serious a journalistic betrayal as the failure to raise questions about the rush to invade Iraq." (ibid)

A beautiful film tribute to John Kerry's heroism under fire, produced by Steven Spielberg, fades into a blur of pixels over the anchorman's shoulder; while the condescending reporter calls it "formulaic", unworthy of a thinking person's attention. What good does it do to change channels? On Fox, CNN and the other cable slots there is the same information without context, the usual bickering and pointless exchanges, and pervasive cynicism.

The cynicism of journalists is corrosive, as it continues to paint all political participants with the same dingy brush. George Bush, Dick Cheney, John Kerry, John Edwards: we're expected to treat them like characters in a soap opera. We scan them as we would the lines of a gossip column.

An academic, a friend of this writer, has said that repression seeks to unstring history. Contemporary repression validates this insight, as it purges voters from the rolls. And George W. Bush, with his cockeyed version of Republicanism, plays marionettes with a television news media that is either acquiescent and doting, lazy, or intimidated.

The media has news blackouts. A police riot in Miami (against anti-WTO protesters) in November, last year, was covered by Jeremy Scahill of Democracy Now! and by the British press; but on corporate television in the US there was nothing. The mayhem was covered by local, embedded reporters; and the punishment was inflicted by police cadres, dressed out like Robocop, and funded with federal anti-terror money. Freelance reporters with press badges and credentialed legal observers were arrested or treated roughly by the paramilitary force, as police unleashed a barrage of swinging truncheons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Movie audiences have reacted with astonishment at screenings of Fahrenheit 9/11, watching scenes of mass protest at Bush's Inaugural. Sitting in darkened theatres, the crowd has absorbed a tide of recognition, a recovered history that seems to wash over them.

In these years after 9/11, there has been a profound, historical failure of America's television news media, and to a lesser extent, its mainstream print media. This corruption, deficiency, lack of attention, and cowering in the face of White House pressure is nothing less than a scandal. These journalists did not want this repression; on the contrary, there are signs that they are beginning to react to the inroads it has made. The tragedy is, that it has happened on their watch.

We will be able to breathe easier when Kerry takes office in January, and begins to serve as President. But we will be a long time dealing with the recklessness of this Bush Administration: the legacy of war and disaster, the pernicious ideology, the political divisiveness, the ineptitude. We should reflect on the long shadow cast by its repression; not merely the outbursts of street protest, of police and swinging batons, but the onslaught of repression that really degraded our democracy, and would have unstrung our history. This has been the work of a destructive Republican faction, and their figurehead, George W. Bush.

There are remedies available, to insure that the corruption of political life which we have lived through will never happen again. Serving political diversity and fairness in broadcasting is a crucial step to these reforms. A corporate consolidation of media must be stopped in its tracks and held in check by law. This solution is clearly available to the people. Conservatives, liberals, and libertarians are largely in agreement on this point. A reconstruction of the policies of the FCC is also in order: a return of the "Fairness Doctrine" to provide equal time to candidates of competing parties in Congressional and Presidential elections. Repression can be set in motion by a powerful or ascendant Party, when there is an institutional narrowing of public interests in the media, where some voices are being amplified and others excluded, or where public debate is being defined in a way that reduces political alternatives to a minimum.

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