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A Nightly Orwellian Ritual: the “P”BS NewsHour


The recent announcement by former U.S. Marine Jim Lehrer that he is stepping down from his role as nightly anchor of the “Public” Broadcasting System’s “NewsHour” occasioned little sadness in my household.  For years now, my wife and I have sat down with dinner weekday nights to behold with a mixture of amusement and contempt the Orwellian exercise in corporate and imperial hegemony that is Lehrer’s NewsHour[1].   The show will continue its deep subordination to dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines, reflecting cold political and institutional realities that preceded Lehrer’s “P”BS career and which will outlast his departure.

 

Corporate Funding and the Narrow Spectrum

Contrary to its fundraising claim to be free of corporate advertising, the NewsHour begins with four minutes of advertising from leading corporate and financial firms.  In its nightly NewsHour spot, the rapacious and eco-cidal oil corporation Chevron poses as a friend of small business and the environment.  Pacifica Life, Toyota, and Intel also identify their bottom lines with the common good and the future of humanity. The opening commercials disadvantage the NewsHour compared to the nightly national and half-hour news programs at CBS, NBC, and ABC, which start promptly at 5:30 CST – no small difference for time-pressed viewers eager to see quick coverage and film of the day’s supposed top events.

It is true that the NewsHour goes an hour long and is commercial-free after the opening ads and that this permits a more in-depth treatment of the news than what one sees on the half-hour news shows on ABC, NBC, and CBS.  Consistent with the opening corporate ads, however, the NewsHour’s content stays strictly within the narrow doctrinal confines imposed by business and imperial elites and their “two party system – pitting history’s most enthusiastic capitalist party (the Republicans) against history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party (the Democrats). The NewsHour’s formula for covering and commenting on current events is simple.  First comes a 3-4 minute clip reporting an event or development that the show’s directors have determined to be newsworthy – say a U.S. military attack in the Arab and Muslim world, a policy dispute in Washington, a popular uprising somewhere, an election campaign development or outcome, an environmental disaster, etc. (the list of possible topics is of course endless).

The event or development in question is reported in an outwardly neutral but in fact privilege- and U.S.-friendly way. The real goals behind an aggressive and deadly Pentagon action are assumed to be benevolent; the official targets are presumed guilty and evil. (If mentioned at all, the innocent victims [“collateral damage”] are kept anonymous and seen as unfortunate victims of good intentions). Dark U.S. imperial ambitions related to Washington’s longstanding and ongoing quest for global dominance are unmentionable in the NewsHour’s foreign policy coverage. “We” (the U.S.) and “our” allies are assumed to be “good guys;”  “our” enemies and their allies are by definition “bad guys.”

Environmental disasters and problems are often downplayed and generally portrayed by the NewsHour as mistakes, never as natural and predictable outcomes of a profits system whose drive for ceaseless accumulation makes it a machine of exterminist eco-cide.2

National and state-level policy disputes and U.S. elections are portrayed on the NewsHour as good-faith conflicts over the best way to advance the common good in a popular democracy, never in their harsh reality as differences between competing segments of the money and power elite[3]. Corporate-driven policy agendas like the neoliberal privatization of Social Security, Medicare, and the public schools and big business’ war on environmental and other social regulations are treated with remarkable and undue respect, with their advocates given considerable time and space on the NewsHour to wrap their plutocratic ambitions in the deceptive clothing of the public interest.

The social and political protests and movements of the American left receive scant and condescending coverage on the NewsHour, even as the faux populism and fake-movement activism of the super-Republican “Tea Party” right receives abundant and respectful coverage. 

