March 10, 2005
Robert Kane Pappas' Reflections on Orwell, 2005
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Robert Kane Pappas is the director of the mass media-critiquing documentary, beloved by BuzzFlash readers, "Orwell Rolls in His Grave." This week he agreed to revisit George Orwell's prophetic anti-utopian novel, 1984, and to reflect on recent events in terms of Orwell's vision of a nightmarish future. Are we there yet?
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BuzzFlash: Eason Jordan, the former head of CNN News, was fired for allegedly suggesting, off-the-record, that the U.S. military had targeted journalists in Iraq. He quickly back pedaled, yet he was still "resigned," so to speak. Now the facts indicate that Jordan was right. For instance, an attack on an Al Jazeera reporter was recorded on film in the documentary "Control Room." We also had the deadly attack by American soldiers on journalists at the Palestine Hotel. We've had reports of numerous reporters killed in the field, and just this week Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena was shot, even though these people were known reporters. The bottom line: Orwellian or not?
Robert Kane Pappas: In 1984, Winston Smith worked for the Ministry of Truth, in the department that rewrote past news items to make them conform to the present political realities. As his assignments came in, his daily creative endeavors concerned intuiting how the party might want this done. Winston says, "All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory." It's uncanny how close his job seems to today's lackey editors.
Imagine today's news correspondents' mental gymnastics. They were wringing their hands over the Ukrainian exit polls, using them as a basis to call that election into question, but they were unable to mention (or remember?) what had occurred in their own country only weeks before. Straight-faced irony worthy of Winston Smith.
I think it was November 4th of 2004 that I was listening to "Imus in the Morning," which had a phone interview with Jeff Greenfield of CNN. Imus asked something like, "What about this disparity between the exit polls and the vote?" Greenfield set him straight immediately (I paraphrase): "Oh that's all clear now, we found out through the exit polls that to voters it was about values . . . this was the unforeseen factor that made all those new voters break for Bush" . . . (voters who historically break for the challenger). Judging from his tone of voice, Greenfield had already internalized the new truth. That was it. End of analysis. End of Imus' foray into exit poll discrepancies. As Orwell wrote, "All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory."
BuzzFlash: Just when you think it can't get more Orwellian, it does. A guy who made his living as a prostitute was doing a daytime gig as a White House shill in the press room, even though he never had any legitimate journalism credentials--and the mainstream press largely ran from the story as if it were the plague. Maybe the D.C. reporters, the journalism prostitutes in the White House press corps, sympathized with Gannon/Guckert?
Robert Kane Pappas: Those journalists who speak too plainly, who dig too deep, disappear--not in the 1984 sense of being vaporized, but they disappear from the airwaves. Witness Eason Jordan, Dan Rather. Career implosions are not lost on journalists who want to survive in the mainstream. Helen Thomas, White House reporter for 10 Presidents, questions Bush prior to Iraq invasion. Suddenly, she's no longer called on. Banished to the back of the room.
Then a new guy is called upon by the President, Jeff Gannon. No credentials, advertises himself as a gay escort. But not digging too deep into Gannon is safe. It's curious that criminal allegations about Rush Limbaugh and sexual harassment charges against Bill O'Reilly did not derail their careers. But not dotting all the i's on a report about Bush's military service was a career killer. Highlighting that contradiction in the wrong venue would be one as well.
BuzzFlash: The Democrats still think they can win by debating public policy. But it appears to us that, particularly for those who rely on mainstream news coverage, it's almost impossible to figure out what the facts are on any public policy issue. How do you think we can overcome this problem?
Robert Kane Pappas: One of the underlying notions of "Orwell Rolls In His Grave" is not being able to see the forest for the trees. What strikes me about the present string of outrages is that, as they pile on, even thoughtful people almost don't know what to say--you lose the forest.
We BuzzFlash readers have to fix upon the opposition's vulnerabilities, and attack, attack, attack. The individual examples of jaw-dropping corruption and cronyism will not stop. With each new incident, a big portion of the Left says to itself: "No way they can get away with this--it's too blatant, the media is going to jump on this," but then the media drops it, again. This won't change, the big lie is in place.
