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Newspapers Puzzled About Their Failings: part 2

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It seems everyone in the mainstream media, especially the print media, assumes that they and the institution they work for constitute the "fourth branch of government." And they certainly act as if that is so with their uncritical, and sometimes fawning, reporting about the current administration of President George W. Bush.

While the media reported in detail all the so-called "scandals" of the Clinton administration as if all were true, there is scarcely a critical comment on the Bush administration, with a few notable exceptions, such as Paul Krugman, Frank Rich and Keith Olbermann. The Clinton scandals ~ save for one non-intercourse sexual dalliance with a young consenting adult female ~ proved to be non-existent and the concoctions of an evil political movement that has only recently lost some of its grip on the nation. Never mind that Clinton's "scandal-ridden and most-corrupt" administration produced one felon conviction while the much-admired Ronald Reagan administration produced more than 25 (that figure doesn't include the miscreants Reagan's successor George H. W. Bush pardoned before they were charged), most of the press keeps bashing the political left, praising the right. Regardless of the attacks the Bush administration levels at the leading news institutions the press continues its love affair with Bush, like a battered wife who will never break away from the batterer.

Krugman explained in his New York Times column how the media pandered to the right by citing Bush's ascendency to the White House thusly:

"Six years ago a man unsuited both by intellect and by temperament for high office somehow ended up running the country.

"How did that happen? First, he got the Republican nomination by locking up the big money early.

"Then, he got within chad-and-butterfly range of the White House because the public, enthusiastically encouraged by many in the news media, treated the presidential election like a high school popularity contest. The successful candidate received kid-gloves treatment ~ and a free pass on the fuzzy math of his policy proposals ~ because he seemed like a fun guy to hang out with, while the unsuccessful candidate was subjected to sniggering mockery over his clothing and his mannerisms."

Much has been written and said outside the mainstream media in recent years about the press acting as a lapdog to the administration, serving as only a secretarial service for its right-wing propaganda and generally giving a free pass to what might be the worst and most-worthless presidency in American history. Much has been written and said ~ mostly by bloggers on the internet ~ about how the press has abandoned its duties as a watchdog keeping an eye on government to be a guarddog protecting the administration from others' eyes and has capitulated to the financial demands of a Wall Street that cares only about bigger profits, when a 20 percent profit on income isn't good enough so journalism must be sacrificed or reduced so the profit can rise to 21 percent only to see profits drop to 19 percent because of producing an inferior product.

The concept of the press as a lapdog for the GOP was demonstrated by the ridicule the media heaped on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for not being polite to Bush after he called Bush the "devil" in a speech at the United Nations. The fact that Bush had backed, possibly even engineered, a failed coup attempt to oust, and maybe kill, Chavez was never associated by the press with the 'devil" statement. Chavez was pictured as the "bad guy;" Bush as a victim.

To understand the fallacy that the media is the "fourth branch of government" we have to understand the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution's Bill of Rights. It is commonly thought that the Tenth is a "states rights" amendment. That is not true. States don't have rights, they have powers. People have rights. The Bill of Rights details the relationship of the federal government and the people of the United States. It has nothing to do with the relationship between federal and state government; that is taken care of in Article I, Section 10, and James Madison, who chaired the committee that wrote and proposed the Bill of Rights, knew that.

The Tenth ~ in a slightly paraphased presentation ~ says that the people give powers to the governments through their Constitutions and those powers the people haven't given to the federal government, or to state governments, they keep for themselves. The Tenth Amendment is therefore the "People's Power" amendment and makes the people the fourth branch of government alongside the legislature, the executive and the judicial and the fourth level of government with the federal, state and local. The press has no place, and doesn't figure, in this arrangement.

To understand how badly the press has ill-served the nation we shall look at the experiences of a slightly adorable and trustworthy ex-journalist.

Said journalist has twice held the highest top-secret clearance the federal government gives its intelligence operatives; once while a member of the United States Air Force Security Service as a codebreaker (when that job required a Mensa-quality IQ) and again as a civilian employee of the National Security Agency, so his honesty and integrity are unassailable.

While at the NSA, he studied constitutional law, among other subjects, at the Georgetown University Graduate School of Government in Washington, DC. A professor, the late Dr. Valerie Earle, asked him one evening why he had quit a job as a sports writer in Portland, Oregon, to study the Constitution at Georgetown (NSA employment was used to pay for grad school). He replied that he didn't want to spend his life writing about grown men playing childrens' games. He wanted to get into important work such as political reporting or editorial-page work and thought knowledge of the Constitution would be valuable because he felt that people doing that sort of newspaper work "don't know what they were talking about." Dr. Earle replied, "I know they don't know what they're talking about."

This from a woman who read The Washington Post and New York Times daily. If journalists at those those two beacons of journalistic know-it-all arrogance "don't know what they're talking about," what chance was there be that journalists at lesser lights would know? Our newsman never found a newspaper that wanted to "know what it was talking about" and eventually wound up at one of those lesser lights ~ The Denver Post ~ which advertises itself as a "great newspaper," but where he discovered that it didn't even care to know what it was talking about. He did find much disdain for our constitutional principles; the notable exception being that "freedom-of-the-press" thing.

