Saturday, September 18, 2004

The best article of the year

This is a very, very long article but every word should be sipped slowly and swished around the mouth before swallowing, just like good wine. I have touched on some of the separate topics before, but the Master has put them all together into a bigger, better structure. Here are some short snippets, but please, reade the whole thing:

Journalism Under Fire
by Bill Moyers

Perhaps the most unmanageable of all problems, Bill McKibben writes, is the
accelerating deterioration of the environment. While the present administration
has committed a thousand acts of vandalism against our air, water, forests, and
deserts, were we to change managers, Bill argues, some of that damage would
abate. What won’t go away, he continues, are the perils with huge momentum – the
greenhouse effect, for instance. Scientists have been warning us about it since
the 1980s. But now the melt of the Arctic seems to be releasing so much
freshwater into the North Atlantic that even the Pentagon is alarmed that a
weakening Gulf Stream could yield abrupt – and overwhelming – changes, the kind
of climate change that threatens civilization. How do we journalists get a
handle on something of that enormity?
How do we
explain the possibility that a close election in November could turn on several
million good and decent citizens who believe in the Rapture Index? That’s what I
said – the Rapture Index; google it and you will understand why the best-selling
books in America today are the twelve volumes of the left-behind series which
have earned multi-millions of dollars for their co-authors who earlier this year
completed a triumphant tour of the Bible Belt whose buckle holds in place George
W. Bush’s armor of the Lord. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical
theology concocted in the l9th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who
took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative millions
of people believe to be literally true.
According to this narrative, Jesus
will return to earth only when certain conditions are met: when Israel has been
established as a state; when Israel then occupies the rest of its "biblical
lands;" when the third temple has been rebuilt on the site now occupied by the
Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques; and, then, when legions of the Antichrist
attack Israel. This will trigger a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon
during which all the Jews who have not converted will be burned. Then the
Messiah returns to earth. The Rapture occurs once the big battle begins. True
believers" will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven where,
seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and
religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts and frogs during the
several years of tribulation which follow.
I’m not making this up. We’re
reported on these people for our weekly broadcast on PBS, following some of them
from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell
you that they feel called to help bring the Rapture on as fulfillment of
biblical prophecy. That’s why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the
Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It’s
why they have staged confrontations at the old temple site in Jerusalem. It’s
why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the 9th
chapter of the Book of Revelations where four angels "which are bound in the
great river Euphrates will be released "to slay the third part of men.’ As the
British writer George Monbiot has pointed out, for these people the Middle East
is not a foreign policy issue, it’s a biblical scenario, a matter of personal
belief. A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but
welcomed; if there’s a conflagration there, they come out winners on the far
side of tribulation, inside the pearly gates, in celestial splendor, supping on
ambrosia to the accompaniment of harps plucked by angels.
One estimate puts
these people at about 15% of the electorate. Most are likely to vote Republican;
they are part of the core of George W. Bush’s base support. He knows who they
are and what they want. When the President asked Ariel Sharon to pull his tanks
out of Jenin in 2002, over one hundred thousand angry Christian fundamentalists
barraged the White House with emails and Mr. Bush never mentioned the matter
again. Not coincidentally, the administration recently put itself solidly behind
Ariel Sharon’s expansions of settlements on the West Banks. In George Monbiot’s
analysis, the President stands to lose fewer votes by encouraging Israeli
expansion into the West Bank than he stands to lose by restraining it. "He would
be mad to listen to these people, but he would also be mad not to." No wonder
Karl Rove walks around the West Wing whistling "Onward Christian Soldiers." He
knows how many votes he is likely to get from these pious folk who believe that
the Rapture Index now stands at 144 --- just one point below the critical
threshold at which point the prophecy is fulfilled, the whole thing blows, the
sky is filled with floating naked bodies, and the true believers wind up at the
right hand of God. With no regret for those left behind. (See George Monbiot.
The Guardian, April 20th, 2004.)
I know, I
know: You think I am bonkers. You think Ann Coulter is right to aim her bony
knee at my groin and that O’Reilly should get a Peabody for barfing all over me
for saying there’s more to American politics than meets the Foxy eye. But this
is just the point: Journalists who try to tell these stories, connect these
dots, and examine these links are demeaned, disparaged, and dismissed. This is
the very kind of story that illustrates the challenge journalists face in a
world driven by ideologies that are stoutly maintained despite being
contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. Ideologues – religious,
political, or editorial ideologues – embrace a world view that cannot be changed
because they admit no evidence to the contrary. And Don Quixote on Rocinante
