MediaChannel.org

"We Steal Secrets:" Why The New Movie About WikiLeaks Pisses WikiLeaks Off

Every documentary filmmaker begins with deciding on the story to be told, and, then, how to sustain audience interest.

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Independence Day and Independent Journalism

This Independence Day we need independent journalism more than ever – as the events leading up to and immediately following the recent resignation of General Stanley McChrystal demonstrate anew. Why was it left to an independent journalist, Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone, to tell us important facts about our military’s people, practices and policies in Afghanistan — facts that the mainstream media’s deeply dependent and addicted to access Pentagon and Afghanistan “beat” reporters never would and never will, facts crucial to any citizen wanting to make an informed democratic decision about our country’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan? The MSM reporters, it turns out, are more than happy to explain. They have, you must understand, an “unspoken agreement” with the people they cover on our behalf, an agreement NOT TO TELL the rest of us certain things.

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Strengthening Democracy Means Funding Independent Media

While it’s surely gratifying that a surprising number of non-profit media outfits, such as Pro Publica, the Texas Tribune and the Center for Independent Media, have not only cropped up but actually done yeoman-like work of late, admirably filling part of the gaping hole resulting from the endless rounds of cutbacks, buyouts and layoffs in the commercial media world, it’s also apparent that the amount of resources devoted to the public interest nevertheless pales when compared to what for-profit players are still pouring into more commercial endeavors.

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Shocking Admission on Killing Civilians by Top US General Almost Completely Ignored by Corporate Media

"We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat," says top American commander.

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Health Care Reform Needs Media Reform

American broadcasters, magazines, newspapers and other publishers take in more than four billion dollars a year in drug advertising. The drug money is a rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal downward revenue spiral for media of all types. Last year was a horrible year for advertising spending in this country, which fell 12.3 percent. Spending in seven of the top ten leading ad categories fell compared with 2008. The only exceptions were in the industry categories of telecommunications, food and candy, and pharmaceuticals, which showed the largest increase of all.

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Corporate Media Are Using Industry Talking Points to Lie to Us About Nuclear Power

Nearly twenty years ago I co-wrote Nukespeak, a cultural history of the selling of nuclear technology for both peaceful and military purposes.

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What Is Patrick Fitzgerald Trying to Hide from the Public?

Okay, so he's one of the "sexiest men alive" -- but what does Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago and Special Counsel in the CIA leak case, have against us poor, unsexy journalists? It's bad enough that Fitzie won't answer my questions: ("Rory. I just wanted to get back to you and let you know that I am going to decline to be interviewed. Thank you. Pat") It's worse that he was responsible for the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days behind bars. Now comes word that Fitzgerald, who must have too much time on his hands now that Scooter Libby has been freed and Rod Blagojevich indicted, spent much of the last year and a half going after another journalist, Peter Lance, in an attempt to kill a new edition of Lance's investigative book Triple Cross by threatening to sue both the author and his publisher for libel.

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What About the Journalists Who Sold Torture?

Ever wake up in a funk, just spoiling for a fight?

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Subprime or Subcrime? Time To Investigate and Prosecute

There comes a time when the frame of a news story changes. It happened in Iraq when the "war for Iraqi freedom" became seen as a bloody occupation, not a beneficent liberation. It is happening as the war on terror is increasingly perceived a war of error and when voting problems are reframed as electoral fraud.

And it will happen in the economic arena too, when we see the "subprime" credit crunch for what it is: a sub-crime ponzi scheme in which millions of people are losing their homes because of criminal and fraudulent tactics used by financial institutions that pose as respectable players in a highly rigged casino-like market system.

Suddenly, after years of denial and inattention, the press has discovered what they call "the credit crisis." Vague words like "woes" are still being used to mask a financial calamity that some analysts are already calling an apocalypse as lenders go under and the Stock Market melts down.

A French bank froze billions Thursday saying, ""The complete evaporation of liquidity in certain market segments of the U.S. securitization market has made it impossible to value certain assets." Translation from the French: We are all in deep shit.

On Thursday morning, President Bush was asked about this at a press conference. He blamed borrowers for not understanding the documents they signed. But if you have ever tried to read the documents banks prepare for mortgage closings, you will know that they are written by risk-minimizing lawyers and are too long and dense to be understood. (Later in the day, the market reacted to Bush's upbeat assessment with the Dow plunging 387 points.)

The financial insiders who watched were more than skeptical. Here are some quotes from a discussion on the Mi-implode Web site. One of the discussants calls our fearless leader, "President Pumpkinhead:"

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Is Al Jazeera about to Become Al-Foxeera?

Sources inside Al Jazeera who are in a position to know what is going on now confirm to MediaChannel.org that there is an internal struggle underway that may dilute Al Jazeera's independence and steer it in a more pro-western, pro-US direction.

"There is already a change of tone and focus in the news," a veteran insider reveals. He blames the shift on a reorganization of the network's governing structure a month ago that has put a former Ambassador from Qatar to the USA in a commanding position.

Al Jazeera broadcasts from a state of the art facility in Doha, the capital of Qatar, a wealthy independent state run by an Emir who has, until this point, remained close friends with the US while allowing Al Jazeera its independence.

"Nobody is talking about it publicly and nothing is quite clear yet but it looks like there is new pressure from the government of Qatar [the oil and natural gas rich Gulf state that bankrolled Al Jazeera], as well as a political battle over how to manage the channel inside its government with the US and its supporters, including the editor of the Arabic edition of Newsweek, lobbying in the shadows."

The United States is a major trading partner with Qatar and maintains a vast military facility there. The high profile Coalition Media (ie. propaganda) Center was based in the country, and the Pentagon has used the base airfield to supply the war effort in Iraq. Lebanese sources report that US planes airlifted cluster bombs from that base to Israel for use in its recent war against Hezbollah. Israel's relations with Qatar are said to be close.

Washington and London were never happy with Al Jazeera's political independence. Its offices in Afghanistan and Iraq were bombed in the early days of the war, and more recently there have been reports that President Bush considered bombing Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, but was only stopped by a strong dissent by Britain's Tony Blair. Al Jazeera has been denied access by the British government to documents that would confirm this widely reported (and believed) story that has also been officially dismissed.

"You don't need to bomb Al Jazeera to change its direction," said my source. "There is a softer way to influence its direction by taking it over from within and it can happen quietly almost as if in slow motion. You 'broaden' some programs, announce new 'guidelines,' issue new edicts reinforcing top-down control, purge some professionals you don't like, and then give more positive unchallenged airtime to backers of US foreign policy. Washington would not be open about any behind the scenes role it is playing in all this for fear of triggering a very negative public reaction."

The irony here is that for many years Al Jazeera made a point of giving substantial airtime to US officials and their surrogates to show fairness. This even led some hardliners in the Arab World years ago to accuse of the station of being CIA-backed and even pro-Israel. But whatever exposure they got was never enough for a Pentagon that practices "Information Dominance" and seeks to exclude all contrary views. They expect the kind of uncritical coverage they received on American TV.

Ironically, a former US military briefer became so disgusted with US media manipulation that he joined Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera reporters have been killed by US soldiers, prosecuted in Spain, and imprisoned. One remains in Guantanamo with no charges against him. These external actions have only strengthened Al Jazeera's resolve and won audience sympathy for the station. That may be why a new internal intervention is underway.

The Friends of Al Jazeera website carries a post suggesting that this is exactly what is happening.

"It is rumored that the new pro-US Board of Directors (which include the former Qatari Ambassador to the United States, Hamad Al Kuwari and Mahmood Shamam who are both are clearly sympathetic to the US Agenda in the region) and their representative at station, the new Qatari Managing Director, Mr. Ahmad Kholeifi is a result of pressure placed on the Emir of Qatar by the US Administration.

Rumours of a 'soft editorial shift' towards a more pro-Qatari and pro-US agenda are already floating around media circles in the region.

Sources inside AlJazeera have confirmed that the Board has already instituted radical changes that threaten the stations editorial integrity and independence. In less than a month since the pro-American Board of Directors was appointed, sweeping edicts affecting the whole of AlJazeera have been passed down by the newly appointed Qatari Managing Director, Ahmad Al Kholeifi."

My source believes the rumors of an imposed top-down change are true.

Al Jazeera's journalists are diverse and committed to the channel's mission. They would not likely be silent if they felt their work was under attack or being unduly pressured. On the other hand, for all their independence, they know they are highly dependent on subsidies from the Emir. If he is being pressured, they know that that will eventually have an impact on the channel's managers.

Media owners have a tendency to meddle in news presentation, with politics, ego and power tripping often motivating factors. Sometimes, darker forces are involved.

In this case, why is a pro-US diplomat being given managerial authority while a respected and experienced journalist/general manager is apparently being ousted?

Until now, by and large, the internal politics of Qatar has not been given a high profile on the air but that may be changing, I am told, with more Qataris visible as pundits and interview subjects in recent weeks.

Perhaps the Emir who is putting up the cash also wants more visibility and is engineering compliance. Perhaps Qatar now wants to use the channel to build a higher profile for itself. In the Middle East, media and politics are often intertwined. If Al Jazeera is politicized, it could lose the credibility it has earned.

Too much tampering could easily backfire and undermine Al Jazeera's support.

Now ten years old, Al Jazeera has grown from an offshoot of BBC's Arabic Service into a feisty and independent multi-channel media company with a global satellite footprint that makes almost as much news as it reports.

Brandishing the slogan "The opinion and the other opinion," Al Jazeera is known for strong reporting and carrying diverse and outspoken views including videos by Osama bin Laden and opposition voices to many governments backed by the US.

Al Jazeera says its coverage is balanced but critics, especially on the right in America, have targeted it as "terrorist TV," a slogan designed to discredit its news and programming, which was first only seen in Arabic but now has a separate English channel.

In some ways, the network's operations mirror and reflect the volatile politics of the Middle East in which it is based, a region which is itself torn by external interventions, conflicts with and among wealthy and traditional elites, not to mention insurgency, war, political conspiracies, and competing nationalistic interests and internationalist aspirations.

Hailed as the fifth best-known brand in the world, the nature of that brand is now being contested. Is an implosion on the horizon, or will the Channel sort out its tensions and emerge even stronger as a worldwide competitor against conventional look-alike, think-alike corporatized media?

What is disturbing is that Al Jazeera had the potential of bringing real diversity to the global news agenda with more reporting from the Third World and even about the news world itself.

In an increasingly monopolized media marketplace with concentration of ownership on the rise, with Rupert Murdoch bidding for Dow Jones and Thompson taking over Reuters, there are fewer and fewer highly visible independent outlets. A recent scandal at the ineffective US created Al Hurra station may have led the Bush Administration to stop competing with a more popular brand and try to take it over instead.

US cable outlets have kept Al Jazeera English off the air-one way of marginalizing it with American viewers-but that also impacts on its ability to make money-something, I am told many Qataris expect. Maybe they are willing to trade the channel's integrity for a shot at the quest for profitability that drives most of the media industry. But being greedy could backfire if the channel's reputation suffers. We still don't know who is leaning on whom?

As an innovator and an exception to the unbrave world of media, Al Jazeera has been exceptional. It would be shame to see its core values compromised just as it becomes a bigger player in a world that desperately needs media outlets that care about the conditions of the world's people.

It may be time for its viewers and friends to demand that Al Jazeera be allowed to remain the respected and crusading force it has become in broadcasting and world journalism. Let's hope some combination of insiders and backers will be able to insure that outsiders with parochial or imperial agendas cannot "fix" what isn't broken.

Journalists and media activists worldwide may need to get engaged to send a message of concern to the Emir and the media hitmen (ie. consultants) who are apparently now sneaking around in Washington and Doha with the hopes of turning Jazeera into Foxeera.

Let Al Jazeera Be Al Jazeera!

How True Are the Confessions of a Terror Mastermind?

Last Wednesday night, I was at the Village Synagogue in Manhattan showing HBO's film The Journalist and Jihadi about the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. The film, which I worked on as a contributing producer/consultant, concludes by linking al Qaeda's #3 operative, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to his shocking videotaped slaughter by beheading of Pearl.

The next day, the U.S. government released portions of the transcript of an interview with "enemy combatant" Mohammed in which he admitted for the first time killing Pearl.

In a grisly disclosure, a man who is now being described as "one of history's most infamous terrorists" claimed, according to Agence France Press, "to have beheaded U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl ... with my blessed right hand," according to a transcript released by the Pentagon." This act alone enables him to supersede the infamy of Carlos "the Jackal."

Interestingly, he said, Pearl's murder was not an Al Qaeda operation, a distinction that may be lost on American readers who were mesmerized by his frightening admissions.

In overseas media, his Pearl connection is being associated with the Islamacist campaign in Kashmir, not Pakistan or Afghanistan. A British-born citizen, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who is profiled in the film, was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for Pearl's murder in June 2002, but has appealed the verdict.

What do we make of this public disclosure of Mohammed's "confession?" It comes at a time when a growing scandal in the Justice Department and setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan has the Bush Administration reeling. The claims that this larger-than-life, almost comic book "superterrorist" has made certainly adds weight to the War on Terror and Bush's campaign to hunt down and kill those responsible for 9/11.

Getting the "mastermind" was a big "get" when it happened, and his revelations certainly have positioned him to joining world's worst list. (It was the Pakistanis who got him, not the super sleuths of the CIA.) The Guardian reported that his long list of terror operations -- most of which failed -- were greeted "with shock and skepticism in almost equal measure." The NY Times downplayed their concerns near the end of their story on page A23 saying matter-of-factly, "It is not clear how many of Mr. Mohammed's expansive claims were legitimate." Note the word "expansive."

