Tag Archives: free press

A Dialogue of Brutes: the Successful Attack on the Free Press

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by Guy Walker

All that’s left is constant snorting, rummaging through the garbage heap for an edible morsel. Our language has degraded into a pile of censored insults and sensitivies; our press soon nothing more than congratulatory think-pieces on Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. The president’s administration has one main prerogative—more urgent than the wall, the immigration ban, or repealing healthcare: making all dissidence slander.

When Bannon spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, it was the first time he appeared in public since Trump’s inauguration, his aura of putrid steam billowing across the ballroom like a hypnotic glaze. Supporters finally saw their man—the pale greased-up beast, occasionally scratching himself under his bristled chin—as they’d nod and reassure each other how smart a human turnip actually could be.

He sat there hunched. His gelatinous belly heaved over his sweaty and suffocating crotch, the liver spots that dazzle his face almost peeling at their corners. His eyes, tired and cavernous, are the eyes of complete and impenetrable nihilism—as if he was forced to stare at nothing but cat memes for thirty years, and now seeks revenge on the entire world.

His speech made the usual allegations, posturing conservatives as the underdog, as if they are the political embodiment of Rocky Balboa, knowing well that we humans root and holler for such figures. He said they were being unjustly attacked by the “corporatist globalist media that are adamantly opposed” to their agenda. It’s more a sophomoric tantrum than political rhetoric. It’s what they always blame liberals for doing: snowflakes who “cry and weep” when things don’t go their way—then Trump turns and tweets that SNL is “really bad television” because they made fun of him.

As chief strategist of the White House, Bannon is paralyzingly void of political acumen. He’s squirmish in his suit and tie—his natural, more charitable state is in a bulging-tight wifebeater (because it’s not an undershirt, it’s a way of life)—slouched in his sticky sofa, cursing at the news personality on the television as bits of uncooked pork rocket from his mouth. His ‘strategy’ from the beginning has been to silence dissidence, to insult those who question Trump’s infallibility. In late January, he said “the media”—in general sweeping terms—“should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and listen for a while.” In a way, it makes complete sense for Bannon to hate the news. He was, after all, executive chair of Breitbart News.

The patterned formula for Trump’s cabinet positions is to nominate someone who condemns the mere existence of that position. Betsy DeVos hates public education. Scott Pruitt sued the EPA many times before being appointed its chief administrator. Rick Perry once said he wanted to dismantle the Department of Energy (he actually forgot the name of this department, but later admitted that this was what he meant). They’re like schoolchildren giggling for wearing their underwear over their pants during Backwards Day, almost purposefully mocking the public for making us accept it.

Everything is reversed. A media tycoon hates the media. A 70-year-old baby plays with his toys of the world’s most advanced nuclear arsenal. Language is meaningless. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. We’re all floundering in the dark, trying to grab hold of something real.

Writers have long waded into the depths of cliché by referring to the actions of the opposition political party as “Orwellian” (a queer and unfitting word, as George Orwell made a career of opposing tyranny). His concept of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four is used to describe the more disparaging antics of both the left and the right ad nauseam, leveraged to whatever paranoia is most fitting: from the flailing pettiness of political correctness that spawns from scrawny self-abusing leftists, to the Nixonian litigation of the War on Drugs, condemning every magical cabbage that sprouts its head. But Trump’s administration is something entirely new: a band of shit-smeared pigs haphazardly shuffling pieces on a Scrabble board, squealing triumphantly when they get a three syllable word. When journalists from the New York Times, CNN, and Politico were recently barred from attending a Spicer press briefing—and Breitbart and America News Network greeted quickly in—a new narrative unfolds: only praise will be allowed.

Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes, and other professional conservative trolls who pose as free speech advocates, suddenly lose their platform. Their reality-show ideologue hates the freedoms of those who disagree with the minutia of his brutish declarations of absolute power. If he could, he’d fire every dissident, every skeptic and examiner of the truth.

But he doesn’t really need to. A storm cloud of disinformation has overwhelmed the modern political dialectic. The fake news phenomenon is more a pop-culture phenomenon than anything else—it’s yet another symptom of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called the “culture industry,” the churlish beast of mass culture that anesthetizes an entire generation through its pageant of entertainments. In Adorno’s 1951 book, Minima Moralia, he writes:

    “Lies have long legs: they are ahead of their time. The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power, a process that truth itself cannot escape if it is not to be annihilated by power, not only suppresses truth as in earlier despotic orders, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false, which the hirelings of logic were in any case diligently working to abolish.”

