Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Liberating the "Liberal Media"

By Jason Miller

The Fourth Estate is in a tumultous state of evolution. The public's trust in the integrity of the mainstream media has become severely tainted over the last several years, and justifiably so. As Dave Helling, a local television journalist in Kansas City with a long resume' of outstanding work, suggested in a recent ACLU seminar, America is undergoing a significant paradigm shift in the way in which consumers get their news. Alternative media sources on the Internet, and a phenomenon called blogging, pose a significant threat to the long-standing reign of the evening news, the daily newspapers, and even cable titans like CNN. Recent Nielsen ratings indicate that 75% of American homes now have an Internet connection. According to the Pew Research Firm, network news audiences diminished by 50% from 1993 to 2000, and have declined slightly since then. About 32% of Americans get their news regularly via the network news. In 1994, 58% of news consumers read daily, mainstream newspapers. That percentage has fallen to 42%. Meanwhile, the percentage of those regularly drawing news from the Internet has risen to 29%. 22 million Americans regularly read blogs, an integral part of the delivery of information through the Internet. The nascent Internet media is challenging traditional, mainstream forms of news delivery, and in turn freeing the Fourth Estate from its servitude to corporate and government interests.

Why would the Internet pose a threat to the mainstream news entities, commonly referred to as the liberal media? The notion of a "liberal media" is a myth created by the power moguls behind the mainstream media as a red herring to lull an unsuspecting public into actually believing that the Fourth Estate is still standing watch as a guardian of their freedom. 29 multi-national conglomerates own the media sources that account for nearly the entire audience for mainstream news broadcasts, and over half of newspaper readers. To appreciate the absurdity of calling the mainstream media "liberal", simply consider the fact that powerful corporations control most of the mainstream media. What are the motives of the corporate masters to whom our news censors (the editors) answer?

One answer is profit, and to achieve this profit, they need to maximize the number in their audience to satisfy their advertisers. Sensational stories draw viewers. The higher the shock value, the bigger the draw. The moral, spiritual, or historical impact an event has on the world holds little meaning to the "gods of information" in the mainstream media. What is more important is degree to which it will shock viewers and how it will feed a media-inspired narcissitic, insular worldview that America is more important than the rest of the world. If 300 children were to die in India due to chemical exposure caused by poor safety standards in a manufacturing facility, and Michael Jackson was found guilty of his alleged crimes on the same day, the mainstreamers would inundate us with the Jackson decision until we were drowning in it, while including the tragedy in India as a footnote. More eyeballs mean more money from advertisers, and the editors who determine what stories "make the cuts" ultimately answer to colossal corporations, which demand dividends or increases in share value for their stockholders through increased profitability. Thus, our mainstream news is censored to feed the corporate machine.

More important than profit is the mainstream media ownership's interest in preserving the dominance of the corporation over the individual. Starting in the 1950's, post World War II America entered into a period of mass consumption and consumerism that has moved us into a dark period of unparallelled avarice and obsession with materialism. The corporate owners of mass media utilize both mainstream news, and its accompanying advertising, to entice Americans to buy things they do not need and to create an image of who a person "should be" if they want to attain success (i.e. thin, straight, tough, beautiful, young, wealthy). Through the medium of television, corporations have a captive audience to mass market their goods and services to people who neither want or need them, but buy them because they are psychologically manipulated into doing so (think Saturday morning cartoons and toy commercials). Reaching millions of receptive minds at once, the corporate puppeteers have learned to perpetuate the paradigm of white male patriarchy and blind patriotism. The power of television, print and advertising enables the wealthy elite to perpetually employ a variety of propaganda tactics to maintain their hold on most of the wealth and power in our society. Meanwhile, the power of labor unions continues to wane, real wages decline, the wealth gap widens, the national debt skyrockets, social welfare programs are cut, taxes on the wealthy decline, and the military industrial complex, including Haliburton, reaps obscene profits as people bleed red to keep corporations out of the red.

Despite the limitations imposed by the First Amendment, America's federal government still manages to slide its tentacles into the mainstream media and influence the news we receive. A flagrant example is the recent rash of journalists on the Bush administration's payroll to promote the administration's agenda disguised as "news". The US government spends a great deal of money to accomadate journalists by providing them with meeting facilities, carefully orchestrated press conferences, and propaganda. Government funded think tanks that disseminate "news", carefully censored press releases by the Pentagon and White House, and the use of government-compensated "experts" as resources to validate news stories further attest to the federal government's corrupt influence on the news supplied by the mainstream media. Why would this be a surprise? Mainstream media and the federal government, particularly under the Bush administration, represent a match made in heaven. Their interests in seeing the predominating paradigm of mass consumption and white male patriarchy continue to prevail are inextricably linked.

