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, and 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 Rightwing 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, 2005, 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 NYPost, which is the mouthpiece of that racist, sexist, rightwing
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 had
to be dedicated to cleaning up her falsehoods. So, besides being given the opportunity
to sabotage constructive Leftist thinking on air, why was Nicole Gelnias on
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 2005) 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 discussion.
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., police’s
From a quick count, here is the Number of Turns taken by each discussant:
Paul J. Browne (police): 9-10 turns (depending
how you count interruptions)
Norman Siegel (attorney): 5 turns
Eileen Clancy (video analyst): 3 turns
Jim 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
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 accumulation.
Another numerical data that can shed more light on the potential impact of
the contending ideologies is the total airtime taken up by discussants:
Jim Dwyer (reporter): 6 min, 02 sec
Paul J. Browne (police): 5 min, 50 sec
Eileen Clancy (video analyst): 4 min, 08 sec
Norman 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
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 We Ride.
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 interruptions!
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 has 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’s 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
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 surveyed 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
Robert Fisk best put it, "When covering the Sabra and Shattilla massacres,
I did not give equal time to the murderers who carried out the massacres."
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 media? Why do they now
have to face the police even when appearing on Leftist shows?
The large picture, as refracted through this analysis of what is happening
to Democracy Now, is that the system’s propaganda machine is seeping steadily
and increasingly into our institutional voices, and we must pay attention to
that. We have already seen the system dictating the modalities of dissent on
the streets: with permits, at the mercy of a PATRIOT Act-dictated legal system,
away from relevant locations of political events, in cages. Are we going to
allow the system to control 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. Let us renew
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. We need to
negate the very rhetorical forms with which this system is oppressing us. So,
if you are a good friend of the good woman of House of Goodman, please give
her a call, and don’t be too shy, and definitely don’t be ashamed
to ask, ‘What’s up with all the right wing trash?’
And a very Happy New Year (of the dog) to all!