The most revealing part of the NewsHour, perhaps, is the 8-10 minute or so small discussion segments that follow the news clips on the leading events or developments they have chosen to highlight on a given evening. The ideological spectrum of invited experts is remarkably thin.  The rabid and radical right is amply represented with a regular stream of authorities from such arch-reactionary, corporate-funded think tanks as the Heritage Foundation, the CATO Institute, the American Petroleum Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute.  Retired U.S. generals, ex-U.S. diplomats, and people affiliated with the establishment Council on Foreign Relations are typical commentators on foreign policy issues. High profile reporters and pundits from the establishment corporate press (the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal) and centrist Ivy League academicians are prominent on NewsHour expert panels.  The “left” is represented by such centrist policy shops as The Brookings Institution and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), with occasional brief visits from progressives at the Democratic Party-affiliated Economic Policy Institute and the AFL-CIO. In a typical NewsHour panel on a domestic policy issue, on the PBS anchor moderates a brief debate between a Democratic Party official (typically a congressman, Senator or Obama administration official) or a Democratic-affiliated expert (from a think-tank like CBPP) who gives the “left” side of the issue and a Republican official or Republican-affiliated expert (with a right-wing policy group like Heritage).  The two opponents fight each other to an often confusing and quickly truncated standstill.  The issue segment ends with “thank yous” all around and The NewsHour anchors smiling at their success in giving "equal voice to all sides." The often insanely regressive and otherwise arch-authoritarian positions of the right-wing commentators are presented as reasonable, morally equlivalent standpoints, worthy of respectful hearings on the public airwaves.

Seriously left dissenting voices and personalities are next to non-existent on the NewsHour. With all due respect for rare and careful NewsHour appearances by a select few left and progressive commentators (e.g. Phyllis Bennis and Dean Baker), seriously radical commentators like the best-selling anti-imperial and anti-capitalist author and speaker Noam Chomsky (arguably the world’s leading left intellectual, who lives in Lexington, Massachusetts), John Pilger (a major and prolific left critic of Western imperialism), Robert W. McChesney (the leading left analyst of modern U.S. media), and John Bellamy Foster (a leading left thinker on ecological issues) are off the list of deep thinkers who might be invited to lend their reflections on current events NewsHour viewers.  Inviting serious and seriously left commentators like Chomsky would not jibe well with the NewsHour’s and PBS’s need to raise massive amounts of cash from giant corporate donors and from big corporate-funded foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which uses its influence to ensure that the NewsHour runs a steady stream of favorable reports on/on behalf of business-led schoo“reform” [privatization]), the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Thanks to such dependency, the NewsHour does not meaningfully go outside the ideological boundaries that are prevalent in the establishment corporate news and commentary system.

 

The NewsHour as State TV: the Case of Libya

In composing its expert discussion panels on foreign policy in particular, the NewsHour gives wildly disproportionate air time to current and past U.S. government and military officials.  Large sections of many news segments are given over to direct quotation from the U.S. President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Director of the CIA and so on. I’ve had the sensation of watching official State Television more than once while dining in front of the NewsHour’s foreign policy broadcasts.

The NewsHour’s coverage of the U.S. petro-imperial military intervention in Libya epitomizes this problem. As the progressive media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted at the end of last March: ”If public television's mission is to bring diverse viewpoints to the airwaves, the discussions about the war in Libya on the PBS NewsHour haven't lived up to that standard. Over the past two weeks, The NewsHour has featured an array of current and former military and government officials in its discussion segments–leaving little room for antiwar voices, U.S. foreign policy critics and legal experts.” Between March 18 and March 28th, FAIR reported, the NewsHour decided to get “perspective” on the highly controversial military action from the Obama administration's UN Ambassador Susan Rice (March 18th), former  chief U.S. national security adviser (under Jimmy Carter)  Zbigniew Brzezinski (March 24th), former chief national security adviser (under Ronald Reagan) Brent Scowcroft, retired Maj. Gen. Dutch Remkes (March 24th), former National Security Council official and current member of the establishment foreign policy organization the International Crisis Group  Robert Malley, former Clinton administration National Security Council staffer  Charles Kupchan (March 22),  former U.S. Senator Gary Hart (March 23rd), former U.S. Senator Norm Coleman (March 23rd), Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough (March 23rd), retired Army Gen. and current military contractor consultant and General Dynamics (a major “defense” contractor) board member Jack Keane (March 24th), former Air Force officer and Iraq War veteran and current Rand Corporation fellow Frederic Wehrey (March 24th), who (along with Keane) supported the deployment of ground troops in Libya. The roster of NewsHour Libya discussants contained only a few guests devoid of U.S. government and/and military backgrounds:  Daniel Dombey of the Financial Times (pro-intervention); former Libyan Ambassador Ali Suleiman Aujali (who broke with the Gadhafi regime and was with the opposition and was thus pro-intervention); Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus (vaguely pro-intervention);  and Politico's Roger Simon. Simon was the only guest commentator who seemed to question the wisdom of the intervention, quite tepidly and on pragmatic grounds – as something that did not seem to be inAmerica’s interests.

