Oct 16 2009

Marie Trigona on Argentina media law, Peter Richardson on Ramparts


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This week on CounterSpin: Argentina just passed a media law that will severely curb the power of the country’s largest conglomerates by putting a majority of the country’s broadcast licenses in non-corporate hands. How did the law come about, and how is it expected to change Argentina’s media landscape. And what lessons might U.S. media activists take from Argentina’s example? We’ll talk with Marie Trigona, an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Argentina.

Also on CounterSpin today: “A bomb in every issue” was how Time magazine described the 60’s muckraking magazine Ramparts. It’s also the title of a new history of that publication. We’ll talk to author Peter Richardson about Ramparts place in the history of alternative media, and what lessons can be learned from the publication’s rise and fall.

All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

–Returning recently from Afghanistan NBC, chief foreign affairs correspondent Richard Engel told MSNBC‘s Morning Joe, “I honestly think it’s probably time to start leaving the country,” adding, “I really don’t see how this is going to end in anything but tears.”

Well this was an occasion for raised eyebrows for Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, who wrote, “That sounds awfully opinionated for a working reporter.” But we had to wonder if what irked Kurtz was Engel’s stating an opinion, or the opinion itself?

For years FAIR has documented journalists stating opinions in support of hawkish policies with impunity, so we wondered if Kurtz would complained if someone like Engel was championing escalation. We needn’t have wondered.

Lara Logan holds the same position at CBS News as Engel does at NBC. And she is at least as vehemently for escalation as Engel is for withdrawal. Indeed Logan has expressed a disturbing devotion to U.S. Afghanistan commander Gen. David McChrystal, a leading proponent of escalation. As Logan recently told CBS‘s Bob Orr: “I don’t understand why no one will listen to the man you put your faith in and said he is the guy who is going to do this for us.”

Since Logan “sounds awfully opinionated for a working reporter,” we wondered how she managed to escaped Kurtz’s scrutiny?

For us, it isn’t so much that journalists have and express opinions; the public is better served when we know what reporters are thinking; but we are troubled that this despair over the lost standards of objectivity are trotted out only when reporters’ opinions are at odds with official views.

So we are glad to know of Logan’s hero worship, even if it is at odds with the worthwhile journalistic ethic that says reporters should hold the feet of the powerful to the fire; not massage them.

–In the October 9 New York Times, reporter Isabel Kershner wrote about the changed reality in southern Israel, thanks to the invasion of the Gaza Strip late last year that killed over 1,000 Palestinians. In the article, she recycled the myth that the war sharply reduced what had been a constant barrage of rocket fire from Gaza: “According to the Israeli military, some 3,300 rockets and mortar shells were launched from Gaza at southern Israel in 2008, compared with fewer than 300 since the end of the war.”

But this is highly misleading; much of that rocket fire came after the invasion and bombing of Gaza was underway. In fact, a cease-fire was negotiated in June of 2008 that dramatically reduced rocket fire into Israel; which is something that you would have learned if you were a careful reader of the New York Times. Right before the invasion, the paper reported that much of 2008 was quiet: “While more than 300 rockets were fired into Israel in May, 10 to 20 were fired in July, depending on who was counting and whether mortar rounds were included. In August, 10 to 30 were fired, and in September, 5 to 10.”

Not a single Israeli was killed from the beginning of the cease-fire until after the invasion began. Rocket fire increased significantly in November after Israel attacked a Hamas tunnel and killed six militants.

The more natural lesson to draw is that negotiations work better than violence. This is apparently not what the New York Times wants you to believe, though they did once report that reality. Perhaps it was an accident.

–It was good to see the New York Times publish a front-page article on October 8th about the involvement of some old Cold Warriors in the lobbying campaign on behalf of the coup leaders in Honduras, and how that lobbying is, in the Times words, “muddling” the White House’s position on the coup, or, in the words of a source, holding that policy “hostage”. But in discussing the present-day role of people like Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, reporters Ginger Thompson and Ron Nixon gloss over the U.S. history in the region. The pro-coup lobbying effort, they write, “has also drawn support from several former high-ranking officials who were responsible for setting United States policy in Central America in the 1980s and ’90s, when the region was struggling to break with the military dictatorships and guerrilla insurgencies that defined the cold war.”

When “the region was struggling to break with the military dictatorships and guerrilla insurgencies”? A little more clarity is needed here. The U.S.; to take just two examples; supported a thuggish military government in El Salvador and created a “guerrilla insurgency” to try and defeat a left-wing government in Nicaragua. In other words, while “the region” may have wanted one thing, U.S. foreign policy sought to bolster violent, anti-democratic force. Stating these facts clearly would give readers a better sense of context; and provoke more informed questions about what side people like Otto Reich are on today.

