January 10th, 2011 17:54 EST
Can You Tell The Difference Between The Real Story and the Cover Story?
This is "Hot Copy" and I`m Del Marbrook
Once you think you`ve got the story, think again. Always think again. First, because you may have the story your sources want you to have. Second, it may only look like the whole story.
I`ve never become cynical enough to think that people never give reporters stories simply because they think the truth should be told. I believe, after all these years, that many sources are motivated by just this honest impulse. But others are motivated by a desire to mislead, to offer up a cover story for the real story.
So whenever you think you`ve got the story, please remember the odds are about fifty-fifty you don`t.
Consider Vice President Dick Cheney`s Energy Task Force, that slippery story that keeps eluding public scrutiny. Check out the web site Project Censored, The News That Didn`t Make the News, for the story that keeps getting swept under the rug.
Here may just be the real reason we`re in Iraq, the reason so many have been killed and are still being killed. The received media story about Iraq "the one the public has been fed and seems to be digesting "is that the Bush Administration trumped up a story about Saddam Hussein`s weapons of mass destruction and then invaded Iraq because of some fuzzy neo-conservative notion that the whole Middle Eastern dynamic could be changed by bringing Western-style democracy to Iraq. That`s the cover story. The press, always too easily content with itself, is satisfied with exposing the lie about the weapons. It didn`t do that very well or very quickly, and now it`s resting on its laurels.
But what if, from the viewpoint of President Bush and Vice President Cheney and their petroleum buddies, the war has already been won? What if their stubborn refusal to bow to public pressure and pull out is rooted in their fundamental knowledge, not shared with the American people, that they have already achieved their purposes by carving up Iraq`s immense oil reserves among a few corporations? What if the war debate is of little concern to them because the war was never about democracy or changing anything? It was about plundering Iraq`s oil reserves?
What if the neo-conservatives, with their cockamamie notions about what the Arab World is or is not ready for, and their evangelical allies in the Christian Right, have been hornswoggled by the Bush people, just as the rest of us were hornswoggled?
Oh, well, how do we get that story? you ask. Read Project Censored. In fact, search the web, using such keywords as Cheney`s Energy Task Force, and see what you get. There`s an alternate reality out there, and you have to ask yourselves why it hasn`t been as hotly reported in the mainstream press as Donald Trump`s silly feud with Rosie O`Donnell or the weapons of mass distraction scam.
The answers are there. If the American press is truly unable to find out what Dick Cheney`s Energy Task Force discussed with the oil industry in secret meetings in 1999, then our democracy is circling the drain. But unable is different from unwilling. I say the press has been able all along. Willing is another matter.
And if you think that uncovered story is hairy, consider this story. Iran, which we fear wants nuclear energy for warlike purposes, is scheduled to run out of significant oil reserves in twelve years. In other words, Iran probably does need another energy source. Of course, Iran could always buy oil from its Arab neighbors, as we do, but the enmity between the Arabs and Iranians is probably second only to the enmity between the Israelis and the Arabs. So it`s highly unlikely the rich Arab oil states are going to stand by and watch Iran make itself some atom bombs without making some themselves. And if that happens, our Iraq oil scheme will have succeeded in arming the entire Middle East with atomic weapons, while at the same time we`re arguing in the United Nations that Iran should be punished for its nuclear ambitions.
Pretty scenario, huh? The unstable Middle East armed to the teeth with atomic weapons. Our client state, Israel, with its own never-acknowledged atomic weapons, threatened by a nuclearized Arab world. In such a volatile neighborhood, how long could the oil companies expect to pump oil out of Iraq? It seems like an intelligent question, doesn`t it? But do the oil tycoons really care, since every barrel represents profit to them?
Now ask yourselves as journalists why this picture, whether it`s true or false, has never been allowed to seep through the American consciousness the way the Trump-O`Donnell foofaraw has been hyped to a fare-thee-well. Isn`t it at least as worthy of consideration, since lives are at stake?
