Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Bill Moyers: My New Favorite Hero

"Of course you know, this means war." That's pretty much the gist of Bill Moyers' latest speech to the National Conference for Media Reform. Here's a little taste:

First, let me assure you that I take in stride attacks by the radical right-wingers who have not given up demonizing me although I retired over six months ago. I should put my detractors on notice: They might just compel me out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair.

Who are they? I mean the people obsessed with control using the government to intimidate; I mean the people who are hollowing out middle-class security even as they enlist the sons and daughters of the working class to make sure Ahmad Chalabi winds up controlling Iraq's oil; I mean the people who turn faith-based initiatives into Karl Rove's slush fund, who encourage the pious to look heavenward and pray so as not to see the long arm of privilege and power picking their pockets; I mean the people who squelch free speech in an effort to obliterate dissent and consolidate their orthodoxy into the official view of reality from which any deviation becomes unpatriotic heresy. That's who I mean. And if that's editorializing, so be it. A free press is one where it's OK to state the conclusion you're led to by the evidence.

One reason I'm in hot water is because my colleagues and I at "Now" didn't play by the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news.

Jonathan Mermin writes about this in a recent essay in World Policy Journal. You'll also want to read his book "Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era." Mermin quotes David Ignatius of the Washington Post on why the deep interests of the American public are so poorly served by Beltway journalism. "The rules of the game," says Ignatius, "make it hard for us to tee up on an issue without a news peg." He offers a case in point: the debacle of America's occupation of Iraq. "If Senator So-and-so hasn't criticized postwar planning for Iraq," Ignatius says, "it's hard for a reporter to write a story about that."

Excellent reading over at Salon - Moyers' full speech.

Here's one of his most damning points:

Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin -- invariably failing to provide context, background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading.

And here's a point of view that I've expressed on numerous occasions:

In Orwell's "1984" the character Syme, one of the writers of that totalitarian society's dictionary, explains to the protagonist, Winston, "Don't you see? Don't you see that the whole aim of newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050 at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we're having right now. The whole climate of thought," he said, "will be different. In fact, there will be no thought as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking, not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."

Hear me: An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda, is less inclined to put up a fight, ask questions, and be skeptical. And just as a democracy can die of too many lies, so that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too.

Thankfully, some real journalists - like Moyers - are finally taking a strong stand against the erosion of own democracy.