Economist Dean Baker pointed out in his Beat the Press blog a striking example of financial illiteracy from a financial columnist at the New York Times. Andrew Ross Sorkin, columnist for the Times‘ business section, has an excerpt from his forthcoming book Too Big to Fail in the November issue of Vanity Fair. And in this excerpt, he lists some signs of the crisis in September 2008, including: “Treasury bills were trading for less than 1 percent interest, as if they were no better than cash, as if the full faith of the government had suddenly become meaningless.”

Now, if you were giving someone a ten-minute introduction to investing in bonds, which is what Treasury bills are, one of the things that you would probably say is that when bonds are considered risky investments they have high interest rates, because investors are reluctant to take a chance on them, whereas when bonds are seen as safe, their interest rates are low; since people don’t need to be promised a big return to invest in them. So Sorkin’s observation is entirely backward; Treasury bills had such low interest rates because in the midst of the crisis, the fact that they were backed by the government made them extremely attractive.

This is such a basic point about investing that you have to wonder that no one at Vanity Fair caught the mistake—or that someone who works as a financial columnist for a major newspaper made it.

–And finally, if there’s one thing that never goes away, it’s the idea that the corporate media are liberal. The latest variation on that argument came from former Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall, writing on the Columbia Journalism Review website. Edsall was responding to media worries about being out of touch with right-wing complaints about things like community organizing group ACORN. Edsall’s point is that media should just come out and admit they’re liberal. But his notion of what term means is a little odd.

Edsall points out that reporters aren’t as working class as they once were. That sounds like an elitist media, if anything; Edsall also refers to reporters’ perceived left-wing views on abortion and civil rights. But then he tries to expand the case, writing this: “In a UCLA study of media bias, reporters were found to be substantially more liberal and more Democratic than the public at large.” Well that’s not what the study showed, though; a reminder that if you’re going to link to something on your website, you should probably describe it accurately.

That study was a complicated attempt to gauge media bias that came up with results that were laughed off immediately; the right-wing Drudge Report, for example, leaned left, according to the study’s authors, while Fox News Channel‘s Special Report was centrist. If Edsall wants to cite a survey of reporters’ beliefs, though, he could have referred to the one FAIR conducted in 1998. But it found that Beltway reporters were more conservative than the public on key economic and political issues. There goes that liberal media again.


CS: Last week Argentina passed sweeping legislation that would force the country’s largest media conglomerates to divest themselves of many of their holdings, leaving just a third of the Argentina’s broadcast resources in the hands of corporations. With the U.S. plagued by a similar pattern of corporate concentration of media, but prospects for similar reform remote at best, we thought it made sense to take a closer look at how Argentina’s media law came about. Marie Trigona is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Argentina. She is also part of a video collective called Grupo Alavío. She is also Free Speech Radio News’ South American correspondent. She joins us now from Buenos Aires.

Marie Trigona, welcome to CounterSpin!

MT: Thank you for having me.

CS: I mentioned one part of the Argentina’s new media law, tell us more about what the law will do, how it might change the media landscape in Argentina?

MT: Well, basically, up until the legislation was passed on Friday, early Saturday morning rather, no community organization, association, nonprofit, university, cooperative could access a broadcast license. According to the previous law, only private media companies, or holders, or corporations, or entities could access broadcast licenses. So this basically shut out any possibility for any community media group, nonprofit group, to access a broadcast license to broadcast a radio signal or a television signal.

The law which was passed late on Friday night in Senate outlines that one-third of broadcasting licenses will be reserved for private media holders, one-third will be reserved for public arena or governmental organizations, and one-third will be reserved for nonprofit entities.

This is the most important aspect of the media legislation. Up until the media law was passed last week, there was basically no limits on how many broadcast licenses a private media conglomerate could access. For example, Grupo Clarin, which is one of the largest media holders in Argentina, had over 264 broadcast licenses, one media conglomerate held over 250 media licenses, whereas a university association, a not-for-profit group, grassroots media were not able to access broadcast licenses within the law or outside of the law. Media communication is a right. It’s a right for all citizens and all citizens should be able to access the media, they should be able to access some type of local form of communicating.

For example, here in Argentina, most people in other provinces in the very north of Argentina get most of their news from a national network, a national news station, rather than a local station. There aren’t very many local stations to report on local issues. The whole idea for this law; it will allow for local organizations to create their own media and not to have to rely on one news station that broadcasts nationally.

CS: Well, how was the law pushed forward? Can we assume that some of those grassroots groups and pro-media democracy groups were involved in pushing that forward?

MT: This law, which was passed last week, is the result of years of work from grassroots media organizations, human rights organizations, union groupings pushing for new media legislation. There was a coalition of over 500 organizations, which were grouped in the coalition called Coalition for Democratic Broadcasting. This included unions, human rights groups like Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, a diverse array of community organizations and also many artists also joined this coalition to push for new legislation. Essentially the legislation was carried over from the dictatorship, and it never changed. There was little basis of argument to keep the legislation which was still intact, legislation and law which was signed in by a military dictatorship government which ruled Argentina from 1976 till 1983, which persecuted and disappeared over 30,000 people, activists, students, even journalists.

