Navasky & Barsamian

'New Ideological Terrain'

Victor Navasky
Victor Navasky

There's a lot to criticize about the media these days. According to Victor Navasky and David Barsamian, both of whom will be in town this week delivering talks on the state of journalism in the U.S., it's not all bad, however. Barsamian is probably most well-known for his ongoing interviews with Noam Chomsky (his most recent compilation was published last fall as Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World), but he's also the founder and director of Alternative Radio, an independent radio program based in Boulder, Colo., that regularly features guests like Bill Moyers, Jello Biafra, Howard Zinn, and Arundhati Roy and has a 20-year history of seeking out perspectives not available in the mainstream media. Barsamian sees a general trend in the U.S. toward a "state-controlled, state-enforced press," but he also believes that the amount of independent and alternative news available today indicates an "unprecedented movement in American history."

Navasky, publisher emeritus and former editor of The Nation and director of the George Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism at Columbia University, also cites the independent press as one of the few sources of dissent countering the one-note message rut of the mainstream media. He argues too, however, that opinion journals – both left- and right-wing – and a reformed version of "objectivity" can counter the "Murdochization" and "Oprahfication" of the media. In his recent book, A Matter of Opinion, he champions the role of the opinion journal in American culture and gives a fascinating look at the inner workings of The Nation, the oldest continually published weekly in the country. He also chronicles his own meandering trajectory toward a distinguished career in journalism, one influenced in no small part by the lessons of the red menace, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War.

Navasky will speak on "McCarthyism and Journalism: Then and Now" at UT's Thompson Center Auditorium Rm. 1.110 on Mon., April 10, at 7pm; Barsamian's lecture, "Another World Is Possible: People Power in the age of Empire," follows on Tuesday (Bass Lecture Hall, 7pm), and he'll be signing copies of his book, Imperial Ambitions, on Wednesday (BookPeople, 7pm).

The Chronicle spoke to both Barsamian and Navasky about their upcoming talks, and you can read their interviews below.

Austin Chronicle: What do you plan to talk about in your upcoming visit?

Victor Navasky: There are two great themes in American history: One of them is the theme of freedom and liberty and the first amendment and Jefferson and Tom Paine and all the things that we are taught in civics class and social studies and in conventional American history. And the other is the theme of intolerance and repression. And it goes all the way back to the Alien and Sedition laws after the Revolution, and after World War I the Palmer raids, and after World War II the McCarthy period, and during World War II the internment of the Japanese. And it's always framed in the periods of repression as a trade-off between national security and freedom and civil liberties. And it is portrayed as the need to protect national security by sacrificing civil liberties. History shows in my view that the counter-subversives have done much more damage than the subversives – the alleged subversives – ever were able to do. And so what happens is that after the fact, whether in the courts or the court of public opinion, the country is brought back to its mores. The challenge of journalism, of contemporary journalism, is not to discover 50 years after the fact, or 25 years after the fact, or 10 years after the fact that we misrecorded what was going on because we were prisoners of the official version of what was going on, but to understand the lessons of history and apply them to the coverage of contemporary events. So what I hope to do in my talk would be to take some of the ways that McCarthy, to describe what went on during the McCarthy years, take some of the ways it was misreported at the time and to ask what are the lessons to be learned for coverage of what's happening now? And are there analogies between the so-called red menace and the terrorist menace or not? And to raise a series of questions in that context. That's what I'm gonna address.

AC: Are there examples today in the press where we're not repeating those mistakes? Are we getting anything right right now?

VN: I think in the mainstream media, you know, there are all kinds of exceptions, and I think after Watergate there was a new skepticism built in to the press about the official version of events. Nevertheless, in the run-up to the Iraq war, the voices of dissent were mainly from the nonmainstream media – from the independent press, as it were. Sure there are all kinds of folks on television, cable television, in the alternative media, and occasionally in the mainstream media who have, who raise questions that the powers that be prefer not be raised. But first of all, it's too soon to know the answer to your question, but secondly, one of the lessons of the McCarthy period for today I believe, which one can see in the Morrow film … that the lesson of that movie that they quote, in the movie, Ed Murrow's character is quoted as saying something like "it is a mistake to confuse dissent with disloyalty." That confusion or mistake, which has in my view been repeated by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice-President Cheney, and to a degree by the president himself, has been repeated in the press and recycled, and they haven't been called on it, and the press hasn't called them on it. So in that profound sense, the lesson has not been fully learned. There's been a lot learned, but that's what I hope to focus on.

AC: You often use the terms "Murdochization" and "Oprahfication" when describing problems with the press today – could you explain what you mean when you use them?

VN: Well, Murdochization is a combination of conglomeratization – international communications conglomerates, which have their own logic rather than just reporting … they add their own kind of prism onto what they see, and in Murdoch's case, it happens to come with a politics attached to it. And Oprahfication – Oprah happens to be a very talented and wonderful woman. What she stands for in the popular culture is a kind of inspirational coverage of what's going on that will appeal to some kind of theoretical mass audience. And there's nothing per se wrong with it, it's just that all of those things lumped together push towards what I call conglomeratization, Murdochization, homogenization, bureaucratization. When you add 'em all up together, they push towards the lowest-common-denominator kind of journalism, and you get sensationalized coverage and a lot of other things that go with it, which is not to say that individuals – Oprah herself is attentive to literature for example – which is not to say that individuals don't have merit within that … so, that's the way I see it.

AC: One problem with the press that you've mentioned is the "false ideal" of objectivity – what do you mean by that?

VN: I think Molly Ivins, as I quoted in the book, gave us about as good a summary of the problem with the idea of objectivity. She says anyone who goes to talk to five eyewitnesses of an automobile accident knows that there's no such thing as objectivity, and she says that she's 49 years old, but she's a 49-year-old college graduate, white Texan. She's gonna see things in different ways from a black, single mom teenage high school dropout. Having said that, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to get things as accurately as you can and that you shouldn't try to put things in context. It's just that there are a lot of, my own view is that there are a lot of rituals that are taken as indicators of objectivity, such as you talk to so-called both sides of an issue, or you use a language that sounds like it's above the fray, or you refrain from revealing your own analysis and judgment about where justice lies in an issue, and those to me are fake or spurious or pseudo objectivity rituals. They don't guarantee that you get closer to an accurate picture of what's going on. And there's certain, in my own view, subjects that lend themselves to a more scientific notion of truth, two plus two is four and all that, and there are other subjects – what is freedom? – that don't. And so it's important to discriminate between what you're talking about when you talk about it. And all of those are challenges to journalists. And then there are kind of these broad pronouncements, like the president of NBC news says that opinion journalism is bad, it's driving objectivity out, and I don't believe that. I believe that if what you mean by opinion journalism is Bill O'Reilly shouting down someone who's on his program, then that's one thing. But if what you mean by it is what has been the historic role of magazines like, not just The Nation, but National Review, Bill Buckley's right-wing magazine, and The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, which is a Murdoch-owned magazine. At their best these journals engage in a kind of logical analysis, moral argument, mobilizing of the facts to argue a point that ought to at their best set the standard for public discourse. That's not in my view a bad thing. That's a good thing.

AC: In your book you write that The Nation's job is to "explain the underlying meaning of the news." But you also note that people question the significance of opinion journals, citing as one reason that they merely preach to the converted.

VN: If you turn to page 421 of my book, I quote a letter form Bob Sherrill, who used to work at Texas Observer many years ago. But he takes me to task for something. There's another letter on page 250 where he takes me to task for something else. But I quote those only to say hey, this is not the exception, this is the rule. There's a lot of disagreement within our magazine and other journals of opinion. So it's a false image people have, perpetrated mainly by people who don't read us. We have a lot of debates in our magazine, and they're different from the debates in the mainstream media. In the mainstream media, you'll hear a debate between the Democrats and the Republicans on whatever the issue is. In our magazine, you may hear some of that, but you'll also hear a debate between the radical feminists and the civil libertarians. The radical feminists believe that pornography should be banned. Civil libertarians believe nothing should be banned. Or you'll hear debates between the human rights interventionists and the pacifists. The pacifists believe it's always wrong to intervene with force anywhere, and the human rights interventionist believe that you should do it, but you should do it only in situations that meet certain human rights criteria. Shouldn't do it for imperial reasons, colonial reasons, you do it to promote human freedom. Anyway, so those kinds of debates … you don't see in the mainstream media.

