2011/04/20

Corporate overreach and who the media focuses on


There certainly are a number of good things I can say about private enterprise. There are many areas of the economy that it handles better than either straight government control or even heavily-regulated utilities do. Education, though, really isn't one of those areas. The essential problem here seems to be that people agree that an educational institution should be run efficiently and effectively, but the idea of “running government like a business” should really end right there. Often, the interests of a business and the consumers and/or stockholders of that business are the same. In those cases, the business model is a good one. In the case of educational institutions though, the interests of society as a whole in educating as many young citizens as possible is in conflict with the business' need to save on resources and to not toss money into difficult cases.

The piece that I linked to goes over the experience of Seattle and out-of-state students. Those students pay $25,000 as opposed to in-state students, who pay $11,000. That's fine as long as the institution is controlled by the state and where the state can insist that the institution carry a certain percentage of in-state students. In this case however, the institution is controlled by private enterprise and as the institution wants to make money, they lowered their percentage of in-state students so that they could take in more-profitable out-of-state students. Very simply, there's a conflict of interests between what's good for the State of Washington and what's good for the private entity of the University of Washington.

It's hardly in the interest of students to be saddled with thousands of dollars in student loans that get used to make the educational institution profitable, but that situation is fine by private educational institutions as they make lots of money that way. Only a government-run institution cares about lowering the financial burden on students as managers and stockholders of a private company are perfectly happy to pass that burden on. Socializing the costs of doing business is what businesses do.

Another serious conflict of interest occurs with our press corps. The Tea Party was, from the very beginning, as astroturf organization, funded by billionaires (Americans for Prosperity, i.e., the Koch brothers) and given millions of dollars of free publicity by Fox News. After Madison, Wisconsin saw protests of up to 100,000 pro-union members, the protest rally held there on April 17th was a grand, whopping 6,500. And as the 3rd, 4th and 5th videos in this post make clear, the equally large crowd of Tea Party opponents was there to boo the headliners Sarah Palin and Andrew Brietbart. But both CNN (The 1st video) and Fox News (The 2nd) photographed the rally in such a way as to hide the miserably poor size of the crowd and adjust their sound so that their TV audiences can't hear the booing. As Rachel Maddow pointed out on the 18th, the Tea Party is pretty much dead as a movement. The only Americans who don't appear to have gotten the memo on that seem to be the traditional Beltway media people.

An old and still really annoying example of media coverage of electoral victories are the two Time Magazine covers of the Republican electoral victory of 1994 (A charging elephant) and the Democratic electoral victory of 2006 (A %$#&@!!! Venn diagram). In both cases, a party re-won both Houses of Congress after a period in the wilderness, but Republicans were given a cover that had some drama. This week, the Sunday talk shows featured Tea Party spokespeople and gee, somehow forgot to include any progressives to provide any sort of balance. Tea Party folks frame the disputes over the Federal budget as though it were a family budget, which it most certainly is not. The most direct example of the difference is that families can't issue bonds, but the Federal governments' ability to do so makes it possible to engage in deficit spending. No one is supplied to the show to make this very elementary point and thus, this Republican talking point goes completely unchallenged.

Okay. I'm sure that if the executive producer of This Week responded to my emails, he would say that having representatives from the majority party is an appropriate booking and that the Tea Party caucus is a notable movement of today. That's an arguable position to take. However, how many freshman Democratic reps did ABC book after the Democratic sweep of 2008. None. I would also suggest that the media seems more enthralled by the tea party movement than most Americans. Why else would they cover exhaustively a few dozen protesters in Boca Raton and ignore the thousands protesting BP's environmental violations?

There are, I suppose, two possible answers.

My father was in the Navy, I'm a Navy veteran myself (PN3, 1991-2001) and was very interested in military history long before I joined up, so I tend to “project” my own view of how reality works onto everyone else, that is, I tend to think that the media reports in a particular way because they're receiving orders from people they recognize as being either their lawful superiors or as having essentially that sort of authority.

I found it very difficult to avoid that view when it came to Ann Coulter suddenly taking it into her head that the “9/11 Widows” or the “Jersey Girls” were “reveling in their status as celebrities.” Despite MSNBC persons reacting to her statements with horror, Coulter was interviewed twice on June 6th, once on June 14th, again on June 26th and yet again on July 14th. At no time did MSNBC invite the widows on to respond to Coulter's charges. And while a few of them have appeared in the media since, America essentially stopped hearing from them.

Considering that the Widows were a real embarrassment to the Bush Administration, pushing them into forming the 9-11 Commission and then complaining that the investigation left lots of loose ends unresolved (See especially Kristin Breitweiser's challenge to Karl Rove at the link), I saw Coulter and MSNBC as both having received orders from President Bush and/or Vice-President Dick Cheney to do those interviews and get it out to the country that the Widows were now to be avoided.

Where would this relationship of the government and the press have started? In 1981, the media embarrassed President Reagan by uncovering the El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador and Reagan promptly set about disciplining the media. Raymond Bonner of the NY Times took an immense amount of criticism. Bonner was pushed out of any further reporting for the NY Times, even though he was vindicated several years later.

A really interesting example to test this thesis would be the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In 2004, Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry (D-MA) was looking as though he had a lock on veterans after his flags and banners nominating convention. The Swift Boat Vets produced lots and lots of sound and fury and all sorts of charges, none of which turned out to be valid. I never had much doubt that the group was simply an extension of the Bush-Cheney campaign and sure enough, there was plenty of evidence that they took their instructions directly from the Bush-Cheney reelection effort. What was very clear at the time was that the effort was receiving top-notch legal advice. They were very expertly maneuvered around campaign finance and disclosure laws so as to appear as independent as possible for as long as possible.

The entire month of August 2004 saw an intense focus on the Swift Boat Vets by the media, which concentrated on them to the severe detriment of many other, more pressing and urgent issues. Granted $20 million buys a lot of ads and makes one a formidable campaign presence, but was the media focus due to orders or did they just take clever advantage of media weakness?

When the ad hoc group known as the Swift Boat Vets launched their attack on 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Kerry, the group quickly achieved media stardom and became a household name. Their accusations that Kerry misrepresented his Vietnam record and didn’t deserve his numerous decorations—“Kerry’s phony war crimes charges, and his exaggerated claims about his service in Vietnam,” as one ad put it—were repeated endlessly as Swift Boat leaders became ubiquitous TV guests, often accompanied by free re-airings of their spots. These dramatic claims gave a significant boost to George W. Bush’s campaign by casting doubt on Kerry’s honesty and tarnishing his image as war hero; some credit the group with a major role in Kerry’s defeat.

FAIR brings up an extremely good point, the Swift Boat Vets had a large cheering section in the rest of the media and were thus armed with powerful loudspeakers in terms of access to major media players. The non-profit advocacy group FactCheck.org certainly made itself felt by refusing to come down definitively against the Swift Boat Vet ads (Though they came out very strongly against a NARAL ad almost exactly a year later).

Could it be that the news outlets that gave round-the-clock coverage to the Swift Boat Vets were not being ordered to do so, but were simply interested in the business side of the issue? That Republicans and Republican-sympathizing rich people were handing papers and news programs a ready-made story, complete with cool pictures and public-interest-piquing charges? After all, the Swift Boat Vets were always available for interviews and offered programs a reason to go delving into past history, which is, was and always will be less controversial than current issues.

Yeah, that could be the case. At the minimum, people's motivations for doing things can be very tangled and reason can be fuzzy and obscure even to the people involved.

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