How Bush buys positive war spin 

Billions of dollars at stake in the Big Media deregulation game

It's war. The nation's president is mad with imperial delusions. There is a burgeoning anti-war movement whose message of morality and peace screams for just a smidgen of fair attention from the media. Liberties face vicious attacks from the very leaders who have sworn to defend the Constitution; the press responds with yawns and shrugs. Courageous dissenters stand up against the power of the administration, and are derided or ignored by disdainful newspapers and TV chattering heads.

At Atlanta's media Coxopoly, the issue is simple. Follow the big bucks. Pentagon spin is accorded the status of holy writ, the president is granted unconditional support -- and Cox executives who disagree are forced to choose between their principles and their jobs. The president gratefully responds with legislation that squashes press competition, and enriches Cox and other media conglomerates to the tune of billions of dollars.

No, I'm not talking about next month at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I'm talking about 1970-'72. Under the deceit of "preserving" newspapers, the press lords were seeking anti-trust exemptions that enabled them to establish city-by-city monopolies. Competition was stifled, communities lost valuable voices, democracy suffered. Media companies booked record profits.

For years, there were suspicions of a deal between the newspaper chains and Richard Nixon. Circumstantial evidence attested to the 1970s scheme. Cox, for example, would benefit greatly from the anti-trust exemptions, and it had ordered its editors to endorse Tricky. The two Cox editors who demurred -- at the Miami News and the Palm Beach Post -- were ousted. Eventually a smoking gun was found by national media critic Ben Bagdikian in the form of a letter promising the 1972 endorsements of the major chains to Nixon in return for anti-trust exemptions.

That's not a story you'll find in the AJC archives. Cox execs will hold their collective breath and turn purple before discussing the subject. Like much other news about news, the media draw an opaque cloak around their self-serving machinations.

"It's more than just embarrassing to reveal that news organizations cover the news with venal financial interests in mind," says Reese Erlich, a California journalist and author of the just-published book Target Iraq. "To expose that would undermine any reason the public has to pay attention to and believe the media."

Usually the media's behavior is merely reprehensible. But with hundreds of thousands of people -- babies, schoolkids, moms, elders, as well as soldiers -- soon destined to be dismembered, incinerated, disintegrated, perforated, punctured, eviscerated, maimed, crippled, blinded -- well, America's media will have blood on their cash-grabbing hands.

Let's get one thing straight: AJC columnist Jay Bookman is a state treasure. His gutsy critiques of Bush's foreign policy, and his unflagging opposition to the looming catastrophe are trumpet calls of insight and integrity in an editorial section dominated by mental midgets (Bill O'Reilly), intellectually dishonest shills (Jim Wooten) and neocon ideologues (William Safire). That said, it's time to spank Jay.

Bookman spoke to an enthusiastic Little Five Points crowd last week hosted by Women's Action for New Directions. With every remark and in answer to every question, Bookman kicked butt.

Except when it came to questions about why the media, especially the AJC, are so lame in trying to ferret out the truth about the Bush war machine.

"I just don't know," said Bookman, brow wrinkled in perplexed concern. "I can't figure it out." Had he told what he knows is likely the truth, his head would have been spiked in front of the AJC offices.

So, I'll help out Jay.

After World War II, the United States was keenly aware that government dominance of the press had enabled the Axis dictators to press unchallenged toward war. With writers such as George Orwell providing a forward roll on totalitarianism -- Big Brother was merely a media mogul on steroids -- American leaders wisely put limits on communications ownership. No newspaper could own broadcast properties in the same city (Atlanta and about two dozen other cities were granted exemptions to this "cross-ownership" ban). The number of TV and radio stations a single company could own was limited.

During the 1990s, the Federal Communications Commission began dropping the limits on the number of stations companies could own. The resulting mega-companies are dung heaps upon which nationally syndicated vermin such as the incredibly dishonest Rush Limbaugh and ultra-racist Michael Savage thrive.

"Liberal" media? Forget it. In daily newspapers' op-ed pages and on radio and TV, the right is so dominant that it is virtually doing a soliloquy. The handful of moderate and left commentators doesn't begin to match the right's extreme, shrill carpet-bombing of public debate. Behind the rightward march is media consolidation. Liberal bashing, racism and bellicose jingoism make good theater, and the conglomerates can spread the swill across the whole nation. It's stupefying, yes, but a media-drugged public is good fodder for advertisers.

