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Sunday, January 16, 2005

A Midwinter Night's Scream

by Clinton Fein

Click to Send PostcardIn 1998 the Republican Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, compared gays to alcoholics and kleptomaniacs. It was during an appearance with none other than "conservative" talk show host and "commentator," Armstrong Williams in response to a question posed by him. "We all have challenges that we need to wrestle with, that we need to pray about…Senator Lott also said during the interview that we must love, embrace, show tolerance," Williams later told CNN in Lott's defense.

Had Mr. Lott done his homework, however, he might have held his tongue in deference to his self-hating host's proclivities, although unlikely. Four years later, Mr. Lott's complimentary comments about an imaginary presidency under former segregationist Strom Thurmond forced him to resign as Majority Leader, and, like a toilet unflushed, dumped Bill Frist on America.

In 1997, in a $200,000 sexual harassment lawsuit initiated by former employee Stephen Gregory, a former YMCA personal trainer whom Armstrong Williams promoted to executive producer of his show, it was alleged that Williams kissed Gregory on the mouth, grabbed his ass and dick, and climbed into bed with him on business trips. According to the complaint, Williams claimed he was heterosexual but "just needed some 'affection' from Gregory because he wanted to remain celibate with women until he married."

Imagine the lucky gal. "…Never boned another woman honey." According to the complaint, Stephen Gregory was not the only one. Williams' hysterical response at the time, calling the charges "without merit" prompted Gregory's attorney, Mickey Wheatley, to suggest: "My advice to him would be to get a boyfriend and leave his employees alone."

In 2004, Rod Paige, Secretary of Education for the Bush Administration, decided this was the perfect sort of public figure - poster child, if you will -- they should have propagandizing the White House's "No Child Left Behind" initiative, and hired Armstrong Williams, to the tune of $240, 000 to do it.

Robert Novak rushed to Armstrong Williams' defense on Crossfire - the soon-to-be-yanked screamfest staple of CNN. Yes, the same Time Warner owned CNN, which in conjunction with Time was forced to retract a much touted and highly controversial serin gas story back in 1998 and which darkened the face of O.J. Simpson on the cover of Time magazine.
From an Administration that couldn't find the source of an illegal leak of the name of a CIA operative to "journalist" Robert Novak, it's not surprising that they would engage in violation of a law against unauthorized federal propaganda. Neither is it surprising that Robert Novak rushed to Armstrong Williams' defense on Crossfire - the soon-to-be-yanked screamfest staple of CNN. Yes, the same Time Warner owned CNN, which in conjunction with Time was forced to retract a much touted and highly controversial serin gas story back in 1998 and which darkened the face of O.J. Simpson on the cover of Time magazine.

The terms of the contract included broadcasting segments by Secretary Paige, and hosting Department of Education staff -- including Secretary Paige -- at their own whim, as well as, it appears, print support in his syndicated columns, which Tribune Media already "dropped like it's hot."

Armstrong Williams also told CNN's Bill Hemmer that his hypocritical acceptance of $240,000 to parrot the Bush education policy by broadcasting segments by Secretary Rod Paige, either ignorantly or in willing violation of a law against unauthorized federal propaganda, did not constitute an ethical lapse because he is a commentator or pundit, not a journalist.

"Awful damage control," opined Jon Stewart, a comedian actually, not really an anchor (despite his faux news "The Daily Show" being more informative than anything on Fox, CNN, MSNBC or any of the news shows on the networks). Williams had taken the time to criticize Stewart for doing a "puff interview" with John Kerry. "Puff" would not begin to describe the "exclusive" interview Williams would later do with Vice President Dick Cheney for the objective, bipartisan Sinclair Broadcasting Corp. Yes, the same Sinclair Broadcasting that decided to preempt "Nightline's" Iraq memorial telecast, run a John Kerry hit piece as a "news segment" just before the election, and nix the movie Saving Private Ryan for "indecency".

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein, said Thursday that the agency has received about a dozen complaints against Williams, stating: "I certainly hope the FCC will take action and fully investigate whether any laws have been broken." Perhaps if FCC Chairman, Michael Powell would take his mind off Janet Jackson's nipple for a second, or stop listening frantically to Howard Stern, more important functions of the FCC would be taking a higher priority. Many, especially me, feel the revelations about Armstrong Williams, in conjunction with the puzzling immunity of Robert Novak, (while Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time face jail time for the same reasons -- although they did not disclose Valerie Plame's identity) are just the tip of a dirty, soiled iceberg.

In 2001 President Bush reacted with fury to an October 5th story in the Washington Post about a security briefing delivered to Congress in which administration officials predicted a "100 percent" chance of a future terrorist attack if the U.S. was to strike Afghanistan. He sought to highly restrict access to intelligence by congress which was limply supported by thankfully-ousted Senate Minority leader, Tom Daschle. President Bush was far less angered when Robert Novak leaked the name of a CIA operative, endangering her, her family and contacts, and essentially constituting the "illegal trafficking" of "classified information." He called his defense attorney.

Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld expressed similar outrage when word was leaked that his nifty Office of Strategic Influence was "developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations" in an effort "to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries." Given the speed with which it blew over, it was probably a trial balloon to gauge America's reaction to tax-funded self deception.

