Thursday, August 1, 2013

Rant On Writing — First Amendment Protections And Responsibilities

As an elementary school student in a public school, I attended Social Studies and Civics classes, where the system of checks and balances was explained. You know it, I’m sure.   We have three branches of government so that the executive, judicial and legislative branches would, out of self-preservation if nothing else, monitor each other.  Each had a defined role to play in the governance of the nation, but having checks and balances would keep them honest. State governments, even municipalities, operate in much the same way. The results haven’t been perfect, but concept works pretty well compared to other systems.

We also learned there was a fourth player essential to the process. Citizen watchdogs — newspapers, radio, TV and now Internet-inspired news media — are expected to monitor the folks who make, interpret and enforce the laws of the country.  Journalists are supposed to expose bad acts that might affect the citizenry, warn against threats of disease, war, and natural disaster. Most importantly when at any level, any of the branches of our own government misbehaves, the reporters have a responsibility to investigate and, when warranted, scream to high heavens.

Back in the “olden days,” what I’d call my parents’ references to the better, simpler times of their youth, television networks paid for their access to the public airways by dedicating a small portion of available airtime to public service.  That was the deal.  A network would include educational shows for children, cover health issues, provide safety tips, explain government programs, etc.  Public service also included reporting the day’s important events. National and local news were not sponsored programs, so there was no profit to be lost or gained by competing for larger audiences.  News was news. People watched it to keep up with current affairs. If Kelloggs wanted to sell breakfast cereal, they would buy airtime during Hopalong Cassidy on Saturday morning, not the six o’clock news.  For the most part this, unlike just about anything else on earth, meant the news wasn’t for sale. Ratings were far less important than adhering to the principles of journalism. That was the intention, anyway.

No doubt even then there were reporters whose passion for ideology was greater than their effort to gather facts and there were many newspapers published by titans who had a point of view that overpowered any temptation to be objective.  Human nature doesn’t change much.  But our system has. The “greed is good” mantra has always been embraced by some. But now it seems to be an acceptable and accepted mission statement, and not just at Wall Street firms.  And because money has become the supreme if not only measure of success, our always less-than perfect system has become practically and ethically inoperable.  All four estates — all our checks and balances — have grievously let us down.

The Legislative Branch — The Best Reps Money Can Buy

Indiana Senator Coats, Round Trip  Through "K" Street
At our founding, it was understood that members of congress — farmers, merchants and other regular citizens would come to Washington for a few weeks a year to take care of the nation’s business and then go home.  It wasn’t meant to be a full time job nor certainly a career. The country grew.  Life became more complex.  Now a senator or house rep moves to Washington, plans to stay forever. When you figure that house members stand for reelection every two years and it takes $1.5 million to reelect a rep from the smallest district, it is clear fundraising, not managing the country’s business has become their primary goal.  Legislation they propose is often written, not by staff, but by the lobbyists who, whether we agree with them or not, often know more about the subject than any serving representative or member of the staff. Many of our laws are written by private organizations that will gain by their passage.  There is a group, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), that pretty much takes over a legislator’s office.  The legislator has to do very little.  ALEC will supply all the essential ingredients, supplies, arguments, even lobbying to get a bit of legislation through the system. Good thing after all that fundraising the biannual candidate has no time to write or even read the laws he or she sponsors.  But even with ALEC doing the rep’s day job, raising campaign funds is still hard to do. Is it done retail or wholesale? If your time is limited and your goal is ambitious, whom do you pay attention to, Mary and Joe on Maple Street or Bank of America? Why would anyone work all that hard for a congressman’s $174,000 annual salary?  We shouldn’t forget a lifetime pension and healthcare benefits.  Using that as a foundation for a secure financial future, the politician will likely find a job offer with stock options from a major private corporation or lobbyist firm, paying for past cooperation as well as current contacts and influence.  It would be interesting to track how many house reps and U.S. Senators have become multi-millionaires while holding positions as servants of, or based upon their service to the “public.”