The bucktoothed carnies are in charge now, chanting their new vocabulary, requiring us to debate only in grunts and farts, the most repulsive one winning a garland of Easter basket nesting in order to better resemble their god. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” moment was testament to this—a lazy-eyed performance art of Gustave Flaubert’s famous remark, “There is no truth. There is only perception.” She tours one news station after the next, her procedural drawl resembling a sticky-fanged bobblehead, a wax paper automaton smiling larger when she lies, shifting her aching buttocks in front of another green screen. It demonstrates the annihilation of truth is a necessary prerequisite for the rise of authoritarianism—it leaves a void that is naturally occupied the quickest by power and aggression.

And it clearly works. A Fox News poll marked Americans’ distrust of “reporters” deeper than their distrust of Donald Trump. The slithering reality-show host who launched his political career by alleging that Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya, and then officially endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, has more favorability than the grossly generalized populace of journalists and talking heads. Bannon’s comments are not actual threats to shut the media up—he’s simply gloating that he can say this and get away with it. He thrives on the inflammatory, on offending entire populations of fragile leftists into yet another frenzy.

Orwell never wrote anything that argued specifically against fascism. He took it for granted that Cartesian common sense wouldn’t let a generation go entirely mad. He was, however, obsessed with language. In one of the most important political essays, Politics and the English Language—written a year before Trump shoved his veiny head out of his mother—Orwell conferred that we “ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.” He meant the hyper-intellectualization of language—speech used by many economists, politicians, academics with the intent to confuse the reader or listener under a glaze of jargon. He criticized use of ‘pretentious diction’ and ‘meaningless words’ as confabulatory, stupid, and manipulative. If Orwell could look upon today’s political arena, and listen to the level of debate and discourse, he may very well enjoy a fiendish delight in even his most pessimistic concerns being surpassed. There is nothing Daedalean or exaggerated about the Trump-Bannon-Conway approach to their speech, but rather a literal degradation of language, a dogmatically stubborn defense of adult retardation assuming the highest office in the world.

Early-stage fascism is the most opportunistic and consequential, and yet also the most fragile. As the Trump administration takes its first steps forward, it momentarily glances around to see if it can still get away with it—Trump’s affinity for Putin is obvious, as he restricts the press and puffs his chest as he does it. But he succeeds only through the sordid apathy of the public, through our splendor of the culture industry, like bugs flying stupidly towards a florescent lamp.

Obama and the Free Press, or, Why Are Pigeons Everywhere

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by Guy Walker

After half an hour of comic relapses and festal banter at last week’s Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama broke into a ten minute eulogy about the importance of a free press. It was serious, heartfelt, earning applause and an agreeable rhythm of nodding heads, everyone concluding that indeed they and Obama are essentially a single effulgent team of transparency and courage. Obama reassured the audience (which consisted of reporters, actors, and Kendall Jenner), “Our free press is why we once again recognize the real journalists who uncover the horrifying scandal and brought some measure of justice to thousands of victims throughout the world.” Maybe they’re a little tough on Obama sometimes, he later referred to, but this is testament to a healthy potent democracy. He can jab at them, they can jab at him, and consequently, they are the freest most sterling State in the world.

But there’s a problem. During Obama’s presidency, more whistleblowers and official leakers have been prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act than during all previous presidents combined. The Espionage Act was of course proposed by then President Woodrow Wilson, shortly after the US entry into World War I, in order to wage a war on spies. But under Obama’s watch, they were whistleblowers, not spies. There was Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA, who shared classified information with the press regarding the warrantless surveillance of American citizens. Stephen Jin-Woo Kim was a nuclear proliferation specialist working for the State Department, and handed intelligence about North Korea over to Fox News. John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent, gave journalists the names of two colleagues who used waterboarding to interrogate detainees. Shami Leibowitz, a former FBI Hebrew translator, leaked FBI wiretaps of the Israeli embassy to a blogger. Chelsea Manning leaked 700,000 government documents to Wikileaks, the most notable of which was a video of American Apache helicopters killing a dozen innocents, including two Reuters reporters and then the first responders. Jeffrey Sterling, also a former CIA officer, leaked classified information to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Edward Snowden, of course, handed a mass of data on the NSA surveillance program over to Glenn Greenwald. Again, the 1917 Espionage Act was designed to prosecute spies—those, as Woodrow Wilson stated, who were “born under other flags”—not those who handed information over to journalists about the scandalous and sometimes nefarious work of their own government.