tilting at windmills had an easier time of it than a journalist on a laptop
tilting with facts at the world’s fundamentalist belief systems.
For one thing, you’ll get in trouble with
the public. The Chicago Tribune recently conducted a national poll in which
about half of those surveyed said there should be been some kind of press
restraint on reporting about the prison abuse scandal in Iraq; I suggest those
people don’t want the facts to disturb their belief system about American
exceptionalism. The poll also found that five or six of every ten Americans
"would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, especially if it
is found unpatriotic." No wonder scoundrels find refuge in patriotism; it offers
them immunity from criticism.
But never has
there been an administration like the one in power today – so disciplined in
secrecy, so precisely in lockstep in keeping information from the people at
large and, in defiance of the Constitution, from their representatives in
Secrecy is contagious, scandalous,
toxic – and costly. Pete Weitzel estimates that the price tag for secrecy today
is more than $5 billion annual (I have seen other estimates up to $6.5 billion a
This "zeal for secrecy" I am talking
about – and I have barely touched the surface – adds up to a victory for the
terrorists. When they plunged those hijacked planes into the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon three years ago this morning, they were out to hijack our Gross
National Psychology. If they could fill our psyche with fear -- as if the
imagination of each one of us were Afghanistan and they were the Taliban -- they
could deprive us of the trust and confidence required for a free society to
work. They could prevent us from ever again believing in a safe, decent, or just
world and from working to bring it about. By pillaging and plundering our peace
of mind they could panic us into abandoning those unique freedoms – freedom of
speech, freedom of the press – that constitute the ability of democracy to
self-correct and turn the ship of state before it hits the iceberg.
I thought of this last week during
the Republican National Convention here in New York -- thought of the terrorists
as enablers of democracy’s self-immolation. My office is on the west side of
Manhattan, two blocks from Madison Square Garden. From where I sit I could see
snipers on the roof. Helicopters overhead. Barricades at every street corner.
Lines of police stretching down the avenues. Unmarked vans. Flatbed trucks.
Looking out his own window, the writer Nick Turse ( 9/8/04) saw
what I saw and more. Special Forces brandishing automatic rifles. Rolls of
orange plastic netting. Dragnets. Preemptive arrests of peaceful protesters.
Cages for detainees. And he caught sight of what he calls "the ultimate blending
of corporatism and the police state – the Fuji blimp – now emblazoned with a
second logo: NYPD." A spy-in-the sky, outfitted "with the latest in
video-surveillance equipment, loaned free of charge to the police all week
long." Nick Turse saw these things and sees in them, as do I, "The Rise of the
Homeland Security State"
profound transformation is happening here. The framers of our nation never
envisioned these huge media giants; never imagined what could happen if big
government, big publishing and big broadcasters ever saw eye to eye in putting
the public’s need for news second to their own interests – and to the ideology
of free-market economics.
could they have foreseen the rise of a quasi-official partisan press serving as
a mighty megaphone for the regime in power. Stretching from Washington think
tanks funded by corporations to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal
to Rupert Murdoch’s far-flung empire of tabloid journalism to the nattering
no-nothings of talk radio, a ceaseless conveyor belt -- often taking its cues
from daily talking points supplied by the Republican National Committee – moves
mountains of the official party line into the public discourse. But that’s not
their only mission. They wage war on anyone who does not subscribe to the
propaganda, heaping scorn on what they call "old-school journalism." One of
them, a blogger, was recently quoted in Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard
comparing journalism with brain surgery. "A bunch of amateurs, no matter how
smart and enthusiastic, could never outperform professional neurosurgeons,
because they lack the specialized training and experience necessary for that
field. But what qualifications, exactly, does it take to be a journalist? What
can they do that we can’t? Nothing." ((The Weekly Standard, 9/6/2004).
I’ve just finished reading
Dan Gillmor’s new book, We the Media, and recommend it heartily to you. Gilmore
is a national columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and writes a daily weblog
for He argues persuasively that Big Media is losing its
monopoly on the news, thanks to the Internet – that "citizen journalists" of all
stripes, in their independent, unfiltered reports, are transforming the news
from a lecture to a conversation. He’s on to something.
So the Internet may indeed engage us
in a new conversation of democracy. Even as it does, you and I will in no way be
relieved from wrestling with what it means ethically to be a professional
journalist. I believe Tom Rosenthiel got it right in that Boston Globe article
when he said that the proper question is not whether you call yourself a
journalist but whether your own work constitutes journalism. And what is that? I
like his answer: "A journalist tries to get the facts right," tries to get "as
close as possible to the verifiable truth" – not to help one side win or lose
but "to inspire public discussion." Neutrality, he concludes, is not a core
principle of journalism, "but the commitment to facts, to public consideration,
and to independence from faction, is."
I believe democracy requires "a
sacred contract" between journalists and those who put their trust in us to tell
them what we can about how the world really works.

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