Reporters Without Borders: Press freedom in decline

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New York City Police Inspector Anthony Bologna made quite an impression on me the first time I met him. And not a favorable one.

It was a peaceful, sunny morning in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 24, 2011, on Day 8 of the Occupy Wall Street movement for a more even distribution of America’s benefits and burdens. The movement was in its infancy and its members were just beginning to emerge from their tents in Zuccotti Park and rub the sand from their eyes.

TV camera operators were unpacking their gear as reporters purchased donuts and coffee from street vendors, and law enforcement officers staged around the park.

There was no sense of “us and them” yet between the scruffy champions of the faltering middle class and the uniformed defenders of Wall Street’s investment banks, hedge funds, and private equity funds.

It was just another story for me in a mainstream news career which had spanned more than 20 years. Albeit an unusual one, given the dearth of public protest to that point against the growing inequality in American society and rising police state.

The Federal Reserve was using tax dollars to bail out the big investment banks whose reckless speculation sparked The Great Recession, even as millions of middle class taxpayers were losing their homes to the predatory lending practices and foreclosure fraud then in vogue at many of the same institutions. The $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout was only halfway through its six-year lifespan.

I took a quick look around and saw the gold insignia on the collar of Bologna’s white shirt. He was standing with a group of men in suits in front of the old Merill Lynch building at One Liberty Plaza.

“Excuse me inspector,” I said respectfully. “Are you the person I speak to for official statements from NYPD today – crowd counts and whatnot  – or is there someone else?”

Bologna’s response was instant roid-rage.

“Why should I speak to you,” he screamed as the Feds behind him looked on in embarrassment.

“Why should I speak to you?” he screamed again, opening his mouth in an oddly feral grimace that exposed the teeth within it.

I instantly recognized the most common type of Bloomberg lackey. Bologna (above right) is that ruthless, unprincipled, ambitious sonofabitch who will do anything to curry favor with the rich guy waving a few dollars under his nose. The modern equivalent of the old House Negro that Samuel Jackson played so well in the film Django (click pic at right for video).

I’m a journalism lifer who has been employed by such noteworthy organizations as The Associated Press, Bloomberg News, and the huge Gannett chain. Not as a freelancer either, mind you, but as a full-time staffer. Often at a high level. Meaning as a capital correspondent, editor or administrative correspondent managing other reporters.

Much of that time was spent on the police beat, beginning with my tenure as a cub reporter for The Bronx Press Review in 1987.

In short, I’ve spent a lot of time working with cops. So take it from me when I say veteran journalists and veteran police rarely speak to one another in this manner. Especially those of us who have made it to the stiller emotional waters of middle age.

Heads in the park turned toward us briefly, before I defused the situation by removing myself from it.

Holding one hand palm forward in silent submission, I slowly shook my head from side to side and made my way back across the street. Much as I would after encountering an overly territorial guard dog.

It’s kind of the universal sign for “I’m not looking for trouble.” At least in NYC.

A few hours later Bologna was apparently still a racecar in the red, needlessly pepper-spraying three peaceful, young, female protesters as his own men looked on in disbelief (click pic at right for the video). Bloomberg’s pet attack dog wore the same feral expression he’d displayed earlier in the day.

The completely unnecessary and unjustified incident was the spark that ignited Occupy, transforming the peaceful movement into a potential revolution. It cost the City of New York more than $382,000 in legal settlements, according to The New York Daily News.

The arrests that occurred that day were just the start of the thousands of improper arrests Bologna helped orchestrate for Bloomberg against the movement’s peaceful protesters.

I was reminded of those two losers today as I read the annual report from Reporters Without Border about the declining level of press freedom in 2015. The decline is especially acute in the Americas, where the rising U.S. police state has made a joke of our Constitution.

The findings echo those of earlier annual reports dating back to Occupy.

The report ranked the U.S. 41st out of the 180 countries it looked at. It cited the arrest of journalists covering civil rights protests, America’s lack of a shield law, the Obama Administration’s ill treatment of government whistle-blowers and record of withholding access to government files under the Freedom of Information Act, and the press’ restricted access to campaign events during the current presidential race.

“(The report ranked the U.S.) behind such places as Canada, Ghana, Chile, and the U.K.” said former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

The Occupy Wall Street protests were a sea change for me personally and professionally. First, because my beloved mainstream news media’s coverage of them was inherently and undeniably biased in favor the beneficiaries of the status quo. And second, because it opened my eyes to the choke-hold Wall Street is now applying to Main Street in our fading democracy.

