Some mainstream journalists still stand up to censorship
Big Brother Bush-Cheney have yet to totally break our spirits
By Jackson Thoreau
05/25/03: In 1984, at the height of Reagan’s militarism, the editor of a Texas suburban newspaper - where I had worked as a reporter for two years right out of college - told me the paper could not print a feature article I wrote on a local woman who began a nuclear weapons freeze organization because it would "upset" advertisers. After all, many of those advertisers worked for the U.S. military/industrial complex.
This is a situation that sadly is more common in today’s media environment than it was in 1984. I had a choice back then: I could meekly resign myself to this ethical roadblock and go back to work, or I could quit my job in protest and find another way to get the story to the public. I was 24, probably even more liberal and idealistic than I am now, and the proverbial "angry young man" who wasn’t going to compromise my idealism and integrity or let anyone stop me from my mission to expose our society’s evil bastards. I was single and didn’t have to worry about feeding a family, as I do now. So, of course, I chose the latter option. I took the story to a competition paper - which published it - and submitted my letter of resignation to my boss. I didn’t regret it then, and I don’t regret it now. In fact, I’m prouder of my stand now, despite what my parents and others think.
I didn’t just quit my job in protest – I joined an intensive, Survivor-like protest march against the worldwide nuclear arms race across this country and Europe to Russia. The stand I took on my former job helped me march some 5,000 miles for the next 18 months. But not even walking all those miles lessened the anger in me or my resolve to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Once that was over, I returned to journalism in Texas, starting with weekly suburban newspapers and eventually working as a reporter for a bureau of one of the largest newspapers in the Southwest. Though I had to confront numerous other times in which stories I suggested or did were shot down for various excuses, I did not resign in protest again. I tried to work within the limited corporate framework, taking consolation in small victories, such as being able to cover certain peace demonstrations and progressive causes. I was one of the few to give a voice to local progressive community activists who were shunned by many media outlets. With one of those activists, I wrote a book on the history of a certain Texas city that was viewed as opening the door to greater understanding of the plight of minorities and the disenfranchised.
But that still wasn’t enough for me. The large newspaper where I started working in the mid-1990s had this hypocritical policy that reporters and editors could not express any political viewpoint beyond voting, supposedly because doing so would compromise our so-called "objectivity," one of many journalism myths with which I had problems. Although many large U.S. papers, including the Washington Post and New York Times, have this suppressive policy, that doesn’t make it right. Europe is more progressive in this area - the leading papers defend the political rights of journalists.
In my case, I thought I could adequately separate my professional and personal life, while retaining my Constitutional rights. I mean, what my employer was saying was that we don’t trust you to be fair and professional in your stories if you care enough about our country to get politically involved. In effect, we are denied our Constitutional rights if we want to keep our jobs. We can’t sign petitions, participate in demonstrations, work on political campaigns or give money to candidates.
Yet, the senior managers could do all that and more – most gave boatloads of cash to conservative politicians. This hypocrisy not only burned me up on the face of it – our upper bosses could flaunt a policy they placed on us – but here we were, an institution that was supposed to support the First Amendment, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to issue hypocritical policies, freedom to find ways to get around them, and we were not exactly practicing what we preached.
Not wanting to openly protest this policy by quitting again because I had a family by this time and I thought I needed the job, the rebel part of me had to find ways to break that policy without getting caught. It became an on-the-edge type of engagement to me, one that gave me a somewhat exciting double life to lead. I attended demonstrations on the guise of covering them for the paper, and usually I would use material and quotes in later stories. I used a pseudonym – my late dog’s name, Jackson - to sign petitions. I helped the campaigns of progressive candidates in ways that I hoped would not be detected. This went on for all of the ten years I worked for that media company.
There were a few times when I thought I would be fired, such as when the book, which we originally self-published before I began working for this larger media company, was reprinted by a local publisher while I worked for that firm. But my immediate supervisor was a cool guy – for a moderate Republican - who also knew the activist, and he probably helped save my job.
After Bush Inc. stole the 2000 presidential election, I became much more active. I added the Thoreau last name to my pseudonym to honor one of my favorite writers and Americans. I began arguing with conservatives on message boards, chat rooms and anyplace I could. I started contributing to progressive electronic journals and Web sites using this pseudonym.
