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Evidence of Weakness? The Winter Soldier Hearings and Indy Media

The Winter Soldier Hearings and Indy Media

by SAM HUSSEINI


Jeff Cohen — full disclosure: he used to be my boss and is a friend — makes some very valid and important points in "Iraq Winter Soldier Hearings: Victory for Independent Media."

But there is another way of looking at this.

The fact that the mainstream paid so little attention to Winter Soldier — as well countless other worthy stories — is itself a failure of independent media to propel those stories into the mainstream.

Jeff writes that "these Iraq veterans had little but scorn for U.S. corporate media whose journalistic failures helped sell the war five years ago, and whose sanitized coverage helps sell the troop ‘surge’ today. But thanks to the Internet and the growing capacity of independent TV, radio and web outlets, a significant minority of Americans had access to these proceedings. And the archived hearings are now available to anyone anytime with computer access."

But only if you already know about it for the most part.

The great success of Fox News Channel is not that it has done what it has done, but that it has influenced the "mainstream" as it has.

And in that sense, independent media has totally failed.

To take the example at hand, what we did not see in the last several weeks was independent media asking questions about Winter Soldier at the White House press conferences, or at the Pentagon or State Department. Had they done so, the administration spokesperson’s words would likely have led to more attention to Winter Soldier than all the work of all the people who labored on it for months. A serious debate between the veterans speaking out at Winter Soldier and the administration and its allies may well have ensued. This would have likely led to a dramatically different dynamic around the fifth anniversary of the war.

But no one asked at the news conferences, so none of that happened.

As it is, Winter Soldier likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to put on, and it was a very important, historic event, but it so far has not reached beyond those who likely already agreed with much of what was said. Web activism and other worthwhile efforts might build on what was done, but the lack of challenging government officials at the crucial time makes a world of difference.

People in independent media who complain about the lack of coverage of Winter Soldier and other important stories by mainstream U.S. media really have to look at the mirror as well.

Early in this decade I was among many who spent a great deal of time and effort to "save" Pacifica. After that battle was "won," I repeatedly urged the Pacifica board, then executive director Dan Coughlin, board chair Leslie Cagan (now of United for Peace and Justice) and Democracy Now host Amy Goodman to have reporters at news conferences in Washington. It never happened.

I publicly criticized Pacifica for this failure almost two years ago in "Can Pacifica Live Up to Its Promise?" Still, virtually nothing has changed. (Free Speech Radio News, aired on Pacifica stations, has a reporter on Capitol Hill, very rarely at any executive functions.)

Pacifica at one point actually canceled a program by Russell Mokhiber, editor of Corporate Crime Reporter, who at the time was getting into the White House to ask questions. His questions were posted on Common Dreams, but were not broadcast anywhere. (Ron Pinchback, the manager of WPFW, at one point assured me that Mokhiber’s show would not be canceled after it was repeatedly pre-empted, shortly thereafter, it was canceled.)

This indicates that the problem is not so much one of resources, but of journalistic integrity and political will.

Now Pacifica will reportedly be bringing on a new executive director shortly, Nicole Sawaya. Will she do what is needed? Will Pacifica listener members demand it?

Other institutions have similarly failed. The Nation magazine’s "Washington Correspondent" (John Nichols) is based in Wisconsin. Similarly, The Progressive magazine had an editor based in D.C., (Ruth Conniff) but she moved (also to Wisconsin) several years ago and was not replaced by anyone. Last year Mother Jones magazine proclaimed in an email heralding the re-opening of its Washington office (the office was closed about a decade ago): "This Changes Everything." They have some informative blog postings, but that’s hardly going to "change everything."

Nor is the failure limited to U.S.-based independent media. Al-Jazeera (both Arabic and English) has scores of staffers in Washington, but not one gets into the White House to ask a tough question. Al-Jazeera reporters in Afghanistan and Iraq have braved U.S. missiles, but Al-Jazeera reporters in Washington have not braved White House news conferences.

Similarly, the BBC and CBC and tons of other media from around the world simply report out of Washington, but do not really change the landscape.

It should be obvious that many of these journalists and outlets have done good work — I’m pointing to a broad, institutional — really, perhaps cultural — failure.

I should say that I’ve regularly asked tough questions at the National Press Club where I’m based and that’s gotten crucial information out. I’ve also spent some of my Sunday mornings doing Washington Stakeout — asking questions to politicos as they leave the Sunday morning talk shows, to some good effect with virtually no resources, other than the help of a few friends. I have done some work with The Real News and hope this crucial project can do much of the work that is desperately needed.

There needs to be lots of independent media doing much more than "preaching to the choir." The most obvious thing to do is set up the structures to question and scrutinize officials. It will not only lead to a broader dialogue, but will force independent media to get to specifics, to not rely on demonizing Bush and sloganeering. This is the way to get to the truth: challenge, scrutinize, repeat.

Isn’t that what real independent media should be?

SAM HUSSEINI can be reached through his website.