We, like the Right in the early 70's, have to fund ourselves, and attack relentlessly at the structural level, and we have to fund that attack in a big way, and it can't be 3 famous lefties, we need a thousand populist economic, journalistic, legal, sociological and philosophical experts attacking the corporate media.
One other thing. My guess is that most Jews in Germany couldn't bring themselves to believe that Hitler would try to exterminate them. Although not directly comparable, I don't believe most people on the Left can make themselves believe that the Bush gang actually systematically stole the 2004 election, and that 2000 and 2002 were trial runs. It's too earth-shaking to accept that the other side is not playing by some basic rules. But I'm sure somewhere in his mind, George Orwell was utterly certain that what he was describing in 1984 could happen in spades.
BuzzFlash: In your fabulous documentary, "Orwell Rolls," which several thousand BuzzFlash readers have ordered, you end with a slightly hopeful note. In the film, Charles Lewis suggests that there is a narrow window of opportunity with the Internet for free speech to reassert itself. But that window may close up if the major Broadband and DSL providers charge a fee for posting on their "tubes." What's left after that, holding up signs on a street corner?
Robert Kane Pappas: I'm not technically savvy enough to say how the large media corporations will try to control the the Internet--but I am certain that they will try. They have to, the Internet is a threat. From those I have spoken with, saving the Internet's open character should be job #1.
The problem is that these companies think ahead, so watch for a solution to some other problem--say terrorism or child porn or identity theft--and the solution to that will include an element with the "unforeseeable" consequence of changing the Internet. "Unforeseeable" . . . sure. Once the change is made, it becomes a fact on the ground and becomes very hard to get rid of. Kind of like making tax cuts permanent.
The other issue is FCC regulation of the high speed Internet, this issue is being debated in the courts. Michael Powell had it decreed an informational network, not subject to regulation. At least one court has disagreed.
One more note on the Internet. Watch out for mutations in the copyright debate. Media corporations have identified this area as a method to control, and to maximize income.
BuzzFlash: Okay, let's get to the bottom line, as in profits. Isn't it sort of strange that the man who ultimately oversees CBS News is the vice-president of Viacom? You cover the multimedia conglomerate ownership of the "information industry" in your documentary. But it appears to be getting worse all the time. We have a one-party government in bed with the so-called news industry, which is really not a news industry at all. It's a public relations profit center. Every day we wake up with new "truths," the old ones erased as if the blackboard had been cleaned. How do we get the truth out to people in Oklahoma?
Robert Kane Pappas: I think Mark Crispin Miller puts his finger on it in my film. To paraphrase him: "...we need antitrust activity, not for economic reasons, primarily, but because the crucial content of the news is corrupted by these large commercial entities." Informing the public, while conceiving of it as a purely bottom line activity, has tragic consequences. Regulators and legislators, drunk on the "free market is god" mantra, are profoundly harming this country. In different countries around the world, including ours, politicians fear taking on Rupert Murdoch because he can destroy political careers.
BuzzFlash: Dan Rather got "resigned" for airing purportedly phony National Guard letters about Bush that were, by all accounts, filled with the truth. When we have an allegedly phony document that contains the truth, isn't it kind of Orwellian to ignore the truth and just say it's all phony?
Robert Kane Pappas: There appears to be a calculus to killing stories. First, try not to respond to their main thrusts, but, rather, find an ostensible flaw in some minor point in that story, or attack the person related to the story. Presto, the story is now tainted. The expert-spokesman methodology of the corporate media makes this very easy to do. The common joke, that the networks would pit two experts, one saying the world is flat, the other saying it's round, is unfortunately, all too true.
BuzzFlash: What has happened to journalists' role in holding government accountable?
Robert Kane Pappas: Something has happened since the Bush administration took power. They are off limits for the media in some ways past administrations clearly were not, and for a couple of reasons.
First, the Republicans now control all three branches of government. There simply cannot be a Congressional investigation into something they don't want investigated. Even in such cases as Ken Lay/Enron and secret Cheney energy meetings or the Valerie Plame CIA outing, suddenly the wheels of investigations are slowed down to a glacial pace and the story never achieves a major level of public awareness. Meanwhile, the Martha Stewart case happens and justice moves with dispatch and huge media fanfare. So there is no accountability in the Bush Administration, not Bush, not Cheney, not Rumsfeld, not Rice, no one.
