As part of the Guthrie Theater’s “Global Voices” series on Monday night, FrankÂ Rich, columnist and former theater critic for the New York Times, spoke about the “official stories,” the tales promulgated by government andÂ corporations that “take over our public life.”
Standing on the stage set ofÂ Caroline, or Change, the Tony Kushner musical being presented at the Guthrie, Rich, who has gone after the Bush-Cheney crew with metaphorical hammer and tongs, argued that we have seen a “fundamental change in news coverage” over the past 30 years. Entertainment conglomerates have bought up television networks; and, according to Rich, the “values of show business are exactly the opposite” of the values of journalism, which strives to put together an accurate first draft of historical events.
Rather than a struggle between red states and blue states, Rich declared that show business and journalism are slugging it out in the “mediathon,” the mass “news culture” that is vying for our minds.
In one of several passing references to the playwright being celebrated by the Guthrie this season, Rich mentioned that Kushner “gets at the unseen history, the history that’s covered up,” in his plays — includingÂ Caroline, or Change, which focuses on a black family’s difficulties in the South during the turbulent early ’60s (5-1-09 AJW).
Contrast this inclination with the cultural oppression propagated by the mainstream media, which specializes in trivialization and distraction. The emergence of “infotainment” means that “people can make up anything and get away with it,” said Rich. He mentioned that May 1 marked the sixth anniversary of “Mission Accomplished,” the elaborately staged public relations stunt, in which then-President George W. Bush landed a jet (with the help of an actual pilot) on the deck of theÂ USS Abraham Lincoln, and proclaimed the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
Wearing a flight suit and standing before a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” Bush and his media producers sought to exploit the U.S.-led victory in the initial phase of the Battle of Iraq. As we all now know, an insurgency and vicious sectarian warfare took hold in Iraq; there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the U.S. military presence in what satirist Jon Stewart calls “Mess O’Potamia.” (Rich gave an early nod to Stewart’sÂ The Daily Show, which is the leading television source of “fake news.”)
Discussing the shape of post-9/11 journalism, Rich asserted that the Bush White House “had a plan — it was a brilliant plan,” in selling the Iraq War to the nation. Rich quoted from journalist Ron Suskind’s interview with a “senior adviser” to Bush — most likely Karl Rove — who proclaimed that journalists were part of the “reality-based community,” which the adviser defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality.” However, the Bush administration decided, according to the adviser:Â “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
A pliant press and an administration intent on molding reality to its own ends led this nation into the Iraq War, which likely will take generations to remediate. Rich, who is on the editorial side of the New York Times, acknowledged that the paper’s news side egregiously erred in its reportage of the WMD issue in the run-up to the 2003 military campaign in Iraq. The mainstream news media, more or less in its entirety, caught up in the chauvinistic fervor after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was lax in probing the Bush administration’s rationales for war.
(Recently, Rich has made the case that the U.S. torture regime, which coincided with the fixing of intelligence data around U.S. war policy, had its roots in a misguided attempt to link the Saddam Hussein regime with al-Qaida. In this effort, a low-level al-Qaida functionary, Abu Zubaydah, was waterboarded 83 times, according to the recently released Justice Department torture memos.)
News organizations — newspapers especially — have been cutting newsroom budgets in the face of the economic crisis. As we have noted before, this downturn will harm the ability of major press outlets to finance investigative reporting. In addition to the alarming tendency of reporters to regurgitate uncritically the pronouncements of law enforcement officials and elected officials, we will be losing the talents of journalists who ferret out hidden stories of governmental and corporate abuses.
For example, Rich on Monday night cited the work of David Barstow, the New York Times reporter who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. David who?
Exactly. This particular Pulitzer went unreported by the Big Three broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC also skipped any mention of Barstow’s award and his April 2008 reports that, in the words of the Pulitzer committee, “revealed how some retired generals, working as radio and television analysts, had been co-opted by the Pentagon to make its case for the war in Iraq, and how many of them also had undisclosed ties to companies that benefited from policies they defended.”
The Pentagon provided special security briefings to retired high-ranking military officers, then “used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance,” Barstow wrote in the New York Times. “The effort, which began with the buildup to the IraqÂ War and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.”
Barstow also noted in his April 20 report: “Records and interviews show how the Bush administration has used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse — an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks.”
Again, the same news outlets that were duped in this military analysts scam engineered by the Pentagon neglected to report that Barstow had won the Pulitzer Prize. The press watchdog Web site Media Matters for America (mediamatters.org) commented late last month that “ABC, CBS, and NBC have still not mentioned the report [on hidden ties between news media and the Pentagon’s “military analysts”]. By contrast, during their April 28 evening news broadcasts, all three networks reported on the Vanity Fair photo of Miley Cyrus.”
Perhaps these journalistic misdemeanors and cases of neglect are relics of the Bush-Cheney era? Frank Rich, who allowed that he is a fan of the new president, cautioned that Obama’s “ascension does not completely change our culture overnight.” We will have to keep vigilant as news consumers for reports that “mix fact and fiction and often distort reality,” in Rich’s words.
In the case of this newspaper, we will keep working hard to provide the community with accurate reportage and provocative commentaries and editorials. There is ample competition for readers’ attention in the mediathon; but we think that there is something of unique value in the American Jewish World, a long-running collaboration between staff and readership. As the economy heads toward uncharted depths, the AJW aims to become a richer and more rewarding source of news and opinion.
Since 1912 the AJW has served as an important news resource for the Jewish community. The Jewish World unites the main Jewish communities in St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as those in Duluth, Rochester and smaller cities, and bridges the divides between the various Jewish religious streams.