An American editor wrote to me, "I am deeply troubled by the reports of Mohammed's confession. It strikes me that it is a tidy resolution to a much larger problem. How convenient that we have all the questions answered in one somewhat disheveled package. Considering that the confession was obtained through torture, and the number of studies that have shown that information obtained in that matter is unreliable (although politically expedient), what have we really learned? Is it overly cynical to think that this administration so desperately needs a win that this is being trotted out?

And what of the nefarious Osama Bin Laden? Does this mean that he wasn't involved, if Mohammed was the "mastermind" and orchestrated everything from "A to Z." (By the way, interesting use of the American vernacular -- I wonder who the translator is?)."

Mark Denbeaux, a Seton Hall University law professor who represented two Tunisians held at Guantánamo Bay, said "The government has finally brought someone into Gitmo who apparently admits to being someone who could be called an enemy combatant. "None of the others rise to this level. The government has now got one." He says he may be the only one!

But what have they got? Reports the Guardian, "critics of both the interrogation methods used at the camp and the exclusion of independent observers from the hearings today dismissed the confessions." (Note: the Press was also excluded which is suspicious as well).

"Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, questioned the legality of both the hearing and the confession, and said the suspect's claims could be tainted by torture.

"We won't know that unless there is an independent hearing," Mr. Roth said. "We need to know if this purported confession would be enough to convict him at a fair trial or would it have to be suppressed as the fruit of torture?"

Mohammed has been a secretive mystery man, and at the same time, a publicity hound which raises some issues about who this terrible terrorist really is.

According to a 2003 Guardian report, "He was reported to have been killed in Karachi in a bloody shootout with Pakistani security forces on September 11, 2002 There is even doubt over his nationality. Some say he is Pakistani, others that he is a Kuwaiti. Certainly, though, he does appear to be of Pakistani origin, probably Baloch, and raised in Kuwait. He is thought to have been in Pakistan for about two-and-a-half years, well before September 11, 2001.

How did they find him? Great police work? Bombing "them back to the stone age?" Nope. They saw him on TV.

"Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials were alerted to his presence in the country when he gave an interview to the Qatar-based al-Jazeera television station shortly before the first anniversary of September 11. On the strength of intercepted communications through ordinary mobile phones as well as satellite telephones, the net closed on Khalid."

Wait, there's more about this larger-than-life, part-killer and amateur historian who compares himself to George Washington for American consumption!

Writes Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al-Qaida: Global Network of Terror

"Although Mohammed insists that he is a believer, he is not a strict Muslim, and while the September hijackers lived in cheap lodgings, he stayed in plush hotels. In contrast to the spartan lifestyle of Osama bin Laden and his followers, he was flamboyant, spent lavishly, and is known to joke with colleagues to ease the pressure on him and on them.

In the Philippines. he was a frequent visitor to Manila's red light district, including its karaoke bars and mirrored go-go clubs, where he introduced himself to women as a wealthy businessman from Qatar. Mohammed's womanizing included phoning a dentist and telling her: "Look out of the window and look up."

What she saw was Mohammed and his nephew and protege Ramzi Ahmed Yousef waving from a helicopter hovering above her clinic and displaying a banner saying "I love you."

Is this for real or a segment on "24?" Is there a private joke here we are not getting? (Bear in mind that Ramzi and KSM's "Bojinka" plans preceded 9/11 and were downplayed by the intelligence geniuses here.")

He seems ostentatious and self-promotional enough to rate a movie of his own, and no doubt several are now in development. Hollywood can't pass up a character like him, an authentic "bad guy" who is said to "think big," and conceptualize grand designs and blueprints. Who knows, he may get his own show. Can you imagine his "exclusive" interview with Diane Sawyer or Bill O'Reilly?

KSM knew how to play his role as mastermind extraordinaire, says a terror expert: "A master of disguise, he often tinted his hair, using wigs, sporting beards and moustache, and wearing glasses. He wore Asian or western clothes, spoke very good English and moved about frequently." If this description of his English is accurate, what do we make of the convoluted language in his alleged "confession?"

If there isn't a screenwriter behind this now, there might as well be. It's been five years since 9/11, four from the start of the Iraq war. We are being told that Al Qaeda has been totally rebuilt, that Afghanistan is on a new boil, and that the surge is not surging.

So what can we believe? Do we trust the Pentagon and its intelligence through water-boarding program? Will KSM's well-publicized "confession" really dampen all the 9/11 rumors? Will it win back the Administration's credibility? Will it really damage Al Qaeda's capacity to cause more damage with its reported cells in 98 countries? Unfortunately, it won't bring Danny Pearl back.

Is this show just more "show" and tell? How many Hail Mary's will his confession result in? Will his eventual execution make our world any safer?

CBS Refuses to Broadcast Iraq Footage

Sometimes it's hard to swim in the mainstream.

There has been much heated debate over the past few years over media coverage of the Iraq War. The Bush administration has repeatedly attacked the 'liberal bias' of the mainstream news industry, claiming that it doesn't report enough of the "good news" from Iraq and focuses instead on the sensational and violent.

Those critical of the war and the occupation say just the opposite; that the mainstream news media has ignored much of the "bad news" coming out of Iraq, leaving Americans with an impression of the war based more on a desire to follow the official White House narrative than facts on the ground. MediaChannel has long been in the latter camp, sponsoring (for example) last year's "Show Us the War" project, which published video pieces showing an Iraq overrun with violence and chaos -- and an administration that seemed more intent on faith and "spin" than reality. We at MediaChannel believe that an informed citizenry is necessary to keep our democracy viable, and we have been strong advocates of the call for all news outlets -- mainstream or independent -- to produce and distribute accurate stories on the situation in Iraq.

Which brings us to Lara Logan.

One would assume that Ms. Logan, as CBS chief foreign correspondent, has a fair amount of influence as to what stories she gets to cover, and that most of her important stories, once produced and delivered, will be broadcast. But when a story comes out of the mean streets of Baghdad that doesn't fit the officially sanctioned narrative of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers working arm in arm to help protect thankful Iraqi citizens, even chief foreign correspondents sometimes need to ask for help in getting it seen. Imagine our surprise recently when -- over the digital transom -- we received a copy of an email from a frustrated Lara Logan (see below).

In it, Logan asks for help in getting attention to what she calls "a story that is largely being ignored even though this is taking place every single day in Baghdad, two blocks from where our office is located."

The segment in question -- "Battle for Haifa Street" -- is a piece of first-rate journalism but one that appears only on the CBS News website -- and has never been broadcast. It is a gritty, realistic look at life on the very mean streets of Baghdad and includes interviews with civilians who complain that the U.S. military presence is only making their lives worse and the situation more deadly.

"They told us they would bring democracy, they promised life would be better than it was under Saddam," one told Logan. "But they brought us nothing but death and killing. They brought mass destruction to Baghdad."

Several bodies are shown in the two-minute segment, "some with obvious signs of torture," as Logan points out. She also notes that her crew had to flee for their lives when they we were warned of an impending attack. While fleeing, another civilian was killed before their eyes.

Logan's email, with the one-word subject line of "help," was sent to friends and colleagues imploring them to lobby CBS to highlight that people are interested in seeing the piece. In it, Logan argues that the story is "not too gruesome to air, but rather too important to ignore … It should be seen. And people should know about this."

We agree. And we'd like to help Ms. Logan and CBS get the piece seen, although that task would be made immeasurably easier if CBS News chief Sean McManus simply made the decision to broadcast it.

Ms. Logan, who is embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq, was unavailable for comment. But CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius told us that the segment in question was not broadcast but only run on the web because "the executive producer of the Evening News thought some of the images in it were a bit strong -- plus on that day the program was already packed with other Iraq news."

Regarding Logan's unusual email plea for "help" from friends and colleagues, Genelius said she and other CBS executives were unaware of its existence until contacted by MediaChannel. About Logan's contention that the segment is "not too gruesome to air, but rather too important to ignore," Genelius said "There are discussions and even disagreements everyday about what goes on air," and noted that "one of the characteristics that makes Lara so special is her passion for her job. Of course she wants her pieces to be broadcast!"

In conclusion, Genelius added that "CBS News has aired countless hours of coverage about Iraq. It is the single most important part of our news coverage, and I hope that people will look at the sum total of what we have put on the air."

On an average night, eight million people watch the broadcast version of the CBS Evening News. CBS company policy prohibits the disclosure of "internal analytics," so no figures are available for the number of viewers Logan's web-only segment has had -- but it is undoubtedly far less.

See for yourself what the controversy is all about. You can watch the video here (RealPlayer required):

And don't forget to let CBS know what you think about this outstanding example of video journalism and help Lara Logan by telling CBS what you think about them keeping those images of the battle for Haifa Street -- no matter how strong, no matter how gruesome -- far from the eyes of their prime-time audience.

Text of the email from Lara Logan:

From: lara logan
Subject: help

The story below only appeared on our CBS website and was not aired on CBS. It is a story that is largely being ignored, even though this is taking place every single day in central Baghdad, two blocks from where our office is located.

Our crew had to be pulled out because we got a call saying they were about to be killed, and on their way out, a civilian man was shot dead in front of them as they ran.

I would be very grateful if any of you have a chance to watch this story and pass the link on to as many people you know as possible. It should be seen. And people should know about this.

If anyone has time to send a comment to CBS -- about the story -- not about my request, then that would help highlight that people are interested, and this is not too gruesome to air, but rather too important to ignore.

Many, many thanks.


Update: Since we posted this piece, MediaChannel has created a little echo chamber of our own. Many bloggers excerpted the piece as if Lara had written them personally. In response to the comment below from "charles," who said he saw the piece on CBS News last night, we contacted CBS and were told on Thursday evening:

that is not correct. this particular piece has not run on the cbs evening news. but there have been many pieces by lara on haifa street (and other areas of baghdad and iraq, of course), so it's possible someone could be confused.

Media Crimes Lead to War Crimes

As events in Iraq continue to slip from bad to worse, the good news brigade is scrambling for new stories -- ("anything, give me anything") to shore up what's left of public support for a bloody war without end.

As some feared and many predicted, the war hovers over our politics and the president who "brought it on." He is, as the journalist Sid Blumenthal puts it, stuck in a "paradigm" of his own making. The operative word is the title and refrain of an early Springsteen song: "TRAPPED."

Another tipping point seems to have tipped.

Fear and exhaustion is evident in our TV newsrooms along with a continuing failure to recognize what is going on. The lack of insight is stunning; the quality of most of the news, pathetic. Even CBS's brave Kimberly Dozier -- may she fully recover -- was not only embedded in practice with the U.S. military when she was wounded, and her crew killed, but she seemed embedded mentally, seeking out a "feel good" story to cheer the home front that the Bush administration wants so badly to stay the course of his "long war." In an email sent to CBS, and only discovered after her misfortune, she described the story she was going to be doing before another IED did its awful damage.

Reported the Los Angeles Times:

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Political Amnesia Is the Enemy

We all know, all of us in America anyway, that Memorial Day weekend marks the start of summer. It's about the downtime ahead, the vacation that's coming, the shutting down of the serious in anticipation of fun in the sun.

Officially, it is also about honoring the dead, and there will be parades by veterans and flags flying on TV newscasts. Most of it is set in the present with little referencing of the past or memory itself.

Memories work on us on every level, especially when they slip out of mind. A memory exhibit at San Francisco's Exploratorium museum touches on the usual: "You get to school and realize you forgot your lunch at home. You take a test, and you can't remember half the answers. You see the new kid who just joined your class, and you can't remember his name. Some days, it seems like your brain is taking a holiday -- you can't remember anything!"

But memories are not just individual properties. Societies have memories, or should. And our news world and information technologies could or should have the capacity to keep us in touch with our collective memory, our recent history, the only context in which new facts find meaning.

I like to joke about my own "senior moments," but cultures have them too -- and often, not always by accident. In our culture, it is often by design. The frequent references we hear to "political amnesia" is not just commentary but an allusion to a social pathology, a deliberate process of actually disconnecting us from our past and history.

The blogger Billmon writes: "I don't know if it's a byproduct of decades of excessive exposure to television, the state of America's educational system, or something in the water, but the ability of the average journalist -- not to mention the average voter -- to remember things that happened just a few short months ago appears to be slipping into the abyss. "If this keeps up, we're going to end up like the villagers in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," who all contracted a rare form of jungle amnesia, so virulent they were reduced to posting signs on various objects -- 'I AM A COW. MILK ME' or 'I AM A GATE. OPEN ME' -- just so they could get on with their daily lives."

A 1991 science fiction film called Total Recall pictured political amnesia, in the words of Michael Rogin as "an essential aspect of the 'postmodern American empire.'"

A book by Andreas Huyssen takes another tack, arguing, "Rather than blaming amnesia on television or the school, "Twilight Memories" argues that the danger of amnesia is inherent in the information revolution. Our obsessions with cultural memory can be read as re-representing a powerful reaction against the electronic archive, and they mark a shift in the way we live structures of temporality."

But whatever the causes, the consequences are truly frightening. When 63 percent of young people can't find Iraq on a map after three years of war and coverage, you know that the institutions that claim to be informing us are doing everything but.

Our amnesia about recent developments seems to be induced and reinforced by the very fast-paced entertainment-oriented formats that we have become addicted to as sources of news and knowledge. They keep us in the present, in the now, disconnected from any larger ideas or analytical framework. No wonder some studies find that news viewers rapidly forget what they have just seen. That is what is intended to happen. No wonder, as Jay Leno shows when he contrasts a photo of a cultural icon with an elected official, that the public recognizes the former, not the latter. We recognize Mr. Peanut, not Jimmy Carter. More people vote for the best performer on American Idol than for our presidents.

