I was watching the local network news one recent evening because apparently I like to torture myself. And what were they reporting on? Michael Jackson. My hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, also ran a story that day, May 22, 2013, about Michael Jackson.
Don’t get me wrong. Jackson is and deserves to be a cultural icon. That’s fine. But he died four years ago, so why is it still in the news? Can anyone explain to me why mainstream American news outlets are still “breaking” news with obsessive zeal about a 4-year-old story that has no bearing on anyone’s life?
Maybe it’s journalistic laziness or whoring to the public’s base desire for sensationalism and depraved celebrity gossip. But the news media has a role to play and it’s not entertainment.
This leads me to more salient matters. While my local press corps was babbling about some ancient history-Michael Jackson-related minutia bullshit, another media storm was brewing. Apparently the Associated Press and Fox News recently found themselves on the business end of the Obama Administration’s hostility toward journalists. The AP learned the Justice Department searched troves of their phone records. Meantime, Fox News’ James Rosen had his personal email account scoured by the DOJ and he’s being called an “aider and abettor” and “co-conspirator” in a criminal case regarding classified document leaks.
So now, all of a magical sudden, the news media in this country seem to be waking up. After years of either promoting or ignoring George W. Bush’s, then Obama’s constant infringements on the civil liberties of average Americans, the media suddenly think it’s a scandal now that they’re the butt of it. But while the AP and Fox News aren’t the first, they’ve never caused a stir about the U.S. government’s abuse of journalists until it hit them in the face.
Yemeni investigative reporter Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who exposed a deadly U.S. bombing that killed dozens of women and children in the village of Majala, is sitting in prison after being convicted for terror-related charges in sham proceedings condemned by human rights groups worldwide. Thanks to public pressure, Shaye was about to be pardoned in 2011.
But in February that year, Obama personally called Yemen’s president and “expressed concern” over Shaye’s pending release, according to a White House summary of the phone call. As a result, Shaye continues to sit in prisons for doing his job as a reporter. He isn’t the only one. Under Bush, Al Jazeera journalist and cameraman Sami Al Hajj spent seven years in Gitmo. Pulitzer Prize winner Bilal Hussein was detained for two years by the U.S. military for doing his job – with cheerleading by the same right-wing blogosphere now howling over the attack on Fox’s Rosen.
I don’t recall any major news outlets reporting these cases despite the fact they’re obviously outrageous. In fact the first I heard of Hussein and Al-Hajj was in reading this eye-opening run-down in Salon.com by Glenn Greenwald. (http://www.salon.com/2012/03/14/obamas_personal_role_in_a_journalists_imprisonment/)
I can personally recall recent instances where my local media corps sold out the public and kowtowed to authorities in direct opposition to their duties, causing members of the public to pay a painful price. When Occupy L.A. was raided at City Hall in November 2011, the Los Angeles Police Department told the media that they couldn’t cover it unless they were hand-selected by the LAPD. No one, not even the big dog in the room, the LA Times, took them to task on this, even though it was obviously unconstitutional.
Meantime the TV stations shut off their aerial camera feeds upon order by the LAPD. The result of this was, people were beaten and abused while in custody. Protesters had bones broken. But none of this made it into public view. Instead, reporters swarmed the next-day presser, eager to pepper the powerful with pandering, meaningless questions and hear the police chief and mayor crow about how smoothly things went. I guess it was smooth if you didn’t have your arm fractured by a bean bag gun, your ribs broken by a baton, or forced to piss on yourself while in custody. (http://egpnews.com/2011/12/reports-of-police-abuse-emerge-after-occupy-la-eviction/)
A similar thing happened during the Chris Dorner saga this February. At the culmination of their pursuit, with former LAPD officer Dorner pinned down in a Big Bear cabin, police told news outlets with aerial feeds to stop filming, so they did. We all know what happened next, because people listening to scanners had the presence of mind to record. The cops commenced with an apparently pre-planned “burn.” They fired incendiary devices into the cabin and Dorner burned inside. Would they have given that order if the news choppers were still filming overhead? Probably not. The media’s decisions to be obedient lapdogs to authority enabled authority to assume too much power, abuse protesters and extra-judicially execute someone.
Meantime, the reasons behind Dorner’s vendetta rang all-too-true to L.A.’s maltreated communities of color. His accusations of police brutality hit a nerve. But you don’t see L.A.’s news media aggressively digging into officer involved shootings, killings or beatings even though there is a history of police brutality in Los Angeles. If they report it, they usually source only the police, and they don’t follow up. They don’t put it in context. No one is held to task for the pattern of abuse on civil liberties and human rights in L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods. The police are given the benefit of the doubt, and people of color are treated like criminals. In fact, in an apparent collaboration with the LAPD, the media chose to redact the names of officers Dorner accused of being abusive when they published his “manifesto,” even though the un-redacted version was all over the Internet.
The American news media has made pandering to power standard practice when their mission should be speaking truth to power and “afflicting the comfortable, comforting the afflicted.” In fact, new Orange County Register co-owner and publisher Aaron Kushner flat out told his newsroom that the long-held journalistic credo of “afflicting the comfortable” no longer applies. This runs parallel with fantastic displays of incompetence like the flagrant misreporting of facts surrounding the Boston marathon bombing by the likes of CNN and New York Post.
