Buzzflash Interview 1
This interview with Robert Kane Pappas was originally published on buzzflash.com in 2004.
Q: During the film, you make a very compelling case that we’ve entered an Orwellian world — arguing effectively that in an age of corporate media consolidation, where the media are aligned with the governmental message — that is to say, the Bush message — we’ve truly entered an Orwellian age.
In 1984, one of the main goals of the Ministry of Truth was to erase history on a daily basis so that anything that conflicted with the message of the government perished. There was only one person who had the repository of truth.
Robert Kane Pappas: Well, 1984 is a novel, but a couple of things struck me about Orwell. One had to do with the newest story obliterating the last story, so there was this public forgetfulness. A story runs its course, you see it day and night, and then it goes away. It appeared that if you have the right experts speaking, and more importantly, choose the right moderator, it’s quite easy to control the discussion. You can focus the people’s attention here and then focus it there. With all our investigative tools of the news media, it seems that they never connect the dots. You may have a series of stories, all showing a pattern of behavior in government, but for some reason, the news media don’t treat it as a pattern.
The other thing I wanted to say about Orwell that really struck me was the misuse of language that he goes into. Watching the news over the last several years more carefully, I realized that complicated stories or concepts are boiled down to short “tag lines” so the public’s understanding of it is diminished. This euphemistic use of language turns everything into either a two-word marketing phrase, something is named the opposite of what it means. By lying first, or misnaming something first, you can define how people think about it, and quite strikingly.
Q: So there’s no context?
Robert Kane Pappas: Right. It’s so ubiquitous — the mass news media, and the mass media in general — that the public consciousness really is affected. It influences the way people looks at things; it’s incredible how confused they are. The general public only hears around the edges of stories. They have the collective ability to remember what happened six months ago, but the ability to make any kind of connections seems to be diminished.
Q: The medium itself doesn’t have historical memory.
Robert Kane Pappas: Correct. The history of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, as recounted by the mainstream media, is a case in point. Orwell Rolls in his Grave examines two striking examples of this: deregulation and the “October Surprise.” Deregulation’s failures and excesses were largely ignored, despite the fact that the public paid a huge price economically. And the October Surprise is, in my view, a watershed example of “losing history.” Ex-Newsweek reporter Robert Parry at Consortium News wrote a startling series on the subject.
Q: The phrase “tax relief” that the Republicans use — the very structure of the phrase makes it almost impossible to oppose because it uses the word “relief,” which people associate in a positive way. You want to have relief. So if you’re opposed to the so-called Bush tax relief, well, you’re opposed to people feeling better, and less stressed and less burdened.
Robert Kane Pappas: It cuts off discussion. And, given the methodology of the mainstream news media, the time restrictions, the short audience attention span etc., rectifying these false impressions is difficult. We are now slaves to polls and focus groups.
When watching TV news, you notice there are polls for everything. We hear about these things called focus groups. The way they sell us anything — which car we’re going to buy, what cereal we eat — the same exact techniques are used for politics, and for grouping the population very specifically, like you’re trying to sell them something. You massage it with the right words and focus-group those words. You can see how dangerous that is when it’s purposely used to manipulate a population.
Q: You show this through interviews and through a creative use of lingo back and forth between the interviews and documentary footage. Your focus is on the collusion of the corporately owned media, whose interests are aligned with a government that provides economic tax breaks and economic incentives to the corporate media.
Robert Kane Pappas: People don’t understand how overwhelmingly important that point is.
Q : Marshall McLuhan said that television is a cold medium. But for many people, it’s an emotional medium. I recall reading an interview with Chris Matthews saying that issues don’t matter any more. He said that he goes with what his instincts tell him, and his emotions — that’s what interests the viewership. And so television, whether it’s news, entertainment, commercials or negative political ads– uses the same technique.