The architects of TV news know this from their market surveys and studies. It is this very media effect that they hype to lure advertisers to their real business: selling our eyeballs to sponsors, not deepening our awareness. Depoliticizing our culture is a media necessity in a society driven by consumerism. Every programmer knows the drill. It's a market logic called KISS: Keep It Simple and Stupid.

A national curriculum, "Lessons From History," on the teaching of the past realizes that this phenomenon threatens democracy, warning, "Citizens without a common memory, based on common historical studies, may lapse into political amnesia, and be unable to protect freedom, justice, and self-government during times of national crisis. Citizens must understand that democracy is a process -- not a finished product -- and that controversy and conflict are essential to its success."

So even as this dialectic is deplored, it is, sadly, quite functional.

"We're forgetting the past," says historian Howard Zinn, "because neither our educational system nor our media inform us about the past. For instance, the history of the Vietnam War has been very much forgotten. I believe this amnesia is useful to those conducting our present foreign policy. It would be embarrassing if the story of the Vietnam War were told at a time when we are engaged in a war which has some of the same characteristics: government deception, the killing of civilians through bombing, scaring the American people (world communism in that case, terrorism in this one)."

So on Memorial Day and in the season ahead, think of how to encourage remembering, not just about the dead but for the living. Our future depends on how we understand the past. Political amnesia is the enemy in our ADD culture.

Please don't forget. Oh, too bad, you already have …

Fake News Is No Joke

By all means, lets support the campaign against "fake news" on TV. That's a reference to the undisclosed use by local news outlets of PR company-produced ads dressed up to look like news. A study by the Center for Media and Democracy found that 35 commercially driven news packages had been inserted in or run adjacent to 77 newscasts without attribution.

The practice involves Video News Releases, and it is wrong and it should be stopped. It's a form of disguised commercial posing as news story. It's deceptive, and probably violates FCC regulations.

But let's not stop there.

Fraudulent advertising is all over TV. All those ads urging us to "tell your" doctor to prescribe colorfully packaged pills, all those weight loss claims and phony credit card and debt consolidation spots. And then there is paid product placement in dramatic programming, and probably soon in the news.

In fact, how many advertisements could survive real truth tests? Most political ads fail, and I would guess that many commercial ads do as well.

We are even getting ads from people who are DEAD! Eonline.com carried a story on a "very important message" from Chris Farley -- from beyond the grave:

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Brokeback Media

Perhaps it's just me, but news seems to be coming our way faster and with a greater fury than ever before. A tsunami of "breaking news " bulletins course through the veins and ganglia of what passes for an information system. A corporate news machine then pumps it out on a plethora of platforms dedicated to "more news in less time" -- in the press, on the web, on TV, on the radio and now on the phone. It's hard to escape the deluge.

Before we have time to digest, or understand, a story's implications, it's on to the next, making it more and more difficult to focus on any one item or connect it with another. The author Larry Beinhart of Wag the Dog fame speaks of the proliferation of "fog facts" in which important information systematically disappears from view.

No wonder a paralysis of analysis has set in with "on message" spin machines making it harder and harder for us to assess trends objectively, construct meaning or let us think for ourselves. Rather than inform, much of the news often disinforms, distorts and deceives. Rather than strengthen our society by talking truth to power, our media system increasingly undermines democracy by making a civil discourse harder and harder to practice. The loud-mouthed partisans in the punditocracy turn substantive debate into noise. Heat, not light, proliferates.

We are all under attack -- some from bombs, others from bullet points. The media system has become a battlefield of competing values and often the absence of any values.

2005 was a year in which the media not only brought us news but also became part of the news as scandals usually associated with government and politicians rippled through the media companies, their boardrooms and newsrooms.

Everyone tainted by the Valerie Plame affair took a hit. The New York Times' Judith Miller went to jail, returned a media hero and quickly became a zero when her own newspaper forced her out. The publisher of Time turned over a reporter's notes to a federal prosecutor over his objection. Robert Novak, who first leaked the name of a CIA employee, sputtered "bullshit" on CNN. Forced out on grounds of arrogance, he has now been put back on the air at -- where else -- Fox. Soon the Washington Post's famed Watergater Bob Woodward was also being called to account for being too busy to tell a prosecutor what he wanted to know about the crimes of the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, out of public view, Pentagon subsidized Information warfare specialists spent hundreds of millions to monitor media outlets, execute "rapid responses," plant news and pump up government policies. The war in Iraq is often more of a media war than a military conflict in a world where perception trumps reality. GOP operatives meanwhile reshape public broadcasting more to their liking.

The old media maestros are fading away as Mark Jurkowitz observed in the Boston Phoenix: "In a year of jarring transition, 2005 may be best remembered for the roster of major media players who left the scene. Dan Rather gave up his anchor chair, Ted Koppel departed Nightline and Peter Jennings lost his fight with lung cancer." Koppel and Tom Brokaw, who also retired this past year, acknowledged that the press is often trapped in its own hubris and arrogance, and is not connected to the audience it serves.

Journalists die and journalism is dying

It was a year in which more media workers died in Iraq (the toll there is higher than the whole of the Vietnam War), with most media companies not even protesting, and in which journalism itself seemed to be devolving before our eyes in spasms of jingoism, junk news and trivia. How much cable news time was devoted to a missing white American tourist of the blonde persuasion in Aruba when other important stories went begging for attention?

Anger with the media is growing. It's reflected in falling newspaper circulation and ratings for network news. Not surprising, one of the questions in a 2005 news quiz published in the Guardian asks, "Who accidentally sent an email to the BBC that read: 'Now fuck off and cover something important you twats'?"

It doesn't really matter who said it because it speaks to a widespread dissatisfaction with even one of the world's best newscasters. Seventy percent of the American people expressed disappointment in a survey about an industry that claims to be "just giving the public what it wants." Huh?

No wonder the media business is in trouble, as the Washington Post reports in a 2005 business wrap-up. "Things haven't gone so well for the media business, which became shareholders' target No. 1. Newspaper publisher Knight Ridder Inc. was hit with demands that it put itself up for sale amid worries about limited revenue growth, while at Time Warner Inc., investors have pushed for a massive restructuring they hope will ignite its stock price." The search for higher profits is decapitating major newspapers, as Joe Strupp reports in Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry trade magazine: "Using the bizarre premise that newspapers can bring back lost circulation and ad revenue by making their products WORSE, top executives at major chains from The New York Times Co. to Tribune took a butcher knife to staffing with buyouts and layoffs that appeared almost epidemic."

The response to this continued erosion of any commitment to public service in the form of the emergence of a media and democracy movement was not in the news much. The only good news seems to be that critics and activists challenging this media decline are quietly replacing the mainstream mudstream with a more credible media of their own. Millions of blogs and scores of independent documentaries are trying to meet the demand for more diversity in a media system dominated by just seven media giants.

The deeper trends

There are deeper trends and developments that need to be understood. The State of the Media 2005 report published earlier in the year: "The traditional press model -- the journalism of verification -- is one in which journalists are concerned first with trying to substantiate facts. It has ceded ground for years on talk shows and cable to a new journalism of assertion where information is offered with little time and little attempt to independently verify its veracity."

What can be done about this? The same Pew Research Center study suggested: "To adapt, journalism may have to move in the direction of making its work more transparent and more expert, and of widening the scope of its searchlight. Journalists aspire in the new landscape to be the one source that can best help citizens discover what to believe and what to disbelieve -- a shift from the role of gatekeeper to that of authenticator or referee. To do that, however, it appears news organizations may have to make some significant changes. They may have to document their reporting process more openly so that audiences can decide for themselves whether to trust it. Doing so would help inoculate their work from the rapid citizen review that increasingly will occur online and elsewhere."

Citizen journalism on the rise

One of the bright spots in a depressing year was the rise of citizen journalism. Sunil Saxena of Newwind Press in Mumbai, India, writes about it:

"The year 2005 witnessed a new phenomenon -- the birth of the Citizen Journalist. It was this journalist who captured the awesome power of tsunami just days before 2005 began; it was this journalist who flashed the first images of the underground rail blasts in London; it was this journalist who showed flames leaping from Platform Three of ONGC's oil well in the Arabian Sea; it was this journalist who gave firsthand information of Hurricane Katrina

"The mainstream media arrived later, borrowed or bought these images and showed the world its 'exclusives.' Was this an accident? Or is this a sign of changing times?"

Yes, the times they are a-changing from India to Indiana, but many media moguls seem the last to get it. With disasters more in the news, the disaster of our media world is also becoming evident to more and more people who have turned their complaints into an issue they want to do something about.

Million-Word March for Media Reform

Outside the window was the great Arch of Exploration, St. Louis's national monument honoring Thomas Jefferson and his patronage of the Lewis and Clark expedition that mapped out our continent for major change back in the early days of the 18th century.

In these early days of the 21st century, alongside the banks of the same Mississippi River, two modern day Lewis and Clarks -- one a scholar named Robert McChesney, the other a journalist called John Nichols -- invoked the unfinished promise of Jeffersonian democracy to convene a second National Conference on Media Reform to energize an emerging citizens' movement to explore how to take back our media.

The goal: To redirect the most powerful arsenal of communication technology humanity has ever known away from serving corporate interests and into the hands of our citizens and public needs.

The organizers had to close the registration early because the aptly named Millennium Hotel could not accommodate more than the 2,500 people who crammed into the 50 or more panels and plenaries to hear calls for action and plan campaigns for media change.

They came from 50 states and 10 countries. They were old and young, white and black, straight and gay, media consumers and media makers, researchers and academics, lawyers and activists. In the words of an earlier exhortation to media combat in the movie Network, they were "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore." They didn't just open their windows to shout, but came to the conference to exchange ideas.

There were angry hip-hop activists demanding "media justice" and senior citizens alarmed about the current threats to PBS. There were internet savvy advocates of municipally-owned wireless systems and senior level "lions of litigation" who believe that the laws and the courts can be used to safeguard our rights.

There were unknown community media producers and some of the best-known voices of liberal left media, like radio revolutionaries Al Franken and Amy Goodman; concerned celebrities like Jim Hightower and Patti Smith; distinguished broadcasters including Bill Moyers and Phil Donahue; two outspoken FCC commissioners; several members of Congress; one Corporation for Public Broadcasting board member, and probably even a partridge in a pear tree.

At times, it had the feeling of a revival meeting, not just a rally. It was a million-word march to end media concentration and open the airwaves to more diversity of expression. And sure, there were tensions, with younger grassroots activists feeling frozen out by the grey heads and media movement vets who dominated the proceedings.

Hundreds of groups that care about media change took part -- national groups from MoveOn to Media Channel, from FAIR to Common Cause, and local groups from Chicago Media Action to Seattle's Reclaim the Media and Philadelphia's Media Tank. All gathered under the auspices of Free Press, a relatively new organization that now claims 183,000 people on its e-mail list.

The small but robust indy TV channels LinkTV and Free Speech TV, and the emerging news-oriented International World Television network were also there in a conclave of shared consciousness. Ditto for the Newspaper Guild, the National Writers Union, AFTRA and the Screen Actor's Guild. Earlier, organizations that claim to represent 20 million Americans had endorsed a citizens' Bill of Media Rights to lay out principles to guide the kind of media system that's needed.

Pacifica Radio aired Saturday night's session nationally, while C-SPAN sent its cameras to record a Sunday morning sermon by Bill Moyers (mp3 download) on the need for real journalism on PBS and a real PBS. (He glossed over its many flaws but upheld the need for a publicly-owned and responsible broadcaster in a time of so much commercialism and corporate media.) Moyers demolished the claims of new Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson that his on-air work needed to be "balanced" with new right-wing fare. "I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying it out for the White House," he said to continuing applause.

As one would expect, the major media downplayed the event when they played it at all. One of the speakers was so surprised by the intensity of the event that he blurted out: "I HAD NO IDEA" (that the issue was catching on).

Most of those in the room were progressive activists, even though Bob McChesney made it clear that he believes that media is everyone's issue and not just a left or partisan concern. While conservatives were conspicuous by their absence, one has the sense that an effort will be made soon to reach out to other constituencies across the partisan divide, even as there was definite uncertainty on how to do that.

One incident illustrated the tension: When McChesney asked if the goal was to replace the likes of rightist cheerleader Rush Limbaugh with liberal funnyman Al Franken of Air America, the audience cheered loudly to affirm the proposition. It was then left to McChesney to explain why that was the wrong answer and that media reform will not prevail unless more constituencies can be reached. The crowd listened quietly and then cheered this new perspective.

Who was there may be less important than what was discussed in workshops where there were a great deal of detail and analyses offered -- on how to challenge TV and radio license renewals, promote media literacy, advocate for community based wireless, use the internet for media work, petition the FCC, critique media coverage that serves the war in Iraq, and unify media reform concerns with campaigns for social justice. It was also clear that those assembled supported indy media-makers. Many films were screened, and there was a packed room for my WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception).

Still missing: an effective follow-up plan to turn all the energy in the rooms into a more coherent and effective national effort. The focus on grassroots community-based work has many strengths but also leads to a decentralized do-your-own-thingism that robs reform efforts of a national focus. Many of the attendees left St. Louis excited but not totally clear on what comes next.

My own suggestion is to take a clear and marketable umbrella approach akin to the way the right gathered all of its issues and warring factions under the banner of the Contract for America (which many progressives called a Contract on America). We need a post-partisan "Media and Democracy Act of 2005" to give us a platform to unify around. I ran this idea by FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, who thought it had promise. I will flesh it out in a subsequent column.