CS: As you said, the new media law grants a third of the licenses to corporate broadcasters, a third to non-profit broadcasters, and so forth. Money’s really in short supply in Argentina, is there any provision so that not-for-profit or public broadcasters will have a trust? Is there any provision to set up a trust that would fund this or are we possibly facing the prospect of having grassroots groups have the right to broadcast but not money to put stations on the air?

MT: This is one of the criticisms that came out during, before the law was passed. I spoke with a lot of grassroots networks, a lot of alternative media groups, and their criticism of the law is while the law is definitely a step in the right direction, it’s progress for opening up access for community groups to gain access to the media, specifically in the law there was no provision to provide funding for groups to start up television stations, to start up a radio station. One of the things that’s missing within the law is to provide funding and to guarantee that indigenous groups will be able to access broadcast licenses and to have infrastructure to transmit within their communities. The law, it doesn’t differentiate community groups from nonprofit groups.

So this means that private corporations, their foundations or their nonprofit groups; many corporations they found nonprofit groups; will have the same access as community groups. So community groups with very little resources still have to compete for access with foundations, with private nonprofit organizations, and also with church organizations. And this is one of things that are problematic, and there was a demand from alternative media collectives saying we’re not inside the law but we exist, was their demand.

CS: So perhaps there’s some flaws, but altogether it’s a step forward for media democracy in Argentina. We’ve been speaking with Marie Trigona, Free Speech Radio News’ South American correspondent based in Argentina.

Thanks for joining us today on CounterSpin, Marie Trigona!

MT: Thank you so much.


CS: Somehow, a small literary magazine originally pitched to the “mature American Catholic” turned out to be something else entirely; a rollicking, publicity-seeking left-wing muckraking enterprise that exposed CIA misdeeds and Vietnam War lies and atrocities. Contributors to Ramparts magazine resemble a who’s who of the American left and progressive journalism; Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, Robert Scheer to name a few. The story of the rise and fall of Ramparts, and what it meant for American journalism, is told in a new book, A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America. We’re joined now by the author of the book, Peter Richardson.

Peter, welcome to CounterSpin.

PR: Thank you, Peter.

CS: Well, there’s no shortage of historical inquiry, or nostalgia even, into the personalities and politics of the Bay Area in the 1960s. It seemed like plenty of folks have very fond memories of Ramparts and what it meant to their own political maturation, but the history of this magazine hadn’t been nailed down until you decided to do it. For those who didn’t come of age reading Ramparts, tell us why you thought this was an important story to tell.

PR: Well, the truth is that I didn’t come of age reading Ramparts. It was only when I began researching my last book on Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, that I started hearing about Ramparts. So for me it was a kind of a curiosity; how come I’ve never heard about this magazine if all these important people had contributed to it? So my interest in the story was quite versatile. I just wanted to figure out as much as I could about the magazine, and then I discovered that it was incredibly successful and influential and short lived. So to me it just looked like a project I could take on and finish and that people my age and younger; I’m 50 years old; might be interested in. And as you pointed out, there is a reservoir of good will among the magazine’s readers and contributors, so in a way it was a kind of an easy book to put together because everyone was willing to talk about it.

CS: You do tell the story of the personalities there, which I think sometimes were almost as powerful as the journalism they were producing. Warren Hinckle and Bob Scheer and kind of these clashes of egos maybe. Also the look of the magazine was something that’s striking as somebody who didn’t grow up reading this either. That look, the very professional look of Ramparts was part of what people at places like Time magazine found so disturbing because it looked professional and yet you opened it and it was so radical.

PR: Right, and that was why Warren Hinckle and others called it the nation’s first radical slick. They used all the high production values of the slick magazines of the day, including Time, which hated Ramparts, partly because it used many of its own mainstream methods to advance a very different kind of politics. But I’m really glad you mentioned the look because that was indispensable part of its success. And Dugald Stermer, who was you know the first really powerful art director at the magazine, made this contribution possible, and it often included a kind of whimsy even if the stories were very hard hitting. There was a kind of irreverence and a kind of irony in the way the covers would appear, for example. Even with very grave, sometimes lethal stories; whistleblower stories on Vietnam and Napalm and the CIA covert operations and so on. So it was this interesting combination of visual irreverence and also there was a lot of humor in the text as well in very hard hitting whistleblower stories.

CS: For people who didn’t grow up reading Ramparts, give us sort of the one minute description of where you would place their investigative journalism or their muckraking. What kind of stories came out of Ramparts that the mainstream media weren’t telling?

