For a lot of people in the progressive political opposition,
the year 2005 will hopefully come to signify the year of rejuvenation of the
U.S. Left, thanks mostly to two significant events: Cindy Sheehan blowing the
lid off the shamelessness of President Bush and his administration, and
Hurricane Katrina blowing the lid off the shame of racism and the violence of poverty
in the American society.
This was a year in which the oppositional spirit in the U.S.
expanded, in other words, hope regained some vitality. And for that, we are
very thankful. Yet, to assure a steady course on the rougher seas ahead, we
must pay attention to the conditions we create for our own actions, and we must
not forget that there are always leaks in our ship that need constant mending.
One such leak is the way Leftist journalists in the U.S.
incorporate official statements and representatives in their articles,
reporting and/or programming. In the war of truth against the propaganda of the
ruling system, the Leftist journalist is clearly the David to the system's
Goliath. In this fight, the main (perhaps the only) advantage we have is the
hard nuggets of truth we can pack into and fire from our slingshots. But, the
system is a living being, too, and fights back by diluting the truth, by
softening those nuggets, and by infiltrating our rhetoric and our institutions.
Infiltration takes different forms, but the most successful form is to get us to
internalize the system's way of doing things.
For example, why does Amy Goodman invite rightwing pundits
for 'debates' and 'discussions?' Not just a few times, but lately quite
regularly. Don't the right-wing propagandists have almost all the other platforms
already? A majority of people are thirsting for some truthful explanation of
their social environment, they are dying for some new ideas, and sick and tired
of the same old mainstream typecasting of reality in stupefied, simplified
journalism of 'two sides of the story.' So, why does Amy Goodman mimic the
Item: On Dec 21, covering the transit workers' strike in NY,
Amy Goodman had on her program a certain, and, I quote Democracy Now's own
site, "Nicole Gelnias, contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.
Before that she was a business journalist for Thomson Financial and was
a columnist for the New York Post."
The same NY Post, which is the mouthpiece of that racist,
sexist, right-wing international media warlord, Rupert Murdock! So, clearly Ms
Gelnias was not a neutral agent doing her best to be objective, but a paid
propagandist, and she was using up airtime fast and furious, packing all the
lies she could cram into her time, fabricating at will! And precious little
available airtime was dedicated to cleaning up her falsehoods. So, besides
being given the opportunity to sabotage constructive Leftist thinking on air,
why was Nicole Gelnias on the program?
A Case Study
Here is a short analysis of a recent Democracy Now program
featuring a 30-minute 'extended discussion.' The particular program (27 Dec)
was about the movement Critical Mass, the free bike ride movement that meets
once a month to take back the streets, and about the recent police undercover
surveillance to which Critical Mass participants have been subjected.
The program was divided into three major segments: 1) 15
minutes -- news headlines; 2) 15 minutes -- introductory section about Critical
Mass, using a documentary, Still We Ride, produced partially by a
producer of Democracy Now! (Elizabeth Press); 3) 30 minutes -- extended
There were four participants in the extended discussion: Jim
Dwyer (metro reporter, NY Times), Eileen Clancy (video analyst, I-Witness),
Norman Siegel (attorney, former head of NY-Civil Liberties Union), and Paul J.
Browne (New York City Police Department's Deputy Commissioner of Public
Information, i.e., the police department's PR man).
From a quick count, here is the number of turns taken by
J. Browne (police): 9-10 turns (depending how you count interruptions)
Siegel (attorney): 5 turns
Clancy (video analyst): 3 turns
Dwyer (reporter): 2 turns
So, already you see the overwhelming advantage achieved by
the police PR-man in holding the floor, and, therefore, dictating which aspects
of the topic to bring to the foreground, which ones to push to the background,
which ones to give legitimacy to, and which ones to ridicule or dismiss or
simply not address.
How did the turn taking work out to such a large extent to
the favor of the police spokesman? To be sure, Mr. Browne was no rude man
getting his turns through verbal bullying and interrupting willfully to
gain/maintain the floor. Not at all. Amy Goodman had already taken care of
things through her formatting.
This is how it worked: you had two progressives plus the NYTimes
reporter (middle-ground, if you insist) going against one reactionary person.
So, every time one of the non-reactionaries put in a word, Amy Goodman would
turn to Mr. Browne, and go, "Response?" (Not exactly with that kind
of brevity, but that was the essence.) So, a non-reactionary person would say
something, and then, in a very civil manner, the floor would be turned over to
the reactionary participant so he could cancel out any progressive rhetorical
Here is more data that can shed more light on the potential
impact of the contending ideologies is the total airtime taken up by discussants:
Dwyer (reporter): 6 min, 02 sec
J. Browne (police): 5 min, 50 sec
Clancy (video analyst): 4 min, 08 sec
Siegel (attorney): 3 min, 58 sec
So, the police got more airtime than both progressives! Not
bad for a day's propaganda work. The police managed second place in a group of
four contenders (not counting the host of the program, of course), and, let us
not forget, the police also got twice as many turns as the next best contender,
and more than four times as many turns as the person worst off (reporter Jim
Dwyer, who had the most airtime as compensation).
But, the most obvious thing that can very easily be
overlooked (since it is so obvious) is that the total airtime taken by
each participant in this extended discussion makes clear that, in fact, no
discussion took place! Much less an 'extended' one!
Can you seriously and coherently explain a complex social
issue -- your basic position on Critical Mass as a social movement, and on the
police surveillance of private citizens in an increasingly oppressive legal
system shaping the parameters of how people may behave in civil society -- in
merely four or five minutes? Of course not! (And a clear statement of your
basic position would only be the starting point of any real debate.) Far less,
can you develop any ideas in that much time? How about in six minutes,
the upper limit here? Hardly! Especially given that you are constantly
interrupted at every turn.