With this establishment-heavy list of not-so outside experts, the NewsHour, FAIR noted, defied the 1967 Carnegie Commission report that helped give rise to the Public Broadcasting System. That report envisioned PBS as a "forum for debate and controversy" that would "provide a voice for groups in the community that may be otherwise unheard."4

In response to FAIR’s critique, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler defended the NewsHour by observing that prior to the American intervention in Libya it had given air time to “others that are easily described as part of the general foreign policy establishment. But they clearly voiced thoughts that opposed any military action or warned of its dangers.” The most prominent example given by Getler was current Council of Foreign Relations president and former (George W.) Bush administration State Department official Richard Haas, who went on the NewsHour on March 8th to oppose the action on the grounds that “our interests in no way warrant[ed]” an intervention to help the “good guys” and defend “humanitarian” values.5

This was a very weak defense. It did nothing to counter (and frankly conceded) FAIR’s point on the NewsHour’s over-reliance on commentary from inside the foreign policy establishment.  It falsely conflated the missing (on the NewsHour) non-establishment antiwar position with the notion that the intervention was about noble, democratic and humanitarian aim on the part of U.S. policymakers – good intentions that overshot practical U.S. imperial interests. Seriously antiwar and anti-imperial commentators like the officially invisible (on “P”BS as in the dominant corporate media) Chomsky did not take that position at all on the Libyan action.  They saw the Obama administration’s humanitarian claims as cover for a policy dictated by Washington’s longstanding imperial interest in the control of strategic oil resources in the petroleum-rich Middle East and North Africa.  They opposed the action on moral and legal grounds, as a violation of Libyan sovereignty and as a threat to democracy and civilians abroad, not because it failed to “serve our [U.S. interests,” as defined by the U.S. foreign policy establishment that is so over-represented on the NewsHour’s narrow list of acceptable outside foreign policy experts. They opposed the intervention because it was morally and legally wrong, imperially motivated, and disingenuous, not because it was a practical and strategic U.S. "mistake" motivated (supposedly) by genuinely idealistic goals. 

“Feeble, Dependent, and Marginal” by Design

It isn’t just about the NewsHour, of course. Lerher’s show is one of many expressions of American “public” broadcasting’s captivity to concentrated wealth and power.  As an openly left and radical author and speaker on the Obama phenomenon and presidency and national politics in recent years, it no longer enters my mind to try to be invited to speak on “P”BS-affiliated radio stations in various Midwestern college towns where I do  events. That just doesn’t happen, thanks to basic political realities. But I am relatively anonymous and marginal; the more relevant point is that even big radical names like Chomsky and Pilger are also essentially banned (or close to it) from National Public Radio (NPR) and its local affiliates for the same reasons that they do not appear on the NewsHour. It’s a pretty distant cry from the right-wing "Tea Party" claim that U.S. “public” broadcasting leans left.