If there is an urgency to turn this million-word march into a movement of millions of voices, there was one timely local event that drove that home.

The National Conference on Media Reform opened on Thursday with organizer John Nichols' tribute to St. Louis as the home of journalism role model Joseph Pulitzer's flagship Post-Dispatch, which has served the city for more than 100 years. The next day, it was announced that the paper was being sold to a midwestern chain with a dubious reputation. (The paper had already declined, as a story on a neighborhood dispute over paving a driveway had more prominence than a story on the casualties in Iraq.)

While we are meeting, the media monolith is marching itself towards more concentration and dumbed-down media outlets.

The clock is ticking on Tom Jefferson's democratic vision, which belongs in the streets, not just in an arch and a museum.

For more on the conference, visit Freepress.net and Be the Media, where you can watch some of the sessions.

April Media Fools

Why leave fake news and media scams to the White House, CBS News and The New York Times?

Instead I say -- with apologies to Scoop Nisker -- "If you don't like the news, make up some of your own!"

After all, it's surprisingly easy -- as George Bush, Dan Rather, Jayson Blair and innumerable other politicos and journalists have already demonstrated.

As a result, activists of every stripe are increasingly scoring political points with media pranks. From Michael Moore's self-aggrandizing stunts to the more focused corporate spoofs of Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno to the parodistic "non-traditional media transformations" of the Newsbreakers, more and more merry media pranksters are now fighting fake news fires with fire of their own.

A case in point: the brilliant trick the Yes Men played last December upon the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster in India. After they set up a bogus web site, purporting to represent Dow Chemical (Dow took over Union Carbide, the plant's owners at the time of the catastrophe that killed 20,000), the BBC logged on to request an interview. Bichlbaum and Bonanno accepted the misguided invitation and, posing as Dow representatives, went on air to announce that the company accepted full responsibility for the disaster and would pay billions of dollars in compensation to the victims. Naturally, their apology quickly made worldwide headlines -- thus forcing Dow to retract the phony "apology" and the Yes Men's "offer" of bogus billions.

The anarchic daddy of all media hoaxers, however, is undeniably Joey Skaggs, who first turned the public prank into a high art form. As his web site proudly notes, Skaggs "has been called everything from the World's Greatest Hoaxer to a royal pain in the ass." In the course of decades of manipulating mainstream media makers -- mainly by using their own hypocrisy, laziness, and stupidity against them -- Skaggs has been "threatened, assaulted, summonsed, subpoenaed, arrested, deposed, dismissed, trivialized, maligned, even thanked and praised." Along the way, he's carved a unique niche as a "notorious socio-political satirist, media activist, culture jammer, hoaxer and dedicated proponent of independent thinking and media literacy."

"When I create a false reality, I always try to create a plausible structure to help convince people," Skaggs once explained in an interview with McSweeney's. "Most important to any fake story is a plausible, realistic edge with a satirical twist that is topical. I want people to be amused or amazed but fooled. I want them to say, "Unbelievable!" but believe it. Satire and believability are irresistible to the news media. Sensationalism gets them every time."

Skaggs calls his pranks "plausible but non-existent realities," and says he was inspired "by the need to be cunning enough to fool journalists, while leaving clues and challenging them to catch me. "

Sometimes it's simply a matter of being topical and outrageous. "Other times you can use a calendar to predict the kinds of stories the media is looking for," explains Skaggs. "Celebrations of anniversaries of disasters, such as nuclear power plant meltdowns or political assassinations, provide opportunities, as do holidays. And then there are the ubiquitous animal or pet stories. There's one every day.

"If I'm successful in fooling a wire service, I don't really have to do anything else to promote the story," he adds. "Because the media will feed off of itself. They all assume the original author did his or her homework!"

Skaggs, who works for and often by himself, rarely profits from his stunts (although his "fish condos"-- designer apartments for guppies -- started as a joke and ended up selling as gifts for yuppies). He's not looking for dollars -- just change. "Revelation is the most important aspect of the process," as he once told US News and World Report. "That's the point where consciousness can change."

A product of the anti-establishment, '60s-protest counter-culture, Skaggs stages his Yippie-like stunts in that spirit. He considers himself a performance artist, in the mode of the Surrealists and Dadaists. As Mark Borkowski noted in a recent article in The Independent, Skaggs' first effort was nearly 40 years ago, in 1966, "when he carried a 10-foot crucifix on an Easter parade in New York to rail against the hypocrisy of the Church and man's inhumanity to man. He later strung a 50-foot bra across the steps of the U.S. Treasury on St. Valentine's Day to highlight the American male's obsession with female breasts. His premise was simple: he set out to ridicule the media façade, and the fallibility of the public's blind acceptance of the media, so he used the media as his medium."

A decade later, Skaggs placed a newspaper ad announcing the opening of a brothel for dogs ("A cat house for dogs featuring a savory selection of hot bitches"), complete with a media "photo-opportunity." One company received an Emmy nomination for its coverage of the event.

Another Skaggs piece involved the opening of a "Celebrity Sperm Bank," where Bob Dylan and The Beatles had allegedly left deposits. Then there was the made-up laboratory where Dr. Josef Gregor (aka Skaggs) bred a strain of cockroaches that produced hormones to cure illness and protect humans from radiation. In the competitive frenzy to report the new miracle drug, no one in the MSM noticed that the phony doctor's name evoked the main character in Kafka's The Metamorphosis, who turned from a human into a giant insect. And it's hard to forget the time Skaggs posed as the president of a Korean group called Kea So Joo and sent letters to shelters asking that unwanted dogs be sent to him to be used as food.

Without Skaggs, as Borkowski notes, "there would have been no Yes Men, no Michael Moore, because Skaggs -- as little known as he is -- is the originator. Unlike Moore, he is not driven by ego, because he is an artist first and an activist second. Because he shies away from publicity for himself, he remains unknown to the world at large, but his name should be written in lights as an example to us all."

"The issues of my performances vary, but most of the questions buried in the work remain the same," says Skaggs. "What do we believe? Why do we believe it? My challenge as a satirical artist is how to present ideas to people to enable them to question and reexamine their beliefs. My hope is that my work provokes people to look at things in a new way.

"The media's job is to question a premise," he concludes, "But information overload and the strain to get a story first get in the way of getting it right."

More details about all of Skaggs' past work is available on joeyskaggs.com.

Will Truth Rise Again?

NEW YORK, March 28, 2005 – Maybe because it was the Easter weekend, or because I was replaying Bruce's 911 hymn "The Rising," or, maybe, because I was meditating on the difficulty we journalists have in reporting or establishing "truth" but I thought back on a famous saying which I first heard come out of the always eloquent lips of Martin Luther King, Jr., in a union hall in lower Manhattan early in the 1960's.

He closed a sermon of a speech that I will never forget with a famous quotation: "Truth crushed to earth will rise again."

Let's hope so.

Today, we live in two worlds of news and information. One is "fact based," the other "faith-based." In the former, we cling to a world of objective reporting and verifiable evidence even as we know how facts are skewed by media outlets with undisclosed agendas; in the latter, we only acknowledge facts that support our opinions and often don't let facts get in the way of a "good argument."

As the late Sen. Patrick Daniel Moynihan put it: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

Look at the debate over Terri Schiavo. Two worldviews are in conflict. It's not really the right to die versus the right to live because many of the self-proclaimed right-to-lifers who rally at the side of a terminally brain-dead woman support capital punishment, As it turns out, their biggest political backer, Tom Delay, was part of a family decision years ago to pull the plug on his own dad. The contradictions on display are too blatant and thick to even fully dissect.

"Their" media supports them uncritically. Judges and journalists who studied the details of the affidavits and medical records, and begged to differ, are baited as murderers and discredited by the ether of emotive passion. The courts finally ruled against Terri's parents in one of the most litigated cases in history.

Truth crushed to earth?

Another question: what is the truth of the Iraq war? A prominent media critic who just shared a panel with me revealed that she recently interviewed many leading TV news anchors that could not agree on the causes. "I was shocked by their lack of a consensus," she said.

So now we learn that they all reported the war the same way but did not really believe what they were saying.

Think of the last election. At one point President Bush acknowledged that there was no connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and that no WMDs were found in Iraq.

He said it – wink, wink – but a majority of supporters wouldn't change their long reinforced views. They told pollsters they still believed the weapons were still there and that Iraq is part of the war on al Qaeda to avenge 9/11. The GOP campaign did not correct them.

It seems to take a long time for truth to trickle out, or up, under the mounds of misinformation suffocating us all. In a new book called "American Monsters," I write about president William McKinley who launched the Spanish-American War with the slogan "Remember the Maine."

Thanks to the yellow journalists of that era, Americans were convinced that the war was justified because Spanish terrorists blew up our battleship in Havana Harbor. Fifty years later, we learned that the ship went down because of an accident in the engine room.

Truth tends to rise when it no longer matters

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena's account of being fired on by U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The intelligence agent who rescued her from kidnappers was killed in the incident.

My reporting on what she said happened – based on accounts in her newspaper – quickly came under less lethal fire, but fire all the same. Some of those "all-the-way-with-the-U.S.A." bloggers went to work to demolish her claims and discredit her as a communist who was probably supporting terrorists. This character assassination sought to silence her.

I was also put down viciously as well for calling for an independent probe. I was told that photos of the car posted on the internet "proved" that her story was a big lie.

After nationwide protests in Italy, the U.S. government reluctantly agreed to a joint investigation with Italian investigators.

Last week, the Pentagon told the Italians they wouldn't show them the car that allegedly "proved" their claims that her driver was racing past a checkpoint and refused to stop. (Last week the Pentagon also told Reuters that they would not reopen their investigation into the killing of two of their staffers in the infamous April 8, 2003 Palestine Hotel incident.)

On Good Friday, Amy Goodman interviewed writer Naomi Klein who just visited with Giuliana in a Rome hospital.

Here's part of what she said – more evidence of how long it takes for truth to trickle out much less rise. Naomi Klein:

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NewsBreakers

Who are those masked men... in invisible suits ... walking into live shots ... reading the Bible and smashing eggs on their head?

When news breaks, they bust it ...

They interrupt your regularly scheduled program ...

... to fight "truth decay."

They're the NewsBreakers and they say "As citizens in a participatory democracy, we can no longer idly standby and let our government offer the airwaves, our common property, to the highest bidder."

It all began last January in Rochester, New York. A group of masked men burst into the local headlines when they disrupted the live news broadcasts of two local television stations, WROC and WHEC.

Taken into police custody, they were were accused of assault, but later released. In a press statement, NewsBreakers said they are a nonviolent media watchdog group that had "freed two live broadcasts" and "temporarily reclaimed the airwaves in the name of the American people." Their aim: to protest what they termed "the wholesale failure of Federal Communications Commission licensees to honor their obligation to the public."

"Today's event marks a new chapter in media criticism," proclaimed Buck Owens, NewsBreakers 'senior political correspondent.' "We are putting television news on notice: We're out here, we're watching and we ain't happy with what we see."

A self-described "nonpartisan, nonviolent media watchdog group dedicated to the improvement of journalism," NewsBreakers comments on and critiques television news, mostly by relying on parody and "non-traditional media interventions" to protest core problems like "overzealous" FCC regulations and corporate ownership of media outlets. Their hope is "to get people talking about the issue of TV news quality."

Owens is happy to explain the organization's goals. "We're just trying to raise a pretty simple question," he says. "Are you happy with the job that news -- TV news in particular -- is doing?"

Since the initial Rochester action, the NewsBreakers have begun to go national. In February the "Grim Reaper" -- complete with black robe and sickle -- busted a live shot at a Sinclair Broadcasting station in Columbus, Ohio. NewsBreakers say they have a "special distaste" for Sinclair, which operates both the ABC and Fox affiliate stations in Columbus (the stations share programming while operating under the motto "The Power of Television Times Two.")

"We thought the Grim Reaper was a pretty direct commentary on the nature of local television news," Buck Owens says. "It blows me away that people would tolerate one company owning both outlets."

Later that same month they also hit the Gannett-owned KPNX in Phoenix. Gannett, which owns more than 100 newspapers and 20 television stations, runs both KPNX and the Arizona Republic, the state's largest daily. After spending "most of the day transfixed by the station's coverage of the banal" -- which included stories about cute walnuts, controversial candy, a model train, naughty waiters, and a live interview with one of the Queer Eye guys -- Owens 'busted' a live shot report on a 'breaking' murder story.

Since then, they have expanded into New York -- the nation's largest media market -- with an "Eggman" bust of New York 1, and another at WABC, where a Bible-reading Buck Owens repeatedly disrupted Jeff Rossen's standup about the New York Daily News' "Scratch and Match" snafu.

"Let's see what happens to the news business when they feel attacked," says NewsBreaker J.D. Rozz. "We're setting up a 'lose-lose' situation for them -- either they can try to ignore us at their peril, while we smash eggs onto our heads behind them -- or they can challenge us, as we've challenged them."

"What we're doing is very low-brow -- obviously," admits Buck Owens. "After I smashed the eggs of my head, my dad sent an e-mail saying only 'Get help -- and get it quick!' But we find lots of people want to join us!"