But there is no accountability for another reason. The Bush administration has a relationship with media corporations that is unprecedented. For instance, Bush's first cousin is John Ellis, who was head of FOX's election desk on election night 2000. FOX was the first network to call the election for George Bush. Even more outlandish--Murdoch, who in my opinion controls a worldwide privatized propaganda service, is firmly in Bush's camp; the FOX New Network is literally an arm of the Republican Party. So through this relationship, they control a big hunk of the dynamics of the media feeding frenzy. But this relationship has even further repercussions because the other giant media corporations give FOX a professional courtesy pass. You will never hear another network mention that FOX, the patriotic network, is owned by a man who is from Australia, who changes citizenship as it suits him, and who is currently building a home outside of Beijing with his his 3rd wife, Chinese-born Wendi Deng, with whom he has 2 young children. Murdoch controls a large portion of the Chinese media. You will never hear this discussed in the mainstream news programs. It's like a mutual protection racket on a huge scale. And just to top off this structural disaster, the administration controls the FCC, which can and does exert regulatory control over the networks. Remember that last year many stations declined to air "Saving Private Ryan," essentially an anti-war film, even though it had been seen previously on TV.
BuzzFlash: We know Karl Rove stage manages every Bush appearance. He only allows Republicans in, and reporters are confined to a pit that they cannot leave without a Soviet-style minder. In fact, at the Inauguration reporters were not allowed to roam freely. If they left their designated area, they had to be accompanied by a "minder." And then there are the people arrested or removed from Bush events for wearing T-shirts that indicate they are Democrats. Stalin must be smiling down on Bush as a protege. What do you think?
Robert Kane Pappas: I'm staggered on a daily basis by what reporters fail to mention--for instance, how controlled the Bush campaign events were, who they let in, what they could bring to events. At one event, boxes were used as set decorations to imply manufacturing jobs, but the boxes were stamped "Made in China" just off-screen. It's creepy. Imagine a radio sports reporter not mentioning that the football game is being played in a blizzard. It would be grounds for getting fired. There's way more truth in a "reality TV" show.
BuzzFlash: Former Ambassador Joe Wilson recently observed that so-called modern journalism feels the necessity to give each side their statement and then write up a story. In short, the facts of one side get countered with the lies of the Bush administration, but the reporters don't point out that they are lies. Wasn't the job of journalism at one time to get to the truth?
Robert Kane Pappas: Orwell wrote, "In the end the party would announce that 2 plus 2 made 5, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim, sooner or later, the logic of their position demanded it."
Read the flip flops on how the Bush administration characterizes Social Security, their analysis of the tax cuts' impact on deficits, the technique of repeating an untruth endlessly. We witnessed this in the run-up to the Iraq War. "WMD, WMD, WMD"--and it's happening again. The Social Security issue reminds me of the observation in 1984: "There had been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to 20 grams a week. And only yesterday, he [Winston] reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to 20 grams a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only 24 hours? Yes, they swallowed it." And Winston asks himself, "Was he, then, alone in the possession of a memory?"
BuzzFlash: Is it our imagination, or isn't the front page of The New York Times looking more and more like Pravda everyday? And we don't mean that it's Communist. Quite to the contrary, it's a Bushevik Neo-con Republican Pravda. The ultimate irony, America's paper of record is really just a regurgitation of White House spin. Doesn't Pravda mean truth?
Robert Kane Pappas: The spin process is very effective, both in newspaper reports and on TV and in radio. If you make it your business to be informed, what happens is, you end up watching the mainstream news with your mouth hanging open. If you watch only what they offer, you're largely intellectually lobotomized. Your opinions are determined by two- and three-word sound bites: "Death Tax," "Conspiracy Theory," "They hate our Freedoms," "Democracy," "Liberal Bias," "Class Warfare." As Winston's co-worker Syme says with glee: "Every year, fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller."
BuzzFlash: Once again, thanks for reminding us of Orwell's wisdom.
Robert Kane Pappas: You're very welcome.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Orwell Rolls in his Grave - A Film by
Robert Kane Pappas (DVD)
"1984" DVD and "George Orwell Bush Day"
Robert Kane Pappas, Director and Producer of "Orwell Rolls
in His Grave"