Media Mind Game

I was there for about twenty minutes when it hit me that all these people (liberals and conservatives alike) — all the members of the press, all the politicians, all the lobbyists — are interrelated and they all depend on each other. To most of the country the term "inside the Beltway" is a kind of euphemism, but I saw it in action that day.

In Washington no one really has permanent friends or enemies because everyone is so interdependent. The politicians are dependent on the press for good coverage and the press is dependent on the politicians for access. If they can’t get access, they’ve got nothing to report. And that’s the danger of the corporatization of media. When I first started working in radio, for example, news wasn’t a profit center. News was something you did because your license said you were required to operate in the public interest. Little by little, that’s changed. The biggest impetus to making media "go corporate" was the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That allowed the consolidation of broadcast outlets that didn’t exist before. The effect has been to make the need for access even more pronounced because there is more pressure to perform and make money. The object before was to fulfill an obligation that those stations and outlets felt they had to their listeners and viewers. The object now is the bottom line.

The White House Press Corps’s Velvet Rope

One of the great examples of the importance of access is the true story of Jeff Gannon. This guy managed to get a White House press pass through murky executive office ties and was therefore empowered to write stories that sounded authoritative for a conservative blog. I don’t care if he was gay, straight, a prostitute or not, the only reason people cared was because he got access. And I think the real story is, Why did none of the members of the White House press corps say anything? I mean, they are a very tight group, but nobody said, "Who is this guy?" The reason was that it’s like Studio 54 — once you are in the door, nobody questions why you are there because "you’re one of us."

The problem is, if you’re not "one of us," you might lose a story to someone else and in the corporate-controlled media, if you lose the story you might lose your job. And in the big rush to get the story by having the most connections, you lose some reporting skills.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still good reporters out there breaking news that might be harmful to their relationships in DC. But in the corporate media world, if it comes down to doing your job or maintaining access, access always wins.

So as reporters hustle to maintain their access the danger exists that they will lose their objectivity and become nothing more than an echo chamber or squawk box for the people they are covering. They are afraid that if they don’t sound like a press release they will end up out of the loop.

Leaky Like a Fox

The Bush administration played a similar game with the Valerie Plame leak. When they outed her as a CIA operative in retaliation for her husband, Joe Wilson, publicly disagreeing with the administration over Iraq, it was more than just petty revenge. These guys had a political objective: to make anyone who thought about crossing the administration about the run-up to the war in Iraq scared to death to open their yap. Remember, the people they leaked the information to were not inconsequential reporters. I may not always agree with Judith Miller and I may not think she is the best writer or reporter, but she wrote for the New York Times — she was not inconsequential, and neither is Time’s Matt Cooper. And what did these guys — Cheney or Libby or whomever — use to get them to take the bait? You guessed it, the carrot of access.

What reporter is not going to be thrilled to get a call from one of these guys saying, "Hey, come have lunch with me at such and such a hotel?" So they go and they sit and they talk and they talk about a million things so the reporter doesn’t know what the agenda is until later.

They also do it this way because it gives them a great defense later if they are accused of leaking.

"We talked about a lot of things," they say.

And that gives them plausible deniability and the ability to go even further, like, "I don’t remember what exactly we talked about, there were so many topics."

Or "I thought the reporter told me about Valerie Plame."

I have to admit it’s clever, but after a while it’s transparent. It’s the old saying, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. The players in this little game aren’t dolts. They know when they’re being courted, and they know when they’re being suborned.

The Infotainment Culture

When I was growing up there were four TV channels. Now there are more than 400 plus a whole bunch of audio channels. What opinion makers understand is that the never-ending news cycle has changed the entire nature of both journalism and politics. The line between journalism and opinion has been thoroughly, thoroughly blurred and it’s not going to get any better. When a majority of kids get their news from Jon Stewart (and I like Jon Stewart) and consider his show a news show, the lines have been blurred for them. When you have Rush Limbaugh calling himself America’s most trusted anchorman, the lines have been blurred. Anchorman? He’s not an anchorman, but that’s okay because most people don’t know. They may know that he took some drugs that he shouldn’t have, but they don’t mind him being called an anchorman when in fact he is just a blowhard with an opinion — like me.

It’s this blurring of the lines that makes it easier for people in the Bush administration to suborn legitimate journalists because all the magazines and newspapers and news channels are competing with one another, and they all want scoops that will sell.

You can be doing the greatest news broadcast in the Western world, full of great journalism from great reporters in far-flung parts of the globe, but if you lose money you’re done. And you can be doing a b.s. newscast full of bias and full of improper advocacy, but if you are number one or number two in your time slot, you’re going to stay on the air. That’s because the way people perceive the original mandate that allowed the TV and radio stations to exist has changed.

Reprinted from: Air America: The Playbook — What a Bunch of Left-Wing Media Types Have to Say about a World Gone Right by David Bender, Chuck D, Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, Thom Hartmann, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Rachel Maddow, Mike Malloy, Mike Papantonio, Randi Rhodes, Mark Riley, Sam Seder, Introduction by Al Franken © 2006 Air America Radio. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling at (800) 848-4735.

Mark Riley, the host of The Mark Riley Show, is a veteran talk-show host and has established a reputation for his charismatic approach to controversy. Before joining Air America, Riley worked his way up through a spectrum of roles at WLIB 1190 AM in New York — writer, editor, managing editor, executive editor, program director, and, of course, on-air host. In addition to his live radio program, Riley is a popular TV political analyst, with regular appearances on New York 1 News, CNN, and Fox News Channel.

Air America: The Playbook shows the failures in policy, ethics, initiative, and imagination that have, sadly, characterized the United States in the new millennium. The book offers farsighted and easy-to-follow principles that will put power back where it belongs — in the hands of the people.

It’s called a democracy. Now make it one!