Americans can now pick from a welter of news outlets on the internet and from such independent sources as this magazine. Yet most Americans still get their news from the usual disinformation sources: the major newspapers and broadcast and cable TV.
This became clear to me in 2012. After resisting for decades, in July 2012 I finally got cable TV. Verizon gave it to me free with a fiber-optic upgrade. In Huntington Beach, broadcast TV hasn’t worked since around 2005 because of the mysterious shift from analog to digital transmission. Analog TV provides a signal that, even if faint, can be seen. Digital broadcast TV provides either a clear picture or nothing. In my case, the signal flickered between both. So I stopped watching.
Late July and August brought the London Olympics, a celebration of Cool Britannia diversity and the self-humiliation of Queen Elizabeth II. Late August and early September featured those American Nuremberg rallies called the national political conventions. No diversity of opinion has been allowed since Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 GOP Convention, after which Buchanan was attacked for declaring a “culture war.” In fact, with his usual brio, he had only announced that such a war had already begun. For more than 20 years now, that the war has obviously continued and intensified.
Relief from politics came in September with the beginning of the NFL season, my main reason for watching television. I broke down and spent ten dollars per month for a device that allows me to record the games, then fast-forward past the Big Pharma aphrodisiac commercials.
October and early November meant the election—the height of disinformation, because two virtually identical parties were represented as having wildly divergent views. The hatred often displayed between the parties is real because what is at stake is a four-trillion-dollar budget, 10,000 nuclear weapons, and vast political power. Even one-party states include factions vying for control.
In our duopoly, as Ralph Nader calls it, the illusion of competition is maintained to fool the voters into thinking they really have a choice. In reality any distinct choice, whether Nader, Buchanan, Ron Paul, or Dennis Kucinich, is suppressed. Last September, Paul’s delegates to the GOP confab were shut out, even though they never posed a threat to Mitt Romney’s nomination. But the party feared offending sensitive establishment types and couldn’t risk giving Paul a chance to repeat Buchanan’s 1992 performance.
In December, I finally got a full gust of the disinformation fog. I write and edit from home. After getting cable, I took breaks from work to sip coffee and watch the cable-news shows, including the liberal CNN, CNBC, and MSNBC (now NBCNews.com), and the neoconservative FOX News and FOX Business. Occasionally, I also watched the evening broadcast-news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and PBS.
First came the continual warnings about the “Fiscal Cliff.” By about December 5, I tuned it out. In reality, there never was a Fiscal Cliff, only a fiscal fraud. The term was coined by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke to warn about the supposedly dire consequences on January 1 from automatic yearly tax increases of $400 billion and spending cuts of $100 billion.
Only a Keynesian would worry about cutting spending by a mere $100 billion when the deficit was $1 trillion-plus. After World War II, in 1946 the federal budget was cut by more than two thirds and taxes also were cut, yet the evidence shows that the private economy grew an incredible 30 percent. The dire threat, real at the time, of a return of the Great Depression never materialized.
The 2012 “deal” put before Republicans by Democrats was to pair one dollar in tax increases with three dollars in spending cuts. The taxes would hurt only “millionaires”—in government math defined as those making $250,000 or more a year. The President and other Democrats insisted that the wealthy must “pay their fair share.”
That the Fiscal Cliff worries were nothing but a charade became evident on January 1, when Republicans in Congress, led by Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, agreed with President Obama and other Democrats to avoid the Fiscal Cliff with $60 billion per year in tax increases and virtually no spending cuts. The tax increases on only the “wealthy” hit 77 percent of Americans. In particular, the payroll tax, which is paid by almost everyone with a job, went up two percentage points. Joe America, struggling to support his family on $50,000 per year, would pay another $1,000 to federal bureaucrats whose compensation was twice the private-sector average and to every special interest that opened an office on K Street.
The second big disinformation story on the 24/7 news shows was the December 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. After five days, I stopped watching TV news altogether. The networks, including the FOX channels, showed the horror over and over. And with the horror came insistent calls for gun control. On CNN, Piers Morgan, a citizen of the United Kingdom, used the killings to advance his years-long hobbyhorse of turning America into a colony again, this time of the U.K.’s Orwellian modern police state, beginning with taking away our guns. As before the killings, he shouted down the occasional Second Amendment advocate whom he allowed on his show. (Finally, on January 7, Morgan allowed pro-gun Alex Jones to talk.)
The FOX channels occasionally, and with fairness, featured defenders of gun rights. But even there, the cumulative effect of the 24/7 Sandy Hook drumbeat was to favor taking guns away from Americans.
Watching the disinformation first hand demonstrated to me why normally conservative people, including relatives and friends, had switched to favor gun control. “We must do something,” they insisted, repeating the TV lines. “But all those beautiful children were killed, and we have to do something!” insisted one woman, a mother of three and grandmother of eight. She even grew up in a home with guns and knows how to shoot. She never would have backed gun control before the TV barrage. But after watching hundreds of “stories” on Sandy Hook that featured the pictures of the deceased little children, she was fearing the same could happen to her own dear ones.
Both cases of TV disinformation were bolstered by the major newspapers. Despite the newspaper collapse that began in 2006, the TV networks still take their cues from the liberal New York Times and Washington Post and, to a lesser degree, the neoconservative Wall Street Journal.
The Journal, like the FOX channels, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. On the day of the Sandy Hook shootings, Murdoch tweeted, “Terrible news today. When will politicians find courage to ban automatic weapons? As in Oz after similar tragedy.” He confused automatic and semiautomatic weapons. And he was referring to Australia’s 1996 National Agreement on Firearms. It basically banned semiautomatic weapons and put tight controls on handguns. As gun scholar John Lott has noted, homicides in Australia didn’t drop until eight years after the gun ban, while armed robberies soared.
