As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Access Hollywood-ization of the Media

This Pentagon propaganda program, which has had an online life despite the total blackout on television and print beyond the initial New York Times article, now is getting a second life after the Pentagon released a series of documents related to the scandal. They didn't release them out of generosity, these were the same documents forced out of the Defense Department by the Times using Freedom of Information Act requests. And the revelations in the over 8,000 documents could fill more than just one magazine article. Glenn Greenwald's investigation of just one incident after an Amnesty International report of conditions at Guantanamo is enough for its own novella.

In June of 2005, communications officials in the Pentagon began planning a military-sponsored trip to Guantanamo for selected retired military officers who were currently working as "news analysts" for various television networks and magazines. Amnesty International had just issued its most scathing report yet about Gitmo, as part of its 2005 report on America's "new gulag of prisons around the world beyond the reach of the law and decency." It specifically called Gitmo "the gulag of our times," and detailed years of extreme abuses that had taken place there.

To counter Amnesty's findings, the Pentagon planned the Gitmo trip over the course of two weeks in mid-June. They eventually confirmed June 24 as the date for the tour, with a list of ten participants, including retired Gen. Don Shepperd of CNN, along with various "military analysts" from MSNBC and Fox.

From the beginning, the whole trip was transparently propagandistic, and there was no possibility that the participants could learn anything meaningful about Gitmo. It was a one-day itinerary (pp. 7476-7477). They left Andrews Air Force Base at 6:45 a.m. on June 24, and did not land in Cuba until 10:00 a.m. Virtually the entire 3 hour plane ride was filled with "briefings" by various DoD officials, and after they landed -- and before they were taken to the detention camps -- they were given another 90 minutes of briefings.

They did not even arrive at Camp Delta -- where the detainees are kept -- until 12:35 p.m. that afternoon. After a 50-minute lunch with the troops, they began a guided tour of Camp Delta at 1:20 p.m. which lasted a grand total of one hour and 25 minutes. Packed into that 85-minute tour was a viewing of an interrogation, a tour of an "unoccupied cellblock," and a visit to the detention hospital. That was all the time they spent touring Camp Delta: 85 minutes.

Then, at 2:45 p.m., they were brought to Camp V for 10 minutes, followed by a tour of Camp X-Ray for 35 minutes. Then they left Cuba -- to fly home, with the "wheels up" on their plane at exactly 4:30 p.m. the same day, arriving back at Andrews that night at 7:45 p.m. They were then brought back to the Pentagon at 8:00 p.m. They spent a grand total of 3 hours and 55 minutes at the Guantanamo detention facilities, with almost one hour of that devoted to lunch with the troops. That was the sum total of their grand tour of the detention facility: less than 3 hours. And then the propaganda campaign to malign and dispute the extensive, amply documented findings of Amnesty was unleashed in full.

Sheppard and other "analysts" decamped to their media outlets, refuted the Amnesty International findings based on "first-hand knowledge," continually checked in with their minders at the Pentagon to appraise them of their progress, and basically provided a counterpoint to a research document based on a few tightly controlled hours being led by the nose. This is what has become of journaism in the 21st Century. Just as American government has outsourced and privatized its functions, the media has outsourced its reporting to the government. While the majority of broadcast news is spent on making metaphors between Presidential candidates and sports figures and using Republican oppo research, even the bits of legitimate issues that leak through are suspect. The Defense Department and other official executive branch organs have learned how to pierce through the thin veneer separating the media and the subjects they are charged with covering, and merged them.

It's not particularly surprising that the Pentagon would find people to carry their water and grant them access in exchange for favorable coverage; this is how the entertainment media has been doing it for 80 years. Larry DiRita at the Pentagon is simply playing publicist, allowing his "stars" to be interviewed by friendly sources, allowing inside peeks to his top productions so they can get distributed positively to the public. There is no difference between Gen. Don Sheppard and Pat O'Brien, outside of the salacious late-night phone calls.

When the conglomerates who own the traditional media forced their news operations to become profit centers, this focus on "exclusives" and access was inevitable. It is also, I think, unnecessary, and the result of small-minded thinking inside news bureaus. A broadcast journalism operation based on aggressive reporting, playing against type and the dross we see currently, could have an ready and waiting audience. But of course, corporate ownership means that there are lines which would be difficult to cross.

There is no question that what the Pentagon did was illegal. But the real problem is that to the media, it's standard practive.

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