Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bill Moyers describes the problems of informing the public about political and business corruption

Bill Moyers has published an article that says a great deal about the reason why America's government is no longer working. Here is a key paragraph:
The late scholar Cleanth Brooks of Yale thought there were three great enemies of democracy. He called them "The Bastard Muses":
  • Propaganda, which pleads sometimes unscrupulously, for a special cause at the expense of the total truth;
  • sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted by, and in excess of, the occasion; and
  • pornography, which focuses upon one powerful human drive at the expense of the total human personality.
The poet Czeslaw Milosz identified another enemy of democracy when, upon accepting the Noble Prize for Literature, he said "Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember." Memory is crucial to democracy; historical amnesia, its nemesis.

Against these tendencies it is an uphill fight to stay the course of factual broadcasting. We have to keep reassuring ourselves and one another that it matters and we have to join forces to defend and safeguard our independence. I learned this early on.

[Formatting added by the editor of WTF-o]
Bill Moyers goes on to describe some instances in which he helped expose corruption in politics, but one item in the story is especially memorable. It involves exposing wrong-doing by corporations.
But shining the spotlight on political corruption is nothing compared to what can happen if you raise questions about corporate power in Washington, as my colleague Marty Koughan and I discovered when we produced a program for David Fanning and "Frontline" on pesticides and food. Marty had learned that industry was attempting behind closed doors to dilute the findings of the American Academy of Sciences study on the effects of pesticide residues on children. Before we finished the documentary, the industry somehow purloined a copy of our draft script - we still aren't certain how - and mounted a sophisticated and expensive campaign to discredit our program before it aired. Television reviewers and editorial pages of key newspapers were flooded with propaganda. Some public television managers were so unnerved by the blitz of misleading information about a film they had not yet broadcast that they actually protested to PBS with letters that had been prepared by the industry.

Here's what most perplexed us: the American Cancer Society - an organization that in no way figured in our story - sent to its 3,000 local chapters a "critique" of the unfinished documentary claiming, wrongly, that it exaggerated the dangers of pesticides in food. We were puzzled. Why was the American Cancer Society taking the unusual step of criticizing a documentary that it had not seen, that had not aired and that did not claim what the Society alleged? An enterprising reporter named Sheila Kaplan later looked into those questions for the journal Legal Times. It turns out that the Porter Novelli public relations firm, which had worked for several chemical companies, also did pro bono work for the American Cancer Society. Kaplan found that the firm was able to cash in some of the goodwill from that "charitable" work to persuade the compliant communications staff at the Society to distribute some harsh talking point about the documentary before it aired - talking points that had been supplied by, but not attributed to, Porter Novelli. Legal Times headlined the story "Porter Novelli Plays All Sides." A familiar Washington game.

Others also used the American Cancer Society's good name in efforts to tarnish the journalism before it aired, none more invidiously than the right-wing polemicist Reed Irvine, who pumped his sludge through an organization with the Orwellian name Accuracy in Media. He attacked our work as "junk science on PBS" and demanded Congress pull the plug on public broadcasting. Fortunately, PBS once again stood firm. The documentary aired, the journalism held up and the publicity liberated the National Academy of Sciences to release the study that the industry had tried to cripple.
This is really a long way from the ideal of representative democracy we were taught about in civics. This is the corporations working to take control of America and simply do whatever they want to do in the name of increased profit. It is the story we all know of Wall Street which, in its greed, sold mortgage backed securities with essentially fake financial insurance that made the securities seem like a sure route to wealth for the investors. Instead they were the destruction of the Wall Street banks and the world economy. For a while in the fall of 2008 Wall Street was literally dead.

Only amazing efforts by governments around the world and handouts of lrge sums of taxpayer money to the very banks that caused the problem saved the world economy from the second Great Depression. We still call the residue of that period the Great Recession and we will not recover for years.

Wall Street and the American corporations do not want that story told. Go back and look at the list of four highlighted items above. All of them are in play, especially propaganda and the strange amnesia of the public.

Go read Moyer's entire article. As usual it is both very good and highly entertainikng.

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