Reflections/ Jonathan Gramling
Troubling Communications
      Information is power they say in this information age we live in. We are able to make decisions and act on those decisions when we have good information to act on. And we are only able to act if we have the information. No information means no action.
      And if you control the source of information and the flow of information -- which is the ultimate power -- then you can cause specific types of action or no action at all. If you don't want to get the public upset about the War in Iraq, then prevent the images of the coffins of dead soldiers arriving in the United States from being shown on television.
      I saw the film "Lions for Lambs" over the Thanksgiving weekend. It is a film which raises questions -- from an obviously liberal point of view -- about the U.S.'s military role in Iraq and Afghanistan and the role of the media in selling a conflict. Meryl Streep plays a reporter who is called into the office of a U.S. Senator (played by Tom Cruise) who is helping the administration devise a new Afghan military strategy. The senator has selected Streep's character for an exclusive story.  Streep leaves the meeting convinced that the strategy is flawed. But once she gets back to the newsroom, she is told to report the story as the Senator has defined it for her. The word has come from the corporate office above. Streep balks, but has children, a mortgage, etc. and eventually acquiesces. She has become a piece of the propaganda machine.
      When I was growing up, I looked at the news media as a separate entity -- independent, self-sufficient organizations -- that searched for truth as it reported the news. It had only one mission: to report the news. But when the national news organizations were purchased by large business interests beginning in the early 1980s -- not coincidentally during the Reagan era -- the news organizations, which it was claimed were still independent, began to have other interests. They became creatures of  Wall Street and the bottom line and the value of the stock became equally important considerations.
      The day after I watched "Lions for Lambs," I happened upon the rebroadcast of a Bill Moyer's Journal segment on PBS titled "Buying the War." It was originally broadcast last April. In it, Bill Moyers documented how most of the national media was co-opted in 2003 to act as a cheering section for the Bush Administration as it led the nation down the road to war with Iraq and to turn a blind eye to readily available information and facts that challenged the Bush Administration's rationale to go to war.
      Two of the segments were particularly illuminating. The first was an interview with Dan Rather, formerly the anchor for the CBS Evening News, describing the environment in newsrooms in 2002-2003:
Dan Rather: "Fear is in every newsroom in the country. And fear of what? Well, it's the fear it's a combination of: if you don't go along to get along, you're going to get the reputation of being a troublemaker. There's also the fear that, you know, particularly in networks, they've become huge, international conglomerates. They have big needs, legislative needs, repertory needs in Washington. Nobody has to send you a memo to tell you that that's the case. You know.  And that puts a seed in your mind; of, well, if you stick your neck out, if you take the risk of going against the grain with your reporting, is anybody going to back you up?"
      In another segment, Phil Donohue talked about his experience at MSNBC where he had a talk show as the drumbeat for the Iraq War began. Although his show had average ratings and sometimes led the ratings for the week at MSNBC, his show was suddenly   canceled 22 days before the start of the Iraq War. In an internal NBC memo that was subsequently leaked to the public, an NBC executive said "Donohue presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
      When Moyers asked Donohue if dissent was unpatriotic, Donohue replied "Well, not only unpatriotic, but it's not good for      business."
      Newsworthiness was no longer the major criteria for what was seen on the air. Those who owned the media were able to control what information was sent out to the public. And as the Bush Administration played most of the national news media during the run-up to the Iraq War, the news outlets were only glad to play along for other considerations. The national news outlets are no longer independent reporting entities keeping everyone else honest with facts and analysis./My concern about information      and communication was also heightened by a story that appeared on CBSNEWS.COM at the beginning of November. It was titled "Anonymity Is a Lost Cause." In it, was this disturbing statement. "Privacy no longer can mean anonymity, says Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence. Instead, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguard people's private communications and financial information."
      In other words, government and business collect all of our information and decide how or when our information is released. It sure does sound as if Big Brother -- the public and private versions -- hold all of our information. Remember that information means power and this means that they hold power over us.
      Finally, I was watching Frontline the other day and watched a rebroadcast of "Spying on the Home Front." It was originally      broadcast last May. "Spying" detailed how the FBI received a tip from a faulty analysis of a communique that indicated Al Qaeda  had an interest in Las Vegas in December 2003. The FBI did a full-blown data sweep -- hotel records, phone records, credit card receipts and other electronic information -- on 250,000 visitors to Las Vegas that particular weekend. There were no criteria used. Everyone's info was swept up and retained by the FBI for two years in an effort to preemptively stop a possible attack based on faulty data. The Frontline piece said:
      "The mindset of pre-emption, says Peter Swire, an Ohio State University law professor who was the White House adviser on privacy for the Clinton administration, is: 'Check everybody. Everybody is a suspect. Everybody's phone records, everybody's e-mail is subject to government scrutiny, and if you're good, we won't bother you, and if you look a little strange, then you might get on a watch list.'"
      A little bit later on in the program, Kristin Douglas, who was in Las Vegas to get married when the data sweep occurred, was asked how she felt about the government's virtually unlimited power to comb private records for information without a wiretap. Before her Las Vegas trip, Douglas thought it was okay. But then "I felt that way until I found out I was one of those people that was on the list," Douglas says. "I mean, I'm sure that the government does a lot of things that I don't know about, and I've always been okay with that -- until I found out that I was included."
      In this information age, not only do we have to worry about whether the information we are receiving is accurate from even information and news sources that we have trusted for decades, but we must also be very concerned with who is picking up our data and using it for reasons that are unknown to us. It sure is feeling as if Big Brother -- both public and private-- is around and he is exercising a lot of power over our lives. We need to put restraints on both lest our freedom and democracy become victims of the information age. Even paranoid people might have something to be paranoid about.
Vol. 2 No. 24                                    November 28, 2007
Is justice being served?
Racial Justice Rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol