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(DV) Fiyouzat: What's Wrong with Democracy Now!?







What's Wrong with Democracy Now!?
by Reza Fiyouzat
January 7, 2006

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For a lot of people in the progressive political opposition, the year 2005 will hopefully come to signify the year of rejuvenation of the U.S. Left, thanks mostly to two significant events: Cindy Sheehan blowing the lid off the shamelessness of President Bush and his administration; and Hurricane Katrina blowing the lid off to expose the shame of racism and the violence of poverty in the American society.


This was a year in which the oppositional spirit in the U.S. expanded and hope regained some vitality. For that we are very thankful. It was also a year during which the absolutist state in the U.S. took on a more definite shape. The year's most significant event at closing time was the revelation that the NY Times, having sat on the story for a year, finally revealed that the government had been spying on U.S. citizens.


To top that, when asked about this, George W. Bush openly defended their illegal program, declaring it proper for the state not only to spy on citizens without any court permission and that such illegal snooping will continue for the foreseeable future. However, those who had leaked the existence of this secret program would be pursued. And sure enough, on New Year's Eve, the Justice Dept. announced that they had opened a probe into the leaking of state secrets to the NY Times.


In other words, the Absolutist State is here.


So, we need to think about the rougher seas ahead. We know a lot about the position of the state, but we must also pay attention to the conditions we create for carrying out our tasks, and must fix some leaks in own ship.


One such leak is the way leftist journalists in the U.S. incorporate official statements and representatives in their articles, reporting and/or programming. In the war of truth against the propaganda of the ruling system, the Leftist journalist is the David to the system's Goliath. In this fight, the main (perhaps the only) advantage we have is the hard nuggets of truth we can pack into our slingshots. But, the system is a reactionary entity that fights back by diluting the truth, by softening those nuggets, and by infiltrating our rhetoric and our institutions. Infiltration takes different forms, but the most successful form is to get us to internalize the system's way of doing things.


For example, why does Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! invite rightwing pundits for “debates” and “discussions”? Not just a few times, but lately quite regularly. Don't the rightwing propagandists have almost all the other platforms already? A majority of people are thirsting for some truthful explanation of their social environment, they are dying for some new ideas, and sick and tired of the same old mainstream typecasting of reality in stupefied, simplified journalism of “two sides of the story.” So, why does Amy Goodman mimic the corporate media? 

Item: On Dec 21, 2005, covering the transit workers' strike in NY, Amy Goodman had on her program a certain, and I quote Democracy Now!'s own site, “Nicole Gelnias, contributing editor at the
Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Before that she was a business journalist for Thomson Financial and was a columnist for the New York Post.”


The same NY Post that is the mouthpiece of that racist, sexist, rightwing international media warlord Rupert Murdoch! So, clearly Ms. Gelnias was not a neutral agent doing her best to be objective, but a paid propagandist, and she was using up airtime fast and furious, packing all the lies she could cram into her time, fabricating at will! And precious little available airtime had to be dedicated to cleaning up her falsehoods. So, besides being given the opportunity to sabotage constructive Leftist thinking on air, why was Nicole Gelnias on the program?


A Case Study 


Here is a short analysis of a recent Democracy Now! program featuring a 30-minute “extended discussion.” The particular program (27 Dec 2005) was about the movement Critical Mass, the free bike ride movement that meets once a month to take back the streets, and about the recent police undercover surveillance to which Critical Mass participants have been subjected.  

The program was divided into three major segments: 1) 15 minutes -- news headlines; 2) 15 minutes -- introductory section about Critical Mass using the documentary Still We Ride, produced partially by a producer of Democracy Now! (Elizabeth Press); 3) 30 minutes -- extended discussion.


There were four participants in the extended discussion: Jim Dwyer (metro reporter at the NY Times), Eileen Clancy (video analyst, I-Witness), Norman Siegel (attorney, former head of NY-Civil Liberties Union), and Paul J. Browne (New York City Police Department's Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, i.e. the police's PR man).


