Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Glorious First Amendment and Its Betrayal

The First Amendment is the most glorious thing about the United States. It is the cornerstone of liberty and freedom. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, dissenting in a 1951 case, wrote: "I have always believed that the First Amendment is the keystone of our government, that the freedoms it guarantees provide the best insurance against destruction of all freedom.”
The First Amendment is a radical statement. Its command is absolute: no law. The amendment contains perhaps the finest 45 words ever strung together. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote that the First Amendment "reads more like a dream than a law." He noted that few other countries have "been crazy enough to include such a dream among its legal documents."
Far more nations should be "crazy enough." It is a shame that most countries do not have a First Amendment or its equivalent.
Take France. In 2004 a French court fined a magazine $375,000 for a review in which a wine critic called Beaujolais Nouveau vin de merde (shit wine). Wine is almost sacred to the French. That is why the judge in the case said the critic “seriously abused the freedom of speech.” He ruled: "By debasing Beaujolais to the point of scatology and likening it to excrement," the writer for the wine magazine had "seriously abused the freedom of speech." The U.S. First Amendment protects such "abuse."
Other French cases clog the courts. A French comedian was fined $5,300 for “inciting racial hatred” when he gave an interview allegedly anti-Semitic. Brigitte Bardot was convicted of inciting racial hatred for portraying Muslims as “cruel and barbaric” in her book, “A Cry in the Silence.” She was fined $6,050.
Take Austria. A court in Vienna recently sentenced a British historian, David Irving, to three years in prison for denying the Holocaust. Irving was woefully wrong. But three years in jail for being unhistorical?
Examples abound throughout the world where people are prosecuted for using the human right of speaking freely.
An Istanbul court sentenced a newspaperman to six months in jail for criticizing a penal code provision barring writers and scholars from “insulting Turkish identity.” Another Istanbul court tried five newspaper columnists for “insulting” the country’s courts. Specifically, the “Istanbul Five” attacked court rulings trying to block an academic conference on Armenian genocide, a verboten topic in Turkey. (The Ottoman Empire slaughtered thousands of Armenians in 1915, some estimates ranging up to one million.)
And so it goes in far too many nations that do not tolerate freedom of expression.
In America, critics are entitled to be abusive without being fined or jailed. What all too few Americans understand about the First Amendment is that it protects opprobrium, hatred, insult--and stupidity.
As Justice William O. Douglas said: the First Amendment is not designed to dispense tranquillizers. Or, in the words of novelist Salman Rushdie, himself the target of a fatwa death penalty for writing his truth about Islam: “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”
The United Kingdom could use a First Amendment. British libel laws are harsh, making it difficult for the media to criticize celebrities, powerful people and powerful institutions. The press is far freer in America than it is in Britain which has an Official Secrets Act.
The act forbids former intelligence officers from leaking to the press or publishing books about anything they did while in government service. Such a law would be unconstitutional in America. As one of the British law lords said about another official secrets case: "In a free society, there is a continuing public interest in seeing that the workings of government are open to scrutiny and criticism."
Perhaps it is a stretch to say that one-half the world's problems are caused by religion and the other half caused by the media. But it certainly is true that the media are a huge problem in America.
One problem was outlined by Jim Hightower, author of the newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown: "A handful of self-serving corporate fiefdoms now control practically all of America's mass-market sources of news and information. General Electric owns NBC, Disney owns ABC, Viacom owns CBS, News Corp. owns Fox, and Time-Warner owns CNN. These five corporations have a lock on TV news."
The result is that only news that meets the Establishment standard reaches the bulk of American people. Leftist publications like The Nation and The Progressive constantly criticize U.S. domestic and international policies but have skimpy circulations and nil impact.
Amy and David Goodman in their book, “The Exception to the Rulers,” wrote:
"This is not a media that is serving a democratic society…This is a well-oiled propaganda machine that is repackaging government spin and passing it off as journalism."
Dissenting voices are often blocked by the mainstream media.
In 2004 the Walt Disney Co. stopped the Miramax division from distributing a documentary film by Michael Moore critical of President Bush. Two movie theater chains, one in Iowa and one in Nebraska, refused to show the film. (The Moore movie won the top award at Cannes that year.)
In another case of censorship, Clear Channel was happy to carry shock jock Howard Stern when he was talking coarsely about sex. But when Stern began to talk bluntly about politics, urging listeners not to vote for Bush in 2004, Clear Channel dropped him.
As press critic Robert McChesney wrote: “The U.S. media have…abandoned their obligation to inform the public in a brazen pursuit of profits.” Profits are more important than good newspapering and good broadcasting, a profound truth that ought to be hammered home to students in journalism school ethics classes.
