"The Pentagon, which first denied that an embed profiling program was used to reject reporters covering the war in Afghanistan, until Stars and Stripes proved otherwise, has now canceled its contract with the controversial Rendon Group.“The decision to terminate the Rendon contract was mine and mine alone. As the senior U.S. communicator in Afghanistan, it was clear that the issue of Rendon’s support to US forces in Afghanistan had become a distraction from our main mission,” said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, in an e-mail sent Sunday to Stars and Stripes.
Stars and Stripes first broke the news Monday that the Pentagon hired Rendon -- the firm involved with a PR campaign pushing pre-war intelligence -- to evaluate reporters' work as "positive," "negative," and "neutral.""
I wrote about this story on Thursday, claiming that although it was unfortunate to learn that the Pentagon was analyzing and potentially vetting reporters, it shouldn't strike anyone as surprising. The report from today that the contract was canceled is certainly good news, but we are still a long way from having a properly functioning media.
What this controversy highlighted more than anything else is that in America, we like our censorship subtle. Something that feels like outright censorship can cause a small but powerful outcry from those who oppose it, which is what we saw in this case. Having Rendon rate reporters coverage was too explicitly an attempt to control the message, and the public didn't like it.
What's discouraging is that the implicit relationship between the media elites and the government is virtually identical to the explicit relationship between Rendon and the media. By that, I mean that the corporate media imposes on itself the exact type of vetting process for which Rendon was so resoundingly criticized. The limits of debate are less explicit in the media at large, but they are no less strict.
Where Rendon was explicitly classifying journalists' coverage as "positive," "negative," or "neutral," corporate media similarly implicitly classifies ideas--and those who espouse them--as either "acceptable" or "unacceptable." Noam Chomsky writes about this in Manufacturing Consent:
"The right wing continually claims that the press has a liberal bias, and there's some truth to that, but they don't understand what it means. The liberal bias is extremely important in a system- in a sophisticated system of propaganda. In fact there ought to be a liberal bias. The liberal bias says, thus far and no further, I'm as far as you can go, and look how liberal I am. And of course it turns out that I accept without question all the presuppositions of the propaganda system. Notice that that's a beautiful type of system. You don't ever express the propaganda, that's vulgar and too easy to penetrate, you just presuppose it. Unless you accept the presuppositions, you're not part of the discussion. And the presuppositions are instilled, not by, you know, beating you over the head with them, but just by making them the foundation of discussion. You don't accept them, you're not in the discussion."
That is why we are seeing a backlash against Rendon. Their and the Pentagon's attempt to shape the coverage was too obvious. Those kind of tactics are more likely to fail, because the population can see what is happening. The establishment-worshiping novelty acts on TV are far more subtle.
American media operates from the basic premise that America Is Good, and has Noble Intentions and Good Leaders, and therefore it is crazy and unreasonable to question our country's intentions. What we can question, at most, are the tactics our Good Leaders employ. Chomsky continues:
"So, in the case of the, say, the Vietnam war, which was a major topic of debate, if you look over the media, there was a big debate over the Vietnam war. There were the hawks who said that if we continue to fight harder, if we're more violent, and so on and so forth, then we can achieve the noble end of defending South Vietnam and the free people of South Vietnam from communism. And then there were the doves who said it's probably not going to work, it's probably not going to be too- it's going to be too bloody, and it's going to cost us too much, and therefore we're not going to be able to achieve the noble end of defending the people of South Vietnam from communism.
Now, again, there's another view, and that is that we were attacking South Vietnam. That other view has the merit of being true, obviously true, but it was inexpressible. That's outside the spectrum of debate. You can enter the debate only if you accept the assumption. And if you check the media over the entire period as far as I can see -- I've- Hermann and I in this book review the media from about 1950 to the present on Indochina, and I don't think you can find an exception to this, even statistical error -- that's the spectrum, you've got to accept it."
You can find all sorts of contemporary examples of dialogue being limited like this.
The torture "debate" is a perfect example. Torture is discussed on TV in terms of whether or not it "works," whether or not it "keeps 'us' safe." (It should be noted that the "us" in that last phrase strongly connotes white Christians. Keeping "us" safe has very little to do with keeping Muslims safe, even if they are American citizens.) In terms of whether or not the DOJ should prosecute torturers, the debate consists entirely of whether or not it would be a good idea for Obama politically, or whether it would be a distraction. Virtually no one in the mainstream media says what is undeniably true, namely that torture is a felony--always has been--and that those who participated in it must, BY DEFINITION, be held accountable for their actions to the full extent of the law.
The same can be said of the escalation of troops in Afghanistan. The question is, "Can we achieve our noble goals?", not, "Is this occupation wrong on every fundamental level?"
Or consider Israel. The question must always be, "Are Israel's tactics bringing the country closer to Peace," not, "Is Israel committing war crimes in Gaza?" That idea has been labeled "unacceptable" for discussion. That's why you don't see Norman Finkelstein making the Sunday morning talk show rounds. Indeed, Israeli press is often far more critical of Israel's actions than American press.
Take, for example, Rachel Maddow's truly awful reporting on the massacre of Gaza. (via hawgblawg, who also has a great analysis, highly recommended)
So, in celebrating the cancellation of Rendon's contract, let us remember that ideas and scholars are constantly being ranked and evaluated by the Washington Consensus. Those invisible rankings are, in many ways, more destructive than more obvious methods of debate control.