However, there wasn’t much my immediate supervisor could do to keep me from being laid off from my job a year after Bush’s coup, after a decade with that newspaper company. They gave the excuse that all companies give – tough economic times – even though that company was doing fine on its bottom line. Indeed, many big firms making huge layoffs these days are still making good money. The greedy bastards at the top just want more – and Bush and Co. help give it to them with their corporate-friendly policies and tax cuts that mostly benefit these wealthy, greedy bastards.
I thought the layoff had a lot to do with my 40-something age – they had to pay reporters like me more than the ones fresh out of college, even though I sure wasn’t making much. I also suspected it could have had something to do with the book I wrote and my liberal activities. I filed a complaint with the Texas Human Rights Commission, but that, predictably, went nowhere in union-busting Texas, which sides with corporate management on most issues.
I continue to this day to expose and work against Bush-Cheney through my writings and activism, mostly under my pseudonym, which has become more popular than my real name. I have found other ways to make a living to feed my family, including as a photographer, book author and all-around handyman. Fortunately, I’m a man of many talents, and I have discovered, in fact, that I don’t need to keep a low-paying newspaper job whose fascist owners take away our Constitutional rights to survive. Although the mainstream media needs progressive journalists, the thought of working full-time for another such newspaper nauseates me.
But I think it’s important for readers, especially those who criticize the mainstream media with a wide brush, to know something about my story. You never know how many other reporters are doing something like I did, leading a sort of double life because they believe in that basic journalism tenet to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Unless they are a journalist like Seymour Hersh or Molly Ivins, they can’t really openly carry out that principle in today’s upbeat-lifestyle-good-news-bad-news-only-if-it-involves-a-non-Republican-dominated corporate media environment.
Many reporters today are ordered to concentrate on safe puff pieces that speak favorably about companies that advertise. Others are forced to focus on lifestyle stories on the latest high-tech gadget or how to open an IRA - news you can supposedly use - and to make sure you get "real people" to say something to make it appear like the media cares about what the average reader thinks. A few reporters are allowed to chase government and even corporate secrets to make it look like the media still wants to do its job, but their numbers are dwindling and their reports are watered down beside the puff pieces.
Still, some journalists find other ways to live out the afflicted principle, as I did and am doing. And you will never hear about most of those ways.
In recent months, there has been an alarming increase in the number of mainstream reporters fired or reprimanded for simply exercising their Constitutional rights. The result is just what the Bush-Cheney New World Odor [yes, I mean, "Odor," as in these heartless elitists stink like crap] wants: an increasing working environment of fear in which people goosestep behind their political leaders or stay silent because they are afraid for their jobs or even their lives. I feel for these reporters. As much as progressives like to complain about the media - and I do my share - I also realize the constraints of the profession. It’s hard to quit a job in protest – or even mildly go against the grain - when you have to feed a family in a tough job market. Members of the Bush-Cheney New World Odor know this. It’s all part of the plan. It’s why we have a tough job market today. That’s right, the New World Odor wants a tough economic market to better control us.
In the face of this fascist environment, the convictions and courage of some mainstream journalists continue to inspire me. Henry Norr, a former technology columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, was fired in April for participating in a demonstration against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That came despite that newspaper not having a policy that reporters or columnists could not participate in demonstrations at that time. The paper has since implemented such a hypocritical, fascist policy against employees taking part in actions against the war that has had a chilling effect on the newsroom, even though corporate bigwigs are free to engage in whatever political activity they want. Norr also covered areas largely unrelated to politics and war.
Norr has filed several complaints with state commissions, including the California State Labor Commission, which prohibits employers from interfering with the political activity of employees. But as he said, at least one media corporation in another state got around a similar law by saying – in a bit of Orwellian doublespeak that Bush-Cheney would be proud of - that the First Amendment gave newspaper owners the right to limit the free speech of employees.
As he awaits decisions from the commissions, Norr continues to take action - he was shot in the leg with a wooden dowel in Oakland and arrested for civil disobedience outside the gates of Lockheed-Martin, the world’s largest arms manufacturer. "I intend to continue exercising my constitutional rights and my moral obligation, as I see it, to oppose the Bush Administration’s reckless and illegal imperial adventures," he wrote in a statement published recently in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "Someday I may have grandchildren who ask my daughters what our family did in the face of this madness. At least they’ll be able to say we all tried to make our voices heard - my wife and both of my daughters have also been arrested in civil disobedience this month. And I’m glad to know they won’t have to say that I just stood on the sidelines for fear of retaliation from my employer."