But it’s nothing remotely new in U.S. media history. As McChesney, the dean of progressive U.S. media studies, has shown, the fundamentally conservative and power-serving – and, intimately related, marginal – role of public broadcasting in the U.S. media and doctrinal systems was largely settled with the defeat of the progressive broadcast reform movement in the middle 1930s. Before 1934, McChesney notes, “reformers had sought a system in which the dominant sector was nonprofit and noncommercial” – standing in a relation of primary service to the entire national community, not just the elite business class.  After 1934, public broadcasting advocates “had to accept that the system was established primarily to benefit commercial broadcasting, and that public stations would have to find a niche on the margins, where they would not threaten the profitability of the commercial interests.” As public broadcasting developed over subsequent decades, its managers and advocates were taught to understand that they “could survive politically only by not taking listeners or viewers away from the commercial networks.  The function of the public or educational broadcasters, then, was to provide that programming that was unprofitable for the commercial broadcasters to produce. At the same time, however, politicians and government officials hostile to public broadcasting have long insisted that the public broadcasting remain within the same ideological confines as the commercial system.” As a consequence, post-WWII “public” broadcasting “emphasize[d] elite cultural programming at the expense of generating a large following.” 

The Public Broadcasting Act was passed in 1967, providing a federal subsidy for national public radio and television, in part because the leading corporate broadcasters of the time (CBS, NBC, and ABC) calculated that a new public system could provide “the unprofitable cultural and public affairs programming that critics were constantly lambasting them for neglecting.”  The funding came with strict provisos, however.  First, the new consolidated public system was burdened with an overly complex and unwieldy organizational structure that made flexible and long-term planning impossible. Second, an original proposal to provide the system with a stable source of revenue in the form of a tax on receivers (radios and televisions) on the model of the British Broadcasting Corporation was dropped in favor of dependence on a yearly, politically contingent allotment from the U.S. Congress.  This funding method put the system more directly under the ideological surveillance of the national political class, itself loyal to the leading corporate broadcasters and including no small number of right wing zealots opposed public broadcasting (as a “socialist” threat) per se, not just per quo. The new “public” system was “set up in such a way as to ensure that it was feeble, dependent, and marginal” – severely crippled in ways that guaranteed its inability and unwillingness to meaningfully challenge prevailing doctrines of American empire and inequality, incorporated[6].   Hence, the cringing conservatism and deadly, dull, system-safe content of the NewsHour, and (on “public” radio), “All Things Considered,” the crown news and commentary jewels of a private power-captive faux-public system that radical friends of mine understandably deride as the “Pentagon Broadcasting System,” the “Petroleum Broadcasting System,” the “Pathetic Broadcasting System,” “Nationalist Propaganda Radio,” and “National Prozac Radio.”

 

NOTES

1 I used to watch the half-hour national news shows and then local news on NBC and ABC, but the “digital transition” knocked all but PBS off my television.  I purchased the “converter box” that is supposed to let me receive the leading major networks, but only PBS comes through my television antennae in the new age of digital broadcasting. Clearly I am supposed to fork over the money for cable television, if I want to get ABC, NBC, CBS and other news, sports and entertainment channels. That seems to have been one point of the digital transition – to force everyone into costly monthly cable packages. Since I am unable to justify that expenditure, my television now belongs entirely to PBS.

2 For disturbing data and reflections, see John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (Monthly Review, 2010). Noam Chomsky recently observed that “Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative. Business leaders who are conducting propaganda campaigns to convince the population that anthropogenic global warming is a liberal hoax understand full well how grave is the threat, but they must maximize short-term profit and market share.” See Noam Chomsky, “Is the World Too Big to Fail?” ZNet [originally in TomDispatch]  (April 22, 2011) at http://www.zcomm.org/is-the-world-too-big-to-fail-by-noam-chomsky 

3 On U.S. elections as periodic contests battles between different sectors of U.S. capital, see Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems (University of Chicago Press, 1995).

4 Jim Naureckas, “Action Alert: On Libya, NewsHour Looks Like State TV,” FAIR (March 29, 2011) at http://www.fair.org/blog/2011/03/29/action-alert-on-libya-newshour-looks-like-state-tv/.  

5 Michael Getler, “Bombs Away: FAIR Attacks NewsHour Again,” PBS Ombudsman, April 1, 2011 at  http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2011/04/bombs_away_fair_attacks_newshour_again_1.html

6 Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communications Politics in Dubious Times (University of Illinois Press, 1999), 247-248. 

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