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Bread and Circuses and the General Electric Presidential Debate

By       Message Bill Willers       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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A New York Times article of January 16 noted that the Democratic debate of the previous evening "..... was a night of 'John' and 'Barack' and 'Hillary', soft voices, easy jokes and belly laughs." To call it a debate really is a stretch. Randi Rhodes, radio host, wondered aloud if MSNBC had been preparing to serve tea and crumpets. The Times article revealed no appreciation of the seething rage in much of the land at the exclusion of Dennis Kucinich from the stage. 

Central to the Kucinich message has been that concentrated ownership of media has devastated political discussion by eclipsing views not friendly to owner's interests. The networks have responded by proving his point, with the struggle of the General Electric network to exclude Kucinich from its Nevada debate - and it was a struggle - just the latest example. But is it any wonder that network owners would fight to make a presidential candidate with such an opinion invisible? Kucinich holding forth on the stage in Las Vegas regarding his fight to be heard would have been a disaster for media owners. 
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It is not necessary be a Kucinich supporter to be troubled. Any objective person looking critically at the "process" should be furious at the control of information that extends from ABC (Disney), NBC (General Electric), CBS (aptly-named National Amusements, Inc.) and Fox (Murdoch) all the way to the PBS Lehrer News Hour, so heavily funded by Wall Street and the telecommunication, agribusiness and insurance industries. 

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The NBC exclusion of Kucinich was touch-and-go drama: the Kucinich lawsuit to gain inclusion; the ruling by a Las Vegas judge that Kucinich must be included or he, the judge, would shut the debate down; the emergency appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court by "NBC Universal, Inc., Petitioner" to keep Kucinich from the stage in the name of "a news organization's First Amendment Rights"; the last-minute decision of the Nevada Supreme Court in favor of NBC. It was precisely the kind of play that warranted major coverage. But for the networks, the PBS Lehrer News Hour included, it was not newsworthy, for certainly it would have cast light on the power of networks to "whittle" down the field of candidates according to their liking. 

It is significant that the three democratic contenders who have survived the media winnowing process have, among them, nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in their “campaign war chests”. Consider the corporate sources of those dollars and then think of the "pay back" that surely is expected. Compare that with Kucinich, the idealist, who refused corporate backing and who planned (without success) to get $50 from each of a million citizens - just one of every 300 Americans.  

Imagine all the TV ads that quarter billion could get sandwiched among the sitcoms, sports and American Idol-style entertainment that occupy our attention and that are the modern equivalent of the "circuses" that the Roman Juvenal cited, as one of the techniques in his "bread and circuses", for keeping a citizenry docile and malleable. (Aside: Brian Williams, NBC news anchor, hosted Saturday Night Live and mentioned that media have decided that Clinton should be the next president. It was a comedy skit and supposed to be funny, but it revealed awareness of the issue in "the industry"). Now add to that the bombardment from network pundits of “Hillary” repeated so often that one’s head feels like a boxer’s speed bag. 

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Two things scream out to the objective observer: The nation needs 100% public financing of presidential campaigns in order to get corporate "persons" out of the process. With presidential campaigns every four years, just one dollar a year for each of the nation's citizens - a pittance - would add up to $1.2 billion. That's more than enough to get the message out, and no candidate would have to seek corporate cash. Beyond that, no corporate interest should allowed such control of the public's airways and information. The right to use our airways was granted with the provision that the public interest be served, and network owners have demonstrated with clarity that they have every intention of serving themselves exclusively . What they have provided is "circus" and a manipulation of political discussion that has yanked the very rug out from under democracy. 


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Bill Willers is emeritus professor of biology, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

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