Ed Gernon is another casualty of these McCarthyism times when you can’t even comment in general about what our country is like without being fired. The veteran TV producer was fired in April from the company that produced the CBS mini-series Hitler after this comment about that project in TV Guide: "It basically boils down to an entire nation gripped by fear, who ultimately chose to give up their civil rights and plunge the whole nation into war. I can’t think of a better time to examine this history than now." What’s wrong with that, besides using "who" rather than "that?"
Another note for conspiracy theorists: TV Guide is owned by far-right media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Was Gernon set up? At the very least, his firing for expressing an opinion about a society when such opinions were suppressed further proves his point about the parallels between 1930s Nazi Germany and present-day U.S.
Not even a respected Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent like Peter Arnett can get away with saying general comments. He was fired by NBC in March after saying on an Iraqi television station that war planners "misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces" and that there was "a growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war." An NBC statement said, "It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV - especially at a time of war - and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview."
Why is it ever wrong to state opinions in a so-called "free society?" Could it be that our society is not as free as we like to think it is? Why does our "free society" have to stop allowing freedom of speech and the press when there is a war? Could it be because those opinions might get in the way of executing that war and reduce advertising and thus media owners’ profits? So much for freedom of speech and the press by such hypocritical, greedy media owners.
I don’t buy the argument that Arnett’s comments could have led to more American troops dying, or that he shouldn’t be talking to Iraqi media. American and Iraqi troops and as many as 10,000 Iraqi civilians died because Bush-Cheney invaded Iraq for their own selfish political and economic reasons, not because of anything Arnett said. Put the blood on Bush-Cheney’s hands. And to really get beyond war, we have to stop seeing everything in nationalistic terms. As Tom Paine said, "My country is the world." But of course, Bush-Cheney won’t stop the patriotic nationalism wave because it keeps them in power.
Republicanazi Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky and others even called for Arnett, who quickly found another job with England’s Daily Mirror, to be arrested and tried for treason. And people in this country still think there are no parallels to Nazi Germany here?
The corporate masters even want to control our private thoughts. Former Fort Worth Star-Telegram business reporter Steve McLinden was axed in March for simply sending a private email critical of a political fascist group called Young Conservatives of Texas. Like Norr, McLinden’s job had little to do with politics, and he wasn’t even getting arrested in a demonstration. All McLinden did was send an email to this group in response to a mass email sent by the conservative group announcing its plans to protest an Austin speech by Our Last Elected President Clinton in February. The hypocritical fascists, who call on others to take responsibility but look for someone to blame whenever something goes wrong under a Republican regime, predictably blamed the Sept. 11 terrorist acts on Clinton. That was despite those actions happening under Bush, who had plenty of warning and went on a month-long vacation right before Sept. 11, 2001, and despite Republicans’ long history of support for military aid and training to terrorists like bin Laden.
As the Fort Worth Weekly pointed out, Young Conservatives of Texas is the same group that has objected to Rice University’s annual Hispanic Professionals’ Leadership Day, called affirmative action "anti-white," labeled an idea by Democrat Ron Kirk to require high school students to perform community service as a "scheme for Soviet-style social engineering at the hands of Washington bureaucrats," and filed complaints against Texas hospitals that provide non-emergency care to undocumented immigrants.
So McLinden had every right to send a private email – he didn’t even roast this group in public as the Weekly did – stating that he did not like this organization’s actions. McLinden did so in admirable colorful fashion: "Ah, the heartless, greedy, anti-intellectual little fascists are mobilizing again. Let me guess. All you frat boys saved up your allowances and monies from your McDonald’s jobs for those Beemers you’ll be driving to the protest, and those new jackboots you’ll be sportin’ en route. Hey, don’t forget all the nasty little deals that Reagan’s henchmen cut with Middle East figures that got us directly into this mess today. I’m sure you’ll be protesting the Reagan household any day now. By the way, is it not enough to have the White House and Congress? Would you like to stamp out all signs that we are a two-party, Democratic country? What’s that? You would? How noble of you. I salute you and your polarized, little status-quo world."