AC: So, it's more nuanced?

VN: Yeah, I like to think it's more nuanced, but some people would think it's cruder. But it's a different set of debates than you get in the mainstream media. The point though is that it's not preaching to the choir. It's something else. It's exploring new ideological terrain, and trying to reach, sometimes you can reach a consensus and there's conciliation between what's drawn out as opposing points of view. But that's one of the functions of these so-called journals of opinion.

AC: You also mention in your book the idea that journals of opinion will set the standard, and then the debate spreads, so even if you have a small group of people reading it, it still affects other media.

VN: Yeah, correct. You said it. I mean … a magazine like The Nation gets reinforcement when it is cited and quoted in mainstream publications or on the nightly news or on television or whatever. When our editor Katrina vanden Heuvel appears on George Stephanopoulos' this week on Sunday morning, it's great. And it's a magnification of the message, but it's even a great compliment when they don't acknowledge you but you know they had to have read you to do what they're doing. So I've seen that in things where our reporters reported that the story's missing from the mainstream media – facts that they brought into our pages end up cited in an editorial on some editorial page that doesn't mention The Nation. But even beyond that, I think the real function of these journals or the way they have their maximum influence, at their best they reflect the climate of opinion generally, the cultural climate; they question fundamental assumptions, and eventually people, one hopes, rethink their going-in assumptions. The Nation, long before I got here – when Carey McWilliams was the editor I think around '65 – had articles and editorials about the Vietnam War before any of the mass publications.

AC: One of the things I thought about as I was reading this, is it's clear to me what you do regarding objectivity if you're writing for an opinion journal. You state your bias right off the bat. But if you're in the mainstream press – if you're not in a venue where you can just state, okay, here's where I'm coming from – how do you handle objectivity?

VN: Well, again ... I think it's case by case. I worked for The New York Times on the magazine, and you have to figure out what are interesting stories that the mainstream media hasn't found and you have to find a way to defend the story idea to your superior in terms that she or he can understand. And that's not always the easiest thing but it's doable. Who you talk to when you research a story, who your sources are becomes important, you don't just, you know, if the secretary of defense says it, you don't just quote what he says. You go and you talk to people who monitor the defense industry and hear what they have to say and try to get a variety of different takes on it before you print the headline. I mean one of the lessons in the McCarthy period would be that they would have accusations made by witnesses before these congressional committees that would appear in big headlines on page one, and 37 days later, if you're lucky, on page 87 there'd be a paragraph saying oh by the way, he was wrong. And that's not good enough. So … but however you wanna define objectivity, if all it means is incorporating the viewpoint and pronouncement of the establishment and then if you're sort of rigorous or responsible going getting someone else to raise a question about it, if that's all it means, then it's the kind of he-said/she-said situation that doesn't really help the reader arrive at – I'm gonna put it in quotes – the "objective" truth. It's just going through a ritual. You gotta find a way of mobilizing information that is in service of this other idea of how it can be done.

AC: So what do you plan to talk about when you're here?

David Barsamian: I wanna talk about some of the success stories that the progressive movement has enjoyed over the last few years. I think they're very significant. There's of course a lot of critique about how bad the corporate media are, and indeed they're doing an appalling job. But at the same time there's been I think a very exciting new movement that's answering back, that is in doing video, documentary films, radio, print journalism, Internet zines, and newsletters. And that's all very, very exciting – Deep Dish TV, Free Speech TV. This is an unprecedented movement in American history, where there has been so much independent and alternative news and information available. And most young people, young people are gravitating to it more and more. You don't need a Harvard PhD to figure out what the corporate media is up to.

