Administration-friendly television broadcasters now air government-produced
videotapes under the guise of independent news, and administration-friendly
senators may kill the attempt to expose such flagrant propaganda.
When I left Kennett High School at 2:45 p.m. on November 22, 1963, I didn’t
realize that I had stepped out of one historical epoch and into another. Media
analysts have fixed 1963 as the year that television outstripped print media as
the public’s principal source of information, and the Kennedy assassination
has to have been the event that tipped the scales. Everyone I knew spent the next
four days glued to the television as one bizarre incident followed another. After
that my father and mother stopped arguing over whether to buy the Boston Globe
or the Manchester Union Leader, and dinner became little more than an aggravating
interruption between the nightly news and the Early Show.
Thus ended the age in which common people could effectively participate in
public debate. It was the printing press that freed mankind from the dictatorship
of priests and potentates, opening the way for the experiment in democracy,
and Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of independent farmers who educated
themselves on public issues through the printed page. Citizens could not only
learn from that medium but take part in it, either through newspaper submissions
or the production of their own pamphlets. Pamphleteers played a significant
role in the American Revolution, and during the first century of American history
an endless selection of small newspapers provided outlets for the most divergent
opinions. Our national destiny was repeatedly decided by personal debate on
the porch of many a general store littered with such newspapers.
That widespread public participation kept the ship of state on a fairly even
keel. The course always veered a little to starboard, the helm needed frequent
adjustment, and there were a number of harrowing collisions and near-misses,
but the ship weathered every storm and always righted itself.
Unlike newspapers, television allows for virtually no public participation.
Most citizens have no access to major television stations, unless to make fools
of themselves as game-show contestants. The political demonstration was invented
to focus television attention on popular issues, but in recent years the media
moguls whose political sponsors have become the targets of those demonstrations
either ignore them or actively underestimate their size. Equal-time rules for
public rebuttal have been allowed to expire. Even when groups of citizens band
together to buy a few seconds of air time on an important political issue, broadcasters
who dislike the message can and do find pretexts for refusing to run those ads.
Public debate has deteriorated still further as newspapers try to recapture
readership by imitating the worst aspects of television. Flashy graphics and
short paragraphs catch the eye, but suppress concentrated thought on complicated
issues. Following the lurid details of lachrymose personal tragedies
only distracts the public from issues of crucial importance. Even the reawakened
media that lambasted incompetent government officials after Hurricane Katrina
gave too much attention to human-interest stories and too little to the insane
development practices that invite such natural disasters everywhere—like
the rampant habit of perching houses on steep hillsides, river banks, and filled
The television addict has lost the ability to think independently,
and even the casual viewer looks for little more than entertainment. The news
programs that once informed the public have therefor been reduced to that level,
providing coverage of fascinating but inane trivia that have no relevance to
public policy. The difference between news and entertainment is often difficult
to detect. Now viewers face the additional confusion of “fake
news“ in the form of videotaped news releases provided by government agencies,
amounting to infomercials on the administration agenda produced at great public
Many stations—especially those owned by conglomerates deeply indebted
to the Bush administration—simply run those videotapes unedited, leaving
the distinct impression that they are real, independent news reports. Only in
openly totalitarian regimes do ruling factions enjoy such cooperation in the
dissemination of propaganda. The Third Reich might have come a lot closer to
its thousand-year prediction with that much control over so seductive a medium.
Senate Bill 967, the Truth in Broadcasting Act, would force broadcasters to
reject such disguised propaganda unless it prominently warns that the information
was produced by the government. As I write this column the bill is being considered
by the Commerce Committee. While I have no idea how the committee will deal
with it, there is little doubt that such a corporation toady will do whatever
he can to keep this public-interest legislation from passing. It is, after all,
the 30-second television ad that keeps such undeserving incumbents in office.