Touche. I couldn’t have written a better response myself. I sent such biting, sarcastic emails to similar fascist groups many times when I was employed under the Thou Shall Not State a Political Opinion Newspaper Slave Owners – I just was smart enough to use a pseudonym and not the company computer.
Then came the fascist owners who control McLinden’s former place of employment, who were informed of the sarcastic email by another mailing by the Young Conservatives. His boss actually sent the conservatives an email apologizing for McLinden’s PRIVATE comments and promptly fired McLinden, who has SIX children. He was canned despite the Young Conservatives making clear in another press release it did not want McLinden fired. So why did the Star-Telegram fire McLinden? To send another chilling, Nazi-like message to its employees that you have no political rights, you are our slaves. We even want to control your PRIVATE thoughts. That is the ultimate Orwellian nightmare coming home to roost.
There are several other examples of such firings. Dan Guthrie, a former columnist for the Grants Pass Daily Courier in Oregon, was fired for describing Bush as "hiding in a Nebraska hole" rather than returning to Washington immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. Tom Gutting, former city editor of the Texas City Sun, was also fired after he wrote that Bush "was flying around the country like a scared child seeking refuge in his mother’s bed after having a nightmare."
Las Vegas Mercury editor Geoff Schumacher was among those to condemn such firings. He quoted author Barbara Kingsolver: "It’s a fact of our culture that the loudest mouths get the most airplay, and the loudmouths are saying now that in times of crisis it is treasonous to question our leaders. Nonsense. That kind of thinking let fascism grow out of the international depression of the 1930s. In critical times, our leaders need most to be influenced by the moderating force of dissent. That is the basis of democracy, in sickness and in health, and especially when national choices are difficult, and bear grave consequences."
Finally, most people have heard that MSNBC fired Phil Donahue in February. But most probably do not know about MSNBC officials’ real reasons, not the fake ones about supposed low ratings. Donahue was a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war," according to a company memo. In effect, Donahue was fired simply because he is liberal, still another McCarthyism action.
Then there are those journalists who are not fired from their jobs but lose columns or other forums. Brent Flynn, a reporter for the Lewisville Leader in Texas, saw his column axed earlier this year after he wrote about a Dallas anti-war demonstration in which he participated. "It is ironic that after writing a forceful essay in support of the first amendment, my column was cancelled," Flynn wrote in a note on his personal Web site [http://brentflynn.com/brent/useful_idiots.htm]. "I was told that because I had attended an anti-war rally, I had violated the newspaper’s ethics policy that prohibits members of the editorial staff from participating in any political activity other than voting. I am convinced that if my column was supportive of the war and it was a pro-war rally that I attended, they would not have dared to cancel my column..…
"I was also told that my objectivity as a reporter would be called into question. However, my opposition to an invasion of Iraq was well documented in previous columns before I revealed that I had participated in the protest. But instead of taking me off of my beat or terminating my employment as a staff reporter, my opinion column was cancelled - the aspect of my job that was enhanced by my participation in the rally. In my opinion, a powerful liberal voice was unwelcome in the conservative Republican county served by my newspaper. The fact that the column was cancelled just days before the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq raises serious questions about the motives for the cancellation."
Flynn continues to be a news reporter for the paper, while writing more interesting columns on his Internet site.
Kurt Hauglie, a former reporter and columnist for Michigan’s Huron Daily Tribune, actually resigned in protest from the paper in March after his bosses declined to publish an anti-war column he wrote because it might upset readers.
Meanwhile, right-wing radio disc jocks like Clear Channel’s Glenn Beck – who admittedly aren’t really journalists – can go as far as to organize, not just attend and participate in, pro-war rallies.
Another case came in April when NBC reporter Ashleigh Banfield was rebuked by network President Neal Shapiro for saying in a speech at Kansas State University that television reporters sugarcoated Iraqi war coverage with patriotism and did not show the realities of the conflict. Banfield’s comments were true. For example, CNN’s Moneyline host Lou Dobbs appeared on camera with an American flag pin in his lapel and called weapons inspection head Hans Blix "a petulant UN bureaucrat." No one dared broadcast pictures of Iraqi children blown to bits by our "smart bombs." The bottom line is that NBC bigwigs don’t really care as much about telling the truth as they do about making the bucks.
