MEDIAlternative by Kevin Howley


March 7, 2009

Three cheers for C-SPAN. Were it not for the cable network's coverage, I would have missed out on the thoughtful, incisive conversations at the 10th annual State of the Black Union (SOBU) on Feb. 28 in Los Angeles.

C-SPAN was also on hand to cover the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington D.C. This three-day meeting wrapped up this past weekend as well. Thing is, I didn't have to be a cable subscriber -- or a news and public affairs geek, for that matter -- to hear about it.

CPAC received extensive coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Times, CNN, Fox and NPR. In contrast, the State of the Black Union barely got a mention in the mainstream press. I did manage to find a 593-word write up in the Metro section of The Los Angeles Times, but not much else.


February 21, 2009

So much for the afterglow. Scarcely a month has gone by since Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, and all that talk about the progress we've made and the need for national unity in the face of adversity seems like ancient history.

When Obama made history on that frigid day in January, there was a palpable sense of possibility and promise. Now, it seems, any prospect for consensus, collaboration and bipartisan leadership is gone with the wind.

Partisan politics reasserted itself within days of the inauguration. The talk of the town in Washington turned on a dime from self-congratulation and genuine social progress to the "business as usual" brinksmanship and political maneuvering that breeds gridlock and corruption.


February 7, 2009

In its front page report on former Senator Tom Daschle's decision to withdraw his nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services, the New York Times observed: “It was the rockiest day yet for the new White House.” Most news outlets, including public radio and television, presented the story along similar lines.

Framing the story in terms of a public uproar over Daschle's unpaid taxes, and President Barack Obama’s subsequent admission that he “screwed up” his ethics reform initiative, is a great way to generate controversy and attract audiences.

But like so much that passes for vigorous reporting these days, this story generates more heat than light. Despite all the bluster, this latest episode exemplifies one of the fundamental problems with American journalism.


January 24, 2009

In a week marked by historic firsts and flubs, an editorial appearing in the Jan. 20 edition of the Los Angeles Times stopped me in my tracks. For a minute I thought I had inadvertently stumbled across the pages of The Onion.

Writing on the occasion of Barack Obama's inauguration, the editorial staff of the LA Times celebrated the first African American elected to the presidency but cautioned, without a hint of irony, that this is "a moment in which we must pledge vigilance, not unqualified encouragement."

Perhaps the editorial staff was feeling guilty. After all, like the rest of the corporate media, the LA Times has been anything but vigilant these past eight years. Instead of serving as watchdogs, the U.S. press corps behaved like lapdogs for one of the most secretive and deceptive administrations in American history.


January 10, 2009

In a spate of exit interviews with reporters, George W. Bush has been uncharacteristically coy on the subject of how history will judge his time in office. "The Decider" prefers to leave such judgments to future generations.

Of course, this hasn't prevented W. from running his presidency through one last spin cycle before he leaves office on Jan. 20. While the Bush administration spent the better part of the past eight years doing (self-inflicted) damage control, the past few months have been devoted to a historical whitewash.


October 18, 2008

“Americans are hurting right now, and they're angry. They're hurting, and they're angry. They're innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street and as well as Washington, D.C. And they're angry, and they have every reason to be angry.” -- John McCain, Oct. 15, 2008

Writing in this space at the beginning of the presidential campaign -- what feels like a hundred years ago -- I suggested that this year’s election cycle was shaping up to be “a season in hell.” Today, with two weeks to go before Election Day, that assessment seems quaint.

Attacking an opponent’s character is, of course, nothing new to American political campaigns. Character assassination and smear campaigns have a long and storied history in U.S. electoral politics.

But, in recent weeks, as the McCain camp tries to gain some traction after the short-lived, post-convention bounce Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination gave to the Republican ticket, the campaign rhetoric has grown increasingly divisive, inflammatory and downright hostile.


October 4, 2008

This semester, I'm teaching a course that examines U.S. press performance during the Iraq War. We've been using books -- such as Michael Massing's eminently readable, if deeply disturbing, Now They Tell Us -- that document the extent to which American journalists uncritically accepted the Bush administration's rationale for war with Iraq.

My students are bright, and they certainly appreciate the importance of critical thinking. Nonetheless, they have had a hard time accepting the awful truth that the U.S. press corps was complicit in the administration's propaganda campaign to secure popular support for the war.


September 6, 2008

Ohio Congressman and former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich delivered one of the more rousing and impassioned speeches at last month's Democratic National Convention.

Unfortunately, convention planners didn't grant Kucinich a prime-time slot, effectively denying millions of television viewers the opportunity to hear his urgent plea to "wake up America."

And despite clear enthusiasm for Kucinich's remarks among the assembled delegates (a C-SPAN recording of the speech is available on YouTube) and the subsequent buzz his wakeup call generated in the blogosphere and the alternative press, mainstream media outlets took little notice of Kucinich's speech.

Of course, there's nothing new in all of this. Neither the corporate media nor so-called public service broadcasters give Kucinich much play. Typically, establishment media either ignore Kucinich altogether or portray him as a left-wing extremist whose views cannot be taken seriously.


August 23, 2008

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Herman and Chomsky's now classic, if still controversial, study puts forward a "propaganda model" for analyzing and explaining U.S. press performance and behaviors.

Briefly stated, the propaganda model identifies five factors -- ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak and anticommunist ideology -- that act as "filters" through which information is processed by news workers and organizations. In turn, these filters affect how news stories are selected and framed for presentation to the American public.

When it first appeared, some critics dismissed Manufacturing Consent as just so much conspiracy theory. Others hailed the book as a groundbreaking analysis of the structural factors that shape U.S. journalistic institutions and practices.

Notwithstanding two decades of critique and refinement, recent events underscore the continued relevance of the propaganda model for understanding how and why U.S. news media operate as they do.


July 26, 2008

With so much going on in media and politics these days, it's difficult to settle on any single topic to write about. So I haven't. Instead, here are a few thoughts on what is, and isn't, making headlines these days.

I want to believe

Ever since he clinched his party's nomination, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has been battered by charges of flip-flopping on a range of issues: from gun control and late-term abortion to public campaign financing and troop withdrawal from Iraq.

The extent to which Obama's position has changed on any of these issues is debatable. After all, one of his great strengths is his willingness and ability to discuss public policy in a thoughtful and nuanced fashion. In an age of sound-bite politics, this is an admirable quality in any candidate for elected office.

But Sen. Obama's about-face on the Bush administration's electronic surveillance program -- with its controversial provision of retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies -- was a textbook example of politics as usual.

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