Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fox News, the Obama White House and Spiro Agnew

Back in January, I was none-too-pleased to hear from my daughter that her school let pupils watch the coronation of U.S. president Barack Obama.

After all, they don’t broadcast the swearing-in ceremony of the prime minister of Canada; why is the leader of foreign country accorded such treatment? In the runup to Obama’s election, last November, and on to the presidential swearing-in, it was common to see people wearing t-shirts and other clothing emblazoned with Obama’s name and image.

It’s funny: you don’t see these much anymore. Obama may remain popular among Canadians, just because he is not a Republican or George W. Bush. However, his support among Americans, the people who actually elected him, continues to ebb. I am not often roused to write critically about politicians, especially foreign politicians, with whom I am not in agreement. Such criticism can simply appear to be sour grapes; more than that, however, I think it is essentially for the politically-engaged to submit to the will of the majority, both when their side wins, and when their side loses. Especially when their side loses, for the continuance of democracy depends upon it. If politically active people decide that their side losing an election means that the system is no longer legitimate, there is no enduring democratic political system. I also don’t like snap judgements: my preference is to wait and review everything being said about some issue or controversy, and then make up my mind only after that.

Moreover, I don’t really have anything to say in particular about the policy agenda pursued by the Obama government: right now, for example, it is in negotiations with lawmakers in regard to its plan to impose universal health-care on the United States. This is what the American people voted for last year. Just how you can have a universal health care system, run by the federal government, for a country of 300 and more million people, is beyond me. However, Obama and his team, as well as the U.S. Congress, seem determined to bring it in. Again, they were democratically elected to do so.

That said, however, I believe also that democratically elected politicians must play by the democracy play-book. In this regard, the conduct of Obama and his government has been absolutely disgraceful. I’m referring in particular to White House officials’ recent targeting of the Fox cable-news channel. I’ve never seen the notorious Fox news, as it is not available to me, and I wouldn’t watch it anyway, because I think all TV news — let alone twenty-four cable-news — is a bunch of crap. Obama official Anita Dunn, however, said that Fox cable-news is like "the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party" (according to an Associated Press report from the web site of the MS-NBC news channel, Oct. 19, 2009). Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama’s chief of staff, stated in the same piece that Fox "is not a news organization so much as it has a perspective."

There’s something to ponder over: is a news organization not to have a "perspective", a "point of view", even a "bias"? No one seriously argues any longer than news organizations are unbiassed; certainly, MS-NBC has a bias, as does Newsweek magazine, as well as the New York Times. These, as well as the news divisions of the CBS, NBC and ABC networks, have "point of view", a "perspective", and a "bias": it is one that accords with the worldview of Anita Dunn, Rahm Emmanuel and, presumably, Barack Obama himself.

Fox cable-news decidedly does not share in these biases: on the contrary, its perspective, its bias, its point of view is one friendly to the right-of-centre and to the Republican party. It is precisely this which drives Obama and his officials to distraction. The other networks are not a problem for them: they have behaved, at least until very recently, more like Obama’s publicists than "objective" reporters. Thus, during the presidential campaign last year, when it appeared that Sarah Palin, the former Alaskan governor appointed the vice-presidential nominee, would pose a challenge to an Obama cakewalk, the major news media homed in on Palin like a group of African honey-bees.

Suddenly, and although Palin would be only be the vice-president (if Republican candidate John McCain had won), reporters with the major news media became very interested in how well Palin could answer questions about foreign policy ("What is the Bush doctrine?", asked one interviewer with a major news service), about then just-erupting financial crisis ("Just how would you solve this crisis", Palin was asked, as though anyone knew what to do at the time — or thereafter), even about her personal life. Very quickly, the left-wing "blogosphere" began publishing really nasty stories about Palin, her husband, and the rest of her family. Andrew Sullivan, the former toady of Bush the younger who became a slavish apologist for the Democratic party when it better served his career, went on a months’-long crusade to prove that the Downs’ Syndrome baby that Palin delivered in 2008 (in her early forties), was actually Palin’s daughter’s baby, and that Palin claimed to be pregnant in order to defend her teenager’s "honour" (Sullivan was undaunted in this crusade by the fact that Palin’s daughter actually did have a baby out-of-wedlock in 2008). There were stories that Palin had been a supporter of the Alaskan Independence party, that while mayor of a small Alaskan city before she was elected governor, she made up a list of books she wanted banned at the local library, that she demanded (after becoming governor) that "creationist" beliefs be included in the state school curriculum. All of this, and much else, was proven to be false, or at least, without foundation.