Robert Kane Pappas: Bob McChesney and Charles Lewis make the point in the movie that people who started out as journalists entered it as a public service. Then they find out that they’re really involved in numbers. It’s like they’re selling a TV series. This perverts news reporting terribly, because some of the most important stories are not that dramatic. When all of a sudden a big entertainment entity can own both the conduit and the product — all those TV stations, cable stations, the newspaper, the movie studio, the radio — those behind-the-scenes, committee-type lobbyists hammering out the way the law is written, or something that happens at the FCC, are so crucial to what we’re going to see, how people are going to feel.
When it’s not so dramatic, the story goes under-reported, a blip on the radar screen. We give much more notice to one kidnapped child than we do to something that is vastly more important to the population in terms of consequences.
Q: At one point, you show a chart of all the cross-ownership of the media. CBS, for instance, recently didn’t allow MoveOn.org ads during the Super Bowl, and CBS canceled the airing of a movie about Ronald Reagan because of opposition from the right. NBC will not provide tapes of an interview with Bush to a fellow documentary maker, Robert Greenwald, for a film he’s doing because it’s embarrassing to Bush. In other words, they won’t provide footage of a public appearance by Bush on “Meet the Press” to a documentary maker. Disney, which owns ABC, prohibits Miramax from distributing Michael Moore’s documentary. All this cross-ownership is serving a censorship function for basically one political perspective and one political party — the Republican Party.
Robert Kane Pappas: The media companies say, “It’s our airwaves, it’s our free speech,” when it’s really public airwaves. They originally got all this extra ability to have these various networks by claiming that it was going to improve diversity. But in fact, through the use of stuff like copyright, Greenwald, for instance, can’t have that news piece, which is a very important interview because it showed whether our president understands a serious issue. They said, well, that’s our program; we won’t license it to you. We own it.
Q: Mark Crispin Miller says in your film, we basically have the appearance of diversity in media, when really there’s a uniformity of message. He quotes Goebbels. We keep hearing there’s diversity, but then we get an instance like Sinclair Broadcasting saying they won’t allow their affiliates to air “Nightline” the night it memorialized the soldiers killed in Iraq .
Robert Kane Pappas: In Disney’s case, the argument was we don’t want to offend people, so we don’t want to distribute Michael Moore’s movie because we have a family audience. Well, they have many divisions in Disney — Touchstone, Miramax — and their films are not what you would call family-friendly.
Bigness makes you common-denominatorize everything. You don’t want to offend. And then, at the same time, there are the government connections between, say, the Bushes and major broadcast owners. You only need a few well-positioned people. For instance, George Bush’s first cousin, John Ellis, ran Fox’s presidential desk on election night in 2000 – and was talking to Jeb Bush and George Bush that evening on the phone. And Fox was the first network to call the election for George Bush. We didn’t hear much about that story.
Q: In your film, the Clear Channel connection to Bush is brought up. Here is a corporation that now owns about 1,200 radio stations, and basically acts as a shill for the Bush administration. They sponsored “support our troops” rallies. They were basically saying support the Bush administration, and they wouldn’t air any opposition to the Iraq war. And the owner of Sinclair Broadcasting was involved in the deal that made Bush a millionaire with the Texas Rangers.
But even Charles Lewis admits in your film that the Center for Public Integrity hasn’t been able to focus too heavily on the corporate media because to do so would, in essence, mean losing media coverage for the other things they expose. It was chilling to hear that.
Robert Kane Pappas: The news media control the stories about the news media. So if you want to report on the media, it has to go through the media. They can stop it directly or they can frame a discussion on any of the news shows to avoid or bounce off an issue like that. The implicit threat is, if you talk like that too much on the media, you will be marginalized — you won’t be invited on the show. That is the implicit threat Charles Lewis was talking about. So they have two levels of power there, like no other industry.
As Bob McChesney points out, even the oil industry and the tobacco industry are not in control of discussions of their stories. This is how tobacco was outed, in terms of its health effects. And oil. But in the realm of mass media and their unbelievable impact, they never have to apologize for completely blowing it. I called a good friend of mine who works at Fox in January of 2003 and said, “What’s going on?” It was the run up to the war, and he says drolly, “It’s the Super Bowl.” And that phrase just caught me — the Super Bowl. So this war was treated like something to be sold.
