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Moyers vs. Murdoch: Journalism vs. Megalomania

Josh Silver

Rupert Murdoch's favorite megalomaniac Bill O'Reilly sent a crew to Minneapolis this weekend to stalk journalists Bill Moyers and Dan Rather. This probably doesn't surprise you. And that's exactly why Moyers and Rather were in Minneapolis. They were speaking at the National Conference for Media Reform, a gathering of 3,500 people aimed at finding ways to get better journalism to the American people.

How dare they! So Fox decided to crash the party; smear as angry radicals thousands of good people who took three days out of their lives to help improve our democracy; and play games with Moyers and Rather -- two actual journalists who understand the crisis in their craft.

That's right. Fox News sent grown men with cameras to lurk behind doorways, hide in alcoves, and crouch in the bushes at night (literally) waiting to surprise two reporters in their seventies with angry questions and a boom mic.You can see this pathetic ambush -- and Moyers classy response -- here on Olbermann. But the attack-dog tactics are already backfiring on Bill O. because they illustrate so clearly what so many of us already know: The corporate media system is broken, and it's hurting our democracy.The O'Reilly ambush is typical cable news entertainment-posing-as-journalism whose purpose is to sell eyeballs to advertisers, not to inform citizens or better society. Add in a good dose of shouting, name-calling, head-shaking, and spurious guilt-by-association invective... and voila! Ratings points.The standard model for cable news has become ridiculous. The facts are selected to fit a hysterical narrative that arguably makes for good TV but bears no resemblance to actual journalism. It breaks every common sense convention of the profession.Rule No. 1 of journalism is that you don't write a story about something you do not understand or witness yourself. None of the three talking heads in Monday night's O'Reilly segment were at the conference they were trashing. The organizers of the event were not called or interviewed. The facts were not checked. They just don't care about that stuff.Is this what journalism has become? Really? This great country deserves better.The conference that Moyers, Rather, Arianna Huffington and others addressed was about the failure of corporate media to inform and reflect our communities and our democracy. It is about consolidated TV, radio and newspapers turning the news into sound bites, trivializing critical issues like elections and war, and failing to hold power accountable.It is a free speech movement at its core, calling for a stronger democracy. We want more channels and more opportunities for voices and views of all kinds.

Some of us may be angry about what the media -- including Fox -- say and do, but I would defend Bill O'Reilly's right to speak his mind and entertain his audience however he chooses. I would defend his right just as firmly when he agrees with me as when he uses his show to launch angry attacks on what my community says and believes.

By the same token, every American that believes in the Bill of Rights should demand that O'Reilly respect our right to speak and be angry as well. There is more than a little irony in watching him angrily criticize people for angrily criticizing him. What's good for the goose is apparently treason for the gander.

So what are people so angry with the media about? They are angry about many things they perceive as injustices. But let's take just one -- the war in Iraq. It is now clear that we are fighting a war that was started and waged on false presences. No matter how you feel about the war today, the nature of its origins is hard to dispute. It is a war that was sold to the American people with a coordinated political campaign -- using the mainstream media as its outlet.

This is not the view of a radical fringe of left-wing political activists. This is the premise of an expose written by the White House press secretary whose job it was to execute the propaganda campaign. This is the inescapable conclusion of the New York Times story exposing the Pentagon's years-long secret program to shepherd retired generals with administration talking points to better than 4,500 news interviews.


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And this is the self-indicting opinion of Dan Rather, America's most famous anchorman in the Tiffany network's No. 1 chair at the start of the Iraq war. That's actually what Dan Rather said in his speech at the conference: "These [media conglomerates] are entities that, as publicly held and traded corporations, have as their overall, reigning mandate, [the need] to provide a return on shareholder value. ... In the current model of corporate news ownership, the incentive to produce good and valuable news is simply not there. "

He laid down a critique that was directed just as much at himself and CBS as it was at Fox or any other media outlet. Let's also recall that it was the New York Times that has the most famous examples of complicity in botching this story. This is a very serious matter of historic importance by any reasonable standard.

So. Yes, Mr. O'Reilly. You can find people who are angry in America and not afraid to say so. Lots of them -- on the left, right, and center of the political spectrum. Tens of millions of Americans are angry at the costs of war in lives and treasure. Tens of millions more are angry about how the media has handled the global warming debate, tax cuts for the wealthy -- and the list goes on. Calling them "lunatics" and "fascists" and "fringe" would be offensive if it were not too silly to warrant a retort.

It is the perfect embodiment of what is wrong with the media today that one of its most visible talk-show entertainers puts his own self-righteousness above the plain facts in the news. Rather than helping guide and inform the American people in difficult times, Bill O'Reilly has made himself more important than the news. By personalizing everything, he turns the media into a megaphone for his own megalomania instead of helping people understand why their country is in trouble and what we can do about it.

The people in Minneapolis weren't asking to silence Bill O'Reilly. They were -- and are -- asking for something more than Bill O'Reilly. They are asking for journalism -- a craft the founders saw fit to put in the Constitution. That aspiration stands squarely in the best tradition of American freedom.

Josh Silver is the Executive Director of Free Press, a national, nonpartisan organization that he co-founded with Robert McChesney and John Nichols in 2002 to engage citizens in media policy debates and create a more democratic and diverse media system.

Ben Scott contributed to this post.

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