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Retro Chomsky? A Visit to FAIR's 15th Birthday Party

Though their messages are important and hard-hitting, Noam Chomsky and his soulmates at FAIR may be falling behind the times in their unwillingness or inability to change.
 
 
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A feeling of nostalgia washed over me as I sat in New York City's venerable Town Hall, where the seats are as hard as rocks, waiting for the speeches to begin. Along with hundreds of others, I was there to celebrate the 15th birthday of media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness And Accuracy in Reporting). When Jeff Cohen, one of FAIR's founders, confidently strode across the stage to kick off the proceedings, my initial nostalgia turned into a genuine flashback.

With former talkshow host Phil Donahue and radical professor Noam Chomsky as the main attractions of the evening, it could have been 1985. Donahue, who was charming, enthusiastic and effective, even wondered out loud if the audience would remember who he was (he joked that someone greeted him in the lobby with, "Hello, Merv!") Cohen used his air time to run down a list of FAIR's greatest hits and the importance of role models like I.F. Stone, George Seldes and Jessica Mitford. He also rhapsodized over some old anecdotes involving Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary, the mere mention of whom triggered magical memories of better, more hopeful days.

FAIR has indeed had great moments. They've often gotten under the skin of the corporate media and PBS, attacking guest bias, pointing out egregious errors, omissions and inaccuracies, and documenting the anti-democratic tilt of many media outlets. They have also been effective at harassing racist and homophobic talk show hosts, like when they showed up Rush Limbaugh with their noteworthy book, "Rush's Reign of Error." And of course they came up with the great line, "I'm not a leftist, but I play one on TV," satirizing the mainstream media's supposedly liberal slant. But FAIR has been quiet as of late, toiling more obscurely.

Laura Flanders, former host of FAIR's Counterspin radio show, tried to bring the evening's festivities into the present. She showed the crowd a copy of the NY Daily News, with its front page photo of a remade Chelsa Clinton (no more curls) hanging out in London with Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna next to a headline proclaiming that the New York Knicks stink. She then mentioned that 50 people were arrested for protesting sanctions against Iraq at the UN that day. "Will we see them in our daily newspapers?" she asked rhetorically.

But no surprise there. The tabloids haven't changed and never will. And the ownership concentration in the media system has gotten much worse. The commercial goals and stock market pressures from huge mergers of mega-media corporations like AOL-TimeWarner, Disney, Viacom and News Corp have reshaped radio and TV. The same deregulation fervor that has brought us Enron has radically transformed the media landscape. Hard news is disappearing, replaced by soft talk in the morning and hard talk at night. Nightly news shows have decayed radically from the days of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow into celebrity vehicles for highly paid star anchors whose many ancillary activities are designed to push the company brand. The dystopian media world that Ben Bagdikian warned us about in his book "Media Monopoly" -- where as few as five media corporations will control a majority of what Americans see and hear -- is at hand.

And just when we thought the media system couldn't get worse, the rules are changing in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. At the present pace, there soon will be no ownership rules at all, and that is not an exaggeration. Media companies saturate the political system with money and lobbyists to get their way. But they almost don't have to. Because they control the airwaves, they can quickly make public officials look very bad and thus whip them into line. And virtually no lobby is more powerful in Washington than the National Association of Broadcasters. Democracy is being undermined by criminal collusion among elected officials, government and media corporations. The effects of media deregulation on American quality of life will far exceed the failure of one corrupt corporation like Enron.

For just one striking example, Donahue reminded the audience that not too long ago, Federal Communication Commission rules permitted a company to own no more than seven AM and seven FM stations. But that rule was tossed aside like a used candy wrapper. Clear Channel, as Donahue notes, "now owns more than a thousand radio stations, and some of the stations don't even have a staff -- it is all digitalized, and there is no hourly news."

What's the answer to a media system that serves the private interest and not the public? Unfortunately, it probably isn't media reform. Although there are still some battles worth fighting, changing the media system through policy changes has become the toughest nut to crack in the entire political system. Instead, more thought, resources, marketing and creativity must be invested in parallel, commercial and non-commercial media systems.

Interestingly enough, key former stars of FAIR aren't doing media watchdog work anymore. Rather, they are making their own media or getting their voices heard on corporate television. Cohen makes his living, in part, from Rupert Murdoch, as he battles right wing commentators on the FOX network's News Watch talk show. Flanders hosts the lively, daily Working Assets Radio show, which airs on 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and live on the web at www.workingassetsradio.com.

