A plan or agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal or subversive action
The making of an agreement or plot to commit an illegal or subversive action
A group of conspirators
Even so, plots and conspiracies do happen in real life when transparency is not high on the political or corporate agenda. Powerful people find clever ways to mask intentions and cover up their tracks in concentrating power in their offices or cabals. RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) enforcement might be applauded when used to prosecute criminal conspiracies but, when it comes to political misdeeds or institutional malfeasance, conspiratorial thinking is consigned to the planet of the nuts.
I raise the specter of conspiracy theories, in part, because of the provocative subtitle Elliot D. Cohen and Bruce W. Fraser give their book, “The Last Days of Democracy.” Are they really going to be able to prove that “big media and power hungry government are turning America into a dictatorship” without resorting to claims and theories (some might call them doom-and-gloom scenarios) that seem too dark to be taken seriously, at least initially? Most of us start off being suspicious of such sweeping statements; we wonder about having to connect too many dots.
I can hear some cocky editor chortling “the death of democracy, indeed!.” Don’t these pointy-headed PhD’s watch TV and see all the people turning out for political events? Don’t they realize that the American system in its genius corrects for the overstepping of unwise politicians? Don’t they know that checks and balances work, eventually?
Yet this book, written in a footnoted, academic style and broken into chapters that could easily be lesson plans, chronicles trends and offers analysis that should not be dismissed, though it probably will be. If it is, its dismissal will be, in part, because the authors hold journalistic institutions to account alongside some of the perversions of democracy going on within our judicial system and being committed by the Bush administration. And we know how hard it is, if not impossible, for those in the news media to delve into the role their own institutions might be playing in threatening our democracy.
To First Amendment worshippers, this proposition sounds preposterous. Yet we, like other societal institutions, should be judged by what we actually do (as well as by what we fail to do) and not by what we might think we do.
I won’t recycle here familiar critiques of journalism’s failings or the worries many of us have about mounting media concentration and corporate ownership. Nor will I replay my own criticism of how most news organizations failed in their reporting in the walk-up to the Iraq War. What I will do, however, is suggest that big stories are not being covered well because our tendency to focus on smaller stories too often fails to connect the proverbial dots and avoids too much digging into or interpreting the larger picture. Increasingly, we see journalists who do this kind of digging being purged from top newspapers. Seymour Hersh now works for The New Yorker, and Robert Scheer, who used to write for the Los Angeles Times, now runs a Web site. Reporting on “softer news” continues to undermine one of our core societal roles and, as economic pressures hollow out newsrooms, the values that animated their work shrink as well.
Yet denial of what is happening around them remains strong among those who cling to old routines of news coverage. A German theologian once said, “When they came first for the Jews, I was not a Jew so I didn’t protest. Then they came for the Communists, and I was not a Communist.” He concluded with these words: “And then they came for me.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, it was “terrorists” they came for, and Americans—including most journalists—looked the other way even as many Afghan farmers were tossed into our Guantanamo dungeon only to be released quietly years later. It is wholly inadequate to respond to this by saying, “Well, mistakes were made,” when the entire policy is what needs to be examined. Why did it take so long—in an open society—for us to find out that the U.S. Attorney General promulgated secret orders to permit torture? How many other secret decisions have been made by an administration that has shown contempt for the constitutional process of checks and balances?
It took Naomi Wolf, writing in The Guardian, a newspaper in Great Britain, to remind Americans that open societies can quickly be turned into dictatorships by stealth plans and actions: “If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship,” Wolf wrote. “That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy—but history shows that closing one down is much simpler ….”
Being born in freedom makes it hard for us, as Americans, to even consider that it is possible for us to become as unfree as people in many other nations are today. In schools, children don’t seem to be learning as much about our rights, our responsibilities, and our system of government. The citizen’s role of being aware of the Constitution has been outsourced to lawyers and lobbyists so much so that we scarcely see the signals telling us that our government’s checks and balances (the ones our founders put in place) are being systematically dismantled. Yet George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society.
In his New York Times review of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” by another Guardian columnist, Naomi Klein, former World Bank Economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote: “It’s not the conspiracies that wreck the world but the series of wrong turns, failed policies, and little and big unfairnesses that add up. Still, those decisions are guided by larger mindsets. Market fundamentalists never really appreciated the institutions required to make an economy function well, let alone the broader social fabric that civilizations require to prosper and flourish.”
Stiglitz is right when he posits that while ignoring sweeping indictments of what’s wrong isn’t wise, we need to try to get into the details of the interplay of real-world forces and interests that undermine our democracy and devalue it. In their book, Cohen and Fraser confront these same fears in focusing on certain disturbing trends, even though they don’t linger long on the resistance and revulsion these trends have bred. And they are not alone; on the night before I wrote this essay, Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” expressed his fears about the coming of fascism. Is he an alarmist, too?