Perhaps some of these reporters really are scared for their lives during wartime and don’t want to further risk their lives by getting the U.S. military mad. Reporters Without Borders, which ranks the U.S. 17th in press freedom with Finland, Iceland, Norway and Holland at the top, accused the U.S. Defense Department and the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission of ignoring its demands for a proper search for two journalists that were missing in southern Iraq for a month. The agencies also refused to investigate deaths of several journalists there. Those are real concerns.
There are numerous other forms of censorship occurring. The country band Dixie Chicks were taken off the air of several radio stations simply for questioning the Iraqi invasion and saying they were ashamed that Bush is from their home state. Right-wingers have organized a campaign to revoke filmmaker Michael Moore’s Oscar and try to keep Bowling for Columbine out of theaters..
The Web site YellowTimes.org, which features original anti-war commentary, was shut down by its Internet hosting company in March, after it posted images of U.S. POWs and Iraqi civilian victims of the war. Orlando-based Vortech Hosting told Yellow Times in an e-mail, "Your account has been suspended because [of] inappropriate graphic material," according to a press release by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting.
Another Vortech email said, "As ‘NO’ TV station in the U.S. is allowing any dead U.S. soldiers or POWs to be displayed and we will not either." The site is now back, however.
In two separate recent cases at malls in New York and Arkansas, people were arrested and charged with trespassing simply for wearing t-shirts with peace messages on them. They were not in the mall to protest, just to have lunch and shop. People can wear all kinds of vulgar, hateful messages on shirts in these malls, but not ones that call for peace, something which Christ and other religious leaders that so many people claim to follow have done.
While today’s society seems like it is becoming increasingly less free on the surface, perhaps there is more happening underneath that will one day unearth itself. Journalism may not be the right-the-wrongs watchdog profession I envisioned it as more than two decades ago, but some people are still trying. Maybe there are more Herbert Norrs and Kurt Hauglies in mainstream journalism willing to put their principles on the line than we realize. On the surface, the fascist owners may seem to win when they fire one of us, or make us resign in protest. But that’s only on the surface. Deep down, we push on. The firings and resignations only make us push on harder.
For instance, New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Chris Hedges gave an inspiring commencement address to Rockford [Ill.] College’s graduating class in May in which he warned of the dangers of U.S. empire.
"As we revel in our military prowess - the sophistication of our military hardware and technology, for this is what most of the press coverage consisted of in Iraq - we lose sight of the fact that just because we have the capacity to wage war it does not give us the right to wage war," Hedges said. "This capacity has doomed empires in the past….War, we have come to believe, is a spectator sport. The military and the press - remember in wartime the press is always part of the problem - have turned war into a vast video arcade came. Its very essence - death - is hidden from public view…..We no longer understand that war begins by calling for the annihilation of others but ends if we do not know when to make or maintain peace with self-annihilation. We flirt, given the potency of modern weapons, with our own destruction."
That a journalist would give such a speech at a relatively conservative university – which admittedly did not receive it well – is reason in itself for hope. Though officials actually turned off Hedges’ microphone at one point – which he called "heartbreaking" – still some got the message.
In addition, perhaps there are more journalists like me in my latter career, leading double lives and getting back at the fascists in other ways. Perhaps some like me write for progressive journals and Web sites under pseudonyms, if just to show the bastards in power that they haven’t gotten to us entirely.
Almost 20 years after the year for the setting of Orwell’s 1984 and some two decades after my resignation from a newspaper in protest of journalistic censorship, I can take comfort that some reporters are still making such stands. And unlike the characters in Orwell’s classic novel, Big Brother Bush-Cheney have yet to totally break our spirits. They can cut us with their doublespeak, jolt us with electricity. But they’ll never take the better part of us, the spirit that makes us freer than they will ever know.
Jackson Thoreau is co-author of We Will Not Get Over It: Restoring a Legitimate White House. The updated, 120,000-word electronic book can be downloaded on his Liberty and Justice For All web site at http://www.geocities.com/jacksonthor/ebook.html. Citizens for Legitimate Government has the earlier version at http://www.legitgov.org/we_will_not_get_over_it.html. Thoreau can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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