"Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind." -- George Orwell
George Orwell shaped our imagination of a future in which a propagandistic media produced a steady stream of up-is-down, right-is-wrong, war-is-peace lies in order to impose the will of a governing elite upon the subject citizenry. Orwell reckoned this ultimate diminution of democracy would come in the year 1984. Imperfect genius that he was, the author missed the mark by twenty years. But, after watching the controversy regarding the Sinclair Broadcast Group's scheme to air the truth-impaired mockumentary Stolen Honor in an attempt to stall the momentum John Kerry's campaign gained from the presidential debates, it becomes evident that the future Orwell imagined is unfolding.
Forget about the anti-Kerry fantasy film Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never
Heal. That comic attempt at a documentary is nothing more than a 42-
minute "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth"-style television commercial produced
by a former longtime employee of Tom Ridge, the secretary of George W.
Bush's Department of Homeland Security -- an agency that pays daily homage
to Orwell with everything from its name to those color-coded terrorism
But don't forget about the Sinclair Broadcast Group. If you want to see the Orwellian media future that the Bush administration envisions, pay close attention to Sinclair. This cobbled-together collection of television "properties" is not a network but a media holding company that owns 62 of the most miserable excuses for broadcast outlets in the country. "Quality" has never been a watchword for Sinclair, a firm that pioneered the one-size-fits-all approach to mass media. When Sinclair buys a station is some long-suffering community, it fires the local staffers and begins feeding the locals a steady diet of disembodied and disengaged "content" spewed out of the company's media mill near Baltimore.
Sinclair has even experimented with the so-called "distance-casting" of weather reports. Sinclair's stormbots read local forecasts for communities around the country while standing in front of ever-changing weather maps at the firm's suburban Baltimore bunker.
But the main product of Sinclair's media mill is the slurry of right-wing dogma drooled from the lips of corporate vice president for corporate relations Mark Hyman. Ideologically in-synch with the bosses at Sinclair -- who have given over $170,000 to Republican causes over the past decade, including $59,000 so far in this year's campaign -- Hyman force feeds editorials to all 62 company- owned stations in order to shore up the conservative cause. A good deal of shoring up those editorials can do, as those stations reach 25 percent of all American households.
Hyman makes Sean Hannity sound like a sensible moderate. The Sinclair mouthpiece specializes in scorched-earth attacks on anyone who sees through the distortions of the Bush administration. He refers to members of Congress who criticize the war in Iraq as "unpatriotic politicians who hate our military." Whenever mainstream media outlets practice anything akin to journalism, Hyman condemns the offending outlets as the "hate America crowd." During the current campaign, Hyman has been a one-man propaganda machine, spinning out anti-Kerry commentaries and repeating even the most discredited lies about Kerry's Vietnam record on stations that broadcast in at least eleven of this year's seventeen battleground states.
Over the past month, Hyman has produced eleven broadcast editorials that explicitly attack Kerry, one that explicitly attacked Teresa Heinz Kerry, two that explicitly attacked Democratic candidates for Congress and two that generically attacked Democratic candidates for Congress. If Hyman's goal is to make Fox look "fair and balanced" by comparison with Sinclair, he's succeeding. And, in recent days, he has spun into overdrive.
When the controversy about Sinclair's decision to scrap regular programming in order to air Stolen Honor heated up, Hyman went spinning into Orwellian overdrive. He accused the nation's broadcast and cable networks -- including, presumably, Rupert Murdoch's Republicans Uber Alles Fox network -- of collaborating to "suppress" anti-Kerry news. Because they have not aired "Stolen Honor" or given time to the embittered Kerry critics featured in the production, Hyman says: "They are acting like Holocaust deniers..." When Democrats suggested that Sinclair's decision to air the anti-Kerry documentary so close to the election should be seen as an in-kind contribution to Bush and the Republicans, Hyman replied. "if you use that logic and reasoning, that means every car bomb in Iraq would be considered an in-kind contribution to John Kerry."
Orwell would have had to stretch even his creative powers to come up with a propagandist who compares the decisions of news departments not to cover discredited claims with the denial of Nazi genocide.
Hyman is, of course, wrong. And, despite the delusional content of his statements, it is difficult to imagine that Hyman does not know he is wrong. But, of course, the Orwellian propagandist does not blink in the face of reality. He just lies louder.
To quote Orwell, "This kind of thing is not a good symptom."
Hyman's willingness to ramp up the distortions is a deliberate tactic. He seeks to confuse the issue by suggesting that fantastical claims about decades-old events are somehow more newsworthy than the developments of the day.