Of course, news media will get things wrong sometimes; and usually, unsubstantiated rumours were not themselves reported by the major, liberal-leaning media. It isn’t, either, any violation of journalist ethics to aggressively go after a candidate for high public office, as was the case with Palin. What is outrageous is how such treatment was reserved for Palin only. In particular, the attacks on her "lack of experience" as an executive was laughable in light of the fact that, as a mayor of a small city, and governor of a small state, she had greatly more such experience than Barack Obama, who had none at all (Obama, or his people, argued that his experience in running an election campaign was sufficient for holding the "most powerful office in the world").

As for Palin’s various verbal gaffes, can they really compare to Obama’s statements about their being "57" U.S. states, or that the U.S. president serves in office "eight to ten years", or that white rural and small-town Americans, having lost so much of their prosperity by the hallowing out of heavy industry in the heartland, "cling to guns and religion" as compensation? Just to restate the obvious: Palin was running for the vice-presidency, the do-nothing office; Obama of course was the presidential candidate. Obama’s actual vice-presidential candidate, Joe Biden, was if anything even more Spiro Angewish in its verbal statements: such as that "president Roosevelt went on TV in 1929 to calm the nation after the stock market crash", or requesting that a wheelchair-bound man to stand for an ovation. (But, according the front cover of this week’s Newsweek, a publication without a "perspective" apparently, "Joe Biden is no joke.").

Palin was condemned for the company she kept (ie., allegedly supporting the crypto-fascist Pat Buchanan during the latter’s previous presidential bid), while Obama received very little criticism at all for attending a church for twenty years presided over by a bizarre conspiracy-fabulist who claimed again and again that whites were trying to kill blacks, the Bush government is attempting to impose a dictatorship, that Jews are really in control of everything (Obama claimed he never heard any of these things in the reverend’s sermons).

Just to restate: there was nothing wrong in going after Palin. It is the difference in treatment that is outrageous. It seems, however, that the Obama government is not satisfied to have all news organizations except for one in their corner. Instead, in the face of the president’s falling popularity, Obama officials have chosen to target this one, right-leaning news medium: Fox cable. It is simply because the news service has been as critical of the Obama government, and the left movement in general, as all the other news media were to the previous administration, and to Republicans generally. Fox news revealed, for example, that the so-called "green jobs" so-called "czar" (basically, the term for the chief policy maker and administrator of environmentally-friendly technologies and procedures), Van Jones, was actually a Leninist who preached revolutionary socialism as recently as a few years ago. I don’t even think that this fact alone is what forced Jones’ resignation: instead, it was a petition he signed a few years ago on behalf of a 9/11 "truth" organization, although Jones claimed that he was largely ignorant of the aims and motives of the petitioners.

More recently, Fox news aired hidden-camera footage of two young conservative activists, posing as a prostitute and her pimp, who visited branch offices in several U.S. cities of the activist group ACORN. Several of the ACORN community activists were shown advising the dress-up prostitute and pimp how to run a bawdy house in order to avoid detection by authorities, how to launder their earnings, and how to successfully smuggle underage illegal migrants to get them into prostitution. Fox cable cagily aired each video over several days: after the first airing, ACORN representatives were quick to announce the firing of the "rogue" activist or activists involved in such activity, reassuring the public that this was "just an isolated incident." Then the second and third hidden-camera incidents were shown, leading to more firings, more denials, more reassurances as to how atypical this was.

Yet more footage came, and the story — heretofore ignored by the balance of the fourth estate — simply could not be resisted any longer. Law-enforcement officials opened investigations at the state and federal levels, the U.S. census department quickly cancelled contracts it had with the organization (the full name of which is some formulation that is intended to be the acronym "ACORN"), and several large private-sector sponsors (such as the Bank of America, which is a private financial institution and not the U.S. central bank), also cancelled their donations. Naturally, as ACORN officials were involved in several felonies.