Q: You’ve mentioned that it’s all a kind of selling. Corporations own these media companies. Their purpose is to sell products through advertising dollars. To sell products, you have to have viewership.
Robert Kane Pappas: To have viewership on politics now, it’s been decided by the corporate media that you have to goose the emotions of the viewer, not necessarily provide information.
If you go up to Canada , they have what they call news readers who strictly impart information. Here, you get a lot of emotion or visual imagery. Speaking of the Super Bowl – on the first day of the Iraq war, you had this 24-hour coverage of shock and awe, as though the bombs dropped in Baghdad were a fireworks display. It’s visuals and drama. As a filmmaker, I understand this. This whole technique has been applied to the news.
Q. So does the news department just become part of the selling machine?
Robert Kane Pappas: Well look at the masses of coverage on Martha Stewart. Not a single reporter that I can think of asked, “Whatever happened with that Harken Energy thing and President Bush?” The information is in the public record; the prima facie evidence against President Bush with regard to inside trading was very strong. They just never connected the dots. So here we have a case where, whether it’s their corporate attitude of not offending or it’s purposeful, they missed a very important story that defined Bush’s character.
Q: I think it’s Charles Lewis again in your film who talked about the range of coverage being very narrow — in other words, the reporter knows that they have to report within a certain framework. It means not riding the Bush administration too hard. It means it’s acceptable to follow up on a story that Karl Rove and the RNC planted — that Kerry threw away his medals — but not to emphasize the AWOL issue of Bush too much.
Robert Kane Pappas: It’s a very particular type of self-censorship on the part of reporters. Number one, you don’t want to offend your boss. What happens in journalism is — especially among the people on the tube — you can make seven figures if you become a star reporter, or you could be working at a newspaper for $50,000 a year. As you get higher up in corporate journalism circles, the amount of money grows exponentially, so the tendency is to self-censor more.
And when an administration like the Bush administration has such connections to one of the three or four companies that can hire you and pay you these huge salaries — as opposed to if there were 20 viable broadcast news services that had nationwide reach — when there’s only a few, you can be blackballed easily. You can be viewed as too much of a muckraker, which can kill your career.
Q: What were the circumstances of your interviewing Peter Mitchelmore an outgoing editor of The New York Post, a Murdoch-owned paper?
Robert Kane Pappas: Right. I was in graduate film school at NYU. It was during the hostage crisis and the gas crisis. And it was the first time I could remember where there was this endless news story. Every day The Post ran a little icon of a blindfolded hostage. From day one to day four-hundred-something. We’ve gotten used to it now with stories like the OJ trial, but this was like a year-long soap opera. When Murdoch bought the Post, you could feel its sensationalism quotient go way up.
One day, I took a video camera down to the Post, and I got an interview with Peter, who was actually a Fleet Street guy. I asked him about this hostage story. He goes, “Well, you know, actually we’re getting kind of sick of the hostages now, aren’t we? I mean, I hate to put it that way.” He himself had a problem with the presentation of it, because at the end of the evening, he told me he was leaving the Post.
Let’s look at the role of Fox today. It’s headed by Roger Ailes, a former GO P operative, and one could argue he still is a GO P operative, although not paid by the Republican party. Now he’s paid by Murdoch, who is a backer of the Republican party. Talk about Orwellian — here is a station that Cheney says he watches, and that it’s the only truthful station on television. It’s a propaganda arm of the White House, more or less. In fact, when they became involved in trying to discredit Wesley Clark, they distributed a videotape transcript the morning he was to appear at a Congressional committee meeting.
I don’t think people understand how much power that gives Bush and company, because they have a major worldwide news corporation that can not only disseminate what they want disseminated, but it can keep a story alive. It can set the focus on what part of the story we’re looking at. And that’s key because, if you focus on a certain part of the story to the exclusion of what was really important about the story, you can effectively hide in plain sight what a more rigorous news media would pick up on.