Although the general news buzz from the FOX channels was for increased gun control, the networks at least allowed their commentators, such as Mike Huckabee, to point out that gun control doesn’t work.
Such latitude may reflect the influence of Roger Ailes, president of FOX News Channel. It was his strategy, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, to imitate William Randolph Hearst’s “coverage” of the Spanish-American War. FOX used belligerent disinformation from the neoconservatives, especially during the Iraq war, to gain viewers by the millions, vaulting it over CNN to become the top cable-news network. Ailes is savvy enough to know that turning off conservative viewers over guns doesn’t pay. And you never know when those viewers might need to be disinformed again over a new war with, say, Iran.
The TV news shows have featured little or nothing on how many of the infamous mass shooters were taking prescription psychotropic medications. That was the case for Eric Harris, who, along with Dylan Klebold, killed 13 at Columbine High School in 1999. Harris had a prescription for Luvox, an SSRI antidepressant in the same class as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil. Prominently featured on the front page of the Jazz Pharmaceuticals website Luvoxcr.com is an article headlined “Suicidality and Antidepressant drugs.” It explains, “Antidepressants increased the risk compared to placebo of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in children, adolescents, and young adults in short-term studies of major depressive disorder (MDD) and other psychiatric disorders.”
Government officials have not yet released information on whether such drugs were taken by James Holmes, the killer of 12 in the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, or Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook murderer. The establishment media also haven’t dug up and reported what the killers might have taken. But the Washington Post did report of Lanza that, according to a neighbor, “He was on medication.” That’s it. Struggling newspapers and TV networks depend on ad revenues from Big Pharma, not from gun makers.
Much of the reason for the disinformation of modern news derives from a change in who writes and tells the news. Old-time newspapermen were of a different breed. Newspapering was considered a trade, like carpentry or bricklaying, not a profession. Reporters and editors had little or no college. They came from, and represented, the local areas in which they grew up. They had their faults and prejudices, but those were local faults and prejudices. They battled with publishers. But even those publishers generally worked for a family who owned the newspaper, and had such names as Pulliam, Hoiles, McClatchy, and Scripps.
A good example was the Detroit News, a conservative paper I grew up reading. The Scripps family owned the News for 113 years before selling it in 1986 to the Gannett conglomerate, a year before the death of owner Warren Scripps Booth. The Scripps sold the News partly to avoid the 50-percent estate tax then in effect. (It’s now 40 percent.) Gannett promptly “Gannettized” the News.
In 1940, the Detroit Free Press was bought by the chain that would later be called Knight-Ridder, but the Detroit Free Press always had a strong local, liberal identity as a rival to the News. In 2005, the Free Press was Gannettized. The News was sold to MediaNews Group, another conglomerate. So Gannett destroyed two local newspapers.
H.L. Mencken went straight from high school to reporting a city beat. As he wrote in Newspaper Days,
At a time when the respectable bourgeois youngsters of my generation were college freshmen, oppressed by simian sophomores and affronted with balderdash daily and hourly by chalky pedagogues, I was at large in a wicked seaport of half a million people, with a front row seat at every public show, as free of the night as of the day, and getting earfuls and eyefuls of instruction in a hundred giddy arcana, none of them taught in schools.
Westbrook Pegler’s father was a newspaper editor in Minneapolis. He graduated from a Jesuit high school into reporting, and soon was the youngest American correspondent in World War I. According to Pegler: Angry Man of the Press, by Oliver Ramsay Pilat, Pegler sparked “collisions with the high brass, when generals and admirals got between the young reporter and his copy.”
Mike Royko dropped out of Wright Junior College and started writing for a U.S. Air Force newspaper. Hunter S. Thompson first upset the brass when he wrote sports stories for the Command Courier, the newspaper of Elgin Air Force Base in Florida. In 1957, a colonel reprimanded him in writing: “Airman Thompson has consistently written controversial material and leans so strongly to critical editorializing that it was necessary to require that all his writing be thoroughly edited before release.” The future gonzo journalist took night classes at nearby Florida State University.
Contrast their educational backgrounds with the elite alma maters attended by today’s prominent “mainstream media,” both print and TV: Bob Woodward, Yale; Rachel Maddow, Stanford and Oxford; Wolf Blitzer, Johns Hopkins; David Brooks, University of Chicago; Brit Hume, University of Virginia; Judith Miller, Princeton; William Kristol, Harvard; Cokie Roberts, Wellesley; George Stephanopoulos, Columbia and Oxford; Anderson Cooper, Yale; Bill O’Reilly, Harvard. These privileged academic pedigrees plug them into the groupthink that characterizes our political and business elites. They have little in common with the regular Americans who read and watch their disinformation.
But there’s good news. Newspapers began to crumble in 2006. National broadcast TV news is off sharply; local broadcast news is largely crime reports. Cable TV is also declining. In July 2012, the month before the election boosted ratings, CNN was down 20 percent from July 2011. The other cable-news networks were also down, although not as much.
Meanwhile, whatever one thinks of them, alternative media keep rising, including Alex Jones’ InfoWars.com, FOX News exile Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze.com, and the late Andrew Breitbart’s Breitbart.com. Soon, television will dissolve into the internet. The web brought plagues of its own, including unmentionable content and sedentary screen staring, but the dilution of TV and print disinformation has been a blessing.
“I Don’t Believe the Liberal Media!” read an old conservative bumper sticker. Increasingly, government and liberal disinformation will be immersed in a sea of lies and facts that each person will have to sort through himself—with the help of trusted guides such as Chronicles and ChroniclesMagazine.org.