The result? The public no longer believes much of what the media reports and any trust in the Fourth Estate to expose truth and provide a voice for the voiceless is shattered. So it seems the public no longer gives a shit about the media, and it’s the media’s own damned fault.
But the public should care about recent developments, even though I understand why it doesn’t. The decision by Obama’s Justice Department to go after domestic journalists is grave. Why? The way this country is set up is reporters are the check on government. When the government gets out of line, the role of the journalist is to call it. But, if the government grants itself the authority to criminalize journalists for performing that role, it weakens the institution intended to keep the government from abusing its power. And that’s exactly what’s happened. Setting the precedent of criminalizing the press means the federal government has given itself limitless and unchecked power.
The current administration has gone after more leakers than any other, and without leakers, investigative reporting doesn’t exist. Investigative reporting in this country brought to light and forced accountability for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal that brought Nixon down. It revealed the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib. Leaks by currently-incarcerated Bradley Manning to Wikileaks revealed the U.S. military fired on and killed a Reuters journalist and his team in Baghdad, among other “war on terror” atrocities.
People who leak government indiscretions and journalists who report it are the key to holding government accountable and limit it from overreaching its authority. They play a pivotal role in a functioning democracy and open society and are the gatekeepers against totalitarianism. The Rosen case is the first in U.S. history where the federal government has treated a domestic reporter as a full-scale criminal for doing his job as a reporter, while the AP phone record grab is the widest infringement on the working press in U.S. history. This is a chilling development. First Amendment, RIP.
Whether the general public cares or understands these implications isn’t clear. But from the comments I’ve seen surrounding these stories, doesn’t look like it. If the public doesn’t care, what defense do the media have? A bunch of policy wonks, university professors and civil liberties lawyers yammering on a high level about the role of the free press in a democracy don’t resonate with a cynical, over-worked, under-informed public accustomed to seeing partisan hacks and incompetent, hyperventilating sensationalists talking about Lindsay Lohan, tailing car chases or acting like the danger they’re personally in after leaving their comfortable offices is the story.
Thanks to the proliferation of cable “news,” the line between ethical journalism and slanting or cherry-picking stories to fit an ideological narrative has been badly blurred. As a result, self-described liberals don’t give a shit about James Rosen because he works at Fox News, regardless of the ominous and universal implications of his case. And that’s because Fox News is a shitty, partisan hack organization that would have celebrated if any New York Times reporter was criminally investigated for doing critical, accurate reporting on the early stages of the Iraq war.
I wish though. No one did, and the media marched along wide-eyed with the war drum. Turns out, it was all a lie. While some corporations and individuals made off like gangbusters with war profits, the general American public is paying for the media’s green-lighting of the bungled Iraq war and failed policies in Afghanistan with utter fiscal decimation and violent blowback. Writing for Truthdig, journalist Chris Hedges estimates it was around this time television news officially hit the skids. (http://www.truthdig.com/report/page2/the_day_that_tv_news_died_20130324/)
While reporters in the Vietnam era fanned out at will to cover that war uncensored, the post-9/11 media started out “embedding” themselves with U.S. troops to provide a bunch of biased crap journalism before getting bored and ignoring the wars completely. Now, no one knows what the hell their own government is doing with drones in places like Waziristan and Somalia, nor the futility and misery we inflicted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because journalists no longer care to analyze current events, too few Americans understand how war spending and a tax code favoring the rich affects the country’s deficit, nor do people recognize “blowback.” Instead of informing people what their government is doing abroad, news organizations are making up fiction about food stamps breaking the budget, digging through Michael Jackson’s grave and conjuring silly bells and whistles like CNN’s holograms. A couple days ago I watched CBS News dedicate most of its allotted airtime to breathlessly following the last minutes of a police car chase.
Maybe that’s why no one gives a shit when Associated Press phones are spied on. And Rosen’s plight is at least in part a result of his own employer’s cheerleading of their pal Bush’s PATRIOT Act. Oh, the irony. Maybe if both had done their jobs when Al-Hajj, Hussein and Shaye were persecuted, this wouldn’t have been able to happen in the first place.
It remains to be seen whether the media will start doing its job now that it’s been subjected to a small taste of what the public has been bludgeoned with for years via FISA, CISPA, the NDAA, the PATRIOT Act, et cetera. All these laws basically allow unlimited spying on and detention of Americans without any due process guaranteed by the Constitution. There are signs of hope, I guess. For instance, I noticed the LA Times reported about drones last week when Obama decided to talk about it at a press conference. Still, the media’s silence on these issues has been bizarre and disturbing, and it’s still bizarre and disturbing that they only start covering something when “officials” officially talk about it.
But then again, they also wrote about Michael Jackson. It’s such a hot mess. But why do I care? Maybe I should just take George Carlin’s advice and be happy to have a front-row seat to the freak show.
Bethania Palma Markus is a former staffer with the Los Angeles Newspaper Group which covered East LA County from Pasadena through the San Gabriel Valley down to Long Beach. She hold sa Master’s degree in Middle Eastern/Islamic history. She has written for LANG, the LAist and the OC Weekly and Hunter Thompson-honoring, literary journalism zine Bat Country Word.