Q: What could be more Orwellian than Fox calling itself “fair and balanced” as a slogan?
Robert Kane Pappas: To call yourself the exact opposite of what you are — that’s free speech. And you have the image of the waving flag on your screen suggesting “This is the patriotic network.” And Fox knows how to use modern technology to be graphically attractive, visually enticing.
Q: We’ve seen a shift perhaps from the discussion of politics into a dissection of personality – character assassination. We saw that tellingly, of course, in the Clinton administration, with “Slick Willie. Then we saw The New York Times and Washington Post adopt the Republican party attack on Al Gore — that somehow he was a liar — without really seriously questioning the massive deception and lies of the Bush campaign in 2000. They have started up with John Kerry, saying he’s a waffler.
Robert Kane Pappas: If you wrote or sold a product so deceptively, you’d be in jail or out of business.
Q: So why do most of the right wing commentators attack personality and character more than they attack public policy?
Robert Kane Pappas: It’s a technique. Some of this is real dark science. I remember in the run-up to the 2000 election, after the first debate — one of the networks put together a montage of close ups of Al Gore expressing impatience with Bush’s answers — exhaling. They strung together these two- and three-second clips. And within hours, on all the news shows the debate centered on Al Gore’s expressions, not the substance of the debate. They were able to absolutely change the discussion from what these guys were talking about, to a discussion about Al Gore’s facial expressions. Bush was barely coherent in the first debate, but it was all about Al Gore. That shows the amazing power of video. If the Democrats turned around right now and had the picture of Bush in his flight suit with the caption, “Mission accomplished,” and then someone laughed on the track, and we showed that thousands of times to the public, I wonder what would happen? It’s a one-way street, largely, in the area of character assassination.
Q: Is this because the Democrats won’t do it?
Robert Kane Pappas: The Republicans have taken a corporate marketing approach. They repeat the same phrase until people are sick of hearing it, but now they believe it. The Democrats actually think that there’s information being transmitted here, and maybe more is better. Or let’s see more than one side. Let’s air this thing a little bit more. By definition, that is not going to be as good a marketing technique as repeating your same phrase. And so the messaging gets through the brand identity which is, in Bush’s case: he’s a virtuous man. He’s an honest man. He’s a family man. He’s a religious man. He’s a man of values. This is key to their brand identity, which is eroding a bit now because of the Iraq torture scandal. But the media still accepts as conventional wisdom that he is all of these things.
Q: You spent some time in the film on the issue of the so-called consortium that studied the recount and hired the University of Chicago firm that’s expert at polling analysis. You come to the conclusion that the consortium intentionally took a position that made it appear that Bush actually won, when that wasn’t the case.
Robert Kane Pappas: The network consortium did a couple of things. They said you can do all this research about what happened with the ballots, but you cannot characterize it. This company was not allowed to categorize or speak about its own results. That’s crucial. Once again the discussion was contained.
CBS said it had never seen such an exit poll where the one candidate was projected to win by seven-plus percent, and they were off, and he lost. Look at the Congressional testimony of that stuff. It speaks volumes.
Q: Let’s return again to something that I believe Charles Lewis brought up. Wasn’t the statistic on the number of stories about the issue of deregulation coming before the FCC miniscule on television?
Robert Kane Pappas: It was the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The press would keep repeating the phrase, “Telecommunications Act,” sometimes using the adjective “landmark,” but we never had any idea what was in it. One survey found that there was a total of 19 minutes of coverage on the Telecommunications Act by all the major networks combined over a period of 9 months. John McCain stood in front of the Senate and said: This discussion we’re having now — you will not see this on any TV news program or read it in any newspaper. He’s one of the Republicans that will occasionally call a spade a spade. This massive bill that changed all the rules was kept from public view, and was drafted behind closed doors.