From a quick count, here is the Number of Turns taken by each discussant:

Paul J. Browne (police): 9-10 turns (depending how you count interruptions)

Norman Siegel (attorney): 5 turns

Eileen Clancy (video analyst): 3 turns

Jim Dwyer (reporter): 2 turns


So, already you see the overwhelming advantage achieved by the police PR-man in holding the floor, and therefore dictating which aspects of the topic to foreground, which ones to push to the background, which ones to give legitimacy to, and which ones to ridicule or dismiss or simply not address.


How did the turn-taking work out to such a large extent to the favor of the police spokesman? To be sure, Mr. Browne was no rude man getting his turns through verbal bullying and interrupting willfully to gain/maintain the floor. Not at all. Amy Goodman had already taken care of things through her formatting.


This is how it worked: you had two progressives plus the NY Times reporter (middle-ground, if you insist) going against one reactionary person. So, every time one of the non-reactionaries put in a word, Amy Goodman would turn to Mr. Browne, and go, "Response?" (Not exactly with that kind of brevity, but that was the essence.) So, a non-reactionary person would say something, and then, in a very civil manner, the floor would be turned over to the reactionary participant so he could cancel out any progressive rhetorical accumulation.


Another numerical data that can shed more light on the potential impact of the contending ideologies is the total airtime taken up by discussants:

Jim Dwyer (reporter): 6 min, 02 sec

Paul J. Browne (police): 5 min, 50 sec

Eileen Clancy (video analyst): 4 min, 08 sec

Norman Siegel (attorney): 3 min, 58 sec


So, the police got more airtime than both progressives! Not bad for a day's propaganda work. The police managed second place in a group of four contenders (not counting the host of the program, of course), and, let us not forget, the police also got twice as many turns as the next best contender, and more than four times as many turns as the person worst off (reporter Jim Dwyer, who had the most airtime as compensation).


But, the most obvious thing that can very easily be overlooked (since it is so obvious) is that the total airtime taken by each participant in this extended discussion makes clear that, in fact, no discussion took place! Much less an “extended” one!


Can you seriously and coherently explain a complex social issue -- your basic position on Critical Mass as a social movement, and on the police surveillance of private citizens in an increasingly oppressive legal system shaping the parameters of how people may behave in civil society -- in merely four or five minutes? Of course not! (And a clear statement of your basic position would only be the starting point of any real debate.) Far less can you develop any ideas in that much time! How about in six minutes, the upper limit here? Hardly! Especially given that you are constantly interrupted at every turn. 


In this “extended discussion,” most (if not all) points posed by the progressives were interrupted and refused the opportunity to develop, mainly not by other discussants but by the formatting of the program. At one point the discussion was even interrupted by a very unnecessary interjection of yet another segment (3 min, 10 sec) from the documentary Still We Ride.


It is worth mentioning that in a segment taking up a total of 30 minutes, we had at least 5 min, 15 sec worth of significant “interruptions” (breaks and airing of documentary), without counting the time taken up by the host, by either recapping, redirecting, clarifying, or posing questions. Far more significantly, two participants, Norman Siegel, the former head of NY-CLU whose wealth of expertise and knowledge could have been far, far better used in this program, and Eileen Clancy, the video analyst whose work had produced the original material that provided the basis for the NY Times reporter's piece on this topic, both received less airtime than the interruptions!


The Leak 


Take the qualitative implications of this kind of airtime regimentation. When you set two or three progressives up against one pro-establishment person, and set up a very mechanistic system of debate (in point-counterpoint fashion), all you get is a tennis match of statements, counterstatements, counter-counterstatements, and so on. Which is a basic high school-type debate; it lacks any depth, and can (and usually does) easily become a shouting match.


But there is more to it than that. Amy Goodman may present it as if she had invited the police PR-man (or any other Rightist agent sent to bag Leftist airtime) in order to subject the official to some tough questioning, and, to be fair, she did try at times. But, such agents are no pushovers; this particular one was real smooth. First, he successfully tied up a good chunk of the airtime with a semantic side issue, namely the difference between “undercover” and “plain clothes” officers assigned to mass demonstrations/gatherings: a totally wasteful sub-topic, whose value in eating up time must be appreciated by police PR men.