Jeff Cohen, writing a recent column for the online Truthout, cited the case of sicko John Karr, a school teacher who fantasized that he had such passionate consensual sex with six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey that he accidentally killed her. TV profits and ratings meant abandoning any notion of journalism.
“For 10 days TV news fixated on this imposter-culprit as if he were a world figure,” Cohen wrote. “TV tracked Karr’s travels across the globe, telling what he ate for dinner, analyzing his attire.” In doing so, “TV news ignored important stories of war, environmental degradation and corruption. Instead, TV viewers were offered hundreds of hours of single-minded examination and debate on one burning question: did Karr do it?”
Cohen also reminded us how three weeks before the Iraq invasion Phil Donahue was fired by MSNBC because he was “a difficult public face,” presenting guests on his show who were “anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.”
But the most damning thing about the U.S. media is its cowardliness. Soviet censorship was overt. U.S. self-censorship is covert.
Time and again broadcast and print refuse to air or run stories that are counter to the government viewpoint. “Into the Buzzsaw” confirms the subtitle: "Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press." The book deals with stories that were neither printed nor aired. Essays indict CBS, Fox and CNN for their coverups, censorship--and pusillanimity.
The essence of the damning indictment Buzzsaw makes: the press is free to cover ephemera like White House sex scandals, the death of Princess Diana and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. But it it another matter when stories are about CIA drug trafficking, October “surprises” just before presidential elections, U.S. destruction of Iraq's water supply and U.S. funding of human rights abuses.
Gary Webb was fired by the San Jose Mercury News after he exposed the link among the CIA, the Contras in Nicaragua and drug-dealers in Los Angeles. Worse: the Mercury News retracted the story. Still worse: Webb was trashed by Establishment newspapers.
In 1998 the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a damning investigative story about Chiquita banana under the headline: “Power, Money and Control, Chiquita Secrets Revealed.” Those secrets dealt with unethical and illegal business practices overseas. But since reporter Mike Gallagher “got the goods” from voice-mails a Chiquita whistleblower leaked to him, he was fired “for stealing personal corporate private property.” Then the gutless newspaper folded. It not only printed a retraction but gave Chiquita $10 million compensation. No one denied the truth of the story.
CBS would not air a segment saying that the TWA explosion in 1996 was caused by an errant U.S. Navy missile. The CIA lied about it, the FBI denied the story. (Proving it true.) But they were all official sources. Eyewitnesses were not official sources. CBS also refused to air a story of how 50,000 felons, most of them Democrats, were illegally removed from the Florida voting rolls in 2000. CBS bosses said the story did not hold up. Why? Staffers of Florida Republian Gov. Jeb Bush told them so.
The media are often mouthpieces for the Bush administration. Media critic Edward Herman pointed out: "Despite many thousands of lines on the Iraq controversy, the New York Times never provided a single article analyzing the shifting Bush claims and enumerating the serial lies whose exposure was commonplace in foreign media and Internet sources."
In August this year, the Associated Press reported that 2,500 Marines would be called up to help fight a “war on terror” in Iraq. As press critic Norman Solomon noted in a Truthout online essay: this is President Bush’s rhetoric, not fact.
“Only as journalists stop cowering and start reporting on the basic flaws of the ‘war on terror’ concept will the body politic benefit from the free circulation of ideas and information--the lifeblood of democracy,” Norman wrote. “And only then will there be appreciable media space to really explore why so many people have become violently angry with America.”
Dan Rather, former anchor for CBS, was a contemptible journalist. John MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine, called him what he was: a show-biz hack making $10 million a year, “a cheerleader for power, a cheerleader for the (Bush) administration,” a celebrity rather than a journalist. “I’m an American first,” Rather said. “Where do I line up? How high do I jump?”
Eric Boehlert, reviewing a book for the American Journalism Review, noted how the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, in an anti-John Kerry campaign “riddled with untruths” and “clear contradictions,” got “prolonged, respectful attention” from the Establisment media.
Another huge problem in newspapering is third-rate editors. They are too deferential to power. Walter Pincus, national security reporter for the Washington Post, often had page one stories buried on page 17. Reporter Chris Hedges tells how he often had to fight two wars at the New York Times: one against Washington officials and the other with his own editors when trying to get stories in the paper.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reaped an astonishing 17 Pulitzers in 18 years. But Michael Shapiro noted in a Columbia Journalism Review article in March that former owner Knight-Ridder ruined a great paper by “endless meddling, cutting and demands for ever greater profits from its corporate masters.” The paper was no longer committed to good journalism. Instead, it was committed to greedy stockholders.