The Executive Branch — I’ve Got My Eye On You, And You, And You

President Forgets Promises Of Transparency
The FBI, NSA, CIA, U.S. Secret Service, Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney General, the entire military-industrial complex and who knows what other clandestine operations fall under this branch of government. We don’t know because these are the folks who determine what is secret.  And it’s a pretty wonderful thing to be able to declare secrecy as an answer to what is perhaps only an embarrassing question. As a matter of disclosure, I supported Barack Obama before he ran for president, donated to his campaign to gain the nomination, and to both presidential campaigns. I applaud the direction he’s taken on healthcare, immigration and civil rights.  I am for withdrawal of U.S. forces in the Middle East. I’m not asking you to agree with these views. I just wanted to demonstrate I’m not out to get the President.  On the other hand, I do ask you to consider something that shouldn’t be partisan.  Transparency. There is a gathering storm of doubt about the President putting himself above the rights of citizens to know what our government is doing. Because of the high-level of secrecy, I can only say that there is increasing suspicion of an executive branch policy of punishing whistleblowers, and that it has used its power to repress freedom of speech, not only of individuals, but also of the press, a group that has a lot to answer for as well. What is most telling is the administration’s oppressive treatment and overkill prosecution of Manning, its obsessive, seemingly orchestrated bad-mouthing of Snowden, its attempt to intimidate journalists who inquire too deeply about what the government is up to, even interfering in the reporting that takes place in foreign countries – in other words, trying to prevent journalists from doing their job. We know that the head of NSA lied to congress without consequence. And the U.S. Attorney General has not proven to be as independent as he is required to be.   By all objective reporting, Snowden’s and Manning’s revelations have and will prove more embarrassing to vested bureaucrats than dangerous to the lives of covert agents or to losing the “war on terrorism” — an excuse-all-abuse phrase that is used to justify imprisonment of uncharged people in GITMO, allows for rendition of suspects to countries that have no problem with torture and kill innocents by drone, an unfortunate happenstance they call “collateral damage."  Recently, Obama said we were at war with “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.” Who are the associated forces?  Well, that’s top secret. How about the reporter who broke the Snowden story?  Is he an associated force? Do these associated forces know the U.S. is out to get them? We may not know, but I bet they do.  Message to the public: You can’t handle the truth.

The Supreme Court — Corporations Are People Too

"Money Is Speech," Don't You Know?
One might be tempted to think of the Supreme Court as a failsafe in the devolution of the democratic process.  However the blatant corruption of our government was enhanced by the Court’s stupid (or malicious) decision on Citizen’s United, which equated the rights of corporations with the rights of individual citizens and who defined money as “speech.”  Their decision, which should have alarmed the right, the middle, and the left, equally, makes it impossible for us and for the media to determine the quid pro quo that exists between international corporations (read foreign owned) and our representatives, though the question of whom they truly represent is now in question.  That decision may be the most monumental blunder (if you think it is a simply naïve conclusion) in the history of the court.  While I’m not xenophobic and I heartily encourage diversity, I’m not sure we want Arab or German or Russian or even the kindly Swiss backing presidential or congressional candidates in U.S. elections with money from them filtered through the “corporations are people too” approach to anonymous fundraising.  And for the king of “original intent” interpretations of the constitution, Justice Scalia was at the height of his voluminous hypocrisy when he placed corporations on equal rights footing with individual citizens.