AC: What's Deep Dish TV?

DB: It's all-independent, it's based in New York, and they, for example, have been involved in a couple of projects, one on the World Tribunal on Iraq, a series of programs that was recorded at the World Tribunal on Iraq in Istanbul in June, late June of '05. As far as I know, in fact I do know, there was a complete blackout of this in the U.S. corporate media. There was no reporting on it whatsoever. Nevertheless, it was a very significant international event. It drew very prestigious speakers and participants from all over the world, and essentially it was an international tribunal, holding to account the U.S. and England and other countries that are involved in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And so there was a distinguished jury consisting of Arundhati Roy from India, Eve Ensler from the United States. There were people from Iraq and Turkey and other parts of the Middle East. And so it was an absolutely spectacular affair, and Deep Dish TV has produced a series of videos – DVDs – based on that, and they're being broadcast on community access TV stations around the country. Again, not on NBC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, and Fox, but on the genuine alternative media. I mean when Fox says "fair and balanced," you really have to kind of scratch your head. Rarely in history has there been such a blatantly propagandistic organ of state power. You have to go back to maybe the Soviet Union to find such breast-beating and flag-waving and I would just say rancid and rampant jingoism and support for war.

AC: You've said that PBS and NPR started out as alternatives to mainstream media but now they've become commercialized

DB: Not commercialized. I think the word I might've used is they've become very timid over the years. They don't have commercials in the traditional sense; they have these underwriting announcements, which are a form of commercials. They use underwriting as a euphemism, like "defense." It's really an advertisement. But over the years – I've written a book about this called The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting, published by Southend Press, and I review the founding documents of NPR and PBS, and if you look at the language it's rather remarkable. I think I can quote it almost verbatim. It says that public radio and TV in the United States should be a forum for debate and controversy and provide a voice for groups that may be otherwise unheard. That's a direct quote. You don't hear any voices for peace on NPR or PBS. In an exhaustive and well-documented study before the attack on Iraq, there were 400 guests that appeared, you know, so-called experts – actually 393 – appeared on these programs, and of those, only three said it might not be a good idea to attack Iraq. So the American people are not getting the diversity of opinion that was promised in the founding documents of PBS and NPR. And they've become inside-the-beltway players. They're very tepid; they're very cautious. Mara Liasson and Juan Williams, two of their most inept interviewers, also appear as pundits on Fox news programs. Juan Williams recently interviewed Condoleezza Rice, and in this seven- or eight-minute interview, he didn't ask her a single question about Iraq. But we learned that she exercises a lot, she's a classically trained pianist, she plays tennis. I mean, it was a scandalous interview. I mean most of the censorship that occurs in the media, including NPR and PBS, is omission. It's not commission. It's what's left out.

AC: Why does that happen?

DB: Because of fear, number one. There's a tremendous amount of intimidation, and a lot of the journalists who work for these large corporate entities ... with staffs of hundreds and budgets in the hundreds of millions if not billions, these large corporate entities are licensed by the federal government. They're closely linked with state power, and are dependent on state power, and you get a very cozy and I think unhealthy relationship between the fourth estate and the White House in particular, rather than a classic adversarial relationship, which is what journalism should be about. It doesn't mean being nasty. It means holding people in power to account, to asking for documentation, asking for evidence, insisting on evidence and documentation for allegations on how Iran constitutes a grave threat to the national security of the United States. The very same things were said about Iraq. They're saying the same things about Syria. And so I think the role of the press is best encapsulated in that dictum: "to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." That's the role of the independent press, and what we have more and more in the United States is kind of a state-controlled, state-enforced press. I'm not saying it's 100%. It's not 100%, obviously: There's you, there's me, there's Sy Hersh writing at The New Yorker, there's Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, there's The Nation magazine, The Progressive, all these great online independent journals that now exist, like Common Dreams and ZNet and BuzzFlash and AlterNet. But generally speaking, the corporate media is way too close for comfort to the White House. And that has compromised their ability to report.

