Man Bites Watchdogs
“This is actually a quite unique event,” said Sut Jhally, settling in at the podium. “I thought this was going to be a progressive conference that put the analysis of propaganda at its center. In fact, it has turned into an example of the operation of propaganda itself.”
Jhally had just insulted the people who’d invited him to Chicago to speak. “I wanted to give that to you up front,” he told his audience. Then he began his lecture. He’d explain why he was fuming when the time came.
Jhally’s host was Chicago Media Watch, a grassroots organization haunted by mounting evidence that the American media are being taken over by a handful of massive corporations. In CMW’s view these corporations skew and limit the news, and therefore they must be opposed and alternative viewpoints championed. CMW thinks of its primary mission as educational.
It’s far from alone in its beliefs. As media giants absorb one another to create behemoths–locally the Tribune Company is example A–some of the more progressive ants at the feet of the elephants have organized. CMW publishes a newsletter, holds conferences, and wants to create a program it can take into schools. The younger Chicago Independent Media Center–Chicago Indymedia for short–fights fire with fire. Part of a national network of similar outlets, it maintains a Web site “designed to promote alternative views that counter the corporate media’s distortions.” The site’s open to anyone who wants to post on it.
Jhally, a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts and executive director of the Media Education Foundation, is famous for his studies of how advertising and marketing work on the public mind. He’d starred at CMW’s 2000 conference, and CMW enthusiastically invited him back. The theme of the 2002 conference, held November 2 at Loyola University’s Crown Center, was “Propaganda: War, Terror and the U.S. Empire.” Its purpose, to quote the program, was to “examine the various modes of propaganda used to convince Americans that war is moral and necessary, that civil liberties are expensive luxuries, and that there are no alternatives.” That public opinion is now being manipulated was not at issue here; the audience showed up to hear about the techniques that have made the manipulation so effective.
But Jhally had chosen a subject–perhaps the only subject–that actually does divide media progressives. He intended to argue that the Israeli government is brilliantly manipulating American public opinion against the Palestinians. And so CMW president Liane Casten had asked someone else to follow him to the microphone and give Israel’s side. Jhally arrived at midday, got the lay of the land, and was so furious he promptly canceled his hotel reservation and booked a six o’clock flight back home.
But he went through with his lecture. He told his audience he’d come to “unpack” the American public’s strong support for the Israelis, something he called “the end result of perhaps the most powerful example of propaganda and public relations we can find in the world.” The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip goes largely unexamined and the Jewish settlements unacknowledged by the American media, he said, which is why the media can reserve the concept of “retaliation” for the Israelis and condemn Palestinian violence as mindless “hatred and rage.” Stretches of time when no Jews die become times of “calm” in the American media, no matter how many Palestinians die at Israeli hands during them. Aggressive watchdog groups “cow” into silence any reporter “who wants to tell the truth.”
When Jhally’s analysis brought him to the subject of cowed reporters he was ready to circle back to the remark that began his lecture. The pressure on journalists to conform, he said, “works in other ways as well. It also works when there is an event such as this, which, as I said, I thought was a left-wing progressive event in which you may actually open the debate in some way.”
Apparently it wasn’t. “It’s not often,” he said, “I can actually point and say, ‘Here it is, actually working. This is how the propaganda works. You can change the debate. You can change the discourse within a supposedly progressive organization.’
“Let me tell you the story of how I came to speak at this conference. I’m sorry if this is going to upset someone, but nothing is gained by keeping silent. I was asked to attend this conference a few weeks ago. The last time I came I had a very good time, and although it is a very busy time for me I was happy to do it again. I responded by saying I would come, but only on a number of conditions. One of them was I wanted to speak about Israel, because this issue is not talked about. I only wanted to speak about this topic. That set off the first set of negotiations. If I had said I wanted to come and talk about Pentagon propaganda it would have been ‘Sure, great, come.’ This issue, no. I was asked, could I come and speak about something else? I said no. This was the only thing I was going to come to talk about. I was then contacted to see could I come and speak but in a debate forum, where someone else would rebut me? I asked if there was going to be someone from the Pentagon and from the corporate media to rebut other speakers. I was told no.”
Why did the rules have to be different for Jhally? Days later Casten gave me an explanation. “CMW doesn’t need to repeat what has become overwhelming media promotion for this war [against Iraq],” she said. But the intifada is more complicated. “There are so many hot buttons around the Middle East issue, so much polarization, so much rage, and so much extremism, that in good faith I could not put only one side on. It would not work. We would be roundly criticized, and justly so.”