I wish I knew the answer. But my suspicions are paranoid. I just propose the questions, because that`s what I think journalism ought to be about. Whether the press barons are going to allow it to be about such things is a whole other issue. Exercising my paranoid dementia, I could say that the Fourth Estate is owned by the same sort of corporate interests that have perpetrated the Iraq war. I could say that once they allowed themselves to expose the doings of our oil oligarchy they might have to talk about their responsibilities to the republic.
You hear the expression, That`s more than I need to know, a lot these days. Sometimes it`s somebody`s personal affairs you really don`t want to know. But the fact is the American people are being spoon-fed just enough news to keep them entertained, but not enough to help them make intelligent decisions. The corporate gatekeepers of the news are saying that a great deal news is more than we need to know. Who decides what we need to know? We like to think we do. But the fact is they do. If the press has had no stomach for writing the Iraq story in oil, you have to ask yourself why. If you don`t ask yourself why, then you must like being suckered.
The press lords have taken the position that Americans don`t want to be troubled by too many facts. This is very good for people who plan to use the government to make themselves stinking rich. Book publishers are taking the same position, namely that Americans would rather read about celebrities living it up than they would about the rest of us struggling to lead decent, honorable lives. Their argument is that Americans want cheap, unhealthy food, glitz over content, and not too many facts to confuse them. Just the sort of population authoritarian governments love, not the government we say we want, but the government the marketers say we want. And if they`re wrong, then why are we making them rich?
I spoke recently about the notion of received ideas. I contended that a republic can`t really be run on the basis of received ideas. For example, there is the received idea among right wingers that the press is irretrievably left-wing, a notion that`s laughable to most reporters. What the press is is irretrievably pro-business. Nothing wrong in that. But there is something wrong in trying to make policy on the basis of notions, slogans, intellectual hand-me-downs. Or perhaps I should say anti-intellectual hand-me-downs.
The press, in reporting on Iraq, has consistently ignored a quintessential tenet of journalism: follow the money. Who profits? And in Iraq it`s the oil corporations and their contractors who profit, and profit big. So when you hear the reporters night after night talking about the fire fights on Haifa Street or in Falujah, ask yourselves why they aren`t talking about the monstrous profits American lives have bought the oil companies.
There is a subtle caveat to my claim that the press has consistently ignored " its duty to follow the money. Perhaps I should say the press has under-reported the money issue. Here`s what I mean: you frequently hear in news rooms a conversation in which a reporter says, Let`s do this, and an editor says, Oh we`ve done that. So the reporter heads for the news library and sure enough he finds that the editor is right. But the editor is often ethically wrong, because there is an immense difference between doing a story and your responsibility to make sure the public gets it. This is not a responsibility that is widely recognized or respected in journalism, largely because there is a deathly fear in the news room of hearing from the corporate bosses upstairs that a story has been done before and will only bore readers if it`s done again. On the other hand, the press has little compunction when it comes to boring you about Tom Cruise`s enthusiasms or the glamor industry`s lack of concern about anorexia.
My guess is that there are stories within stories within stories in that one, wretched rhetorical question. My guess is that reporters have proposed to their editors that the Cheney oil meeting be pursued, that Iraqi oil reserves be discussed, that the likely scenario of an Arab-Iranian conflict be pursued, that the dangers to Israel of a nuclearized Middle East be discussed, that Bush family ties to the oil industry and Saudi Arabia, from which al Qaeda sprung, be discussed, and my guess is that the editors have poured cold water all over these story ideas because they know perfectly well these stories would not be to the liking of their corporate bosses.
Social Security is another one of those poorly told stories. The authorized version, the one that has gotten into all the news libraries and is repeated every time the subject comes up, is that the Social Security system will go bankrupt in 2020. Sometimes we hear that it is bankrupting the country, not the military-industrial complex or the war in Iraq or the war on drugs. What we don`t hear is anything about the $90,000 cap. What`s that you say? Well, you see, that`s my point. Many Americans don`t realize that all earnings are not subject to this federal payroll tax. In fact, current law exempts earnings of more than $90,000 from taxation, meaning someone with a million-dollar salary pays the same tax as someone earning $90,000. Conservatives are inclined to think removing this cap would hurt small business. Progressives are inclined to think it would fix the system. But whatever it would do, it`s not being discussed in the mainstream media. Is this because the editors think it`s boring or too complicated, or is it because it`s just easier to keep on parroting the received idea that the system is bankrupting us? I can`t answer that question, and the media sure aren`t trying to answer it. But it affects everyone, just as Mr. Cheney`s secret sessions with the oil industry did.
