If information is the oxygen of democracy, the United States has just been gassed, not by weapons of mass destruction but by a weapon of mass distraction.
With George W. Bush basking in glorious ratings and Fox News climbing in the ratings, we may be moving toward a coronation instead of a reelection in 2004. It was, after all, Rupert Murdoch's unilateral anointment of Bush as the winner in the early hours of the morning after the undecided 2000 election that led Al Gore to foolishly concede, because he and the other networks believed what they saw on Fox Television.
Now the marriage between a government and its volunteer information ministry has been consecrated by the blessed victory of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," the geopolitical equivalent of an O.J. meets "Joe Millionaire" wrapped in the flag.
Totalitarian regimes don't tolerate any distinction between journalism and propaganda, but in most democracies it is unprecedented for the free press to abandon Joseph Pulitzer for the methods of Joseph Goebbels.
How did a born-again, family-values administration get in bed with a purveyor of misogyny and mayhem, trash and titillation? The common thread, for all the public piety, has to be the late Lee Atwater, who was friend, mentor and role model to George W., Karl Rove and Roger Ailes, the head hound in the Fox pound of junkyard attack-dog journalism.
This undemocratic confluence of politics and propaganda has long been in the making as corporate media have been incrementally empowered while public influence, input and "interest" have been eliminated.
The transformation of active citizens into passive consumers was enabled by the Federal Communications Commission under Ronald Reagan's Mark Fowler, who declared "the perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants."
Welcome to America, Mr. Murdoch: You can buy the airwaves and, who knows, some day the presidency.
TV's Fox could not get away with its shameless shilling for the White House if the Fairness Doctrine were still in place, and radio's Clear Channel monopoly would not be able to impose wall-to-wall Limbaugh, Hannity and Savage, etc., on the public if broadcasters were accountable to public opinion rather than the dictates of plutocrats.
How could it be that in the land of the free and the home of the brave Americans are afraid of opinions? Where are the Tom Paines, the Mark Twains, the Menckens, the Ida Tarbells?
Dissent has not gone away; it has just been marginalized by monopolies and relegated to the interstices of the Internet.
But the hammer is about to drop on the Internet too. The head of the FCC, Michael Powell, wants to give away what's left of the store to the broadband cable and satellite providers and make them gatekeepers or tollbooths on the information highway.
It used to be that the Internet was accessed via a common carrier, the phone company, but as technology has moved forward, these new unregulated media monopolies have increasing control over the information pipeline. Without regulation, they have the ability to choose what content they provide.
Two FCC commissioners want to delay this hand-over and encourage public debate, but the public is largely unaware of what is at stake.
Obviously you can't expect the Limbaughs, O'Reillys and their bosses or their president in the White House to give them talking points on preserving diversity of opinion while there is a tax cut to sell.
So speak up, America: It's your country, they're your airwaves. Maybe you can pursue the American dream while you are asleep, but it will be too late to reclaim your country's freedom when you wake up.
Ian Masters is the host of "Background Briefing" on KPFK-FM (90.7) in Los Angeles.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times