Sometimes, it’s too easy to dismiss the questions raised by people who are often dismissed for being too conspiratorial. A few examples: When activists chanted “No blood for oil,” suggesting the Iraq War was driven by the desire to dominate oil reserves, they were dismissed. Now, years later, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan endorsed the idea, and suddenly this notion is considered more credible. Ditto for those who worried about the idea that oil production would peak. These “peak oil” theorists were dismissed. On October 22, 2007, The Guardian quoted a high-level report saying, “World oil production has already peaked and will fall by half as soon as 2030,” according to report issued by the German-based Energy Watch Group that “also warns that extreme shortages of fossil fuels will lead to wars and social breakdown.”
Most anticonspiracy critics love to debunk the 9/11 theorists who support a range of discordant and often competing theories to challenge the U.S. government’s al-Qaeda “done it alone” narrative. To even question this “reasoning” is to risk being labeled a kook. One such “kook” is the Canadian journalist Barrie Zwicker, who told The Toronto Star: “… people who just shrug off these questions with the ‘conspiracy theorist’ epithet should be asked what they stand for. Unquestioning acceptance of the official narrative? Sure, there are outlandish theories out there—aliens, Atlantis—but there have also been real and huge conspiracies.”
Stories Not Being Told
Two stories I’ve done demonstrate the dire consequences when adequate and accurate press attention is not paid. The first involved the 2000 presidential election results in Florida that I covered for a film called “Counting On Democracy.” My reporting led me to conclude that the left’s argument that George Bush et al. “stole the election” was simplistic. While I have little doubt that the Republicans tried to do just that, I also found that many Democrats were not attentive to the details of the voting process and did not educate the voters they helped to register in how to vote. It was, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida contends, a “tyranny of small decisions” by guardians of the election process that led to the controversial outcome. Yet stories examining these many “small decisions” were scant.
Later, a media consortium took a very long time to investigate the charges of election tampering and ended with convoluted conclusions, although Ford Fessenden, the journalist who organized The New York Times probe, later told me that in their count they found more votes cast for Gore than Bush. Yet that key finding was not reported clearly. Why? There were many reasons commented upon at the time—a failure on the part of all the news organizations to agree or to report the story in the same way, the murkiness of the voting process in Florida, the time lag in the reporting, and the fact that this follow-up story came and went quickly when a plane crash seized the headlines on the day it was published. Soon the election story faded as President Bush consolidated his power. Years later, Al Gore would claim he had been elected at the polls but lost in the courts.
The other “hidden” story is one I wrote about in Nieman Reports last year. In that story, “Investigating the Nation’s Exploding Credit Squeeze,” I focused on the news media’s failure to shine a light on a credit and debt squeeze that was then already leading to high rates of foreclosures and economic misery. I told this story also in a film, “In Debt We Trust,” and soon after some reviewers dismissed my documentary as “alarmist,” the subprime mortgage meltdown emerged as a global issue—and a front page story—as trillions of dollars in losses were tallied, hundreds of thousands of people were being displaced, and millions of families are facing foreclosure. One former presidential candidate, Senator Chris Dodd, called it a “50 state Katrina.”
That disaster’s coverage occurred like most disaster reporting, after the damage had been done. But unlike natural disasters, in this case many in the know had been sent warnings about the high probability that such a crisis would occur. Warnings were greeted by silence by most in the press. Even now, the scams behind the subprime Ponzi scheme are only being touched upon—not deeply examined.
Dictatorship has not arrived, but to say it can never happen here is to forget that many of history’s worst disasters were engineered “legally” after laws were changed, often in times of national crisis. Today fascism is visible in softer flavors and disguises, with flags waving as patriotically correct slogans creep into the language we use.
Whether or not investigative author Greg Palast’s blurb that this book “cuts right through the turgid bullshit of corporate media ca-ca” gives you reason to pick it up, perhaps the book’s greatest value is in reminding us that it is time to sound the alarm about these internal threats we are facing while we still can. Introspection and self-criticism are always helpful first steps. Responding to what is hopefully a premature obit for democracy ought to get those juices flowing.
“News Dissector” Danny Schechter, a 1978 Nieman Fellow, edits Mediachannel.org and is a blogger, filmmaker, author and media critic.
As a general rule, I don’t trust conspiracy theories, and neither should other journalists. These theories usually assume too much clarity of purpose and skill in top-secret coordination to be credible, even though many of us have chronicled the rise and fall of “geniuses”—heroes who quickly become zeroes—and the ultimate folly of what appear to be initially well-executed schemes, from public policy to wars.