ACORN fought back as best it could. One official, it was claimed, knew that the "pimp" and "prostitute" were a ruse, and simply "played along" with them. Again, it was stated that another ACORN worker had contacted the police, as indeed she did: that is, her brother-in-law, a local detective, the day following the visit. It was also confirmed that the conservative undercover activists had visited other ACORN offices, and were quickly shown the door after revealing their plans. But the consistency of the advice given to the would-be prostitute and pimp, involving ACORN offices hundreds or thousands of miles apart, seems to show that, to some degree, the organization has involved itself in criminal law-breaking, including apparently money-laundering, furthering the aims of prostitution, and people-smuggling. The best was yet to come, though. A few weeks after the revelations, ACORN’s lawyers filed suit against the two conservative activists, as well as their own sponsor, the proprietor of the web site Big Hollywood, for alleged "invasion of privacy." It turns out that in the state of Maryland, it is against the law for a person to record another while in conversation, be it over a telephone line or in person with an audio or video tape-recorder. This arose from a visit the couple made to an ACORN office in Baltimore. The organization is looking for a million dollars.

It is clear that this is a nuisance lawsuit, designed to dissuade other freelancers from doing their own investigations of ACORN activities. From my understanding of the legal issues, the defendants have a perfectly sound defence from the charges, in that ACORN is public-service organization and the conversations were conducted in an office open and accessible to all. As for the non-Fox media, there was some noises initially as to the "lack of ethics" of such hidden-camera recording, which is perfectly laughable given that hidden-camera investigations have been a staple of local and network news since it became technologically feasible to hide cameras away. The Dateline programme on NBC, for example, had a long-running feature called To Catch a Predator. Adults posing as pre-adolescent girls and boys would go on Internet chat-rooms and the like, "meeting" adult men online, who would agree to meet the "girl" at a particular location. Instead, the Dateline reporter and camera-crew were there. They would thence harangue the predator at length for his deed. This is very close to entrapment. It is in any case far more ethically-challenged than what the ACORN pair did — and it must be said, quite a bit less ballsy.

Here’s another irony: one of Sarah Palin’s network Inquisitors (he asked her to define the "Bush doctrine") was queried about the ACORN story after it became public. He professed ignorance of the whole thing. When the details were revealed to him, he suggested that "it better be left to the cable networks."

What’s this have to do with Barack Obama? Years ago, the president got his own start as a community organizer with ACORN. Thereafter, he seems to have remained involved with the group in one capacity or another. ACORN, in turn, employed its organizational muscle to register voters for the Obama campaign, both in the Democratic primaries and in the general election last year. It was part of a campaign which, beating the odds (a first-term Senator versus the former First Lady of the United States), was one of the most successful ever conducted in American politics. ACORN was rewarded in return. After the election, the U.S. census was brought within the direct aegis, apparently for the first time, of the White House. ACORN was given some or much control (depending on the account) of the census-taking, the first time an independent non-governmental organization has been given such responsibility (apparently). As mentioned, this contract has now been cancelled. But is it really so advisable permit a private organization with an implicit or avowed ideological intent (ie., "social change") to be responsible for the enumeration of all the people and things in the United States? There had been accusations of malfeasance, chiefly in regard to voter-registration fraud, directed at ACORN earlier. These were or are under investigation by authorities in at least one U.S. state. However, it seems that the chief witnesses in these cases were former ACORN officials who were themselves fired for their own malfeasance (including one woman who used an organization credit-card for personal items). The hidden-camera stuff really blew the lid off things, though.

Did the attempt at "quarantining" Fox news on the part of the Obama White House, come in reaction to the ACORN revelations? It is, in any case, very reminiscent of the crusade on the part of Nixon vice-president Spiro Agnew against the "nattering nabobs of negativism" in the network news and major dailies. Except, it is even more outrageous than that. Agnew condemned the press corps generally, and never a reporter or newscaster by name. Obama’s team is going after one single media source, the one that happens to be playing the role of loyal opposition at this time. Some commentators have remarked as to the "lack of wisdom" in attacking the news media, but it is of course only one news organization. It is a news service whose very existence is roundly despised by very influential people academia, the rest of the news media, the U.S. government, and it seems, within the executive branch itself. Attacking Fox cable-news for its "lies" and "bias" will energize the braying, hateful, elitist base of the Democratic party. Right now, the Obama government needs that shot in the arm.

Update, Oct. 23, 2009:

Other information I came across after writing my previous entry, demonstrates that the Obama government’s conduct toward Fox cable-news is even more outrageous than I thought.

