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How Bush Buys Positive War Spin

Billions of dollars at stake in Big Media deregulation game

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It's war. The nation's president is mad with imperial delusions. There is a burgeoning anti-war movement whose message of peace screams for just a smidgen of fair attention from the media. Liberties face vicious attacks from the very leaders who have sworn to defend the Constitution; the press responds with yawns and shrugs. Courageous dissenters stand up against the power of the administration, and are derided or ignored by disdainful newspapers and TV chattering heads. At the nation's Big Media, the issue is simple. Follow the big bucks. Pentagon spin is accorded the status of holy writ, the president is granted unconditional support. At some media chains, such as Cox, executives who disagree are forced to choose between their principles and their jobs. The president gratefully responds with legislation that squashes press competition, and enriches the media conglomerates to the tune of billions of dollars.

No, I'm not talking about next month. I'm talking about 1970-'72. Under the deceit of "preserving" newspapers, the press lords were seeking anti-trust exemptions that enabled them to establish city-by-city monopolies. Competition was stifled, communities lost valuable voices, democracy suffered. Media companies booked record profits.

For years, there were suspicions of a deal between the newspaper chains and Richard Nixon. Circumstantial evidence attested to the 1970s scheme. Cox, for example, would benefit greatly from the anti-trust exemptions, and it had ordered its editors to endorse Tricky. The two Cox editors who demurred -- at the Palm Beach Post and the now-defunct Miami News -- were ousted.

Later, in the 1980s, the betrayal of the public by the chains became more apparent. Knight-Ridder Newspapers (which owns The Charlotte Observer, The Miami Herald, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among others) had an anti-trust exemption pending before then Attorney General Edwin Meese. The chain killed cartoons and toned down editorials critical of Meese.

Eventually, a smoking gun was found by national media critic Ben Bagdikian in the form of a letter promising the 1972 endorsements of the major chains to Nixon in return for anti-trust exemptions. That deal had awarded Nixon an unprecedented level of newspaper endorsements, helping him trounce the anti-war Sen. George McGovern.

The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review opined in 1991: "Knight-Ridder's coddling of Meese and (the) arm-twisting of Nixon both deserve a shadowy niche in the gallery of the First Amendment. Both episodes show how a law like the (anti-trust exemptions) can prevent the press from performing its constitutional function as a check on government."

Those aren't stories you'll find in newspaper archives. Press execs will hold their collective breath and turn purple before discussing the subject. Like much other news about news, the media draw an opaque cloak around their self-serving machinations.

"It's more than just embarrassing to reveal that news organizations cover the news with venal financial interests in mind," says Reese Erlich, a California journalist and author of the just-published book Target Iraq. "To expose that would undermine any reason the public has to pay attention to and believe the media."

Usually the media's behavior is merely reprehensible. But with hundreds of thousands of people -- babies, schoolkids, moms, elders, as well as soldiers -- soon destined to be dismembered, incinerated, disintegrated, perforated, punctured, eviscerated, maimed, crippled, blinded and atomized -- well, America's media will have blood on their cash-grabbing hands.

Why is the American media so lame in trying to ferret out the truth about the Bush war machine? Here's a bit of history. After World War II, the United States was keenly aware that government dominance of the press had enabled the Axis dictators to press unchallenged toward war. With writers such as George Orwell providing a forward roll on totalitarianism -- Big Brother was merely a media mogul on steroids -- American leaders wisely put limits on communications ownership. No newspaper could own broadcast properties in the same city. (About two dozen cities were granted exemptions to this "cross-ownership" ban.) The number of TV and radio stations a single company could own was limited.

During the 1990s, the Federal Communications Commission began dropping the limits on the number of stations companies could own. The resulting mega-companies are dung heaps upon which nationally syndicated vermin such as the incredibly dishonest Rush Limbaugh and ultra-racist Michael Savage thrive.

"Liberal" media? Forget it. In daily newspapers' op-ed pages and on radio and TV, the right is so dominant that it is virtually doing a soliloquy. The handful of moderate and left commentators doesn't begin to match the right's shrill, extremist carpet-bombing of public debate.

Behind the rightward march is media consolidation. Liberal bashing, racism and bellicose jingoism make good theater, and the conglomerates can spread the swill across the whole nation. It's stupefying, yes, but then a media-drugged public is good fodder for advertisers.

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