The Fourth Estate
Scandal-Sheet and WSJ Owner Rupert Murdoch
The mistake we may make is to believe that the press is all that different from the folks they cover.   The news is longer run by folks who have a dedication to the precepts of professional journalism.  And chances are the local daily newspaper is not local.  Same for radio and TV stations.  The fourth estate is run by CEOs and CFOs from New York or London, the same kind of business-minded people who run Goldman Sachs.  CBS is owned by Sumner Redstone, worth several billion dollars.  Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch, a British billionaire of often-questionable ethics and Godfather of an international media empire.  NBC, until recently, was owned by General Electric, one of the largest corporations in the world with a serious stake in military-industrial and health-related spending. And Disney no longer a kindly little cartoon maker and amusement park operator owns ABC, the largest mass media company in the world. These companies, their spinoffs (CNBC, for example), radio conglomerates (Clear Channel, for example) and the various newspaper chains (Gannett is the largest)) are mega-corporations.  They are not as interested in news as news, or journalism, but as products. Telling people what they need to know to be informed citizens of a successful democracy is not nearly as important as marketing the product to faceless but fully analyzed consumers.  We should have known this was coming because not so long ago network news divisions were transferred to the intensely profit-oriented entertainment divisions.  How likely are you going to air a negative news story about a product produced by your own parent company or how does an editor break the story of an ethical lapse of the company’s own CEO?  What media company would be willing, if they could avoid it, to piss off General Motors or General Mills or General Electric if it jeopardized a media corporation’s advertising revenue? Why would reporters who want to keep their jobs reveal the ugly underbelly of a proposed law that would benefit big corporations they work for? Some do, of course, but the-set up runs counter to the kind of altruistic devotion necessary to shine the light into the dark holes of government secrecy and corporate malfeasance.

Getting To Know You — Big Government, Big Money And Little Ole You

If you have any doubt about the stakes, consider what we’ve just learned about our government’s ability to collect information about us.  Consider the very real possibility that the U.S. has or will forcibly deputize social media (Facebook) search engines and email providers like Google and Yahoo to build profiles.  What books have you read? What are your political beliefs?  Have you been vocal on Facebook?  What have you searched for on Google? Add to that big businesses’ active gathering of demographics and other information about their consumers, a common enough and smart marketing practice, but one that can be exploited. We haven’t even talked about the global corporations that have hired private security firms (read private armies with their own intelligence gathering capability) to straighten out unpleasant situations. The ability to combine and interpret the results with whatever criteria someone chooses is here now. It exists. I apologize for reaching into the jar of scary tactics to suggest you think about someone sitting in front of a monitor in Iowa, someone who can send an armed drone anywhere in the world with increasingly surgical accuracy.  You cannot compete. You haven’t the technical skill or the resources.  You haven’t the money to buy a politician.   You don’t even have a lobbyist on K Street.

Is Press Freedom An Oxymoron?  Ask Your Friendly Government, The Media And The Corporations That Own Both

As you’ve no doubt gathered, I’m deeply disappointed in the moneyed way our government functions, or doesn’t.  But I am even more disappointed in the state of journalism.  In the hands of profiteers rather than professionals, it has become toothless and pandering.  How long must the day’s news freeze in place while we watch the second-by-second, non-breaking update of the eventual birth of a possible future, powerless king of a country in Europe?  The Zimmerman trial was understandably important but to the exclusion of everything else that happened on the planet for days on end?  And when for hours upon hours there was nothing new to say? Events were happening all around the world, but ratings kept the cameras focused on the sensational rather than the substantial.  How about a little perspective? Investigative reporting is expensive and dangerous (see Michael Hastings).  But that’s the job of the Fourth Estate. To keep the news honest, there should be serious concern about media ownership. It is already too highly concentrated in the hands of the few. The fewer the players, the more limited the coverage, the narrower the focus. We also need to pass a comprehensive shield law to protect journalists from government prosecution, to protect sources, to keep them from being wiretapped or whatever we call the incredibly high-tech mega-surveillance capability the authorities have at their disposal.   We need to make sure whistleblowers, corporate or government, have protections.  The most effective antidote to this corruption is to eliminate the ability of powerful individuals and corporations to buy our legislators through fund-raising donations or promises of future lucrative jobs in their firms. It wasn’t so long ago we would consider this kind of practice bribery, pure and simple. How do we not see that? 

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