One of the Obama officials attacking Fox news I didn’t quote was David Axelrod, the president’s legal advisor. Axelrod not only echoed the government’s talking-points in reiterating (according to the Politico web site, Oct. 18, 2009), "that they’re not really a news station if you watch even — it’s not just their commentators, but a lot of their news programming", he also went to say as a guest of an ABC-TV political programme — this is the real heart of Obama’s contempt for democracy and freedom of the press — "the bigger thing is that other news organizations like yours ought not to treat them that way, and we’re not going to treat them that way." In essence, Alexrod is saying that other news organizations should join the Obama White House in blacklisting Fox cable.

What’s more, it’s quite clear that Obama and his officials are attacking Fox not because of any factual errors the latter has allegedly committed — the critics would be detailing these errors — but because, as Fox news host Chris Wallace (son of the legendary 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace) stated, it was just because its researchers had the temerity to fact-check a statement made by one of its deputy cabinet secretaries. According to the New York Times (Oct. 23, 2009), the "spur" for declaring war on Fox cable was when "Executives at other news organizations, including The New York Times, had publicly said that their newsrooms had not been fast enough in following stories that Fox News, to the administration’s chagrin, had been heavily covering through the summer and early fall — namely, past statements and affiliations of the White House adviser Van Jones that ultimately led to his resignation and questions surrounding the community activist group Acorn."

So, it seems my presumptions were correct: the Obama government did start its blacklist campaign against Fox news following the news of the ACORN hidden-camera revelations, and the damage it apparently did to this group, steadfast allies of Barack Obama throughout his career. It gets even worse, though, according to the Times: "Fox’s television news competitors refused to go along with a Treasury Department effort on Tuesday to exclude Fox from a round of interviews with the executive-pay czar Kenneth R. Feinberg that was to be conducted with a `pool’ camera crew shared by all the networks. That followed a pointed question at a White House briefing this week by Jake Tapper, an ABC News correspondent, about the administration’s treatment of `one of our sister organizations.’"

It is evident that, among other U.S. news organizations, there is as much love for Fox news as there is within the Obama government. Perhaps it is enlightened self-interest, but it is hardly universal. In Newsweek magazine (on-line, Oct. 17, 2009, newsstand date, Oct. 26, 2009), a periodical that is advertising the fact on this week’s issue, that they are the only new organization that doesn’t view vice-president Joe Biden as a fool, columnist Jacob Weisberg stated that not only is Fox cable "garbage", this is standard fare among the left-wing elite, but it is "un-American."

Weisberg even "accuses" the Fox news-stories on this matter, of denying " the accusation with a straight face while proceeding to confirm it with its coverage." The columnist criticizes Fox for "citing no one" to "confirm the truth" of the White House attack, or to admit "that it could make sense for Obama to challenge the network’s power." This, while Weisberg himself fails to cite any critic of his own views, nor yet to challenge the notion that the executive branch ought to be using its power to challenge Fox news. He then goes on, with a straight face apparently (from the attached image at the Newsweek web site, it’s hard to image Harold Weisberg ever actually smiling, though), that "What's most distinctive about the American press is not its freedom but its century-old tradition of independence—that it serves the public interest rather than those of parties, persuasions, or pressure groups." Just to restate, this comes from a publication that has been — in common with all news services but Fox cable-news — a cheerleader for Barack Obama and "progressive" causes in general.

Weisberg, in fact, doesn’t seem to be representative of colleagues in the left-wing mainstream media. On the other hand, the remaining news services have demonstrated a quietude about this attempt to demonize Fox news, where they would be screaming "Dictator!" and "Un-American", if it were a Republican president who was attempting to demonize one single outlet that did its best to demonize his government (not mentioning any names here). Susan Estrich, a long-time Democratic party operative, is also a Fox cable-news analyst. In an interview transmitted Oct. 21, 2009, Estrich said that what " don't get is why the mainstream media, which, frankly, would go absolutely nuts if George Bush had singled out MSNBC and said, you know, Nobody follow them, they're not really a news organization, and we're going to boycott — I mean, all my friends in the 1st Amendment crowd would be up in arms, saying, you know, the government shouldn't be dictating to news organizations. And I've been a little stunned, frankly, by the silence from the press."

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