Another untold or half-told story. Or is it a cover story, the one somebody wants us to believe, while the real story lies hidden in somebody`s Swiss bank account.
Now here`s what worries me about mentioning all this to young journalists. You will be looking for jobs, for careers, for advancement. What can you do about what I`m saying, even if it`s true? What can any of us do? My answer is the one I think the Founding Fathers would have given: we can start by thinking about it, by not pretending that these issues don`t exist, by not pretending that everything is all right when it isn`t. We can start by not blindly and blandly accepting received ideas about how the press is doing its job.
I don`t know how many of you are horror movie fans. I guess I`ve never really grown up, because I still love horror movies, especially the classics. In 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. starred in The Wolf Man. There`s a wonderful scene in this movie where Maria Ouspenskaya, the Wolf Man`s mother, knocked on his door and says, lovingly, Son, son, is everything all right? Outside the full moon is rising and inside in his mirror her son is turning into a wolf man. I`ve always taken this scene as a metaphor for things that are obviously going to hell in a hand basket while people like our president are marveling at how well everything is going. Going well for whom? The oil oligarchs. Sure, everything`s going well for them. They`re on tax-supported welfare and our young men and women are dying for their inalienable right to get even more filthy rich. Meanwhile the wolf man has no possible answer for the little old lady at his door.
Well, it`s your job as journalists to say, I`m sorry to tell you, Ma, but boy do I need a shave! It`s not your job to ignore the question and pretend everything is all right just so Ma can rest in her delusions.
I don`t know how you`re going to convince your bosses to do stories like the ones I`m claiming to go unreported. I do know your editors are probably not going to level with you. They`re probably going to make up plausible reasons why these stories behind the cover stories shouldn`t be reported. Some will say they don`t have the resources. Some will stonewall you and say there aren`t any stories there. Some will say it`s the job of other reporters in other places. Some will just scowl and let you know you`re not their favorite reporter at the moment. I also know that all of us have to face up to what`s not being reported.
I simply don`t believe the tired faces you see reporting every day from Baghdad have never raised these issues. Of course they have. They`re not the bad guys. They`d like to do the real stories. But they have mouths to feed, and so will you. And so did I. Yes, at a local level, from time to time I fought the good fight and almost always lost. I could have gone further as a journalist by not fighting the good fight. I could have gone further by knowing when to shut up and when to speak out. And it worries me that by painting such a worrisome picture of the industry I might just destroy some of the enthusiasm and idealism we all need to be American journalists. But I don`t see an alternative. We can`t run on received ideas any more than we can run our cars on water.
One of the reasons the telecommunications companies want to create a two-tier Internet is that they want to take away the ability of small, adventurous journalist groups to make money by reporting things the major media have been ignoring. The big guys are afraid you`ll figure out how to make money while telling people what they really need to know instead of what the gatekeepers say they needed to knows. They want to be the only gatekeepers. They don`t trust a free-swinging Internet to shut up about stories that aren`t being covered, about secret deals. They don`t trust youthful entrepreneurs to keep on beating those wars drums so we can go on feeding more than fifty percent of our entire federal budget to our war machine.
The press is always accused of unpatriotism when it asks hard question. Right-wing veterans like to pretend there are no left-wing heroes. What is needed is a country that looks at the facts and comes to compromises among its various factions. That`s what the Iraqis may or may not do. It`s what we must do to survive. So anytime an American is being painted in a bad light because he doesn`t buy someone`s story, the republic is endangered, because dissent is the coin of the realm. When it`s not longer respected, we no longer live in a democratic state.
Think about these issues bravely. Keep your idealism intact. It has never been easy to keep the press on the straight and narrow, but now the Internet promises to raise issues the major media have been sweeping under the rug. I say amen to that.
For More Information about Del Marbrook www.delmarbrook.com or www.djelloulmarbrook.com