As Paul Schmelzer wrote on the Minnesota Independent website, “There were two National Conferences on Media Reform in Minneapolis over the weekend: the one I attended and the one Bill O’Reilly, Juan Williams and Fox News talking head Mary Catherine Ham didn’t.”
O’Reilly’s show tried to manufacture controversy about the conference, which I and others from the Center for Media and Democracy attended. But before addressing that, how about some real news on a genuinely controversial issue?
During Sunday’s closing plenary, FCC Commissioner and fake news foe Jonathan Adelstein pledged to push for multiple thorough investigations of the Pentagon military analyst program. So far, the Pentagon’s Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, have launched inquiries into the Defense Department’s secret cultivation of military pundits. But those investigations aren’t enough.
Real Accountability Starts with Real Investigations
Judging by the GAO’s past decisions on government-funded video news releases — which it ruled were illegal propaganda unless their source were made clear — the GAO’s investigation will likely be vigorous, rooted in historical and legal precedent … and ignored by the Bush Administration.
Not surprisingly, there’s less reason to believe that the Pentagon will do a good job of investigating itself. After all, it was the Pentagon Inspector General’s office that OK’d paying foreign journalists “to write articles and commentary supporting military activities in Europe and Africa.” According to the Inspector General’s office, it’s not a problem that these “reports” appear on websites that are easily accessed by people in the United States. It’s also not a problem that these websites hide the disclosure that they’re funded by the U.S. government. It’s so unproblematic, in fact, that more military-funded “news” websites are now being launched for other regions of the globe. The military considers these websites part of their wartime “information operations,” but seems unconcerned that the propaganda may be reaching U.S. residents and undermining journalistic principles around the world.
The Pentagon pundit program is serious business. From early 2002 until the April 2008 New York Times exposé on the program, Allison Barber and other Defense Department flacks did their best to turn some 75 media analysts into Pentagon “message multipliers.” The program was explicitly designed to shape U.S. public opinion on such vital issues as the Iraq War, the Guantanamo Bay detention center and warantless wiretapping of U.S. residents.
Before there can be real accountability for the Pentagon pundit program, real investigations need to happen — not a strong but toothless ruling and not a whitewash of what happened. That’s why Commissioner Adelstein publicly called for “a real and thorough investigation” by the Federal Communications Commission and by the U.S. Justice Department.
The Pentagon pundit program may have violated the FCC’s restrictions on payola, according to Commissioner Adelstein. The payola rules, he explained (pdf), “require broadcast and cable stations to exercise reasonable diligence in determining whether a disclosure is needed for materials involving controversial issues of public importance. Were any questions even asked? This is not just a question of journalist ethics and integrity. It is the law. The war in Iraq is clearly a controversial issue of public importance.”
Noting that “it took the FCC over two and a half years to issue a citation” in the Armstrong Williams payola pundit case, Adelstein stressed that “this investigation need not, and should not, take that long.”
Adelstein also called on the Justice Department to determine whether the Pentagon pundit program violated federal anti-propaganda laws. “Congress has specifically outlawed the use of federal funds for covert propaganda,” he said. “The GAO determined that the ‘critical element’ of covert propaganda is the concealment of the agency’s role in preparing the material from the target audience. … The federal anti-propaganda and payola laws are grounded on the principle that the public is entitled to know who seeks to persuade them so they can make up their own minds about the credibility of the information presented.”
And Now, for Something Completely Different
Unfortunately, Adelstein’s call for rigorous investigations by the FCC and Justice Department hasn’t received much attention. Fellow Commissioner Michael Copps did tell Democracy Now! that “the FCC has been requested by powerful members of Congress to conduct an investigation” into the Pentagon pundit program, which Copps decried as a symptom of “the military-industrial-big-media complex.”
The Free Press media reform conference addressed many important issues — in addition to the Pentagon pundit program, attendees discussed media justice, net neutrality, community involvement with local broadcast outlets, international human rights, and the power and limitations of new media platforms. But Fox News provided a distorted, issue-free look at the event. The day after the conference ended, Bill O’Reilly, Juan Williams and Mary Catherine Ham — none of whom attended the event — derided attendees as “stridently anti-American,” “fascists,” and the “lunatic left.”
Most amusing for us here at the Center for Media and Democracy was O’Reilly’s inclusion of a short video clip featuring our own office and outreach manager, Sari Williams. Sari appears about half a minute into the segment, telling O’Reilly to kiss her ass. It was a joke made at the last media reform conference, in January 2007.
Asked if she stood by her now-famous soundbite, Sari said, “What else can you say to the man? You can’t sit there and debate him. He’s not going to engage in a meaningful dialogue, just a pugilistic rant.”
Fair (and balanced) enough.
DIANE FARSETTA is the Center for Media and Democracy’s senior researcher. She participated in the “stridently anti-American” National Conference on Media Reform in Minneapolis, on a panel titled, “The Changing Role of Media Critics.” She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org