But Jhally was telling his audience that this polarization serves the ends of the Israeli government: when any critique of Israeli conduct is regarded as a viewpoint so controversial that immediate rebuttal must be provided–in the name of fairness and balance–the critique is blunted if it’s heard at all. “No one wants to be controversial,” he said. “So look around you and see how the propaganda system works. This is, in fact, the system in operation. It’s kept a lot of people quiet. It kept me quiet a long time.”
Onstage, waiting his turn to speak, was Richard Baehr, former education director of the Illinois chapter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee–which identifies itself as “America’s pro-Israel lobby.” AIPAC, said Jhally, “is one of the very organizations, in fact, I talk about that wants to control debate. Even in this space, here, you can’t think out loud.”
Yet Jhally had. A few minutes later he was done, and when Casten took the microphone she looked every bit as grim as you’d expect a reformer to look who’d just been pilloried for being part of the problem. Wondering out loud whether to allow questions, Casten observed that though Jhally would soon have to leave, Baehr hadn’t spoken yet and she wanted to give him equal time.
“Why? Why are you giving him equal time?” screamed Chris Geovanis, who was standing in the aisle below.
“Oh, no,” said Casten to herself.
“You have done a disgusting disservice to media activists here like myself that you brought in under false pretext to have to listen to an apologist for a racist state,” Geovanis shrieked. A former CMW board member now active in Indymedia, Geovanis is a famous hothead in Chicago’s progressive media circles. She’d walked in near the end of Jhally’s lecture because she was part of the next event, the “action” panel wrapping up the conference.
“When you try to censor that individual–how dare you!” Geovanis screamed. “How could you have engaged in such a despicable act? And you have betrayed the principles of this organization. I’m ashamed to know you! I’m ashamed to know you! It’s disgusting! It’s disgusting. It’s disgraceful.”
Already the muttering had started, and Geovanis was being nudged toward the door.
“You’re a disgrace,” she continued. “You sold out the basic principles of this organization, Liane!”
Geovanis subsided, order returned, Jhally took a question, and then Casten made a statement. “I am appalled,” she said, “that anyone, anyone, would object to hearing the reason of more than one side.” Some in the audience applauded. “I am so appalled that when I was a young kid I used to believe–”
“Where’s the Pentagon?” a male voice shouted. Geovanis hadn’t been speaking only for herself.
“Yeah, where’s the Pentagon, Liane?” yelled Geovanis, still in the room.
“We don’t need a Pentagon representative,” said Casten. “We’ve got them all over our minds. We’ve got them everywhere. We’ve got them in the media. The Pentagon wasn’t invited. But in this case, because of the volatility of the situation, Chris–”
“You caved in!” yelled Geovanis.
“Oh no. I didn’t cave in. I asked Mr. Baehr to come–”
“That figures,” said Geovanis.
“–because he has information that perhaps we need to hear,” Casten said. “And I’m going to ask some of the people who cannot hold their tongues and remain civil during the rest of this discourse to get up right now and go.”
“How corporate-press-like of you,” yelled Geovanis.
“Chris, you’re a bore,” said Casten. “May I give you Richard–”
“Liane, you’re a sellout,” said Geovanis.
Jhally decided to step in. “May I just say one thing? This is not about not wanting debate,” he said. “I think the more debate the better. But the question is about this conference–”
“Thank you,” said Geovanis.
“–about what the meaning of this conference is. Why, on this issue, is it the only thing on which there has to be balance? There are differences between public events and the events of progressives who want to further the analysis and want to further the strategy. If you allow that to become what it has become now, then we’re not doing any favors for ourselves. It’s not about not having debate. It’s about what the purpose of this conference is.”
Applause. Baehr got up to speak, and Jhally walked out, along with a minority of the audience.
“If you talk we don’t have to listen,” someone shouted.
“No, you don’t,” Casten agreed. “You can close your mind. I urge everyone to close your mind.”
Far less analytical than Jhally had been, Baehr began to recite facts and history that favored Israel yet in his view had gone unreported or been misrepresented. He paused for a sip of water, and Geovanis shouted, “How much more disinformation do we have to listen to before we can ask questions?”
“Call security,” said Casten.
Baehr went on with his talk.
Jhally held court briefly outside the conference room, then left for the airport. Geovanis held court outside the conference room until Loyola security called her aside and told her to get off campus. Stopping to light a cigarette, Geovanis was taken into custody by security and turned over to the Chicago police. She was charged with criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, and spent a few hours in the women’s lockup at Belmont and Western before the police released her on her own recognizance.