But how could I forgot Noam, the star of the night! Chomsky is a living legend, and like FAIR, hasn't changed very much in the last 15 years. There is no refuting Noam's message. If your politics are based on morality and not the superiority of the U.S. as the world's only superpower, then Chomsky's your man. He takes you through the history, marshalls the facts, makes the linkages -- it's all so overwhelming and irrefutable and right.

And he is still enormously popular, probably the most popular liberal to left writer in America. (In a recent AlterNet survey of "most admired public figures" Chomsky ranked 14% higher than runner-up Ralph Nader and 30% higher than Michael Moore or Bill Moyers, who ranked third and fourth). Chomsky's quickie book on 9/11, published virtually overnight by Seven Stories Press -- really nothing more than a stiched together series of e-mail interviews -- has 80,000 copies in print, a huge number in the progressive book biz. (Plug: AlterNet.org's book, "After 9/11: Solutions for a Saner World," just rolled off the printer and will be available for purchase online very soon.) The Chomsky book is being translated in 18 languages. It's number two on the Village Voice best-seller list and number four in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Of course, Chomsky's speech at the FAIR event went on too long. Of course, when he had to be interrupted with a five minute warning, he shook his head, saying there was so much more to tell. Yet despite the speech's ponderous, dry tone, it was vintage Chomsky and the crowd seemed to love it.

But did we learn anything new? We already know that we are a nation of hypocrites, unable to rise to the minimum level of morality in our conduct of foreign affairs. When somebody or some country attacks us, they are terrorists. When we do the attacking, it is something else -- counterinsurgency, or anti-terrorism, or fighting for democracy. As Chomsky has always pointed out, history just keeps repeating itself. Our approach to revolution in Nicaragua and unrest in the Middle East in 1985 is really no different from our response to terrorism today. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's language is really no different than Secretary of State George Schultz's language was back then. Chomsky's truism about the Sandanista/Contra war remains his truism about the Afghan war: "The world is ruled by force, not law."

FAIR and Chomsky are soul brothers -- methodical, predictable, cerebral and relentless. But they are also perhaps out of touch with the times, unwilling or incapable of changing. In a funny way, their popularity is almost retro, like nerdy clothes and horn-rimmed glasses. No doubt, Chomsky is America's favorite nerd. For all I know, the familiar brown sport jacket he wore was from 1985.

Yet, for all his popularity, is Chomsky moving us forward? How does showing us that our foreign policy hasn't changed since 1985 serve as a stepping stone to reaching more people or motivating new alliances?

One contrast is Danny Schechter, a media critic who, perhaps because he also produces television shows, has tried to stay ahead of the curve in creating progressive media vehicles. His ambitious online experiment, MediaChannel.org, has hundreds of affiliates around the world and vibrant intellectual content, and clearly deserves a bigger audience. Says Schechter, "The role of leadership is to challenge what people are thinking, not to just tell them what they want to hear. For all my admiration for Chomsky, how does what he says and how he says it serve as effective message to the American people? It too often seems to represent a superiority of intellect. Concentrating on Nicaragua in 1985 is too abstract for ordinary people's daily lives."

If Chomsky has changed at all recently, it is to make a point of acknowledging the potency of terrorist attacks and the horror of the World Trade Center bloodbath. "Terrorism is not a joke," he warned. "It's possible to set off a nuclear explosion in a hotel room, and bioterrorism is a real threat."

When asked what can we do to fix the mess we are in, Chomsky's response was standard fare. "There are no magic answers," he said. "We need to dedicate ourselves to the hard work of organizing and education. All through history this is the only way change has happened." Perhaps. But maybe the old approaches to organizing and educating have to change.

Heading outside to escape the droning Q&A session that was wrapping up the evening, I realized that my earlier nostalgia had long since disappeared. A few hundred feet down the block, in Times Square, loomed the new Reuters Building, encased by giant video screens with lightening-fast images spreading magical propaganda. My friend Judy Wicks and I just stood there, mesmerized, all thoughts of the stuffy, serious Town Hall talk obliterated by this techno-media wizardry. What a difference a few hundred feet can make.

In the face of this overwhelming media world, what can we do? It's still an important question without a single, clear solution. But one path forward must be to go where we haven't really gone before in communicating ideas and values -- to make effective use of new technologies, to make more of our own media, to experiment with new venues, to jazz up the message and use new language, as the younger generation has effectively done.

What do we have to lose? If we fail, the worst that will happen is that in 2015, Noam Chomsky will be sitting in New York City's even more venerable Town Hall, telling us, "In 2001, things were exactly the same as they are now." Hopefully, he'll be wrong -- and they should at least have new seats in the auditorium.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.org.