PR: A lot of it started with Vietnam. Robert Scheer returned from Vietnam and joined the magazine and his proposition could be boiled down to the simple fact that the mainstream media just simply wasn’t covering what was really going on in Vietnam at the time. He brought a lot of expertise to that subject. He had been a graduate student at the Center for Chinese Studies at Berkeley before he joined the magazine, and as I say, he had been on the ground there, so they did some big stories on Vietnam. One was actually a contribution from a special forces sergeant named Don Duncan who was a staunch anti-Communist, obviously Green Beret, Catholic; it was a Catholic magazine still at that time; who said you know the whole thing is a lie, I mean what’s going on in Vietnam in no way resembled what you’re being told.

So Vietnam was a big part of it. The CIA was another target for muckraking stories by Ramparts and I suppose it should be pointed out that really no other magazines were doing this kind of muckraking at the time, and once other news outlets, new organizations, even CBS news, the New York Times, Washington Post, once they saw that there was an appetite for this kind of work, they began to pick up their game. So Ramparts had this indirect effect on the media as well. Mainly, other organizations thought, you know, maybe we should be doing this, maybe that’s part of our job. And that sort of diminished the need for smaller magazines like Ramparts who sort of constituted these savvier fringe players in the media ecology at that time.

CS: A victim of their own success. You did—the name of the book is A Bomb in Every Issue, that’s what Time magazine called Ramparts. Talk a little bit about that relationship between Ramparts and the mainstream media. I know in the book you made the argument that 60 Minutes, of all places, kind of picked up some of what Ramparts was doing many years later. But at the time what was the general media reaction to Ramparts’ stories?

PR: Well, Ramparts had a very, kind of, connection with the New York Times. The New York Times picked up several of its stories, probably a half dozen of its stories over a ten-year period and put it on the front page. And that was very much part of Ramparts’ plan. They knew they couldn’t reach everybody they wanted to reach, so their notion was let’s do big stories that the other media, mainstream, big mainstream media outlets can’t ignore and then let them run it and get to their readers.

They had a slightly more entangled relationship with Time magazine who also ran a number of stories on Ramparts, but mostly to disparage the stories and discredit the magazine. And CBS news, I mean I don’t know if there’s a direct connection, but just chronologically, Ramparts won the George Polk award, very prestigious journalism award for what the committee called the revival of the muckraking tradition.

That was 1967, the next year CBS news started 60 Minutes magazine, which of course, did investigative reporting as well, but mixed in some lighter cultural fare. A couple of years later the New York Times did the Pentagon Papers story with Daniel Ellsberg, and you know some people I interviewed thought you know it’s hard to really pin it down, but they may not have taken that chance had not Ramparts been doing stories like this for five years with some success.

And of course Washington Post picked up the Watergate story a couple of years after that. Not from the experienced political reporters, but from the police reporters, the young guys who stumbled upon a big story, but they had the guts to run it. And, you know, prior to that period, the pre-Ramparts period, there were very few outlets doing this. The Nation, under Carey McWilliams was doing a lot of big stories but often lacking the kind of showmanship that Ramparts brought to its major stories.

CS: I think the book can be fairly considered a warts-and-all biography of the magazine in the sense that some of the problems at the Democratic Convention in 1968, some of the essays on the radical student activism, you talk about the problems that they caused within the magazine and among some of the readers. At the end of the book you discuss the effect Ramparts had on other independent media; Rolling Stone and Mother Jones are kind of established directly as a result of Ramparts. How do you assess the magazine’s effect beyond that time frame; did it change anything about the way the independent media looks now, it’s sprawling but do you see the effects of Ramparts across the independent media now?

PR: Yeah, I think I do. For one thing about Ramparts is that it effected the mainstream media. Many of the people who worked there went on to work in the mainstream media. For example Bob Scheer at the Los Angeles Times.

But I also trace a line between what Ramparts was doing and what many political blogs are doing now. It’s not a genetic connection, they’re not connected by actual people who worked at both places, and in many cases the bloggers aren’t even aware of Ramparts, or even that it existed. And yet there’s some really striking historical parallels between the rise of the blogs, especially during the Iraq war and the rise of Ramparts during the Vietnam war.

And I wanted to bring that to the surface, that historical connection and that parallel because in many ways it’s very uncanny. I picked DailyKos, I could’ve picked others. In many ways it very much resembles the story of Ramparts, and where it goes from here, I don’t know. And I know many people are looking at the blogs as an outlet to pick up the kind of spirit of Ramparts. Some of the muckraking is going to have to come from those quarters. I know there are many people who want to do it. I just hope that they do it with the skill and the elan of Ramparts magazine.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Peter Richardson. He’s the author of the new book A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America. It’s available now from the New Press.

Peter Richardson thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

PR: Thank you very much for having me.