As the FCC deregulated TV and radio outfits, the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership prohibitions remained. But that has been changing. The FCC -- where, ominously, Colin Powell's son Michael is Bush's capo -- is considering dropping the final restraints on media consolidation. This has become the holy grail of Big Media, whose lobbying and influence-buying rival that of any industry in sleaze.

Bill Kovach, ex-editor of the AJC (before he dared suggest doing great journalism), now heads the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He warned last month: "The federal government is moving toward the most sweeping change ever in the rules that govern ownership of the American news media. This shift could reduce the independence of the news media and the ability of Americans to take part in public debate."

Scuttling the cross-ownership ban will see the end of competition at a local level. One boss will dictate each city's content in the daily newspaper, the major TV stations, the billboards, the major website -- and quite possibly, your alternative weekly. Meanwhile, on the national (and world) scene, fewer and fewer juggernaut companies will control content, programming and distribution of both entertainment and "news" (Flash! Read, see, click on to the latest about Michael Jackson!).

The only loser will be: you.

On Feb. 9, the main headline on the AJC's front page was "Majority supports Iraq war, poll says." That wasn't exactly the case. For a start, the pollster, Zogby America, has a nasty reputation for producing surveys that "reveal" what the client is pushing -- context not provided to AJC readers.

That context explains how convoluted one has to be to get the results stated in the headline. Under almost any likely condition -- people getting killed, for example, something not unheard of with war -- the majority doesn't support the war.

Every day, the AJC's news pages are loaded with uncritical war boosterism -- from never ever giving an honest critique to the Bush, Cheney, Powell & Co.'s endless progression of deceptions, distortions and scare tactics (did you buy your duct tape yet?) to barely blinking at the transformation of this democracy into an empire.

That's an important thought. Empires are not built by democracies. A free, aggressive and competitive press is anathema to authoritarian (we're almost there) and totalitarian (the next stop is in sight) governments. Ergo, if you want to go empire, you've got to control the press.

To wit:

- Will you see space devoted to debunking the "Osama loves Saddam" tape (hint: It says the opposite of what the Bushies claim)?

- Although 10 million to 12 million anti-war protesters last weekend in America and Europe forced the media to acknowledge the stunning swell of public opinion, did you read in the AJC news articles any coherent explanation of the reason so many oppose the imminent slaughter?

- Did the intellectual leaders of the anti-war movement garner 1 percent of the media space compared to the newspapers' and networks' open-door policy toward the War Party?

- Did you read any analysis of the dissonance between the nations that supposedly "support" U.S. policy and the fact that 70 percent to more than 90 percent of those countries' population oppose war (hint to the daily press: The Bush junta bribed, threatened and blackmailed governments).

- And will the Bush destruction of our relationship with European allies, the advent of America as the world's great rogue state, get a tough look?

Sorry.

The big challenge for the daily is to run a sufficient number of military puff pieces to ensure that its reporters are "embedded" with our troops -- which means you will get only the news the government wants you to get. (Please, oh please, have Ron Martz pen one more syrupy story, hot from the Pentagon flacks, on how happy our soldiers are as they prepare for battle. And never suggest that the way to really support our boys and girls in uniform is to bring them home.)

Meanwhile, ex-editor Kovach notes, you're not going to read much on the Bush administration's turbo charging the media monopolies via the FCC deregulation. For Cox and the other communications heavyweights, there's a pile of cash at stake. If you figure out what's happening, it could cost the press magnates some major money.

The real story is that Anne Cox Chambers' fortune dwindled by $1.8 billion last year, according to Forbes (note: not reported by the AJC). If it takes a little pandering to Bush's war machine to get FCC deregulation, then that's what Cox will do to rebuild its matron's wealth.

"Because of meager press coverage and steps taken by the Federal Communications Commission in its policy-making process, most people probably have no idea that it is taking place," Kovach says. Only one public hearing is slated, and that was a drag-the-feet concession to 120 consumer and media advocacy groups.

So, here's the answer to Jay Bookman's puzzlement over press lethargy: It's just a little quid pro quo. "The whole media industry has urgent matters before George Bush's FCC," New York media critic Danny Schechter says. "Of course they're neutralizing the news about the war. It's business."

That well-worn disclaimer: Cox owns 25 percent of CL's parent company. Senior Editor John Sugg, also owns a sliver of the company -- he says he's still waiting for his partner, Mrs. Chambers, to invite him to tea. Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com.

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