September 20, 2003

Events in the US suggest that the time is ripe for a liberal media rebellion

Joe Conason writes: Once upon a time, there were "liberal media" in America - or at least there were major media outlets unafraid of being called liberal. Liberal television correspondents dared to expose the depredations of Joe McCarthy, the awful conditions of migrant farm labourers and the killing effects of tobacco. Liberal newspapers reported hidden truths about the Vietnam war, despite threats and lawsuits from the Nixon White House.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1044416,00.html
The BBC's bullies can dish it out, but they can't take
it

Events in the US suggest that the time is ripe for a liberal media rebellion

Joe Conason
Thursday September 18, 2003
The Guardian

To an American, there is much that sounds awfully
familiar about Beebwatch - the series launched last
week by the Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore to
root out "soft left" bias in the BBC. Moore's
determination to inflict daily humiliation on the
network coincides neatly with efforts by Rupert
Murdoch and the Tory opposition to deprive Britain's
great broadcasting institution of its licence fee,
just as its charter is coming up for renewal.
At the very least, this campaign aims to intimidate
the BBC's management from broadcasting anything that
might offend reactionary sensibilities; but its
ultimate goal is the crippling, or even the abolition,
of the BBC itself.

Moore's tone echoes the American right's incessant
whining about "liberal media bias". And while British
broadcasting is structurally (and qualitatively) very
different from its US counterpart, the conservative
agenda in both countries is identical: to stigmatise
dissent and to dominate discourse.

Once upon a time, there were "liberal media" in
America - or at least there were major media outlets
unafraid of being called liberal. Liberal television
correspondents dared to expose the depredations of Joe
McCarthy, the awful conditions of migrant farm
labourers and the killing effects of tobacco. Liberal
newspapers reported hidden truths about the Vietnam
war, despite threats and lawsuits from the Nixon White
House.

By exposing Nixon's corruption, the American media
establishment ultimately forced his resignation. But
before he relinquished power, Nixon set the machinery
of his revenge in motion. It was the old redbaiter who
began a shrill crusade against the "liberal media",
using Spiro Agnew, his vice-president.

Three decades on, their crusade has spawned a
political environment that Nixon could scarcely have
imagined. From Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel to
Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, from Clear
Channel's nationwide radio network to the Wall Street
Journal's editorial page, the machinery churns
throughout the 24-hour news cycle.

Its leverage over public debate in America is
profound. Conservatives still complain about the
"liberal media", but their ideas (and ideologues)
command opinion-making airtime and newsprint. No
rightwing extremist is judged too rancid to be awarded
his own cable TV show.

Bolstering the right's successful assault on
mainstream news organisations are four well-financed
institutions that "monitor" all major media, with
special attention given to the television networks.

The oldest is Accuracy in Media, created in the 70s by
Reed Irvine, a former Treasury employee, as an
instrument of Nixon's vendetta against the Washington
Post. Irvine still thrives with subventions from
Richard Mellon Scaife, the conspiracy-minded
billionaire notorious for his determination to ruin
the Clintons.

Along with other rightwing donors, Scaife also
supports the Media Research Centre, a Washington
outfit overseen by Brent Bozell (nephew of the
conservative commentator William Buckley), who barely
conceals his role as a PR man for the Republican
leadership.

With an annual budget of 10m and more than 60
full-time staff, Bozell's centre bills itself as "the
nation's largest and most sophisticated television and
radio monitoring operation". Smaller and less openly
partisan is the Centre for Media and Public Affairs,
which specialises in studies "proving" that most
journalists are liberal and "biased" against
corporations.

Conservative donors also finance a California-based
organisation known as the Centre for the Study of
Popular Culture, which serves as the HQ of the
ex-radical David Horowitz. In his spare time, he
raises funds for the Bush campaign and instructs
Republicans in the fine art of "political warfare"
against liberals.

His main media target over the past 20 years has been
America's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), whose
meagre government subsidy drew criticism from
conservatives outraged by any deviation from rightwing
orthodoxy. As the PBS gradually adopted more
conventional and business-oriented programming, those
attacks decreased in frequency and ferocity. On those
rare occasions when the PBS programmers still venture
to air anything adventurous or critical, the attacks
flare up again.

Such are the well-tested models that Beebwatch, on a
more modest scale, appears intent on imitating. The
irony is that Moore launched his campaign at precisely
the moment when the American right's style of
intimidation is at last being mocked and discredited.
America's best-selling non-fiction book today is Lies
and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: a Fair and Balanced
Look at the Right, in which the author Al Franken
comically savages Murdoch's minions at Fox (and other
conservative media icons).

At the insistence of one of Fox's humourless hosts,
whose scowling mug adorns the book's cover, News
Corporation sued Franken for purloining the network's
"Fair and Balanced" slogan in his title. Although Fox
insisted that the cause of action was "trademark
infringement," its attempt to stop the book's
distribution was universally denounced as a violation
of free speech.

When the Fox attorneys tried to explain why Franken's
satire should be suppressed, they were literally
laughed out of court and the book shot up the
bestseller lists - a symbol of an unexpected popular
rebellion against Murdoch.

Now Franken is the toast of the American media. In
almost every interview he slyly suggests that Fox
replace its slogan with a new one taken from the
judge's verdict on its lawsuit - "Wholly Without
Merit". (Full disclosure: I gave him that joke.)

Unfortunately, the fair and balanced Fox folks seem to
have learned nothing from their public spanking. When
the CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour said that
she felt her network's Iraq coverage had been muted by
"intimidation" from the Bush administration "and its
footsoldiers at Fox News", a Fox spokeswoman
responded: "It's better to be viewed as a footsoldier
for Bush than a spokeswoman for al-Qaida."

Such feeble swipes are unlikely to faze the fearless
Amanpour. As a war correspondent she has faced threats
considerably more daunting than a nasty press release.
But the attempt to smear her displayed the methodology
of rightwing "media criticism" at its worst. The
corporate practitioners of those ugly tactics are
similarly seeking to demonise the BBC; already,
Beebwatch has managed to elicit a defensive response
from network management.

The Beeb's enemies will fail if its defenders have the
wit and will to respond in the spirit of Al Franken:
put the Moores and Murdochs under the microscope,
expose their self-serving agendas and lampoon their
self-righteous indignation. They have already proved,
as we say in New York, that they love to dish it out,
but they can't take it.

Joe Conason is a columnist for the New York Observer
and the author of Big Lies: the Right-Wing Propaganda
Machine and How It Distorts the Truth

jconason@observer.com

Posted by richard at September 20, 2003 03:20 PM