The press can be like the police. They’re not always appreciated until they’re really needed.
There’s been some attention to “fake news” sites as well as President-elect Donald Trump’s attacks on reporters corralled at his rallies and his criticism of fact-checking his claims — or otherwise doing journalism. However, a more troubling act on Capitol Hill could jeopardize independent news — and it’s a demonstration of the authoritarian streak that’s increasingly obvious for the upcoming Trump administration, working hand-in-fisted-glove with a GOP-controlled Congress and Supreme Court.
The “Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act” this month passed in the Senate, unobtrusively added to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Conference Report. The NDAA is a huge measure to “authorize appropriations for Fiscal Year 2017 for military activities of the Department of Defense and for military construction, to prescribe military personnel strengths for such fiscal year, and for other purposes.”
Those purposed include the Voice of America (VoA), Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), taxpayer-funded efforts to bring independent journalism to 150 million people worldwide in dozens of languages (a larger audience than U.S. news networks) in places without access to a free press.
“The Republican-controlled House quietly inserted an amendment to the 2017 Defense National Authorization Act that will gut the VoA and RFE/RL and turn it into a Trump-controlled propaganda machine,” said journalist Michael Rosenblum, who worked with the programs for years.
“Since its founding, the VoA, RFE/RL and Radio and TV Marti [aimed at Cuban audiences] have been under the control of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG),” Rosenblum continued. “This was an independent board in place to guarantee that the work of the journalists was independent of government editorial control. The news that was reported was honest, fair and of the highest journalistic integrity. And it worked.
“What makes VoA and its cohorts so powerful is that it is a voice that can be trusted by its viewers and listeners,” he added. “Their work stands in stark contrast to the kind of ‘news’ that people in repressed societies get from the ‘state’ broadcasters (like in Russia). [This] legislative action, however, replaces the BBG with one President-appointed director, who has the power to hire, fire and control editorial content.”
So: Under the guise of fighting foreign propaganda, this could create U.S. propaganda ultimately controlled by a White House that openly despises the press (and that has as Senior Counselor Steve Bannon, former chair of Breitbart News, a right-wing website tied to the Internet-based alternative right — white supremacists).
First introduced as the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act of 2016 by Illinois Republican Adam Kinzinger and California Democrat Ted Lieu in the House, and as the Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 by Ohio Republican Rob Portman in the Senate, the idea has alarmed conservatives as well as progressives.
“The Act will greenlight the government to crack down with impunity against any media property it deems ‘propaganda,’ and provide substantial amounts of money to fund an army of ‘local journalist’ counter-propaganda, to make sure the government’s own fake news drowns that of the still free ‘fringes’,” writes Tyler Durden, on teaparty.org.
Progressive economist and former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich warns of a general drift or drive to government control of media.
“The Trump administration, like Trump himself, will be creating its own media vehicles, such as his tweets and rallies, and trying to intimidate the media, as per his threats to expand libel laws and target the independent press,” Reich told In These Times magazine. “The only guarantee we have of a democracy is an informed citizenry.”
But the clumsy takeover attempts could backfire.
“There is a willingness to pay for journalism that is seen as holding the President-Elect accountable,” commented Pete Vernon of Columbia Journalism Review.
Indeed, after Trump pounced on Vanity Fair magazine, editor Graydon Carter added to its web site the line “The magazine Trump doesn’t want you to read. Subscribe now,” and the monthly in one day added 13,000 subscribers. Likewise, the NewYork Times has benefited from Trump’s condemnation, signing up 10,000 new subscribers per day several times since the election, and recording a ten-fold increase in new subscriptions over the same period last year, Vernon said.
“If Donald Trump doesn’t like your work, it’s probably good for business.,” he said.
Country music’s Carter family in the 1930s had the memorable lyric covered by Anna Kendrick in the 2012 movie “Pitch Perfect,” a line also used by innumerable bluesmen and the contemporary Country duo Brooks & Dunn, and it could be applied to the press as well as a sweetheart:
“You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.”
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com