But seriously -- if the word can be applied to such zany protesting pranksters -- the Newsbreakers seem to be tapping into some twisted piece of the Zeitgeist, judging from the reactions they have been getting. Their phony job postings for "Visual News Interpreters," for example, have already elicited several resumes from job-hungry would-be reporters ("I am a highly flexible, motivated and disciplined individual with an ability to adapt successfully to new and challenging situations.") who apparently didn't read too closely. And the In Box for Questions@newsbreakers.org is filled with comments ranging from "What a cool approach to media criticism" to "I'm not sure what your objective is but I'd like to applaud you for beating them at their own game" to naysayers who write "Acts like this are classless. You are low-rent, no-talent clowns!""

Behind the absurdist stance, the NewsBreakers betray the oddly serious mien of true believers. "Television news defines reality for most people," J.D. and Buck told me last week during a rare unmasked interview. "It confers heft and legitimacy to the stories that make air. But what we've found is that the only stories they want to do are the ones they already know! So we try to reframe the news for viewers and make them deal with something indefinable. Egg smashing is really just another way to smash viewers' consciousness.

"We're carnival barkers, mostly," admits senior correspondent Owens. "But even when playing, we're very serious about the need to reform our broken media system."

Of late, the NewsBreakers are beginning a dialogue with people within the industry as well, with reactions (both pro and con) to their sophomoric antics popping up on discussion boards like medialine.com and broll.net. "We're calling on media professionals to debate, at the same time as we are urging viewers to think and to reflect," says Owens.

"But hey -- this whole thing took off in just three months -- a lot faster than we ever anticipated, " Owens concludes. "We don't claim to have all the answers -- but we sure have a lot of questions. Maybe stimulating dialogue will actually lead to change. Look, our most important point is that we actually CARE about the news, and think it's important to people. We're not really anarchists -- we just want better-quality news!"

Media Cash in on Jackson

NEW YORK, February 2, 2005 – There was no shortage of enthusiastic prospective jurors in Santa Maria, Calif., for what promises to be the trial of the century for their town and lives.

Many are farmworkers, people picking grapes and strawberries in the hot sun. No wonder the prospect of sitting in judgment on multimillionaire Michael Jackson in an air-conditioned courtroom is so attractive, and the longer the better. The hot lights of media attention are seductive, something many long for. Look, Mom, I'm on TV.

Celebrity trials all too often dominate cable news channels with constant updates and endless buzz, especially during pro-forma arrivals and departures. Jackson does not disappoint as he dresses up for the occasion in virginal white.

In an age when news business and showbiz merge, this trial is the kind of "reality" soap opera that producers long for. It has celebrity, day-to-day drama and the promise of titillation. Together, that promises high ratings.

Jackson is not just a person. He is a brand. Record companies worry about sales of his "inventory" and the targeting of other superstars with deviant streaks. If Jackson is guilty of molestation charges, he can be jailed for a long time.

Sometimes when Jackson is made up to look witchy, one senses a witch-hunt. It's happened before in American history. Remember the trials in Salem, and Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter. Jackson's been demonized as badly as she was.

Everyone knows that, beyond the trial by jury, a reckoning must come before the court of public opinion – which can easily be manipulated. Just like the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions, the media can't stay away when big names become "red meat." The trial will be as punishing a spectacle as the verdict. Jackson' lifestyle is on trial.

But his is not the only future that will be determined by the trial. How many "experts" will build their careers on the media exposure? How many books and TV docu-dramas will result? There is a media multiplier effect built into this exercise. I am sure studio chiefs are asking if it has series potential in reruns.

Wouldn't it be more compelling if media outlets explored why our culture seems so addicted to celebrities and how we can put our collective need for such celebrities into perspective?

A year ago, CBS was paying Jackson for a prime-time concert while interviewing him for a "60 Minutes" show that was exploited to the max. He danced around the questions as well as the music on the stage. No one cared. CBS ratings soared.

Was it journalism or pandering or do we know the difference anymore? Writing on MarketWatch (just sold by CBS), Jon Friedman denounces the media exploitation that has already "flooded the zone" for the trial with 1,100 "journalists" – almost twice as many as were embedded in Iraq.

"Mind you, it's not as if any of their coverage on the trial actually broke any new ground (heaven forbid!). The media's real business is to maintain the panting pace as they keep Jackson in the news."

Jackson is still good box office. That's why so many fans have turned up from as far away as Poland.

It's a media spectacular with newspapers and magazines competing for the best pictures and juiciest sleaze. The media are paying the county for the right to clog the roads with their microwave trucks. It's costing them a combined total of $7,500 a day. If it goes six months or more, it could run into a million.

The Observer of London reports that the media have already paid $36,000 to rent office and parking space in Santa Maria. Lawyer Michael Clayton is charging $2,500 a day for six spaces on top of his roof, which can be used as vantage points for cameras, as well as $500 a day to park.

Many of my media colleagues can't wait to get into the "action." It beats covering storms and traffic jams.

If we were not living through a cycle of bigger news events like the tsunami, Iraq elections and State of the Union, newscasts would probably lead with the Gloved One. His bizarreness and internal family food fights almost guarantee that something (anything, really) will be deemed newsworthy.

As the trial moves into high gear, more wall-to-wall coverage is assured. That may be good for the media bottom line, but is it good at a time of coverage of war and media consolidation?

Do we really have a need to know? Friedman nails it: "It's junk-food TV at its worst, like subsisting on a diet of cotton candy. The TV networks can plead that the public demands all of the grisly details. But TV can show whatever it wants and people will follow."

New York Times-Metro Impunity

This is the fifth story tracking the Metro Racism controversy. To read the previous four, see Metro Racism.

A proposed multi-million dollar deal between two billion dollar firms, The New York Times Company and Metro International, appears to still be on track. This despite earlier MediaChannel revelations tying The Times' proposed partner to a crude corporate culture of racism and sexism – and elsewhere of pornography distribution on the part of the Modern Times Group, one of Metro's largest shareholders (which the Herald now refers to as "the porno-pushing parent of Metro's empire").

Meanwhile reports about the growing corporate scandal continue to appear, with new articles coming from as far afield as Le Monde in Paris and the Financial Times in London. Closer to home, the Herald continues to hammer away at the deal in obvious hopes of killing it entirely, and media writer Dan Kennedy's exegesis of the affair appears in the current edition of the Boston Phoenix.

At the same time, new details – and complaints – about the Metro's practices continue to pour in from former Metro readers and employees – and even executives of the troubled Swedish media empire behind Metro.

One former high-ranking executive who worked closely with the late Jan Stenbeck – the Harvard MBA and onetime Morgan Stanley executive who created the holding company behind Metro and Modern Times – told me he believes that current top executives at both companies are "not the type of people who should be in those positions in a publicly traded company." He added that "investors should know these people are lining each others' pockets and creating enormous wealth for themselves" through back-door deals, favorable sales of stock options and the like.

"It's indicative of their arrogance that they feel they can act with such impunity," the insider explained. "They have contempt for both the public and their investors."

The ex-exec also denounced Metro's "attempt to paper over the problem" when it announced various half-hearted corrective measures in response to last week's revelations. "From a business standpoint, investors must realize something more profound is going [on] at Metro," the executive concluded, referring to the non-resignation resignation of Metro USA head Steve Nylund, who remains with Metro in a "non-operational role" – whatever that means.

"Since Jan died in August of 2002, the group of companies have been run by individuals who were originally put in the position because of their total acquiescence to Jan – not for their talent, as this latest episode shows," he continued. "I resent seeing Jan's empire stolen by these types of individuals, And if I were an investor in or customer of The Times, or Metro, I'd want to know how seriously the current management really intends to take this issue."

The executive also denounced "the act of appointing an 'American' to the position of 'Global Human Resource Director,'" saying it is "as cynical and disingenuous as the 'firing' and resignation of Nylund and Albrecht."

And he explained that the newly appointed Metro executive Bob Powers "is not an outsider in the slightest. He has been with the group since at least August of 2000. Powers already runs several entities that belong to the Stenbecks, including "Applied Value" and "Audit Value International".

"Given the total in-breeding of the board of directors of all the Stenbeck companies, you can imagine how much power this man has to effect any change at Metro, or indeed the real desire of the directors to effect any change," the source continued. "The more I read about this story, the more disgusted I become. I realize that many companies have their dirty little secrets, but it's when the people who run those companies begin thinking that they can act with impunity that you have to worry about another Enron or Tyco type disaster. It's my opinion that the episode that you have been reporting is merely the most public manifestation of senior managements' utter contempt for their employees and customers. Since Stenbeck's death, it is easy to imagine that the wealth that has been amassed by the CEOs (which Stenbeck never would have permitted) has given them a feeling of invincibility."

Finally, the Stenbeck insider said he "can confirm that the almost total lack of women or minorities in senior level positions was certainly remarkable, even here in Europe. I believe that Jan was attempting to change that in the years before his death. He instituted the hiring of MBAs from top U.S. universities, in an attempt to diversify away from the total control by Swedes. The program was extremely unpopular with the CEOs (none of whom, I believe, have MBAs), and one of the first moves they made on Stenbeck's death was to get rid of the MBAs who were not Swedish."

Despite the continuing allegations and revelations, Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis says The Times does not "have responsibility for the other business activities of Metro International, its investors or other business partners."

And Metro head Pelle Törnberg, who was in crisis meetings in Manhattan all last week reassuring Times executives that Metro was a legitimate company to do business with, is also untroubled.

"Our competitors like to continue to talk about Metro being a racist company, but that's not true," the 48-year-old Swede told the Financial Times.

Țrnberg called the Metro-racism story "reheated" by competitors such as the Herald, and averred that Metro had "reacted pretty quickly and took action over the things we've been accused of. We have no reason Рafter our contacts with The New York Times Рto believe that the deal will not go ahead."

But investors and financial analysts may soon have a different take. One Wall Street analyst told the Boston Herald the affair has already turned into "another embarrassment" for the media giant. "It's getting a little messy," said Edward Atorino, a Wall Street analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners. "I've got to believe that somebody in that New York Times Company is saying, 'What do we do now?'"

New Times Company president and CEO Janet Robinson may yet have to scotch the deal to avoid further damage to the vaunted Times "brand." Is the relatively small $16.5 million dollar purchase of 49 percent of Boston Metro really worth the risk to the $3.2 billion annual revenue of The Times?

"This thing was supposed to be a no-brainer, and it's become a pain in the ass," Atorino concluded.

Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein media center and a former Times man, had another take. Although The Times would absolutely balk at affiliation with an organization that was credibly considered racist, Jones told the Herald: "I'm not sure telling two jokes puts (Metro) in the camp of confirmed racist."

Two jokes? Did Jones even bother to read my original story?

Will the Inaugural Protests Be Covered?

Some of us are old enough to remember that bright day in January 1977 when Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter got out of their limo and strolled down Pennsylvania Ave. to the White House. We remember it now with nostalgia because that more hopeful American moment is long gone. Now we have elections deemed "brief accountability moments" and a garrison state to insure the trains of social order run on time.

Homeland security?

Homeland insecurity is more like it, as new state of the art police state tactics are introduced to protect the president from protesters who plan to try to give his administration as hard a time as they can.

This year's re-inauguration promises to be more fun and games and who knows what repressive tactics will be introduced if somehow the event turns into a street fight or worse. Will there be another Chicago or Tiananmen Square or just mass arrests like at the RNC in New York?

The FBI uses a sports metaphor to describe its overkill approach even as it waves a stick bigger than any Teddy Roosevelt carried. They can't wait to test out their souped up contain and control strategies. The testosterone is pumping among the G-Men. They want to engage.

Reports The Washington Post:

"This is the Super Bowl for us," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent James W. Rice II. "Everyone on every team is dressed up and playing in the game. And the bench is very, very deep."

"The agents and officers at the swearing-in and along the parade route will have access to the latest tools. Every piece of technology that exists will be a part of this," said Rice, who oversees the National Capital Response Squad.

Underscore that line "Every technology that exists."

But this is more than a boys-with-toys-chasing-the-militant-black-bloc-around-Dupont-Circle moment. It could be a turning point in the history of the republic since the "Sun King," as Marc Crispin Miller calls GWB, has already made clear that in his mind at least the election gave him a mandate to do whatever he wants to do.

Full Stop.

Not surprisingly, the protesters will be out in force as they were in 2000. Back then, the press barely took notice of the biggest inaugural protest in American history. Writer Dennis Loy Johnson wrote a must-read little book called The Big Chill on "The great unreported story of the Bush Inauguration Protests ... " (Melville House).

The protests were ignored, he charges. "There seemed to be a determined and almost paternalistic effort by the media to soothe and assure the populace that everything was fine, that the democracy was running smoothly (as if that was the obligation of either print or broadcast journalists) that there was, in any case no dissent except from the usual suspects ... "

That was then. That event signaled a new media paradigm for marginalizing dissenters.

Last year, the 's ombudsman Michael Getler investigated complaints that the Post had been downplaying protests and minimizing their numbers. He concluded that the complaints were valid. And it was done as a matter of policy. The paper carried a mini-mea culpa about its prewar coverage. And then it was back to news business as usual.

So here we go again as David Admin wrote on RedefeatBush.com on Jan. 15:

Keep reading... Show less

Metro Execs Resign

Metro International executives who made racially disparaging remarks that set off a media firestorm this week have resigned, according to Pelle Tornberg, company president and CEO. Steve Nylund resigned as president of Metro US, but will maintain his position as executive vice president of Metro International, "with no operational responsibility in the company." And Hans Holger-Albrecht has resigned from the Metro International board.

A company statement noted that: "Recently, there have been stories in the news media that members of our organization have acted contrary" to the company's core values.

It also pronounced the actions "regrettable," and promised to take action on several other fronts. MediaChannel broke the story on Monday of the crude racist comments made by the executives, and of a pervasive corporate culture of discrimination.