Did Casten cave? Was Baehr no better than a propagandist? Was Jhally just in a snit? Is Geovanis–to quote CMW’s James Sandrolini–“the saboteur par excellence of the local scene”? Go on-line and you’ll find all the key figures assailed and defended in turn. Unfortunately for CMW, this argument hasn’t been waged on its own Web site but rather at chicago.indymedia.org, the open forum Geovanis is connected with.
Casten’s response to the tumult was to dash off a “mission statement” asserting CMW’s first principles and distribute it to board members. “Our true cause,” she declared, “are the stories not told, the public lies, the easy public relations that seduces, the trivial that substitutes for substance and the diversions away from hard reality. In this vein, we feel very confident that in bringing both Sut Jhally and Richard Baehr together on the same podium we were loyal to furthering of our clearly stated mission.” To Jhally the conference was an example of propaganda in action. To Casten it demonstrated the theories of another of the day’s speakers: “Canadian professor John McMurtry spoke of a public mind set which becomes so ingrained, so deeply imbedded into our collective psyches that no reason, no logic, no facts can persuade otherwise,” she wrote. “We see in this mini drama powerful trends: a micro symbol of the radical fury on both sides of the Middle East story, and a glimpse of what is happening across this country. Radical, fireball emotions are dictating and pressuring policy with growing intolerance for any point of view but ‘ours.’ The cancer is spreading throughout society….The Middle East has cast a long shadow; it has the power to polarize us all.”
Casten came back to a point she’d started to make at the conference. “When I was a student in high school, college and then graduate school,” she wrote, “I was taught how important it is to know the other point of view even better than to know my own….Unless there is respect and openness to reasoned analysis, John Ashcroft and his intolerance of dissent, his closing down the American mind will have won. America becomes ripe for fascism.”
And she concluded, “We will not be hijacked by any ideology no matter how ‘right’ the believers feel they are. We are open to dialogue, to debate, to education, to sharing information and to growth. I and CMW’s board are committed to nothing less.”
But Sandrolini resigned from the board the day after the conference, and other board members also complained that Casten had slipped Baehr onto the program behind their backs. Last Sunday ten media activists met at the Indymedia offices on Diversey to form a new organization, the Chicago Progressive Media Working Group. Geovanis was one of the ten. Six of the others were from CMW. Sandrolini stayed away because he knows he can’t work with Geovanis, even though he’s probably closer to her philosophically than he is to Casten.
Mitchell Szczepanczyk, a CMW Web master also active with Indymedia, is an organizer. He complains that CMW isn’t active enough. “CPMWP’s first project,” he says, “would be monitoring the Chicago media’s–say, the Tribune and NBC–Chicago coverage.” There’s an urgency to this assignment, he says, since the FCC is now considering whether to eliminate the few remaining regulations that set limits on the number of media a single owner can operate in a given area.
If you accept the argument for deregulation, you believe that consumers enjoy too many media choices these days for deregulation to imperil the flow of information. Media activists think that argument’s bogus and want to prove it.
To give you an idea of the kind of media concentration that appalls them, consider a presentation by Tribune Company officials at a Salomon Smith Barney conference early last year. They boasted that their company reached 80 percent of America’s households, owned the biggest newspapers in metropolitan Chicago and Los Angeles and the second biggest in New York, and was the only media company with newspapers, TV stations, and interactive sites in all three markets. It owned TV stations in 10 of the top 12 markets, and thanks to “loosened FCC regulations,” already owned two stations in Seattle and New Orleans and was “aggressively looking for more opportunities to double up.”
Pat Mullen, today the president of Tribune Television, explained that the company was “using our cross-media assets to cross-promote our properties….Using our successful Chicago model, now that Newsday is part of the family, ads promoting WPIX programming frequently appear in the paper. This enables WPIX to reach the upscale demos of Nassau and Suffolk counties at no cash cost. But the cross-promotion works the other way as well–Newsday stories and reporters are prominently mentioned during WPIX newscasts. We are seeing similar successes in Los Angeles and Hartford as well.”
Says Casten of that, “It scares the hell out of me.” Israel divides media progressives. The Tribune’s kind of aggrandizement is the common enemy.
“They wanted to kind of paraphrase the title,” says Liane Casten. “They wanted to take out the ‘U.S. Empire.'”
So the announcement didn’t run. Casten discussed the matter directly with general manager Torey Malatia, and she says his “amazing” explanation of WBEZ policy wandered from CMW to the Ku Klux Klan and back. “When he was finished, he said, ‘Now you understand.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t get it.’ He said, ‘Liane, you’re so very bright.’ I said, ‘I might be, but I don’t get it.'”
Bad execution: The plays were described in the wrong order.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Howe Samuelsohn.