AC: I spoke to Victor Navasky about the role of opinion journalism in the media – what's your take on opinion journalism from the radio side?

DB: There are journalists who are falsely called reporters. I mean people like Charles Krauthammer and George Will, they're not journalists. They don't go out in the field and report on issues. They are opinionmeisters. And there's nothing you can say about it in terms of opinion, it's their opinion. They think that Houston is the capital of Texas and not Austin – that can be challenged. But it's their opinion. It's not reporting. Whereas an editor would never let that go by.

AC: What about –

DB: Notions of objectivity?

AC: Right.

DB: It's a myth. All journalists, all human beings, are shaped and formed by their class background, by their education, where they grew up, in what circumstances. It would be preposterous to think otherwise. Of course we're influenced. I'm influenced because I was born in New York City, my parents were refugees, they escaped from the first genocide of the 20th century, the genocide of the Armenians. You don't think that's had an effect on me? I grew up speaking not English as my first language but Armenian. All of these things have gone into who I am today as a journalist, as a lecturer, as a writer, as a radio producer. So this notion of objectivity is sort of essentially to silence criticism. When people don't like information that goes against conventional wisdom, they say the reporter's not objective. Even though there's an enormous amount of evidence to substantiate the position.

Iraq is such a textbook case of propaganda and the subservience of the corporate media and almost all of its employees and journalists, so-called. We on, let's say the peace movement, we were saying all along that the evidence was not substantial about Iraq, that there was no connection between Iraq and September 11th, that it was extremely unlikely that there were weapons of mass destruction, and Iraq posed no threat to the United States. We were denounced as worry warts, as people who were appeasers à la Munich – that was a frequent metaphor that was used. Oh, we're gonna appease a dictator, we're only whetting his appetite for more conquest.

Some say that Iraq was under the most brutal sanctions in history, they posed a threat to no one. And we were saying these things and also at the same time we were being called not objective, we were not realistic, we were not looking at the facts. Well, we were looking at the facts. But when you have a monochromatic one-note samba that's being turned out by the corporate media almost 24/7, 9/11. That's their main mantra: 24/7, 9/11. You notice bush in every single speech raises the spectre of 9/11. What he's doing, he's doing two things whenever he does that. One is fear. He's creating an atmosphere of fear that it's gonna happen again. We've got to back the president, "I'm your commander in chief." He's not the commander in chief, incidently. He routinely refers to himself as the commander in chief. He's the commander in chief of the military. He is not the commander in chief of the United States. And that is another conflation that the White House has been allowed to get away with and is not being challenged on.

Obviously there are certain objective facts of information. Interpretation of course is different. Austin is the capital of Texas. That's irrefutable. It's not controversial. It cannot be challenged. But if you're gonna say you know Austin's the greatest city in the state, then you know people in Galveston, San Antonio, Houston may think otherwise, or Forth Worth, Dallas.

It's a red herring. A false issue. They keep screaming about the leftist media, the liberal media. Such an idea is again so ludicrous that it would take someone on the order of Jonathan Swift to be able to write about it. Any objective examination of who owns the media, what voices are allowed on the media, the corporate media, what institutions and power they represent. Any study – and there have been scores and scores of irrefutable studies about the nature of the media in the United States – will show that there is a definite bias in the media, but it could not be called less liberal. And they say oh what about Jim Hightower, what about Molly Ivins? Well, what about them? They occupy a very small space in the corporate media world. What's the circulation of The Texas Observer? It should be in the hundreds of thousands. So again you get the drumbeat of propaganda, you get this nonstop smearing of the media as being somehow less liberal. Look at talk radio, look at Rush Limbaugh, look at Sean Hannity, look at G. Gordon Libby, look at Michael Reagan, look at Michael Savage. I mean, all the major voices, with one or two exceptions, are not just right wing, they're extreme right wing. And Limbaugh is one of the loudest screamers of this, you know, the "liberal media." You know, it goes back to Goebbels and Hitler. If you repeat a lie often enough people will start believing it. That's the technique.

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