He began at the Post on the copy desk ~ the common starting position for new employees at any newspaper ~ but never came close to using the expertise gained at Georgetown's grad school. After correcting copy for semiliterate sports reporters or a year or two (possibly because he knew more about sports than the writers, having been a college linebacker and a former sportswriter himself, having a brother who was the top high-school basketball player in another state and having a cousin who came within one out of pitching the first no-hitter in World Series history) he wound up reluctantly writing captions for nearly illiterate photographers while know-nothing hacks were penning editorials and columns that only demonstrated ignorance of, or disdain for, our constitutional principles. He later added editor of the new Food Section to his duties and made that section tops in the nation in news pages, news hole, advertising lineage, advertising income and profit despite being utterly misused.

When our journalist started at the Post, there was a copy editor named Adams entering his last week there. About four months later, the managing editor came the 15 to 20 feet from his desk to the copy desk to ask, "Have any of you guys ever heard of someone named Adams who claimed he used to work here?" That bad sign of a manager not knowing who worked for him foretold how out of touch leaders at that paper had become. That managing editor was promoted to executive editor when the previous executive editor left after being bypassed for the publisher's job, then told the news desk not to use the Washington Post or New York Times news service stories on Watergate because "they lead us down. a road we don't want to take." The previously progressive newspaper had endorsed Richard Nixon for president and now didn't want its readers knowing that Nixon was indeed the crook he claimed not to be.

That sort of journalism ~ a daily occurrence ~ caused the Post to lose readership and allowed the equally challenged Rocky Mountain News of Denver to surpass it in circulation.

When morale hit virtual bottom, a new publisher ~ an entertainment lawyer the newspaper's sole remaining heiress brought in from Broadway ~ ordered the executive editor to interview all staffers to find the reasons. The executive editor, who had been passed over for the publisher's job, did the interviews, but did nothing to resolve the morale issues since his misuse of employees and widespread abuse were the biggest problems, in addition to low pay, lousy work hours and miserable scheduling. Of course, the executive editor seethed about being bypassed for the publisher's job after years of importing outsiders for the most-prestigious positions, passing over longtime employees. Those passed over may have been qualified for advancement, but were left to stagnate in unrewarding dead-end jobs, even though they might have been just as good or better than the imported outsiders. Their loyalty, experience, abilities, talents, qualifications and desires were totally ignored by the very man who didn't know who worked for him and who seethed after he was passed over.

After the one remaining heiress died, the weakened financial position of the paper ~ kept afloat by the Food Section profits ~ resulted in requiring the sale to the Los Angeles Times's parent company. To make the sale seem plausible to the Times, the Post laid off 10 percent of its workforce, including its only constitutional "expert." Those who had told management why morale was so poor found their jobs eliminated and could accept termination or demotion, if they had seniority.

After the sale, old hands at the Post recruited a far-right political columnist to write anti-consitutional articles after years of ignoring pro-constitutional material. They then gave space to a far-right hate-talk radio host to spew his bigotry in a weekly column, making the newspaper a paper-and-ink version of talk radio's electronic bile. The entire print industry has opened itself to this hate-talk format while closing itself to reasonable voices.

The Times also couldn't make a go of it and suffered financial problems itself, resulting in its sale to the Chicago Tribune's parent company. To make the sale acceptable to the Tribune Company, the Times sold the Post to William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group, Inc., that at least regained the circulation lead, if not the circulation numbers, when the Rocky News (Mountain was purposely omitted here in order to describe that newspaper's performances) stopped circulation outside the metropolitan area.

But the Post didn't regain its journalistic integrity. Its editorial page told its readers that the government's "do not call list' was blatantly unconstitutional because it impeded on "freedom of speech." The Post was wrong because it was a regulation-of-commerce law not a free-speech law and has been upheld by every court that has ruled on it. It couldn't be a speech case unless government tells telemarketers what to say when they called, and it doesn't do that. The Post writer "didn't know what he was talking about" but pretended to have some expertise even though he had never studied constitutional law. That's just another form of lying.

Before the 2004 election, the Post, which had always endorsed, supported and fawned over President Bush, relinquished and admitted to its readers that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had indeed served honorably and with distinction in the Vietnam War regardless of the lies told by the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth and the Republican National Committee. But the newspaper added that Bush's record of evading service by hiding out in the Texas Air National Guard, then going AWOL after transferring to the Alabama Guard, was just as honorable and with just as much distinction. Omitted from the article was that the Texas Guard trained in obsolete interceptor aircraft that were no longer used by the US Air Force, rendering such training virtually worthless, and the Viet Cong Bush was fleeing from had no aircraft to be intercepted. Also omitted was that Bush was allowed to skip the waiting list other Texans were on but lacked the money and political connections needed to evade service in Vietnam. The writer of the piece had never served a day in the military of the United States so wouldn't know anything about honorable service, but pretended to be knowledgeable nevertheless. Any facts from bona fide veterans differing from the Post's nonsense were dismissed as "opinions."

The main source of information Americans get of their rights and actions of their government is the mainstream media but the media have let America down by not knowing "what they're talking about." Americans appear to be at the point our Russian friends were during Soviet Union days when they lamented, "nepravda na izvestni, neizvestni na pravda."*

The Denver Post is typical of the mainstream press; probably no worse or no better than any other newspaper in the submajor category just below the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. None of them "know what they are taking about" and really don't care to know; their opinions are superior to the knowledge of anyone else. Just ask them.


* translation: "no truth in the news, no news in the truth."

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***************************************************** Thomas Bonsell is a former newspaper editor (in Oregon, New York and Colorado) United States Air Force cryptanalyst and National Security Agency intelligence agent. He became one of (more...)
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