Then there is the problem of phony balance. At Fox News Service, a rank cheerleader for the Bush administration, a conservative will be interviewed along with a moderate Democrat. The liberal view is ignored--to say nothing of the Leftist view. The usual he said-she said journalism seldom leads to the truth. This bogus balance reminds you of the Churchill remark about giving “Jesus and Judas equal time.”
Eric Alterman wrote in The Nation in June: “Because the mainstream media make a fetish of a particularly brainless form of objectivity, the Bush administration has been able to deceive the American public on a dizzying array of issues, from war to economics to science…Lying has usually damaged the presidents who do it…But the media proved so timid in the face of this administration’s deceptions that the reckoning was delayed long enough for Bush to squeak into a second term.”
The Downing Street Memo in 2005, which made it clear that Bush cooked the intelligence books for an Iraq war he devoutly wished, got little attention on the American networks. But while that major story was largely ignored, ABC news ran 121 stories on Michael Jackson and CBS news 235 during the two months the memo was newsworthy. An astounding value judgment.
Two distinguished political scientists, John Mearsheimer of Chicago university and Stephen Walt of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, could not get their article critical of Israel published in America even though one staffer at Atlantic magazine called it magisterial. In a sad commentary on the U.S. Establishment press, the controversial piece was published first by the London Review of Books.
Thomas Nast, the great editorial cartoonist in 19th century America, uttered a dictum that remains true to this day: "policy strangles individuals." It is difficult for an independent-minded journalist to get through the iron curtain of newspaper and broadcast editorial policy.
The New York Times banished Ray Bonner to the business section in the 1980s after he told the terrible truth about the El Mozote massacre in El Savador. Bill Kovach resigned as editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the 1990s after the owners objected to his reporting of racist bank lending policies and bribery schemes of Coca-Cola, an Atlanta corporation. Columnist Sydney Schanberg quit the New York Times after editors kept killing his columns that took stands contrary to Times editorial policy. The Times killed an exposé of huge cost overruns at a nuclear plant and pulled the reporter from the environmental beat.
Pete Hamill was fired by both the New York Post and the New York Daily News because his too-vigorous reporting violated their sensationalist and money-making policies. Sydney Gruson, New York Times correspondent in Guatemala, was canned in 1954 by the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency because he was "politically unsound."
The Gruson incident proves the wisdom of the maxim of the great publisher Joseph Pulitzer: a newspaper should have no friends. Reporters should be able to report about politicians with the contempt they deserve.
Media critic Ben Bagdikian has written: "The underlying reason most good reporters leave journalism is their belief that the institution will not let them deal with the central problems of their communities in an intellectually honest and thorough way." Seymour Hersh, perhaps the best investigative reporter in America, quit the New York Times because "it wouldn't let him do the kinds of stories he wanted to do."
Hersh does not believe anything governments say. Would that more reporters felt the same way. As media critic Noam Chomsky reported: the U.S. media refuse to ask tough questions that lead to embarassing answers. He rightly complained that reporters are pussycats when facing powerful figures. For example: Elisabeth Bumiller, White House correspondent of the New York Times. She admitted that asking tough questions of the president is just too scary.
Those who do stay in the media are reporters and editors who lean the way the publisher leans—too respectful of those in power. That way means that policy does indeed strangle individuals. The losers are the American people and democracy.
Judy Miller of the Times? She is no hero even though she spent 85 days in jail rather than reveal a source. Miller is a disgrace to the craft. Her page one reporting lent great credence to Bush’s war in Iraq. Her reporting sources were Iraqi defectors and top administration officials--all biased and all wrong.
The Times went into paroxysms about the fiction of reporter Jayson Blair. But it said little about stories that really mattered: the WMD and the mushroom clouds breathlessly reported by Miller. As Maureen Dowd, Times columnist, wrote: “Investigative reporting is not stenography.”
Access to major government sources becomes more important than truth. Miller gave her allegiance to those sources rather than to the American people. She ignored the dictum of I.F. Stone: “Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed. That’s a prima facie assumption unless proven to the contrary.”
The Times delayed its explosive story about the National Security Agency spying for one year at the behest of White House officials worried that it might do extensive damage to the Bush re-election campaign. The Times was working for the White House not the American people. Indeed,the paper ran the story only after its reporter James Risen was ready to publish a book about NSA scanning citizen email and phone calls without getting a warrant as required by law.