Further, at every turn, Mr. Browne punctured the rhetorical force and the case presented by the progressives, and even put them on the defensive by dictating the terms of the debate as being about “security”; and having nothing to do with practicing one's First Amendment-protected rights, and definitely having nothing to do with the fact that roads are public goods, and everybody has equal rights of access to them, and police has zero rights to dictate whose use of the public goods must take primacy over others'.


So setting “security” as the criteria for the debate, he implied further (without being challenged effectively) that all forms of dissent have immediate security dimensions. Letting that latter stand unchallenged was bad enough. Mr. Browne pushed another propaganda point unchallenged, by presenting his own institution as a benign one looking out for everybody's safety and protecting the general well being of the society. In his final turn, as a response to a significant new topic/question posed by Amy Goodman (in the closing minutes, please note) about the new ties that have developed between the CIA and the New York City's Police Department (whose new head, Commissioner Cohen, is a former CIA bigwig), Mr. Browne was even allowed to close with the astonishing (and of course unchallenged) statement that he thought the newly emboldened relationship between the NYPD and the CIA was “fantastic”!


The House of Goodman, for more than a few moments, felt very chilly, and overly filled with officialdom.


Of course, the progressive activist participants battled bravely nevertheless and, in spite of the programming format, did manage to get some major points in. They brought to attention the alarmingly larger areas of civil life that have fallen prey to the security state. And they did question the legitimacy of being surveilled in their private engagements by the same undercover police who infiltrate their monthly gatherings. Both themes, however, could have been further developed and a true interrogation of police conduct could have taken place, but the format preempted all that.


Without the police PR-man in the program, there could have developed a continuity of verbal thought in a meaningful dialogue. What the average listener of Democracy Now! needs most, I would wager, is not some totally directed and micro-managed conversation that has no impact, but a real dialogue in which new ideas for better thought out actions can be disseminated as widely as possible.


If a clash of opposing ideas is an absolute (and rightful) necessity, then why not have a real, free flowing debate between a Leftist and an extreme Leftist? There are precious few places still standing, where American journalism can save its soul (meaning, seek the truth), so it becomes absolutely imperative to establish as a tenet that government officials do not represent truth, but are agents for maintaining the current system. The journalistic Left should not have any problem reflecting that tenet in the content of its professional activities.


Robert Fisk best put it, “When covering the Sabra and Shatila massacres, I did not give equal time to the murderers who carried out the massacres.”


Is it not enough that the same activists who appeared on this program have to face the intrusive agents of the state in the streets as they try to access a public good, in the courts through which they are dragged as a punishment for attempting to access a public good, and in the major corporate media that has monopolized almost all public airspace and print media? Why do they now have to face the police even when appearing on leftist programs?


The large picture, as refracted through this analysis of what is happening to Democracy Now!, is to show how the system's propaganda machine is seeping increasingly into our institutional voices. We have already arrived at a position in which the system dictates to a severe degree the modes of possible dissent on the streets: with permits, at the mercy of a USA PATRIOT Act-dictated legal system, away from the relevant locations of political events, in cages. Are we going to allow the system to control the parameters and modes of our debates and discussions even in our own homes?


Let us hope that this particular leak in the ship will be fixed. We must create and expand a sense of rightful audacity, such as Cindy Sheehan's. Who cares what rightwing propagandists think of our programs and our views? We need to concentrate more on how we carry out our own tasks. We need to fight injustice on various fronts, and we cannot forget that a fundamentally essential one is the rhetorical one, so we must critique and negate practically the rhetorical forms with which this system oppresses us.


Reza Fiyouzat is a freelance writer and analyst. He keeps a blog at: Revolutionary Flowerpot Society. He may be reached at: rfiyouzat@yahoo.com

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* Japan’s Organized Labor Mobilizes Against War