Metro is hiring an outside firm to assess the policies and practices of Metro US with regard to employee and community relations as well as a new global director of human resources. It is also developing more training and sensitivity initiatives, and establishing citizen advisory boards in the communities in which it operates "to advise senior management on diversity issues." The company also says it will "redouble" its efforts to recruit a representative workforce of the racial and ethnic makeup of the communities in which it operates.

The Metro damage control came amidst growing speculation that The New York Times Company, which had proposed purchasing 49 percent of the Boston Metro daily for more than 16 million dollars, would try to modify its pending deal with Metro – or perhaps to pull out of it entirely, as many in both the journalism and financial communities have already begun to suggest.

Threatened boycotts in Boston and New York, coupled with bad press all over the country, were tarnishing the cherished (and valuable) Times brand. And top executives, all the way up to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., were said to be increasingly frustrated at the furor – and at the amount of their time and attention the scandal has been demanding.

One Internet CEO who was meeting with the top Timesman earlier this week reported that Sulzberger's cell phone went off "every two minutes" during their meeting. Each call appeared to concern the Metro story, and each successively made Sulzberger's face redder than the last as he attempted to dampen a story that began on the internet but had begun spreading nationally like wildfire via outlets as varied as the Associated Press and AlterNet.

Times management obviously is hopeful that the concessions by Metro will end the controversy and allow them to move ahead with their planned partnership.

Globe Columnist Knew

But the fact that a columnist for the Times-owned Boston Globe knew of the allegations of crude racism at Metro months before the story was reported here this week may further inflame the situation and cause more problems for the troubled venture.

Although the Globe's Alex Beam learned the basic facts behind the racism scandal now making front page news in Boston, he decided not to pursue the story. Beam was told by a former Metro executive of shocking racist remarks about African Americans made by other Metro executives at company dinners in Rome and Stockholm in 2003. The executive, who attended both fests, was appalled by the remarks and said he wanted the truth about Metro's corporate culture of discrimination made public.

I know because he subsequently told me. I also know because I spoke with Beam in the course of my initial investigation. Beam confirmed over the telephone that he had been contacted by the former Metro executive, who had told him of fellow Metro executives telling "jokes" about the anatomy of African-American men, and repeatedly referred to blacks as "niggers."

It is not known if Beam told anyone else at the Globe of what he learned about the Metro-racism, or why he decided not to put it in the paper months before the Metro-Times deal was hatched – or if he did, why no one at the Globe ever mentioned the matter to Times officials as they were performing their due diligence while preparing to invest.

Community Responds to Metro Racism

This is the third in a series of stories on the revelation of racism at the Boston Metro. The other two are here and here. More will be posted as the story unfolds.

Outrage over the racist corporate culture at the Metro newspaper group – and at the lack of adequate response by either Metro or its new partners at The New York Times Company – continues to build, as leaders and members of minority communities in both Boston and New York are now offering their own responses to the shocking revelations from earlier this week.

The Times-owned Boston Globe, meant to be the local partner with Boston Metro, yesterday quoted Leonard Alkins, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, as saying the MediaChannel reports are "very troublesome, and clearly [The Times Company] is buying into a newspaper whose management seems to have some questionable character problems."

The Times Company, he said, "needs to deal with the culture of the Metro first and then sit down with the community."

Massachusetts State Rep. Byron Rushing said The Times Company must have the "ability to work on changing the culture of the company. It has to be part of the deal." Otherwise, he added, "you're only profiting from a culture that allows this kind of thing to happen." And two Boston-area African-American pastors demanded a meeting with Times Company and Globe executives, saying "The Metro needs to connect with some group doing cultural and racial sensitivity training."

Meanwhile journalists' associations and academic institutes also began to weigh in. The Boston Association of Black Journalists issued a statement saying, "The crude and racist comments reportedly made by Metro executives are inexcusable and should give The New York Times a huge red flag about the insensitive culture within its new business partner. By not condemning these alleged remarks, The New York Times and its subsidiary, the Boston Globe, give the appearance that they have surrendered their once liberal values to making a quick easy buck." Boston Herald columnist Howard Manly is president of the association, which also recommended a boycott of the Metro. Manly said the statement was written as a collaborative effort by members of the association.

Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, said, "It's very embarrassing, particularly for a company like [The Times] ... It's hard to imagine worse publicity ... I think I'd be thinking seriously about walking away."

Callie Crossley, program manager at Harvard's prestigious Nieman Foundation, told Globe reporter Mark Jurkowitz that "It is incumbent" on The Times Company "not just to say something but to do something ... . They need to take this very seriously. This is a publication aimed at young people. What's the message here?"

Meanwhile the controversy continued to spread, and has now reached the backyard of The Times Company. As reported today in the New York Post, "Black leaders in New York yesterday said they wanted to stop the presses at the free daily Metro after top executives at the newspaper made headlines for telling crude racist jokes."

Speaking of Metro executive Steve R. Nylund, City Councilman Charles Barron said, "He should be fired." Barron also said he would discuss the issue with the council's black and Latino caucus, whose members may call for a boycott, noting "It's a free paper, but if their readership goes down, it doesn't help their advertisers."

MediaChannel also received outraged responses from its readers. "Thank you for breaking the silence on this subject. In doing so I have taken action by forwarding your article along to others," Tonia Shakespeare wrote. "It also points out the need for me as an African American to participate in blogging ... something I feel not enough of us are doing. And as your site demonstrates, the need for American media to have a watchdog and an alternate viewpoint."

Another reader, Mary Ann Mills, expressed her shock and offered to join a boycott. "I just read about the racist comments made by executives of and their pathetic excuse for an apology by one of them. I am at first shocked, then dismayed, and now outraged at these executives and their company, and The New York Times, that is actively working to buy this company. I am MORE than fed up with any people, people in the public eye, and most especially people who hold public trust, be it media or government, behaving as if comments such as these do not matter and do not carry weight. It is inexcusable any way you look at it."

Meanwhile, the Boston Herald reported further evidence of racist remarks and attitudes at the free newspaper chain, amid growing signs that the entire proposed deal between The Times Company and Metro may be falling apart. Although a spokeswoman for The Times Company yesterday declined to comment on whether the organization was reconsidering its transaction with Boston Metro, the Boston Globe reported that several analysts are reflecting on the potential of the negative headlines to stall or even kill the partnership.

George Ticknor, a partner at Palmer & Dodge who heads up the firm's media and communications finance group, told the Globe bad publicity may not kill the deal, but it could give Times Co. executives pause.

"Newspaper operators like The Times [Co.] have to have their ear to the ground," he said. "The impact of negative publicity on newspapers is very significant ... Credibility with the readership and newspaper public is important."

Breaking the Silence of The Times

Yesterday, when I broke the story of how The New York Times Company (see ""Metro Racism" in today's top stories) had bought into a shocking and crude corporate culture of racism when it partnered with the Metro newspaper group in Boston, no one at either The Times or Metro would deign to respond to my story.

Instead, representatives of The Times said it was up to Metro to comment, and a representative of the Metro group told me not to expect a response. Obviously, executives at both companies made the determination that simply ignoring the story – after all, it only appeared in one of those obscure 'blogs' (Media is a Plural) and on the MediaChannel, an "alternative" web site deemed by some to be far out of the "mainstream" that huge corporations like The Times and Metro float in.

The arrogance of the two "communications" companies in refusing to communicate with the public about the tasteless, racist comments made by top Metro executives could not continue, however, due to the awesome, unchecked power of blogs and the internet.

First up with a demand for a response was Dan Kennedy, media critic for the Boston Phoenix. Next Jim Romenesko, whose Poynter Institute-housed media blog is essential reading for anyone in the media business, prominently posted a link to the story on his site with the headline:

Report: NYT Co. is buying into a culture of crude racism.

Soon I began hearing from Boston's mainstream media – including several calls from The Boston Globe, The Times-owned daily that is meant to execute the proposed partnership with Metro's free daily in Boston.

Soon the wall of silence cracked, and both The Times and Metro were forced to abandon their decision not to respond. By day's end, Dan Kennedy had posted responses from both The Times Company and Metro. Rather than paraphrase them, I suggest you read the statements yourself, and see if you share my amazement.

The Times, pushed unwittingly into the fray, finally admitted it was at least "discussing" the matter with its new partners at Metro, and then pushed out some pro forma pap about how it is "committed to fair treatment of all employees based on respect, accountability and standards of excellence."

The Metro statement, on the other hand, is one of the oddest "non-denial denials" seen this side of Richard Nixon and Watergate. But in essence it confirms the particulars of my original reporting, and even contains a half-hearted sort of apology for the bizarre and offensive racist comments made by top Metro executives in the past – remarks so offensive that even The Boston Globe ran a story on the controversy today, confirming my original story but centering, of course, on the "apology" offered by Metro's top executive in North America, Steve Nylund.

But thus far the august New York Times itself has yet to report on its new, racist partner.

Don't hold your breath!

Metro Racism

On April 4-6, 2003, officials of the Metro International newspaper chain held a sales conference near Rome. Top executives of all the nearly two dozen Metro newspapers were there – the managing directors (i.e. publishers), along with sales directors, editors and others. The annual corporate event, complete with lavish food, open bar and costly entertainment, is meant to celebrate sales and motivate managers for the next year.

At the Saturday night gala dinner, tradition has it that someone at each table sing a song or tell a joke before dessert, as a means of breaking the ice and helping everyone bond.

"Each table identified its top talent," one attendee remembered recently. "The idea was to provide a little entertainment."

But according to several former Metro executives who were at the gala, the festivities turned suddenly and shockingly sour when Steve Nylundh, the global newspaper chain's leading North America executive, took his turn. John Wilpers, then-editor of Boston Metro, explains.

"There were 15 or 20 tables," Wilpers recalls. "Each had put together a little presentation, and Nylund was chosen to represent his."

"I will tell a joke," Nylund announced from the front of the room.

Nylund's "joke" came in the form of a toast that centered on the length of the sexual organs of black males, whom he referred to as "niggers."

"It concerned the depth of a pool of water and the length of their penises," Wilpers says.

"Nylund began by saying, 'There were two niggers standing by a pool, and they took their dicks out,'" another participant recalls. "He went on about how one said the pool was too cold, and the other said it was too deep. I wanted to crawl under the table."

"All the Americans and the southern Europeans gasped," says Wilpers. "Someone at my table said, 'I can't believe he said that!' But the Nordics all laughed."

Wilpers says such crudely racist "humor" was common at Metro when he worked there – but usually not in public. "There were often jokes made in private by the northern Europeans. The corporate culture encouraged it. The company is run by people who are racist and ugly."

Other former Metro executives who attended the gala echo Wilpers' assessment. "I was sitting at a table with the Czechs and Hungarians," one told me. "I was shocked at what I heard. Quiet just fell over the entire room. No one knew what to say."

"I fell off my chair," another said. "The mentality there is shocking."

"When I left, I asked some of the Europeans if it had been as shocking to them as to us Americans," one attendee told me. "They said, 'Absolutely!'"

"It's bizarre and unbelievable," he concluded. "The people who run Metro are NOT stupid – you would think that even if they were that racist they wouldn't say it in public!"

Incredibly, the racist joking did not end at the dinner near Rome. A few months later, a similar incident took place at a dinner the Metro chain held on August 29th at a Hilton hotel in Stockholm. Once again the affair was attended by top Metro executives, along with others from television stations and networks owned by the Kinnevik Corporation, the multi-billion-dollar holding company behind the Metro Group.

Hans-Holger Albrecht, a member of Metro Newspapers Board of Directors, as well as president and CEO of Modern Times Group, the former corporate parent of Metro, was Master of Ceremonies for the gala evening. Perhaps in reference to Nylund's joke a few months earlier in Rome, Albrecht began the festivities by saying "Good evening, ladies, gentlemen and niggers."

Cristina Stenbeck, heir to Kinnevik founder Jan Stenbeck and a member of the Metro board of directors, was in attendance at both functions – at Rome she sat at the table directly next to Nylundh's – but had no negative reaction.

"Cristina was there and did nothing," one former Metro executive recalls. "The next day, however, the CEO did make a joke about Steve's 'affirmative action' program."

The shocking dinner 'humor' is only one indication of an apparently crude corporate culture of racism and discrimination at the Metro chain. Other employees at Boston Metro have formally charged the corporation with racist practices, and filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. C. C. Lee, a former sales representative, charged he was the victim of a "racially motivated" salary cutback, and told me "the culture of the company" is racist.

"Racism is always an element," Lee says. "They made racist innuendo, and comments like 'Blacks smoke crack.' That's their corporate culture."

Other employees also complain that Metro is sexist as well as racist. One woman said the company was "male-dominated" and that it was difficult for women to "go anywhere in the company" – it's only men, and mostly white." She also told of an advertisement that was turned down by Philadelphia Metro because "the paper did not want it to look like its readers needed food stamps" and didn't want to send "the wrong message' to its advertisers." Instead, she said, "the paper wanted its readers to appear young, professional, upwardly mobile and white collar."

No one at either the Metro Group or The New York Times denies the story.

When I first contacted Ken Frydman, the press representative for the Metro Newspapers, for comment, he immediately told me, "Don't expect to get a response" to my questions about the events described above. Frydman's instinct proved correct. After asking more than a dozen specific questions, I was told only that "No one is going to be available to talk to you on that story."

Executives at Metro's new partner, The New York Times Company, which just paid $16.5 million in exchange for a 49 percent stake in Boston Metro, proved no more forthcoming. In response to requests to interview Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. or Boston Globe publisher Richard Gilman about the allegations of Metro-racism, company spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said only that "Ken is the right person to deal with this."