The Mainstream News Media’s coverage of OWS wasn’t balanced, fair, ethical or professional

In fact, it was none of the things I was taught at The Columbia University School of Journalism by professors like Michael Goodwin. The progressive minded academic now enriches himself by serving as the rabid right-wing propaganda-spewing columnist of The New York Post. His price-tag has apparently been met by the Murdoch-controlled conservative rag in much the same way as Bologna and Bloomberg.

If I had a religion before Occupy, it was journalism. After Occupy, not so much. 

My disgust was amplified this year when the mainstream news media slandered OWS’ reputation by intentionally misusing the term “Occupier” to refer to the right-wing gun nuts who took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.

That kind of industry-wide misrepresentation suggests a coordinated disinformation campaign is now being executed via the mainstream news media I once cherished and respected.

That media is the enemy of decent people now. Not their champion.

Before Occupy, I also had been an avid fan of my fellow working-class New Yorkers in the New York Police Department. Where several friends were officers. 

During Occupy, I began hearing the word “pig” applied to the Boys in Blue again for the first time since the 70s. I’ve never been comfortable with the epithet, but my prior sense of outrage evaporated in the face of the antics Bologna and Bloomberg employed to protect a financial sector that generates more than $760 million a month in revenue for Bloomberg LP. 

After Occupy, I folded up the NYPD and NYFD T-shirts and caps I’d purchased after 9/11 and tossed them in the trash. I wasn’t comfortable with them either – like a lot of working class New Yorkers. 

So, I was not surprised when a joint study between NYU and Fordham University law school groups, the Global Justice Clinic and the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic was published in July 2012 about the systemic violations of our basic American freedoms that occurred during Occupy.

“Police used unnecessary force to escalate tensions with protesters,” The report concluded. “As well as inappropriate intimidation tactics to bar journalists from covering the events, effectively squashing free speech rights.”

No shit. I could have told you that the moment Bloomberg decided to bar the military veterans participating in OWS from visiting the 9/11 Memorial. 

A lot of people think our police have changed somehow in the wake of 9/11.

I don’t think that’s true. 

The vast majority of working class kids who become cops don’t do it to beat-up-on their fellow Americans for complaining about the avarice of rich mofos like Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump. They do it to serve and protect their own.

What has changed is the behavior of the corporate bigwigs and the political hookers they now purchase via legalized bribes like the $153 million in corporate “speaking fees” Bill and Hillary Clinton have amassed since 2001. In the wake of 9/11Click for video they began promoting ruthless, unprincipled sonofabitches like Bologna instead of continuing to relegate them to out-of-the-way locations where they could do the least harm.

That’s the way Bloomberg works – through unprincipled sellouts who will do anything for a little money and power. He doesn’t promote the best and brightest, because they’re not as easy to handle as the Bolognas of the world.

We’re reaping the consequences of that garbage selection process now, with the weekly arrests and attacks on journalists and peaceful protesters by police at Trump rallies and civil rights protests. At least 14 journalists were arrested by the unhinged police department in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 as they tried to cover the Black Lives Matter protests there. More than 26 were arrested just by NYPD during Occupy, and more than 90 nationwide, according to RT and Mother Jones.

Numerous journalists have been roughed up at Trump rallies. One of the most disturbing incidents occurred Feb. 29 when a Secret Sevice agent decided it was his job to prevent Time Magazine Photographer Christopher Morris from interviewing the Black Lives Matter protesters being escorted out of a Trump rally in Radford, Va. (click pic below left for video). The agent apparently moonlights as an editor and disagreed with Morris’ news judgement.

“I’ve worked for nine years at the White House and have never had an altercation with the Secret Service,” Morris, a veteran White House photographer, said afterward in a statement. “What happened today was very unfortunate and unexpected. The rules at Trump events are significantly stricter than other campaigns and make it very difficult to work as a photographer, as many others have pointed out before me. I regret my role in the confrontation, but the agent’s response was disproportionate and unnecessarily violent. I hope this incident helps call attention to the challenges of press access.”

The drumbeat of the police state thuggery continued this month as more than 1,000 Democracy Spring protesters were arrested in their own Capital. 

America the beautiful?

Not lately.

Bloomberg, Murdoch and their fellow “Masters of the Universe” have engineered a similar transformation in the U.S. news industry. So much so that it’s amazing the Reporters Without Borders story even made it into the public forum.

Chances are that without the rise of Bernie Sanders, the populist leader who has frightened some lackeys into hedging their bets, it never would have been published at all.