While much of the mainstream media is corrupted by the influence of government and corporate interests, there are still mainstream journalists who practice a high degree of journalistic integrity, and who do challenge the prevailing social ideals with their stories and opinions. To make a sweeping dismissal of every journalist employed by a mainstream newspaper or television network would be both unrealistic and unfair. Once can point to numerous muck-raking stories aired on "60 Minutes" that expose government or corporate corruption as examples of truth-seeking in the public's interest, but even Mike Wallace and "60 Minutes" are constrained by corporate domination, as evidenced by the Jeffrey Wigand story. There are many well-intentioned journalists with high ideals working in the mainstream media, but as Dave Helling pointed out in the ACLU seminar I attended, they are becoming fewer and further between, and are often hand-cuffed by younger editors who are servile to corporate interests.

The Internet is the hammer and anvil with which one can shatter the shackles of psychological tyranny perpetrated by the likes of Fox, the Washington Times, and columnists like Jonah Goldberg. Media mavens such as Michelle Malkin pollute the minds of readers with ideas that are so emotionally-driven, devoid of logic, and packed with ringing endorsements of American hubris that that they leave critical thinkers who have a social conscience reeling with nausea. However, it is not difficult to visualize those who still believe that the mainstream media "preaches the gospel of truth" nodding their heads in silent assent as they read or listen to the abhorrent words of the likes of Anne Coulter. Mesmerized by the "power" of Anne's message, their thoughts might run like this:

"Yes, yes, Anne, the liberals are the scourge of the Earth, the cause of the numerous ills in our society, and above all, they control the media, and thus our minds. Thank God we have courageous conservatives like you to save us from moral decay that stems from atheism, socialism, and homosexuality."

The corporate ruling class does not tolerate assaults against the truths that "good Americans" hold to be self evident. They hire the Anne Coulters to preach the gospel that the Christian, white, straight male is the ideal, and that he rules the world.

If there is a "liberal media", it lies within the Internet. Americans now have unprecedented access to a smorgasbord of information. We are no longer limited to the steady, pre-determined diet of brain candy and propaganda served up by the mainstream media. The Internet is comprised of over two billion websites, providing a wealth of information drawn from almost unlimited resources that span the globe. A person can find still load up on brain candy to their heart's content on the Internet, but the Internet opens the mind to a rich plethora of solid nourishment for the brain. If knowledge is power, one's capacity to increase their power increases exponentially through navigation of the Internet for news and information. Search engines like Google and Dogpile are the sextant (or in today's world, GPS devices) to guide us through the oceans of information available on the Internet. With only a few keystrokes, one can access information on topics that span the spectrum of the human capacity to think and imagine. While responsible analysis of the source and content are necessities when sifting through some of the flotsam and jetsam of this ocean, if one is willing to do the work, the Internet's sea offers pearls of wisdom and treasures of knowledge that the limited scope of 30 minutes of television programming, or a limited number of print pages, could not begin to rival. If I watch ABC nightly news, I get one five minute synopsis of the events that unfolded in Iraq that day. If I go on the Internet, I can find hundreds of accountings and analyses produced by varying perspectives, cultures, news entities, nations, and individuals. As a consumer of news, I want to choose my sources, and my topics. The Internet allows me to do both. The mainstream media allows me to do neither.

The question is, can quality alternative news sources on the Internet continue to thrive without falling prey to the same ills as their corrupt mainstream counter parts? Many of the publications for which I write rely on free lance writers, like me, and on hard-working editors to contribute their efforts for no pay. They sustain their websites through donations and through a small amount of advertising. Many of these Internet publications share my writing's raison d' etre in that they believe in their cause and are willing to engage in it without monetary compensation. Their freedom from financial manipulation represents another refreshing distinction between many Internet news/oped entities, and those of the mainstream media. Hopefully, there are enough socially conscientious individuals to perpetuate the true "liberal media" by avoiding the pitfall of selling out to the elite. The last thing America needs to give the corporate elite is another means to assert psychological domination over the masses.


By William Fisher

Despite numerous court setbacks and continuing challenges from civil liberties organizations, the religious right is stepping up its efforts to introduce the Bible into public school classrooms– and now claims that it is being used as a textbook in classes taught in 300 school districts nationwide.

One of the major providers of Bible teaching materials, the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, (NCBCPS) says it's "amazed at the snowball effect that is taking place across America" as more districts adopt the material.

The campaign seems to have gained significant momentum as the influence of the religious right has increased in the Republican Party over the past decade, and particularly since the 2004 presidential election.