Breaking the Silence of The Times

Yesterday, when I broke the story of how The New York Times Company (see ""Metro Racism" in today's top stories) had bought into a shocking and crude corporate culture of racism when it partnered with the Metro newspaper group in Boston, no one at either The Times or Metro would deign to respond to my story.

Instead, representatives of The Times said it was up to Metro to comment, and a representative of the Metro group told me not to expect a response. Obviously, executives at both companies made the determination that simply ignoring the story – after all, it only appeared in one of those obscure 'blogs' (Media is a Plural) and on the MediaChannel, an "alternative" web site deemed by some to be far out of the "mainstream" that huge corporations like The Times and Metro float in.

The arrogance of the two "communications" companies in refusing to communicate with the public about the tasteless, racist comments made by top Metro executives could not continue, however, due to the awesome, unchecked power of blogs and the internet.

First up with a demand for a response was Dan Kennedy, media critic for the Boston Phoenix. Next Jim Romenesko, whose Poynter Institute-housed media blog is essential reading for anyone in the media business, prominently posted a link to the story on his site with the headline:

Report: NYT Co. is buying into a culture of crude racism.

Soon I began hearing from Boston's mainstream media – including several calls from The Boston Globe, The Times-owned daily that is meant to execute the proposed partnership with Metro's free daily in Boston.

Soon the wall of silence cracked, and both The Times and Metro were forced to abandon their decision not to respond. By day's end, Dan Kennedy had posted responses from both The Times Company and Metro. Rather than paraphrase them, I suggest you read the statements yourself, and see if you share my amazement.

The Times, pushed unwittingly into the fray, finally admitted it was at least "discussing" the matter with its new partners at Metro, and then pushed out some pro forma pap about how it is "committed to fair treatment of all employees based on respect, accountability and standards of excellence."

The Metro statement, on the other hand, is one of the oddest "non-denial denials" seen this side of Richard Nixon and Watergate. But in essence it confirms the particulars of my original reporting, and even contains a half-hearted sort of apology for the bizarre and offensive racist comments made by top Metro executives in the past – remarks so offensive that even The Boston Globe ran a story on the controversy today, confirming my original story but centering, of course, on the "apology" offered by Metro's top executive in North America, Steve Nylund. http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2005/01/11/metro_executive_apologizes_for_joke/

But thus far the august New York Times itself has yet to report on its new, racist partner.

Don't hold your breath!

Community Responds to Metro Racism

Outrage over the racist corporate culture at the Metro newspaper group – and at the lack of adequate response by either Metro or its new partners at The New York Times Company – continues to build, as leaders and members of minority communities in both Boston and New York are now offering their own responses to the shocking revelations from earlier this week.

The Times-owned Boston Globe, meant to be the local partner with Boston Metro, yesterday quoted Leonard Alkins, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, as saying the MediaChannel reports are "very troublesome, and clearly [The Times Company] is buying into a newspaper whose management seems to have some questionable character problems."

The Times Company, he said, "needs to deal with the culture of the Metro first and then sit down with the community."

Massachusetts State Rep. Byron Rushing said The Times Company must have the "ability to work on changing the culture of the company. It has to be part of the deal." Otherwise, he added, "you're only profiting from a culture that allows this kind of thing to happen." And two Boston-area African-American pastors demanded a meeting with Times Company and Globe executives, saying "The Metro needs to connect with some group doing cultural and racial sensitivity training."

Meanwhile journalists' associations and academic institutes also began to weigh in. The Boston Association of Black Journalists issued a statement saying, "The crude and racist comments reportedly made by Metro executives are inexcusable and should give The New York Times a huge red flag about the insensitive culture within its new business partner. By not condemning these alleged remarks, The New York Times and its subsidiary, the Boston Globe, give the appearance that they have surrendered their once liberal values to making a quick easy buck." Boston Herald columnist Howard Manly is president of the association, which also recommended a boycott of the Metro. Manly said the statement was written as a collaborative effort by members of the association.

Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, said, "It's very embarrassing, particularly for a company like [The Times] ... It's hard to imagine worse publicity ... I think I'd be thinking seriously about walking away."

Callie Crossley, program manager at Harvard's prestigious Nieman Foundation, told Globe reporter Mark Jurkowitz that "It is incumbent" on The Times Company "not just to say something but to do something ... . They need to take this very seriously. This is a publication aimed at young people. What's the message here?"

Meanwhile the controversy continued to spread, and has now reached the backyard of The Times Company. As reported today in the New York Post, "Black leaders in New York yesterday said they wanted to stop the presses at the free daily Metro after top executives at the newspaper made headlines for telling crude racist jokes."

Speaking of Metro executive Steve R. Nylund, City Councilman Charles Barron said, "He should be fired." Barron also said he would discuss the issue with the council's black and Latino caucus, whose members may call for a boycott, noting "It's a free paper, but if their readership goes down, it doesn't help their advertisers."

MediaChannel also received outraged responses from its readers. "Thank you for breaking the silence on this subject. In doing so I have taken action by forwarding your article along to others," Tonia Shakespeare wrote. "It also points out the need for me as an African American to participate in blogging ... something I feel not enough of us are doing. And as your site demonstrates, the need for American media to have a watchdog and an alternate viewpoint."

Another reader, Mary Ann Mills, expressed her shock and offered to join a boycott. "I just read about the racist comments made by executives of and their pathetic excuse for an apology by one of them. I am at first shocked, then dismayed, and now outraged at these executives and their company, and The New York Times, that is actively working to buy this company. I am MORE than fed up with any people, people in the public eye, and most especially people who hold public trust, be it media or government, behaving as if comments such as these do not matter and do not carry weight. It is inexcusable any way you look at it."

Meanwhile, the Boston Herald reported further evidence of racist remarks and attitudes at the free newspaper chain, amid growing signs that the entire proposed deal between The Times Company and Metro may be falling apart. Although a spokeswoman for The Times Company yesterday declined to comment on whether the organization was reconsidering its transaction with Boston Metro, the Boston Globe reported that several analysts are reflecting on the potential of the negative headlines to stall or even kill the partnership.

George Ticknor, a partner at Palmer & Dodge who heads up the firm's media and communications finance group, told the Globe bad publicity may not kill the deal, but it could give Times Co. executives pause.

"Newspaper operators like The Times [Co.] have to have their ear to the ground," he said. "The impact of negative publicity on newspapers is very significant ... Credibility with the readership and newspaper public is important."

Metro Execs Resign

Metro International executives who made racially disparaging remarks that set off a media firestorm this week have resigned, according to Pelle Tornberg, company president and CEO. Steve Nylund resigned as president of Metro US, but will maintain his position as executive vice president of Metro International, "with no operational responsibility in the company." And Hans Holger-Albrecht has resigned from the Metro International board.

A company statement noted that: "Recently, there have been stories in the news media that members of our organization have acted contrary" to the company's core values.

It also pronounced the actions "regrettable," and promised to take action on several other fronts. MediaChannel broke the story on Monday of the crude racist comments made by the executives, and of a pervasive corporate culture of discrimination.

Metro is hiring an outside firm to assess the policies and practices of Metro US with regard to employee and community relations as well as a new global director of human resources. It is also developing more training and sensitivity initiatives, and establishing citizen advisory boards in the communities in which it operates "to advise senior management on diversity issues." The company also says it will "redouble" its efforts to recruit a representative workforce of the racial and ethnic makeup of the communities in which it operates.

The Metro damage control came amidst growing speculation that The New York Times Company, which had proposed purchasing 49 percent of the Boston Metro daily for more than 16 million dollars, would try to modify its pending deal with Metro – or perhaps to pull out of it entirely, as many in both the journalism and financial communities have already begun to suggest.

Threatened boycotts in Boston and New York, coupled with bad press all over the country, were tarnishing the cherished (and valuable) Times brand. And top executives, all the way up to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., were said to be increasingly frustrated at the furor – and at the amount of their time and attention the scandal has been demanding.

One Internet CEO who was meeting with the top Timesman earlier this week reported that Sulzberger's cell phone went off "every two minutes" during their meeting. Each call appeared to concern the Metro story, and each successively made Sulzberger's face redder than the last as he attempted to dampen a story that began on the internet but had begun spreading nationally like wildfire via outlets as varied as the Associated Press and AlterNet.

Times management obviously is hopeful that the concessions by Metro will end the controversy and allow them to move ahead with their planned partnership.

Globe Columnist Knew

But the fact that a columnist for the Times-owned Boston Globe knew of the allegations of crude racism at Metro months before the story was reported here this week may further inflame the situation and cause more problems for the troubled venture.

Although the Globe's Alex Beam learned the basic facts behind the racism scandal now making front page news in Boston, he decided not to pursue the story. Beam was told by a former Metro executive of shocking racist remarks about African Americans made by other Metro executives at company dinners in Rome and Stockholm in 2003. The executive, who attended both fests, was appalled by the remarks and said he wanted the truth about Metro's corporate culture of discrimination made public.

I know because he subsequently told me. I also know because I spoke with Beam in the course of my initial investigation. Beam confirmed over the telephone that he had been contacted by the former Metro executive, who had told him of fellow Metro executives telling "jokes" about the anatomy of African-American men, and repeatedly referred to blacks as "niggers."

It is not known if Beam told anyone else at the Globe of what he learned about the Metro-racism, or why he decided not to put it in the paper months before the Metro-Times deal was hatched – or if he did, why no one at the Globe ever mentioned the matter to Times officials as they were performing their due diligence while preparing to invest.

The War on Fog

Whether it involves embellished stories of heroism meant to drum up patriotic sentiment (Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman) – or sophisticated "psychological operations" to spread false information – the militarization of the media continues to undermine the credibility of both the military and the media.

As noted in a recent USA Today editorial: "Both forms of misinformation have their short-term appeal. Embellished stories of heroism generate favorable press when much of the news is bleak, and first impressions are the ones that stick. Psy-ops campaigns can give soldiers a tactical advantage or produce valuable intelligence."

But both do more harm than good – a lesson that should have been learned from the war in Vietnam, with its phony body counts and inflated assessments of how the war was being won.

The Vietnam experience, USA Today recalled: "gave the Pentagon a credibility gap that lasted nearly a generation." And credibility is crucial in such conflicts, which are as much wars of words and perceptions as of bombs and bullets.

Now the military is merging psy-ops and information operations with public affairs to create a seamless strategic communications "core competency."

While the Pentagon insists that deliberate falsehoods are rare, and initial battlefield accounts are often clouded by the "fog of war," its commitment to truthfulness is suspect at best. Meanwhile, the yawning credibility chasm it is creating for this generation's media may be best viewed as collateral damage.

A case in point: The Iraqi Media Network, and the contract to run it. Supposedly modeled on the BBC, the Iraqi Media Network includes a radio network, the Al-Iraqiya television network, which includes the news channel Al-Hurra, and the Al-Sabah newspaper.

The California-based Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) was awarded the original network contracts – totaling $108.2 million – in March 2003 by the Defense Contracting Command-Washington on behalf of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq.

Although SAIC, a U.S. defense contractor and technology research engineering firm, had virtually no prior media experience, the contracts were issued with no competitive bidding. Soon complaints arose that the network's content was so far from being fair and balanced that in reality it was propaganda.

A year ago, the Harris Corp, a Florida-based defense contractor and information technology company, took over after landing a $96 million contract to equip, rebuild, operate, program and manage the troubled media network.

The re-awarding of the contract to Harris was supposed to quell the complaints. Harris partnered with Middle Eastern media firms to run the media side of the network while it focused on infrastructure. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation programmed the radio and television networks, and Al Fawares, a Kuwaiti-Iraqi publishing and telecommunications company, operated the newspaper.

But problems persist, and criticism of the pro-United States content continues. In May, the staff of the newspaper walked out, and last month, the general director of the television network resigned after just six months on the job.

As the Orlando Business Journal recently reported, "Many media observers are wondering why Harris, which specializes in designing, manufacturing and installing communications equipment and infrastructure, was chosen by the federal government to run a media corporation in a foreign country... simple politics may be the reason."

Not surprisingly, Harris is a big Republican supporter. The Journal noted that during the 2004 election cycle, Harris donated $263,570 to GOP political action committees and candidates, and only $8,200 to Democratic candidates or causes.

Meanwhile, for fiscal 2003, Harris received $1.47 billion in total U.S. Government work – 70 percent of the company's annual revenue.

Choosing Harris to run a media network "doesn't make a lot of sense," according to Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute journalism school.

But company spokesman Tom Hausman insists Harris is the right company for the contract. "Harris is very experienced in large communications integration projects. We've done significant projects worldwide. We know broadcast equipment and how to integrate it," Hausman told the Business Journal.

And Sherrie Gossett of Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog, told the paper the government's reliance on known defense contractors like Harris is no mistake.

"The primary goal of the U.S. government's media expansion in Iraq always has been a military and political one: to quell unrest, win the minds of the people and combat anti-American propaganda from other sources," Gossett said. "The fact that the U.S. started the job with a defense contractor ... and then chose Harris...underscores those priorities."

"If journalism is going to have any value, it is going to have to have credibility," counters McBride. "Right now, the U.S. government has zero credibility in Iraq, and anything it touches, including the media, is going to have a credibility problem."

"A free press is not created by sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure and government fiat," responds Gossett. "It's clear in the chaos of the current Iraq, a free press is not a priority."

What about in the chaos of the current United States of America?

