Norman Solomon is founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of RootsAction.org. He co-chairs the national Healthcare Not Warfare campaign organized by Progressive Democrats of America. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.
After many months of controversy over her anti-gay statements to millions of radio listeners, Dr. Laura ascended the airwaves to an even higher and mightier pulpit. Much to the chagrin of gay-rights supporters, her crusade has reached televisionland.
The lobbying goals of media corporations extend into areas that might surprise you. According to the Center for Public Integrity, "Federal Communications Commission employees were taken on 1,460 all-expenses-paid trips sponsored by media corporations and associations since 1995, costing a total of $1.5 million."
It's always dangerous when politicians claim to be doing God's will. So, as the novelty fades from Al Gore's selection of Joseph Lieberman, journalists should ask some probing questions about the ticket's conspicuous piety.
Once again, it's the season of the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Both events have been underwritten by generous corporate patrons; both cities are notorious for police misconduct. Hospitality and brutality -- the contrasts could hardly be more extreme.
Big-name journalists are fond of rosy windows on the world. Overall, the powerful politicians they cover have similar vantage points. And when large numbers of them get together, the upbeat -- and facile -- rhetoric is thick.
George Orwell has been dead for half a century, but Orwellian language lives on. Instead of scrutinizing the facile rhetoric of U.S. politics, reporters are inclined to solemnly relay it, while adding some of their own.
"In recent years, several dozen companies have bought major-league naming rights. Teams now play in Bank One Ballpark (Phoenix), Network Associates Coliseum (Oakland) and Continental Airlines Arena (New Jersey). But a public-interest group is urging sportswriters to resist a free-enterprise wave of the future."
"There's a slick new term surfing its way into the mass media. 'E-government.' Many citizens would be glad to see the Internet streamline their dealings with federal agencies. But we're now hearing claims that go way beyond matters of efficiency -- to conflate convenience and democracy."
"George W. Bush and Al Gore are among the most boring political leaders in the country. And that's saying something. But every four years, when summer begins, the national media curtain rises on an overheated stage of presidential politics. The political show must go on -- no matter how phony it may be."
The virtual Ten Commandments of Dot-Comity are now widespread: You shall not take the name of the Lord your Market in vain ... You shall not fail to make a killing ... Remember the stock exchange and keep it holy ...
After the Love Bug virus struck millions of computers, many news outlets attributed the magnitude of the damage to "software monoculture" -- too many people relying on the same exact programs. But what about media monoculture?
Solomon writes: "Depending on the spin, history can seem crucial or irrelevant to the present. In deep ways, the past is far from over. But commentators often claim that we should just move on and let bygones be bygones."
Solomon writes: "By now, we're so accustomed to the spectacle of state-run gambling that we rarely give it a second thought ... If people want to gamble, that's their choice. But is it proper for government agencies to constantly exhort the public to buy lottery tickets at supermarkets and liquor stores? Such questions should be debated. But most news outlets seem too caught up in lottery mania to scrutinize it."
On the State of the Union Address, Solomon comments: "America's broadcasters did a fine job of satirizing themselves the other night. There was just one problem: They were dead serious. What began as State of the Union coverage became an unfunny spoof about the State of TV News. On stations across the country, frenetic O.J. mania displaced oily political platitudes. What a choice. It may be fashionable to chastise television for going tabloid. But when you come right down to it, less air time for present-day punditry is no great loss.
Four years ago, the TV networks came up with some grand new year's resolutions -- promising high quality election-year coverage of the 1992 campaign. "There was way too much manipulation of television news in 1988," said CNN political director Tom Hannon, lamenting that TV "played a major role" in a "far too narrow discussion of the issues." Coverage in 1992 was going to be much different. Despite all the noble vows, it wasn't. In retrospect, the fervent pledges of four years ago are a bit eerie -- like a bad dream that keeps repeating itself.