Elizabeth Ridenour, NCBCPS's president, says, “The curriculum for the program shows a concern to convey the content of the Bible as compared to literature and history. The program is concerned with education rather than indoctrination of students. The central approach of the class is simply to study the Bible as a foundation document of society, and that approach is altogether appropriate in a comprehensive program of secular education.”

Civil liberties organizations take a decidedly different view. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLU) brought the first legal challenge to the introduction of the Bible into publicly-funded education by suing the school board in Lee County (Ft. Myers), Florida. A settlement was reached when the school board agreed to replace its Bible course with a “secular, objective and neutral” curriculum, and to use a college-level critical analysis of biblical scholarship, and permit monitoring of its classes by audiotape for approximately one year.

Howard Simon, ACLU Executive Director, told IPS, "While the Bible has a place in the public schools as part of a genuinely secular course of education, it cannot be taught as literal history." He added, "The Bible is a sacred text, not a history text.”

Another advocacy group, People for the American Way, agrees. Judith Schaeffer, PFAW’s Deputy Legal Director, told IPS, “This and other similar groups want to introduce only one version of the Bible – The King James version of the New Testament – ignoring the many versions accepted by others. Furthermore, they want to present this one version as ‘history’. It is not history.”

Ms. Ridenour says her organization's elective class, The Bible in History and Literature, “examines many aspects you wouldn't expect to find in a Sunday School class such as how the Bible influenced America's founding fathers, art, music and literature, including Shakespeare.” She is, however, referring to the King James version of the New Testament.

The separation of church and state is one of the cardinal principles embedded in the First Amendment to the US constitution. Two clauses in this section of the Bill of Rights guarantee freedom of religion. The ‘establishment clause’ prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. It enforces the separation of church and state. The ‘free exercise’ clause prohibits the government, in most instances, from interfering with a person’s practice of their religion.

But the high court has consistently upheld the teaching of the Bible as literature, as long as it is not employed for devotional purposes or indoctrination.

That, Ms. Ridenour says, is her organization’s goal. Opponents contend the opposite is true.

Says Howard Simon: “If you adopt a curriculum that disguises Bible stories suitable for Sunday school as literal history; if you try to address moral and character development by simply proselytizing young people with sectarian religious views; if you dismiss the constitutional requirements of separation of church and state in the public schools as a mere fiction of a tyrannical judiciary, you too will ineptly end up in court.”

Pursuing that agenda, civil liberties groups routinely write to school boards that have been asked to make Bible teaching part of their normal curricula. Their letters refer to court decisions upholding separation of church and state, and limitations placed on these courses by various courts.

Most school boards, they say, are grateful for the guidance and reject the curriculum proposed by organizations like the NCBCPS.

But Ms. Ridenour says about 1,000 high schools in 35 states are using material produced by her organization in classes during regular school hours. It claims that 93 percent of all the school boards it has approached to implement the curriculum have accepted it.

"This paradigm shift is not only taking place in the Bible Belt but in school districts in Alaska, California, across the board to Pennsylvania and down to Florida," her organization says.

However, it declines to provide a list of the school districts in which its course materials are being used.

Ms. Ridenour founded the NCBCPS in 1993. Her work has been endorsed by most of the better-known Christian fundamentalist and evangelical personalities and groups. She is a member of the highly-secretive Council on National Policy (CNP), founded in 1981 as an umbrella organization of right-wing leaders who gather regularly to plot strategy, share ideas and fund causes and candidates to advance the far-right agenda. Last year, the group gave an unannounced award to US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a conservative from Tennessee who is widely reported to be seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2008.

The NCBCPS Board of Directors includes a number of prominent members of the religious right. Among them is its general counsel, Steve Crampton, who believes that current IRS tax codes that prohibit not-for-profit organizations, such as religious organizations, from advocating particular political candidates or parties, “leaves churches unduly muzzled.”

The organization’s extensive Advisory Board includes conservative members of the US House and Senate, numerous state legislators, and large financial donors.

The NCBCPS sees a connection between a1963 court decision, when “the Bible largely was removed from classrooms” and “dramatic increases in unwed pregnancies, cases of sexually transmitted diseases, violent behavior and other social factors.”

The group says its updated 300-page curriculum and a new CD-Rom is already being requested by school districts.



By William Fisher

In the early 1920s, with many in the United States worried about losing traditional values to the secular modernism of ‘the jazz age’, the silver-tongued William Jennings Bryan -- three-time Democratic candidate for President -- led a Fundamentalist crusade to banish Charles Darwin’s 1859 theory of evolution from American classrooms.