The Military Channel

"America is a strange country. All of its best generals are journalists," Defense undersecretary Douglas J. Feith told the San Francisco Chronicle in recent interview.

Now the generals have their own cable channel.

As the Fourth Estate continues to morph into what General/Journalist Tommy Franks calls the "Fourth Front" in the ongoing and endless war on terror, and as the lines blur ever-further between military public affairs – disseminating accurate information to the media and the public – and psychological and information operations – using often-misleading information and propaganda to influence the outcome of a campaign or battle – the inevitable has finally happened.

The Military Channel.

How did it happen?

As the Hollywood Reporter aptly put it, "Discovery Wings Channel has been drafted."

That's right – Discovery Communications International (DCI), a media behemoth that boasts 60 networks representing 19 entertainment brands (including TLC, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Discovery Health Channel, Discovery Kids, and, in partnership with the New York Times, the Discovery Times Channel) will "re-launch" its six-year-old Discovery Wings cabler next month as the Military Channel, focusing on all aspects of the armed forces, military strategies and personnel throughout the ages.

"By covering all aspects of the military and the people who define it, we will extend the Discovery brand, create a service that appeals to our existing viewers and attract new viewers and sponsors," said Billy Campbell, president of Discovery Networks US, who called military-related issues "a topic of fascination and relevance in our world."

In case you were unaware, the fairly obscure Discovery Wings, launched in July 1998, focused on aviation and related subjects. Now Discovery is partnering with the likes of the USO, the National D-Day Museum, the Military.com Web site, and the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation to develop programming for the channel, along with educational campaigns and public service announcements.

Soon you too will be able to "go behind the lines" and undertake a "new mission" as Discovery offers what its press materials dub "a Broad Focus on All Aspects of the Military With a Wide Array of Programming About its People, Strategy, Technology and History."

What kind of programming? The kind that will bring you "compelling, real-world stories of heroism, military strategy, technological breakthroughs and turning points in history."

But wait – there's more: "The Military Channel also provides access to military personnel and hardware, allowing viewers to experience and understand a world full of human drama, courage, innovation and long-held traditions."

Judith A. McHale, President and CEO of Discovery Communications explains: "In an increasingly fragmented marketplace, the Military Channel will broaden Discovery Communications' offerings and further differentiate our portfolio of emerging networks."

Meanwhile, as the estimable Mark Mazzetti of The Los Angeles Times reported last week in a piece headlined "PR Meets Psy-Ops in War on Terror," the use of misleading information as a military tool has begun sparking debate in the Pentagon – and putting Defense Department credibility to the test.

Here's a case in point, as reported by Mazzetti:

"On the evening of Oct. 14, a young Marine spokesman near Fallujah appeared on CNN and made a dramatic announcement.

"'Troops crossed the line of departure,' 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert declared, using a common military expression signaling the start of a major campaign. 'It's going to be a long night.' CNN, which had been alerted to expect a major news development, reported that the long-awaited offensive to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah had begun."

In fact, the Fallujah offensive would not kick off for another three weeks. Gilbert's carefully worded announcement was an elaborate psychological operation – or "psy-op" – intended to dupe insurgents in Fallujah and allow U.S. commanders to see how guerrillas would react if they believed U.S. troops were entering the city, according to several Pentagon officials.

In the hours after the initial report, CNN's Pentagon reporters were able to determine that the Fallujah operation had not, in fact, begun.

"As the story developed, we quickly made it clear to our viewers exactly what was going on in and around Fallujah," CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said."

Pentagon officials say the CNN incident was just part of a broad effort underway within the Bush administration to use information to its advantage in the war on terrorism.

It was not the first time – nor will it be the last.

Although the Pentagon was forced to close its controversial Office of Strategic Influence two years ago following reports that it intended to plant false news stories in the international media, the reality is that much of its mission has merely been moved to other offices of the government. Most of the work remains classified, although officials say the emphasis to date has been on influencing how foreign media depict the United States.

"The movement of information has gone from the public affairs world to the psychological operations world," one senior defense official told Mazzetti. "What's at stake is the credibility of people in uniform."

A recent decision by commanders in Iraq to combine public affairs, psychological operations and information operations into a "strategic communications" office caused such conflict and controversy within the Pentagon that Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers distributed a letter to the Joint Chiefs and U.S. combat commanders in the field warning of the dangers.

But Myers' concern is apparently not shared by many top civilians at the Pentagon and National Security Council, who believe the 24-hour news cycle and the influence of Arabic satellite television make it essential for U.S. military commanders and civilian officials to maintain the control of information as a key part of their battle plans.

"Information is part of the battlefield in a way that it's never been before," one senior Bush administration official told the L.A. Times. "We'd be foolish not to try to use it to our advantage."

And a recent report by the Defense Science Board, a panel of outside experts that advises Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, concluded that a "crisis" in U.S. "strategic communications" had undermined American efforts to fight Islamic extremism worldwide.

The report cited polls in the Arab world revealing widespread hatred of the United States throughout the Middle East. Ninety-four percent of Saudi Arabians now have an "unfavorable" view of the United States, for example. And in Egypt, the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid, the figure is 98 percent.

Therefore, the Defense Science Board recommended a presidential directive to "coordinate all components of strategic communication including public diplomacy, public affairs, international broadcasting and military information operations."

"Pretty soon, we're going to have the 5 o'clock follies all over again, and it will take us another 30 years to restore our credibility," one senior Defense official said, referring to the much-ridiculed daily media briefings in Saigon during the Vietnam War.

According to several Pentagon officials, the strategic communications programs at the Defense Department are being coordinated by – guess who? – undersecretary of Defense for policy, Douglas J. Feith.

No Change on the Verizon

Banish the notion that America's communications industry nurtures technological innovation to help make media more accessible to average Americans.

The reality today is that we live in an era where large corporations work hand-in-hand with lobbyists and compliant legislators to stifle any technology that returns control of our media system to the public.

The latest evidence lies hidden within a Bill en route to the desk of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. House Bill 30 – an industry-drafted and inspired sprawl of corporate concessions – has tucked within its more than 70 pages an amendment that effectively kills efforts in Philadelphia to provide citywide wireless access at little or no charge.

The bill cleared both Pennsylvania's House and Senate on Friday. A signature from Governor Rendell would scuttle "Philadelphia Wireless" – an ambitious plan to build a Wi-Fi network to serve the city's working-class communities – before the project could begin.

The problem, according to the Bill's principal sponsor, Verizon Communications, Inc., is that community-supported wireless poses a "significant threat" to the multi-billion dollar company's near monopoly hold on wireless access across the city. Why allow for local competition and innovation in Philadelphia when you can shut it down via well-funded connections in the capitol?

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street's spokeswoman Barbara Grant told MediaChannel that the bill was "terrible for cities around the country, because if the telecommunications companies can stop it here in Pennsylvania, they'll probably be able to stop it anywhere."

That spells a perilous fate for the many small-scale community wireless networks that have sprung up in neighborhoods and municipalities from Champaign-Urbana and Bangor, to Austin and Seattle. Verizon, along with other massive telecoms, will not stop at the Pennsylvania State House. Every community that is fostering plans to subsidize local wireless will likely face staunch and heavily financed opposition from the handful of massive telecoms that aim to control how Americans log on and through whom.

The industry pulls considerable weight in Washington – spending more than $160 million since 1999 on efforts to woo legislators and win support for policies that effectively hand over publicly owned media assets, such as our airwaves, to private control. Industry lobbyists have also spread out across the country to uproot local competition and defend big media interests town to town.

The net result is a law making system at every level of government that cannot be trusted to do the public's bidding when it comes to media policy.

The legislation before Governor Rendell is but a single front in the industry's national campaign to write Internet access monopolies into law before communities can implement affordable, public access wireless systems. According to media rights group Free Press, similar legislation designed to stifle community initiatives around this emerging technology have been introduced in nearly a dozen states nationwide, including Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

Governor Rendell's decision on House Bill 30 may turn on the success of several public policy and media reform groups, including Common Cause Pennsylvania, Prometheus Radio Project, Media Tank and Penn PIRG, that have mobilized statewide grassroots efforts to encourage a veto.

With the continued hard work of local groups like these, citizens have the potential to win back their media community by community.

But they face daunting odds. Alongside Verizon, sits Comcast Corporation, Philadelphia's second largest private employer and the leading local provider of cable Internet access. The company has an equal distaste for a citywide public broadband network, according to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Governor Rendell is long a Comcast ally, which has huge political clout in Pennsylvania," Chester said. Comcast's executive vice president David Cohen was the Governor's chief of staff when Rendell was Mayor of Philadelphia.

Stay tuned.

Selling the War

One minute, we are still debating election returns in Ohio and Florida. And then, in a flash, the story largely disappears and the subject changes. Quickly, we have moved on as the news media converges on Fallujah to report on, and in the view of many, support what may be the bloodiest chapter to date of the Iraq war.

Media coverage lurches from event to event, and from spectacle to spectacle as a substance deficit disorder hyperactively drives the news agenda. No sooner are we focused on one major story, than another intrudes to change the subject and insure that there is no time for follow-up, much less thoughtful processing.

In some cases, this is the natural disorder of news, but in many others, there are hidden hands shifting the agenda in a conscious effort not simply to influence what we think, but control what we think about.

The Administration wants to refocus us on the elections to come in Iraq, not likely flaws in the elections that just occurred in America.

The coverage of the fight for Fallujah is a case in point, as the U.S. military makes clear that "information control" is its first priority. When U.S. troops seized a hospital there the goal was said to insure that news about civilian casualties in Iraq not infiltrate the news agenda.

As I document in my film WMD, U.S. war strategy in Iraq has been run like a political campaign with key message points and "message of the day" perception management techniques underlying a strategy of "information dominance."

This invariably relies on deception as a key component of war fighting. There are five elements of this strategy currently in play:

Shape a Narrative

In Fallujah the U.S. narrative and key talking point is making Iraq safe for democracy and elections. To achieve this – or so the storyline goes – the U.S. must restore "local control," end the insurgency and kill or otherwise neutralize "foreign fighters" from whose ranks the U.S. forces exempt themselves and their "coalition" partners.

Little attention is paid to warnings by the UN's Kofi Anan of the head of the EU that this ferocious attack on Fallujah makes fair elections unlikely.

And what of the "foreign fighters?" Most journalists and Iraq specialists argue that what the townspeople of Fallujah want is local control, but in their own hands. They insist that much of the "insurgency" that the locals call the resistance or mujahadeen is home grown, not foreign or origin or direction. But why let the facts get in the way of a misleading if marketable narrative?

Control Media Access

The U.S. military plays the press as a "fourth front," not a traditionally autonomous fourth estate. Suddenly, the embedding program is back in place, with journalists are dependent on U.S. forces for their information and protection. As Madeleine Bunting explains in the Guardian: "It's long since been too dangerous for journalists to move around unless they are embedded with the U.S. forces. There is almost no contact left with civilians still in Fallujah, the only information is from those who have left."

The result: largely one sided coverage.

Spin the Theme of Iraqi Control

To undercut any suggestion of an foreign occupation running things the official story line has it that it is the Iraqis under the Allawi government – actually (but rarely mentioned) a temporary, un-elected and unstable entity – that is in charge with the U.S. troops merely supporting them.

Julian Manion of Britain's ITV put the lie to this assertion on the first day of fighting, reporting: "We've had now, this morning, the formality – some would call it, I'm afraid, the fiction – that Iyad Allawi, the prime minister of Iraq, has given the official order to commence the operation against Fallujah. Of course in reality it is an American operation." On that same day, November 8, CNN was reporting that the Allawi government was calling the shots.

Avoid Historical Parallels

While media critics were invoking parallels of towns in Vietnam that were destroyed in order to be saved, there was little perspective offered on the realities of that parallel even as U.S. soldiers invoked it directly. AP reported: "Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent told an assembled group of 2,500 Marines in a 'pep-talk' on Nov. 7: 'You're all in the process of making history. This is another Hue city in the making. I have no doubt, if we do get the word, that each and every one of you is going to do what you have always done – kick some butt.'" (AP, Nov. 7 2004)

Analysts reminded audiences that after U.S. soldiers reoccupied Hue after Vietnamese forces overran it in the Tet Offensive of 1968. Then Under Secretary of the Air Force, Townsend Hoopes, described the results as leaving "a devastated and prostrate city. Eighty per cent of the buildings had been reduced to rubble, and in the smashed ruins lay 2,000 dead civilians ... "

One reason for the lack of analysis like this is not simply media amnesia. Most TV news reporting follows templates, driving action-oriented and picture driven "breaking news" with little time and fewer resources allocated for background and context.

It's All About U.S.

The U.S. media focuses on "our boys" and U.S. government agendas, not Iraqi civilians, religious leaders or political representatives. It is always all about us, not Iraq. The death toll is always rationalized afterwards as necessary and unintentional

This is a point made with eloquence by The Guardian's Madeleine Bunting, with a perspective conspicuous by its absence in most U.S. reporting:

"Assaults on cities serve symbolic purposes: they are set showpieces to demonstrate resolve and inculcate fear," she writes.

"To that end, large numbers of casualties are required: they are not an accidental byproduct but the aim. That was the thinking behind 9/11, and Fallujah risks becoming a horrible mirror-image of that atrocity. Only by the shores of that dusty lake in Dreamland would it be possible to believe that the ruination of this city will do anything to enhance the legitimacy of the U.S. occupation and of the Iraqi government it appointed."

And so here we are after a debate about the policy and intelligence failures in Iraq repeating them again. And alongside those flaws, a larger media failure is all too tragically on display once again.

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