Normon Solomon writes, "Media coverage often depicts Bob Dole as suffering from an acute form of political schizophrenia. The story goes that Dole is so anxious to appease far-right Republicans that he loses touch with his own natural decency. By the time the GOP finishes its San Diego convention in mid-August, party "spin doctors" will be hailing a triumph for Dole's noble inner core. Ironically, quite a few liberal commentators have helped to prepare the ground for such a PR maneuver -- which can only be effective to the extent that the public buys the notion of Dole's innate goodness."
When the story about Viacom and CBS broke, news accounts quickly depicted a match made in corporate heaven -- at more than $37 billion, the largest media merger in history. With the public kept outside the frame, it was a rosy picture.
Solomon writes: "Under the Capitol big top, you'll see blow-dried fire eaters! Oratorical snake charmers! A white-maned lion tamer from Chicago! And hired guns, eager to rescue the death-defying pioneer from a backwoods town called Hope!"
Solomon writes: "Two recent events -- the launch of a magazine about news media and the release of a survey about journalists' opinions -- illustrate the wide gap between the preoccupations of elite media professionals and the economic outlooks of most Americans."
Solomon writes, "When Bobbi McCaughey gave birth to septuplets, she became an instant heroine. Fame and fortune arrived with her babies. The news media went nuts. And the gifts poured in ... While such generosity is all well and good, it's very likely the media interest and the public response would have come much sooner for the Thompson newborns [first black sextuplets born in the United States last spring] if they'd been white. That kind of tacit racism is only one of the problems with the media's mania for multiple births."
Nobody can doubt that "Dilbert" is a smash hit. Dubbed America's "fastest-growing comic strip," it now appears in most daily newspapers. "Dilbert" has become a genuine national phenomenon -- a beloved icon of defiant satire and empathy for downtrodden office workers. There's just one problem: "Dilbert" is a fraud. Dilbert's cartoonist -- a 39-year-old named Scott Adams -- doesn't object to downsizing. In fact, after years of working for a big phone company, Adams is in favor of firing a lot of employees to boost profits.
In contrast to the TV commercials bought by politicians, news on the tube is supposed to be informative. Yet, in the real world, TV news coverage is more superficial than ever. During the 1968 presidential race, when Nixon squared off against Hubert Humphrey, the average length of one of their sound bites on network TV news was 43 seconds. By 1988, when George Bush and Michael Dukakis ran for president, the average length had dropped to nine seconds. These days, the notion of sound bites is obsolete. A more fitting term for televised snippets of political rhetoric would be "sound nibbles". Which should raise a key question: What, of substance, can be said in nine seconds?
Solomon writes: "You may feel like you're working harder for less. Maybe you worry about medical coverage or job security or retirement. Maybe you're troubled by continuing signs of deterioration in many cities and towns. If so, you're ignorant. For some time now, prominent news professionals have done their best to explain that you never had it so good."
News coverage of poverty in America has become a peep show. Every day, poor people are on display as victims of misfortune or victimizers of each other: Step right up and take a look at violence, drug abuse and despair. Media peepholes allow the public to see some lurid effects of widespread poverty in this land of plenty. But the range of sight is so narrow that even the better coverage gets jammed into a woefully inadequate frame.
Solomon writes, "A lot of people complain about our country's news media. But we should not forget all the good things! For instance, it's very helpful to watch television and hear 'both sides' of various issues -- two sides and no more. We get a contrast of views without confusion. By simplifying matters, the TV networks have saved us from chaos this election year. I don't want to listen to those minor guys running for president, chattering endlessly. C'mon, this is a binary world. Get real. It's Bill Clinton or Bob Dole. We shouldn't have to consider a bunch of silly ideologies."
The founder of USA Today recently gave a speech to 1,500 of this country's most powerful men. What did he tell them? Sorry -- it's a secret. Al Neuharth spoke at Bohemian Grove, the all-male encampment in Northern California where much of America's government and corporate elite gathers each summer for two weeks of speeches and fun activities like mock-Druid fire rituals.