In this 'extended discussion,' most (if not all) points
posed by the progressives were interrupted and refused the opportunity to
develop, mainly not by other discussants but by the formatting of the program.
At one point the discussion was even interrupted by a very unnecessary
interjection of yet another segment (3 min, 10 sec) from the documentary Still
It is worth mentioning that in a segment taking up a total
of 30 minutes, we had at least 5 min, 15 sec. worth of significant
'interruptions' (breaks and airing of documentary), without counting the time
taken up by the host, by either recapping, redirecting, clarifying, or posing
questions. Far more significantly, two participants, Norman Siegel, the former
head of NY-CLU whose wealth of expertise and knowledge could have been far, far
better used in this program, and Eileen Clancy, the video analyst whose work
had produced the original material that provided the basis for the NYTimes
reporter's piece on this topic, both received less airtime than the
Take the qualitative implications of this kind of airtime
regimentation. When you set two or three progressives up against one
pro-establishment person, and set up a very mechanistic system of debate (in
point-counterpoint fashion), all you get is a tennis match of statements,
counterstatements, counter-counterstatements, and so on. Which is a basic high
school-type debate; it lacks any depth, and can (and usually does) easily
become a shouting match.
But there is more to it than that. Amy Goodman may present
it as if she had invited the police PR-man (or any other Rightist agent sent to
bag Leftist airtime) in order to subject the official to some tough
questioning, and, to be fair, she did try at times. But, such agents are no
pushovers; this particular one was a real smooth one. First, he successfully
tied up a good chunk of the airtime with a semantic side issue, namely the
difference between 'undercover' and 'plain clothes' officers assigned to mass
demonstrations/gatherings: a totally wasteful sub-topic, whose value in eating
up time must be appreciated by police PR men.
Further, at every turn, Mr. Browne punctured the rhetorical
force and the case presented by the progressives, and even put them on the
defensive by dictating the terms of the debate as being about 'security'; and
having nothing to do with practicing one's First Amendment-protected rights,
and definitely having nothing to do with the fact that roads are public goods,
and everybody has equal rights of access to them, and police have zero rights
to dictate whose use of the public goods must take primacy over others.'
So setting 'security' as the criteria for the debate, he
implied further (without being challenged effectively) that all forms of
dissent have immediate security dimensions. Letting that latter stand unchallenged
was bad enough. Mr. Browne pushed another propaganda point unchallenged, by
presenting his own institution as a benign one looking out for everybody's
safety and protecting the general well being of the society. In his final turn,
as a response to a significant new topic/question posed by Amy Goodman (in the
closing minutes, please note) about the new ties that have developed between
the CIA and the New York City Police Department (whose new head, Commissioner
Cohen, is a former CIA bigwig), Mr. Browne was even allowed to close with the
astonishing (and of course unchallenged) statement that he thought the newly
emboldened relationship between the NYPD and the CIA was 'fantastic.'
The House of Goodman, for more than a few moments, felt
chilly, too filled with officials.
Of course, the progressive activist participants battled
bravely nevertheless and, in spite of the programming format, did manage to get
some major points in. They brought to attention the alarmingly larger areas of
civil life that have fallen prey to the security state. And they did question
the legitimacy of being surveilled in their private engagements by the same
undercover police who infiltrate their monthly gatherings. Both themes,
however, could have been further developed and a true interrogation of police
conduct could have taken place, but the format preempted all that.
Without the police PR-man in the program, there could have
developed a continuity of verbal thought in a meaningful dialogue. What the
average listener of Democracy Now needs most, I would wager, is not some
totally directed and micro-managed conversation that has no impact, but a real
dialogue in which new ideas for better thought-out actions can be disseminated
as widely as possible.
If a clash of opposing ideas is an absolute (and rightful)
necessity, then why not have a real, free flowing debate between a Leftist and
an extreme Leftist? There are precious few places still standing, where
American journalism can save its soul (meaning, seek the truth), so it becomes
absolutely imperative to establish as a tenet that government officials do not
represent truth, but are agents for maintaining the current system. The
journalistic Left should not have any problem reflecting that tenet in the
content of its professional activities.
Robert Fisk best put it, "When covering the Sabra and
Shatila massacres, I did not give equal time to the murderers who carried out
Is it not enough that the same activists who appeared on
this program have to face the intrusive agents of the state in the streets as
they try to access a public good, in the courts through which they are dragged
as a punishment for attempting to access a public good, and in the major
corporate media that has monopolized almost all public airspace and print
publications? Why do they now have to face the police even when appearing on Leftist
The large picture, as refracted through this analysis of
what is happening to Democracy Now, is to show how that the system's propaganda
machine is seeping steadily and increasingly into our institutional voices, and
that we must pay attention to this infiltration. We have already arrived at a
position in which the system dictates to a severe degree the modes of possible
dissent on the streets: with permits, at the mercy of a USAPATRIOT Act-dictated
legal system, away from relevant locations of political events, in cages. Are
we going to allow the system to control even the parameters of how we conduct
our debates and discussions even in our own homes?
Let us hope that this particular leak in the ship will be
fixed. We must create and expand a sense of rightful audacity, such as Cindy
Sheehan's, and be truly free from fears of how we may be portrayed by
right-wing propagandists, and concentrate more on the tasks at hand, and on how
we carry them out. We need to fight injustice on various fronts, but we cannot
forget that a fundamentally essential point of engagement is the rhetorical
one, and we must not neglect to critique and negate practically the rhetorical
forms with which this system is oppressing us.
[And a very Happy New Year (of the dog) to all!]
Reza Fiyouzat is a
freelance writer and analyst, and he can be reached at email@example.com.