Another story the Times refused to print could have defeated Bush in 2004: Bulgegate. During one 2004 presidential debate, Bush was wearing an electronic cueing device. Bagdikian remarked angrily to Extra!, publication of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting: “I cannot imagine a paper…turning down a story like this before an election. There was credible photographic evidence…of a total lack of integrity on the part of the president, evidence that he’d cheated in the debate.”
And the Washington Post played footsie with the government, refusing in a 2005 story to say where secret CIA interrogation prisons in Eastern Europe were. The Post refused to divulge the location “at the request of senior U.S. officials.”
Michael Massing, in an article in The New York Review of Books earlier this year, noted: “Today’s political pressures too often breed in journalists a tendency toward self-censorship, toward shying away from the pursuit of truths that might prove unpopular, whether with official authorities or the public.”
Why this self-censorship, this refusal to run explosive stories and this burial of important stories among the lingerie ads? Establishment values and thinking are deeply ingrained. Schooling, religion, society, newspapers and television mold reporters and editors into the mainstream viewpoint.
Press critic Michael Parenti noted: “Reporters and editors are products of the same socialization as the media owners and political leaders. Therefore…the orthodox view appears as an objective representation of reality itself.”
Journalists are Americans. It is their country. They too are patriots. No wonder the media are so often so weak when stories really matter.

Chávez leads revolution in Latin America

Liberalism is reeling in much of the world. China has market communism. The British Labor Party has long since sold out. And the Democratic Party in America is barely to the left of the right-wing Republican Party.
But amid the gloom, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is leading a revolution in South America. His fellow revolutionaries are: President Evo Morales of Boliva, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, President Lulu da Silva of Brazil and Romón Vásquez of Uruguay.
Where once the Latifundia (rich landowners), the military, the Catholic Church and the United States ruled Latin America, today much of the continent is being run for the benefit of the people.
Chávez personifies the Bolivarian revolution. His hero: Simón Bolivar. Bolivar, the liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru in the 19th century. Z Magazine described the tenets of the revolution: “natural resources are for the benefit of all citizens, the state is the guardian and promoter of civic and social human rights and citizens are fundamental protagonists in political life.”
Naturally, the Chávez revolution makes him the enemy of a reactionary United States under President Bush. Bush gave a speech in 2002 declaring that the United States has the right to overthrow any government it sees as a threat to the United States.
Nothing new about that. America engineered the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala and Allende in Chile. (All democratically elected leaders.) Meanwhile, America has supported such vicious dictators as Bastista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua, Marcos in the Philippines and Pinochet in Chile.
The United States says Venezuela is increasingly anti-democratic, oppressive and destablizing.
Destablizing? No. Unifying. Three-quarters of South America, 355 million people, have left-leaning governments today. They are standing up to the gringos. They love the Chávez nationalism and his opposition to free market economics and privatization. They are saying bastante (enough)!
As Nick Miroff wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year: “A leftward surge has united Latin America to a degree that T-shirt icon Che Guevara could only dream of…Che’s ill-fated insurgency ended with his death in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967 but his vision of a single, unified socialist continent” now appears less utopian.
The Chávez trump card: oil. He is able to give aid to leftist allies in Bolivia and Cuba, badly hurt by the U.S. embargo and blockade. He is able to provide discounted oil to Caribbean and Central American countries. He gives cheap home heating oil to the poor in Massachusetts and the Bronx. He donates oil to Indian villages in Alaska.
The Chronicle’s Robert Collier reported from Caracas recently: “Chávez is spending billions of dollars on anti-poverty programs…public works projects are everywhere…medical clinics…are within reach of almost everyone in this nation of 25 million people…Illiteracy has been completely eliminated…Another initiative that could change the lives of millions of Venezuelans is a program aimed at increasing land ownership.”
While Chávez is undiplomatic, his blunt talk is spot on. He rightly says:
• The Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq are criminal, illegal and immoral…Bush is imperialistic…He has devoted his White House tenure to military aggression…He heads “a terrorist administration”…America “has bombarded cities, used chemical weapons and napalm, killed women and children…That’s terrorism.”
The media, as usual, aid the Bush administration in its effort to demonize Chavez. NBC’s David Gregory interviewed “experts” calling Venezuela a threat to the United States. He did not air the strong opposing view.
Extra! magazine, which monitors the media, noted that at the end of the year 95 percent of 100 press commentaries on Venezuela were hostile. It points out that these commentaries “serve as little more than a campaign of indoctrination against a political project that challenges U.S. political domination of South America…the press demonstrates a degree of political uniformity that any would-be dictator would surely envy.”