Two investigations by the Government Accountability Office into whether false "news" stories created by The Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy violated federal law found the Administration guilty of subsidizing "covert propaganda," although what the punishment for the crime is remains vague. An already tarnished reputation cannot be tarnished.

The growing disgust over American media is hardly a new phenomenon, but has risen to the collective consciousness of late with the rise of web blogs - commonly known as blogs. While initially most were - and many remain - self-referential, self-absorbed electronic diary entries, some became extraordinarily popular, essentially becoming community-based portals, serving as aggregations of like-minded content. The contribution of "bloggers" in exposing the Dan Rather/CBS scandal exacerbated the argument as to whether they could be considered journalists - and more importantly, entitled to the same First Amendment protections regarding confidentiality and the protection of sources.

A recent lawsuit by Apple against a nineteen year-old Harvard University student, Nicholas Ciarelli, the publisher of a Mac enthusiast site, Think Secret, alleges that recent postings on the site contain trade secrets, according to court documents and seeks to identify who is leaking the information as well as getting an injunction preventing further release of trade secrets.

Think Secret boasts to have been "the source for Macintosh inside information and news scoops" providing "timely intelligence for the industry built up around Apple Computer Inc.: fast-paced coverage for a quickly growing market." Debate on Declan McCullagh's widely read Politech mailing list has swirled as journalists, experts, and law professors debate as to whether Think Secret should be compelled to turn over the identities sought in the subpoena, as well as whether Think Secret constitutes a journalistic endeavor or is merely a site that deliberately traffics in "confidential, trade-secret information."

At the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the New York Times printed headline news based on reports by tabloids, essentially blurring any distinctions - simply adding that the tabloid was the source of the report.
Although far from being immune from lawsuits, tabloid rags from the National Enquirer to The New York Post are all about rumors and insider information, yet entitled to the strongest First Amendment protections afforded a free press. At the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the New York Times printed headline news based on reports by tabloids, essentially blurring any distinctions - simply adding that the tabloid was the source of the report. Last July, it was "insider information" that resulted in a front page New York Post "exclusive" report that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had picked Richard Gephardt as his running mate. He picked John Edwards.

If one can rely on The New York Sun, even First Amendment icon and lawyer, Floyd Abrams, in his representation of Judith Miller, is considering evoking a credential-based First Amendment protection hierarchy for the press that can only ultimately determined by a revenue structure -- a disappointing and frightening prospect. "If everybody’s entitled to the privilege, nobody will get it," he is quoted. So which privileged few should get it?

In 1995, the United States Navy attempted to prohibit me from publishing a 1976 recruiting poster on a CD-ROM based on the book "Conduct Unbecoming," by investigative journalist Randy Shilts. It was the first time the publisher of an electronic content mechanism was threatened with a First Amendment violation. To make my point, I sent the image I was expressly forbidden to publish to major media outlets, including Reuters and Associated Press, both of whom published the image, which appeared on the front page of countless newspapers the following day. In a letter to the Navy by my attorney, Michael Traynor, he wrote:

"The Supreme Court of the United States has stated emphatically that 'the press in its historic connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.' [Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 452 (1938)]. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently held in the context of investigative reporting, 'The journalist's privilege is designed to protect investigative reporting, regardless of the medium used to report the news to the public.'" (I published the image on the CD ROM in spite of the Navy's threats).

Even the attempt by the United States to prevent the New York Times represented an "impermissible prior restraint against publication of Pentagon Papers even though majority of the justices believed that publication would probably be harmful to national security."

If indeed the press comprehends every publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion, bloggers, for better or worse, fall squarely in that category. The distinction ultimately becomes that of good versus bad news reporting and commentary. Is Daily Show's Jon Stewart, as a comedian, entitled to the same First Amendment protection as Paula Zahn, an actress turned anchor on CNN -- or Joe Blog?

Let the news consumer decide, and let major news organizations like The New York Times package and sell their standards, ethics and credibility because it's all they have to distinguish them from tabloids, bloggers and lesser news organizations. As columnists condemn bloggers on TV and radio shows hosted by "news personalities" peppered with experts, pundits and analysts, discerning what journalism is, is almost as tough as defining what is is. Trust is earned by delivering on a promise, not simply making one.

The entire debate, complex and multi-pronged as it is, really boils down to technological innovation confusing the most basic of premises. A blog, like a handbill, protest sign, leaflet or media empire is deserving of the same First Amendment protection, regardless of the content focus.

Disgraced plagiarist Mike Barnicle was hired by MSNBC after he was fired by the Boston Globe and the man who lied to congress under oath, Oliver North, was hired by Fox News. In 2001, Geraldo Rivera, reporting for Fox News, claimed to have "choked up" after saying the Lord's Prayer over "hallowed ground" where three Americans were killed by errant U.S. bombs. He later admitted, after questions were raised by The Baltimore Sun that he was, in fact, several hundred miles from the site outside Kandahar. The Fox News Channel retained him. They report, you decide indeed!

Armstrong Williams, his personal hypocrisy, questionable ethics and probably illegal violation of federal law notwithstanding, should find no problem getting a job, even as Tribune Media, Sinclair Broadcasting and other exposed media outlets abandon him quicker than if he was Pee Wee Herman at a Michael Jackson slumber party. Time Warner, News Corp. and NBC Universal are still hiring.

Clinton Fein can be reached at clinton@annoy.com


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