Make no mistake: Airing a "documentary" produced by campaigners who seek to defeat a candidate is fundamentally different from reporting the news out of Iraq. But issues of truth and falsehood have never been a particularly significant concern for the "Dear Mr. Fantasy" of the right. Hyman does not bother to abide even by the exceptionally low standards of accuracy that prevail among conservative commentators. Rather, he peddles partisan talking points that are written with an eye toward aiding Republicans and afflicting Democrats -- and he guides a network that does the same, by refusing to air even non- controversial Democratic National Committee commercials, and be censoring an ABC-TV Nightline broadcast that named Americans killed in Iraq.
Not that long ago, Hyman in particular and Sinclair in general would have been fairly harmless. Corporations were only allowed to own only a handful television stations nationally. But rule changes pushed through by the Federal Communications Commission and the Congress -- in the form of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- have eased the limitations dramatically. Thus, we have one-size-fits-all companies such as Sinclair, which do the bidding of the Washington elites in order to assure that they will continue to benefit from rule changes that favor consolidation of media ownership and homogenization of television content.
That combination is where the Orwell equation is unlocked.
No, Sinclair does not dominate all US airwaves. But it's model could well come to be dominant. Sinclair has been in the forefront of remaking television in an era of loosened ownership restrictions and slackening standards.
Without serious reforms -- which would restore limits on the number of stations any one company can own could own, set standards for local content and, perhaps, even restore the Fairness Doctrine -- the Sinclair model could well become definitional. No firm has lobbied harder than Sinclair for the further loosening of media ownership rules and regulations. Given a second term, Bush and his aides would undoubtedly be even more supportive of Sinclair's lobbying agenda and of the big media's campaign to reshape the communications landscape. Indeed, Bush's reelection would do much to assure that Orwell's worst fears of the 20th century will become the reality of the 21st.
"If Sinclair is allowed to go forward, it will set a precedent that endangers our very democracy," says US Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, one of the leading congressional advocates for media reform. "There can be little doubt that other broadcasters will follow suit and American television could become little more than the political mouthpiece for its corporate owners. If that happens, the sad truth is that American television could end up looking more like that of authoritarian countries like the former Soviet Union and China, which are widely despised for broadcasting the 'party line,' rather than (serving as) a forum for the free exchange of diverse political views that is so necessary to a vibrant democratic society."
There is an alternative to this dark scenario. Sinclair can and should be challenged -- economically and politically. Various groups are organizing on both fronts. At the website www.stopsinclair.org, there are online petitions and details about how to contact Sinclair's local stations, advertisers and shareholders. The website www.mediamatters.org has great background on the political agenda of the makers of Stolen Honor and Sinclair. And at www.sinclairwatch.org, there are details about when the licenses of Sinclair stations around the country are up for renewal and information on how to file complaints that can form the basis for challenges to those renewals.
Ultimately, however, the protests, boycotts and challenges to Sinclair's licenses are necessary steps in the short term. But the only way to insure against an Orwellian future is to assure that, if a Bush is defeated, one of the first priorities of a Kerry administration is the restoration of the rules and regulations that limit the growth of media monopolies and prevent companies such as Sinclair from abusing their licenses to use the public's airwaves. Step one is to change the make-up of the Federal Communications Commission that has not merely allowed but encouraged those abuses. Kerry could start by replacing FCC chair Michael Powell, the best friend big media has even had in so critical a regulatory role, with the one commissioner who has consistently defended the public interest, Michael Copps.
Copps understands the crisis. Referring to the Orwellian twist Sinclair is attempting to put on the 2004 presidential election, Copps said, "This is an abuse of the public trust. And it is proof positive of media consolidation run amok when one owner can use the public airwaves to blanket the country with its political ideology -- whether liberal or conservative. Some will undoubtedly question if this is appropriate stewardship of the public airwaves. This is the same corporation that refused to air Nightline's reading of our war dead in Iraq. It is the same corporation that short-shrifts local communities and local jobs by distance-casting news and weather from hundreds of miles away. It is a sad fact that the explicit public interest protections we once had to ensure balance continue to be weakened by the Federal Communications Commission while it allows media conglomerates to get even bigger. Sinclair, and the FCC, are taking us down a dangerous road."
If George Orwell were around, he would tell us that it is the road to 1984. "The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world," he would warn, adding that, if we do not act, "Lies will pass into history."
John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press.
© 2004 The Nation