As columnist Robert Scheer has written: “when totalitarian nations like China and Saudi Arabia play ball with U.S. business interests, we like them just fine. But when Venezuela’s freely elected president threatens powerful corporate interests, the Bush administration treats him as an enemy.”
It was ever thus. The United States has launched 50 invasions in 12 Latin America nations since 1846, most of them to maintain economic hegemony.
Chávez is showing the world that historic U.S. economic and gunboat diplomacy will no longer be tolerated. He seeks to put an end to U.S. domination, exploitation and pillage of Latin America.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Voters bamboozled by political ads

Advertising is always a dubious path to the truth. But political advertising is a pack of lies-- and even damned lies. Anyone who votes on the basis of political ads is probably voting for a prevaricator.
As another election cycle heats up, voters are being bombarded by fantasy and not fact, distortion rather than truth, ads that have nothing to do with the issues and qualifications.
The New York Times calls such ads “a jarring blend of shadowy images, breathless announcers, jagged music and a dizzying array of statistics, counterstatistics and vote citations, all intended to present the members of Congress and their challengers in the worst possible light.”
This dreadful situation was skewered locally by Cory Farley, Reno Gazette-Journal columnist. He wrote:
“Watching Sen. John Ensign’s emerald-hued campaign ads on television, you might think you’ve been privileged to witness the resurrection of John Muir. Lake Tahoe sparkles in the sunlight. A crystalline Truckee River flows past the camera. A narrator and text on the screen bear down heavily on words like ‘protect’ and ‘preserve.’ ’’
Wow! Ensign is greener than the Sierra Club.
Yet the truth is otherwise. The Nevada senator gets a 20 percent rating from the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters, “among the worst in Congress.” (N.B.: Rep. Jim Gibbons, candidate for governor, is even worse on the LCV scale: zero.)

Newspapers write a lot of nonsense about who wins or loses debates. Partisans will always think their side won. Moreover, debates rarely change minds.
The first governatorial debate between state senator Dina Titus and Gibbons on the University of Nevada campus recently certainly changed no minds.
Gibbons, a howling conservative, has just one note: he won’t raise taxes but Titus will. He insists on a two-thirds majority vote by the Legislature to pass any tax increase. Titus, a liberal, is far more intelligent and far more forward-looking. Reasons enough for Gibbons to win.
Jon Ralston of Las Vegas, perhaps the best political analyst in Nevada, doubts if Democrats Titus and Jill Derby can be elected governor and congresswoman. “The demographics are against them,” Ralston remarked recently to a Nevada Press Association gathering in Las Vegas.
Voters in Derby’s 2nd district of Nevada have never elected a Democrat since the district was first contested in 1982. The latest poll is running true to form, showing Republican Dean Heller leading 45-42. However, The Times says the seat “could be in play.”
Nevada has never elected a woman governor. Polls consistently show Gibbons with a substantial lead, 45 percent to 36 percent, well beyond the margin of error.
Still, “hope springs eternal in the human breast,” as poet Pope noted. Titus and Derby could win if the anti-Bush tide is flowing as strongly as it ought to.

The Reno Gazette-Journal was sabotaged recently on the op-ed page. A letter writer wrote that she was leaving Reno because it had turned into “a large homogenized blend of big-box stores and suburban neighbors.” The saboteur appended a footnote: “Good riddance.”
But the insulting and unprofessional editor’s note was not written by any of the top editors. Tonia Cunning, executive editor of the RGJ, said in an email that she could not share details but that printing the note was an error.
The episode recalls my newspaper days in Baltimore when the printers sometimes sabotaged the paper. The word shot would be changed to shit. Once a four-letter word, not written by a staffer, turned up in print. The paper scrapped 20,000 copies of the first edition.
Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia has three pages nicknaming editions of the Bible over the centuries. Most of the mistakes were typographical errors. But you can’t help thinking that some misprints were deliberate.
For instance, the Wicked Bible printed in London in 1632. In it the seventh commandment says: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” The Unrighteous Bible printed in Cambridge in 1653 renders 1 Corinthians 6:9: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of God.”

Chip Bok of the Akron Beacon Journal deserves a Pulitizer Prize for a recent editorial cartoon. It showed Pope Benedict XVI declaring: “I’m sorry my remarks about Islamic violence provoked Islamic violence.”

It is a sick country when the approval rating of President Bush goes up just because gas prices fall. But that is not surprising. A Harris poll last summer showed that 50 percent of Americans still believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and 64 percent believe that Saddam Hussein was linked to al Qaeda.