Bryan’s movement was flush with success when, in 1925, a Tennessee court found John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, guilty of breaking a new law that made it illegal "to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals."

The case, publicized throughout the world, came to be known as ‘The Monkey Trial’. Scopes volunteered to be a test-case defendant after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that it would offer its services to anyone challenging the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute.

Famed attorney Clarence Darrow led the Scopes’ defense team. A carnival atmosphere permeated the tiny town of Dayton, Tennessee, as the trial proceeded.

And many in Dayton were angered and disappointed when the US Supreme Court overturned – on a technicality – the Scopes conviction, and the teaching of evolution was restored.

This week, however, it will be déjà vu all over again when the State of Kansas holds its own hearings on what school children should be taught about how life on Earth began.

The Kansas Board of Education originally set aside "six days of courtroom-style hearings” in the state capitol Topeka." The re-run of the Scopes trial was triggered by recent school board elections that gave religious conservatives majority control of the board.

Dozens of witnesses were called to testify and were to be "subject to cross-examination," The majority was "expected to argue against teaching evolution." The committee's minority bloc presented a list of 23 anti-evolution witnesses for the hearing, including a handful of scientists closely associated with the ‘intelligent design’ movement.

Attorney John Calvert, managing director of Kansas-based Intelligent Design Network – a group that supports the theory that "living creatures are too intricately designed to have come about randomly" – will push for a new school curriculum that would "encourage teachers to discuss various viewpoints and eliminate core evolution claims as required curriculum."

His opponent will be Pedro Irigonegaray, the Topeka attorney who will be making the argument that evolution is a valid science. Irigonegaray says he is in a state of shock. "I feel like I'm in a time warp here. To debate evolution is similar to debating whether the Earth is round. It is an absurd proposition," he told Reuters news service.

But attorney Calvert may welcome up empty: He may have no witnesses to cross examine –many prominent US scientific groups have denounced the debate as founded on fallacy and have promised to boycott the hearings.

Irigonegaray predicts the State Board of Education will face a lawsuit if it revises the state's science testing standards to include elements of ‘intelligent design’.

One of the key pro-Darwin witness groups, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has declined to send representatives. The organization believes the event is likely to sow confusion rather than understanding among the public.

In a letter to George Griffith, science consultant to the Kansas State
Department of Education, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner sided with the leaders
of the Kansas science community who have described the hearings as an effort by faith-based proponents of "intelligent design" theory to attack and undermine Science.”

The format and agenda of the hearing before the board's education subcommittee "suggests that the theory of evolution may be debated," wrote Leshner. "It implies that scientific conclusions are based on expert opinion rather than on data."

In an interview, Leshner told IPS, “These hearings create a false impression that science and religion are in opposition; they are not. Moreoer, they will confuse the question of whether evolution is widely accepted within the scientific community. There is no science base to the so-called theory of intelligent design, and it would not withstand any scientific criteria for even being called a theory. In science, a theory is not a "belief" — we don't believe or disbelieve a theory. We accept or reject theories based on scientific tests of them. Intelligent design is not a scientifically testable concept and therefore should not be taught in science classes.”

AAAS is the world's largest general science organization and the publisher of
the journal Science; Leshner also serves as the journal's executive publisher.

Leaders of the Kansas science community have also called for a boycott of the
hearing, and thus far, representatives of state and national science groups have
refused to testify. A group called Kansas Citizens for Science has called for the boycott, objecting to a "rigged hearing" in which anti-evolution Board of Education members "will appear to sit in judgment and find science lacking."

As a result, the hearings have now been reduced to a single day.

Kansas has been a focal point of efforts to restrict the teaching of evolution
in public schools. Proponents of ‘intelligent design’ theory hold that the
physical universe is so elaborate and complicated that its creation required a
sophisticated architect, and they are working to impose that theory in science

Debates over evolution are currently being waged in more than a dozen states, including Texas where one bill would allowing for creationism to be taught alongside evolution.

Critics, including virtually all of the science community, say the theory lacks any hard evidence and is a matter of faith. Evidence and proven facts are central to the scientific method, they say, and for that reason, faith has no place in a science classroom.

The Intelligent Design Network is a Kansas organization that argues the Earth was created through intentional design rather than random organism evolution.

The group is one of many that have been formed over the last several years to challenge the validity of evolutionary concepts and seek to open the schoolroom door to ideas that humans and other living creatures are too intricately designed to have come about randomly.

At the same time, adherents of the Christian fundamentalist right-wing, strengthened by the political muscle they flexed in the 2004 presidential election – and their growing power within the Republican Party – continue their attempts to make Bible study part of the curriculum in taxpayer-supported public schools.