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Another Meaning of “Access”

Pardon me while my head explodes.

The word “access” is one with generally good connotations among librarians. It’s in a lot of mission statements. It takes on a more mercenary meaning when it refers to the relationship between the press and power. And The New York Times has a very scary story about it today. Forgive me if what follows seems a little politicized, but hey – I take this personally.

Those retired generals who go on television to give their expert analysis? Many of them were briefed by the Pentagon. And given contracts for reconstruction and whatnot. That’s another definition of access. It’s no wonder that people have a lack of trust in the press. As the number of newsroom employees shrinks, these hacks pick up the slack.

An example: During the “Revolt of the Generals” – ones who were not paid by Fox or CNN to be experts, but ex-military officers who criticized the conduct of the war – two of the shills put their talking heads together to write a commentary for the Wall Street Journal, got stuck, and contacted the Pentagon, which quickly forwarded talking points and statistics. You could say they were simply going to the source, or you could call it ghostwriting. War room, meet news room.

news room

In a class I teach, we just talked about how anxiety is used to form and shape social issues. Fear is a potent lever for influencing public opinion, and here’s how it works:

First, you define an issue by naming a situation that is believed to be a challenge to commonly-held moral values (in this case “the war on terror,” a phrase that predates 9/11, just as warrantless wiretapping did, but the phrase became viscerally meaningful thereafter.)

Claims-makers associate their agendas with that threatening condition so they can gain support. (That wall we’re building between us and Mexico? That’s to keep our borders secure from terrorists. Right.)

The domain of concern is expanded to include as many potential victims as possible. Don’t just be afraid. Be very afraid.

Issues are typified through dramatic story-telling (like telling us a handful of delusional nutcases in Miami were a credible threat to the Sears Tower a few months before the 2006 election when they were, in fact, a handful of delusional nutcases given an action movie script by a federal informant).

As James Kincaid has said, “Doing away with demons is only one part of the job; the other is providing them.” And of course when you provide hydra-headed demons, somebody has to give you lots of money to keep lopping their heads off.

Communication studies scholar Joel Best says there are four key players in the formation of social issues: the media who seek compelling stories to tell, activists who want to promote their solution to the crisis, governments that can use issues to gain support for regulating behavior, and experts who want their work to have influence. In this case, the Pentagon pretty much has it all wrapped up. The experts are ex-generals paid by the media for their access to the Pentagon; the Pentagon pays the ex-generals for their access to the airwaves and writes their copy. The solutions that are promoted put money into their pockets. It’s all pretty well summed up in this snip from the NY Times:

Torie Clarke, the former public relations executive who oversaw the Pentagon’s dealings with the analysts as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, had come to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called “information dominance.” In a spin-saturated news culture, she argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent [my emphasis].

And so even before Sept. 11, she built a system within the Pentagon to recruit “key influentials” — movers and shakers from all walks who with the proper ministrations might be counted on to generate support for Mr. Rumsfeld’s priorities.

Forget “authoritative and independent.” “Perceived” is the operative word, here.

The news is never objective. It’s influenced by claims-makers and by audiences that ask the media to tell compelling stories. But clearly, the line between “expert” and “shill” has blurred here, and the shills are getting government contracts. The pentagon has cynically controlled the manufacture of crisis.

Sorry, Ike. We didn’t take you seriously enough. It’s now the military industrial and information complex.

(This is largely cross-posted from my blog; the image is courtesy of Eric Olson.)