That’s because the 1 Percent now controls our mainstream news outlets more tightly. Six companies control 90 percent of the U.S. media – down from 53 companies back in 1983, according to Business Insider.

Press freedom has taken a nosedive as the CEOs of these news companies have encouraged advertisers to transform the way they interact with readers. Instead of chasing after readers who flock to news outlets catering to their interests and needs, advertisers now believe they should be the ones to set the news agenda and dictate the stories around their ads.

The drastic reduction in competition makes that more achieveable now than ever before.

There’s very little readers can do but switch between one propaganda mouth-piece like Fox to another like CNN. Just as voters have the illusion of free elections, but are restricted to choosing between Wall Street lackeys like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Even the vaunted New York Times has been abysmally unfair in its coverage of popular movements that challenge the status quo, such as Occupy Wall Street.

On paper, the Times is liberal. However, in reality, the members of its controlling Sulzberger family are simply the most liberal 1 Percenters in the privilege bubbles where such sheltered princes and princesses now live out their lives in the United States.

That’s why there are no longer powerful middle class champions like columnists Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko at such news organizations. Instead, they’ve been replaced by ambitious trash like Goodwin and Rush Limbaugh.

The demise of U.S. press freedom is also being fueled by unprecedented news industry contraction and newsroom job destruction. The shrinking number of reporting and photography jobs has sparked a frenzied battle for survival in U.S. newsrooms, where the journalists most willing to compromise their professional ethics are now the most employable. 

Back in the day, a victim of the powerful could always turn to the press to take their case to the public forum. That’s not nearly as common anymore because the gutless mofos who inhabit today’s newsrooms ain’t taking no body blows for the greater good.

These are the primary elements of the perfect storm destroying U.S. press freedom and, by extension, American democracy. The third element is the willing embrace of comforting lies by the 99 Percent.

Let’s face it, somebody is watching the evil propaganda being churned out by Fox News and CNN. And it’s not just the 1 Percent and their lackeys.

Why should you care?

Because the war being waged on the free press is really a war against The American Way. It’s a war against a free society where you count for just as much as silver spoon mofos like Chelsea Clinton, Saif Gadhafi, Meghan McCain, Eric Trump, Georgina Bloomberg, Al-Waleed bin Talal, Jenna Hager Bush, and Tucker Carlson.

I was sitting in the newsroom of the Des Moines Register in 2012 when I got a call from an old-timer named Richard Eggers. He had a ridiculous tale about being fired by Wells Fargo for putting a cardboard cutout of a dime in a washing machine 50 years earlier.

Calls from scorned workers are pretty common these days – thanks to all the corporate layoffs – and I toyed with the idea of brushing Eggers off. Instead, I spent a couple days I couldn’t spare checking his story out. I not only discovered it was true, but that the same thing was happening to thousands of call center employees across the nation.

It seems that the Too Big to Fail Banks like Wells Fargo didn’t appreciate a federal regulation forbidding them from employing executives with a history of transactional crimes. The rule was meant to discourage re-employment of high level criminals like financiers Michael Milken, Russell Wasendorf and Bernie Madoff.

However, instead of applying it to them the big bank CEOs decided to apply the rule to the working stiffs in their own call centers, who make about $12 or $15 an hour.

I probably could not produce that story today for a mainstream news publication, even though it went on to win a national business journalism award and several regional news awards.

Why?

Because I don’t think today’s breed of ethically compromised news editors have much of a taste for challenging big advertisers like Wells Fargo – the largest private employer in Des Moines, Iowa. Most of their employers don’t exist to advance the greater good any more. They exist to advance themselves.

That means currying favor with powerful interests like Wells Fargo in today’s news industry. Not keeping them honest or speaking “truth to power.”

What’s it all mean?

It means we’re one step away from the kind of journalist murders now commonplace in The Middle East and Mexico. Perhaps closer than any of us even want to contemplate given the suspicious single-car accident that claimed the life of Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings in 2013, at the ripe old age of 33. 

Hastings’ unvarnished 2010 profile of General Stanley McChrystal, “The Runaway General,” led to the resignation of the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The story included accounts of the iconic Special Forces leader openly mocking his civilian commanders in the White House. It was pretty unpopular with the crowd that kills in the name of God and Country.

It means average people like you are on your own if you get screwed over by a bank, employer, or crooked cop today. Ain’t nobody taking no bullets for you any more in the mainstream news media.

You’re going to have to ante up and do your own suffering now.

In the long run, maybe that’s for the best.