But President Obama continued, personally commending Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American journalist who wrote for The Washington Post, who was jailed for nearly two years on accusations of espionage: “Last time this year we spoke of Jason’s courage as he endured the isolation of an Iranian prison. This year we see that courage in the flesh, and it’s living testament to the very idea of a free press, and a reminder of the rising level of danger and political intimidation and physical threats faced by reporters overseas. And I can make this commitment that as long as I hold this office, my administration will continue to fight for the release of American journalists held against their will, and we will not stop until they see the same freedom as Jason had.”

Supporting Rezaian’s release from an Iranian jail is obvious and banal. It’s political-speak, an easy reference that’s confident for a round of applause. What about other journalists? What about the case of Yemeni investigative journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye?

Shaye discovered that a remote village in Yemen was bombed by US-made Tomahawk missiles and cluster bombs (neither of which were a part of the Yemeni military’s arsenal), killing fourteen women and twenty-one children, and quite possibly not a single AQAP (Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula) operative. And yet Shaye was consequently imprisoned under suspicious circumstances. After a sham trial, Shaye’s supporters pressured the Yemeni government to release him, and he was set to be pardoned; but on February 2, 2011, President Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and “expressed concern” over his release, resulting in the continued imprisonment of the journalist for exposing the US involvement in the bombing of a Yemeni village.

To Obama’s credit, he did specify that he would continue to fight for American journalists, not Yemeni. But this is clearly not a matter of a truly free press, but rather that of political clout. The rule is: if you matter enough, we won’t prosecute you. David Patraeus, for example, gave his biographer and lover Paula Broadwell notebooks full of classified information, but was merely charged with a misdemeanor. Former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta allowed Zero Dark Thirty filmmakers access to the savory details about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. It’s the same reason President Obama never even sought prosecution of the major bankers responsible for the 2008 financial collapse, why former Attorney General Eric Holder admitted “some of these institutions [become] so large that it does become difficult to prosecute them,” only to return to the corporate law firm Covington & Burling immediately following his tenure with the Obama administration. Abacus Federal Savings Bank, an insignificant family-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown, jammed between two noodle shops, was the only bank indicted. It’s the same reason four Blackwater mercenaries were finally sentenced last year for the Nisour Square massacre, but the founder of the company, Erik Prince, will likely never be held accountable. Or why the guards at Abu Ghraib were sentenced for their torture methods but Donald Rumsfeld was not. There is priority and privilege at work. To be a significant enough of a player is to work with almost complete impunity.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. And the problem surely doesn’t entirely fall onto Obama’s shoulders. It was here all along.

In a lecture Noam Chomsky gave on March 15, 1989, entitled “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” he spoke of two very different, yet strikingly similar cases of freedom of the press. The first being the famous case of Salman Rushdie and his novel Satanic Verses. At the time, then Supreme Leader of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers for printing such beastly words. A couple days before Chomsky’s lecture, the Prime Minister of Iran proposed that a compromise could be made, and if all of the copies of the heinous book were to be burned then the fatwa would presumably be revoked.

The second case Chomsky referred to was one that he was personally involved in. A book he co-authored in 1974 with Edward Herman (who also co-authored the book Manufacturing Consent with Chomsky) about American foreign policy and mass media, was published by a subsidiary of Warner Communications Incorporated. When an executive at Warner saw he book, he disliked it so much he responded by pulping not just all 20,000 copies that were published, but all books published by that subsidiary, ending the company entirely. Chomsky grimly jokes that the only difference between the Rushdie case and his own is that Warner actually carried it out.

A free press is always in jeopardy by its own limitations, by the actors of secrets, power, and worship. This is larger than President Obama. Hegel’s dialectical “power of negation” is clearly at work—that is, opposites do not cancel or neutralize each other, but rather develop into one another until they are both monstrous bodies of unrecognizable flesh. The more whistleblowers there are exposing its governments’ various libidinal affairs with autocracy, the more the government will crack down on whistleblowers, and the more whistleblowers will counter and expose. And on and on, until there is nothing left but beige flattened forms of scandal, and the rest of us just a herd of troglodytic squatters on American soil. It’s the free press that lets us live, the free press that lets us breed and spread across the universe. Kendall Jenner and Will Smith applauding that liberty is still with us. It takes us back to the old question: why are pigeons everywhere if they’re so stupid? Because they love trash.