The Post: What’s Wrong with the Capitalist Model of News Publication

The POst

Last week some dear friends joined Peggy and me to see The Post. That’s the Steven Spielberg film detailing the story behind The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. It stars Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, the Post’s chief executive, and Tom Hanks as the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee.

Intentionally or otherwise, The Post ended up revealing a huge reason why readers have increasingly given up on large for-profit news organizations. They turn out to be run by ignorant people, who know far less than those they pretend to inform. The would-be informants are blinded by the profit motive. Moreover, their organizations top-down structures prevent them from even hearing those who work for them. Thankfully, however, The Post unwittingly suggests remedies for the dire situation it depicts – some of which are taking form before our very eyes.

The Post begins with a revealing vignette of the Vietnam War. It shows a world invisible to the newspaper’s sophisticated editors. There, U.S. infantry are seen executing one of their commanders’ signature “Search and Destroy” missions. The maneuver consisted in having poor, terrified disproportionately black and brown twenty-somethings make their way through rainforests they knew nothing about in search of Vietnamese farmers exquisitely familiar with the terrain. The idea was to find the farmers awaiting them in ambush and kill them. According to the strategy, if they did that enough times, the Americans would soon eliminate the peasants and win the war.

Brilliant, no?

Obviously not.

In fact, by 1971, when The Post begins, it was clear to nearly everyone outside the Beltway that the whole idea was stupid, crazy, doomed, and immoral. That was especially evident to those at the wrong end of Vietnamese rockets and machine guns, as well as of those with any shred of religious conscience. Buddhist monks called attention to the war’s immorality as they immolated themselves in Saigon as far back as 1963. So did the Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King when in 1967 he “Broke Silence” at New York’s Riverside Church. The Muslim, Malcolm X, knew it, as did the boxer, Mohammed Ali. The Catholic Berrigan Brothers and the Catonsville Nine knew.

Even Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Jimi Hendrix, and Joan Baez were in the know. So were the college students demonstrating (with four of them murdered) at Kent State in 1970 – not to mention the throngs of young people brutalized by Mayor Daley’s riot police at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968.

Yet with straight faces, the enlightened and secular mainstream media continued to parrot the lies of the generals and politicians. “Great progress is being made,” the war-makers told the official stenographers. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

All such statements were about Southeast Asia were known to be false by the ones uttering them. They should have been known by Washington Post editors too. An early sequence in the film shows Truman lying about it, then Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and, of course, Richard Nixon.

And why did they lie? Was it for reasons of national security or to prevent countries in the region from falling to communism like so many dominoes?  Again, no. According to Robert McNamara in the film, seventy percent of it was to prevent embarrassment on the part of the “leaders” responsible for the enterprise in the first place.

Or as Nixon himself put it when he described the ultimate impact of the Pentagon Papers revelations:

“To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing…. You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the — the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because It shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”

So, to prevent such irreparable damage to “national security,” the wholesale killing went on for years – long after those responsible for the disaster had concluded the war was genocidal and completely unwinnable. In the end, more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and two million Vietnamese were sacrificed to the myth of Presidential Infallibility – to conceal the fact that OUR GOVERNMENT IS RUN ON LIES.

And (other than repeating government falsehoods) what was the press doing while all of this was going on? What were The Washington Post’s Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee doing? According to the film, they were hobnobbing with the liars. They were dining with them in expensive DC restaurants, vacationing with them in Hyannis, posing with them for photo-ops, throwing parties for them, guarding their secrets, and attending meetings with Wall Street insiders and white men in dark suits.

Their big news item? Tricia Nixon’s wedding!

But then Daniel Ellsberg risked his life by releasing irrefutable proof of government duplicity. And all the Washington insiders are suddenly shocked and appalled. As if the idea had never previously occurred to them, they realize the people in the streets, the religious prophets, the boxing champion, the rock ‘n roll singers and the student demonstrators and martyrs were all right after all.

The newspaper magnates had to face the facts. Their hand was forced.

But what were their biggest concerns when faced with the prospect of publishing the truth? Was it informing the American people? No. It was:

  • Selling more papers than their competitor
  • The impact of publication on the stock market value of their product
  • Fallout in the form of experiencing the ire of President Nixon
  • Being excluded from his inner circle as a result
  • And thus, losing market share.

Several conclusions suggest themselves from all of this – one particular, others more general. In addition, a basic remedy becomes apparent.

The particular conclusion is that the capitalist model of for-profit news publication is deeply flawed. Its power structure is entirely top-down. As depicted in the film, it empowered a tiny group of rich white mostly males to make decisions of extreme national import. Workers at the newspaper were treated with disdain.

That dismissal of underlings is portrayed at the film’s turning point. One of the paper’s staff far down the food chain obtains a copy The Pentagon Papers long sought by the paper’s editors. It had been delivered furtively to him by an even lesser nobody – a young woman in tie-dye obviously out-of-place in the newsroom. Shaking in his boots, the staffer tries to deliver his acquisition to Bradlee. However, he’s rudely waved off by his arrogant boss who initially refuses to even to acknowledge him. Then when he finally does get the editor’s attention, the staffer remains completely ignored as he tries to explain the information’s origin. That’s of no interest to his superior. Evidently for Mr. Bradlee, the idea was inconceivable and irrelevant that young hippies might be credible news sources.

That in itself represents a bleak commentary on capitalist workplace relationships.

Even more damningly however is the movie’s implied criticism of the system’s ownership structures. In fact, they placed the ultimate decision about whether or not to release The Pentagon Papers entirely in the hands of, Katherine Graham, a CEO presented in the film as singularly unprepared for such responsibility. She occupied her position of authority only because she inherited it from her deceased husband. At least within the confines of the film, she knew nothing of world affairs, much less about the Vietnam conflict or the inner workings of government – or those soldiers in the rainforest. True, she socialized with presidents and Wall Street high-rollers. But basically, she was ignorant. All her advisers (those white men in black suits) shared only one concern – the paper’s profitability.

Yet decisions of extreme national concern were entirely up to Ms. Graham. Only because of residual remnants of motherly conscience was she finally able to resist market pressures and do the right thing.

And so here come the general conclusions suggested by The Post:

  • In terms of informing the public, white male patriarchy is extremely inefficient.
  • Similarly, capitalist structures of inheritance, ownership, and commodification of information inhibit service of the truth.
  • The closer you are to power, the less you are likely to know about the concerns of ordinary people.
  • The richer you are, the less you are likely to know about the way the world really works for people in the street.
  • The higher up in the military you find yourself, the less you probably know about the disastrous outcomes of your pet theories and tactics.

What to do about it all. . .  As I earlier remarked, the solutions are unfolding before our eyes:

  • Stop trusting the mainstream media as reliable sources of information.
  • Realize that news sources can be co-operatives where all workers have meaningful input and respect, because they co-own the newspaper and need tremble before none of their peers.
  • Trust only such non-profit outlets, like Democracy Now and OpEdNews that rely for funding on viewer and reader support. They deserve trust because they depend on street-level sources for all of their information and analysis of official misdeeds and legislation.

In the end, The Post is worth watching. But it’s not for the reasons Hanks, Streep and Spielberg advance in their promotional commentaries. It’s not because Ms. Graham or Mr. Bradlee were heroic and demonstrate that the system somehow works. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The true heroes were far down the food chain. The Post merely unveils the system’s severe dysfunctions. It demonstrates the need to put news gathering and publication under the decentralized aegis of workers and activists who refuse to be governed by the venal corporate interests of the military-industrial complex.

“Captain Phillips”: Cavalry to the Rescue

captain-phillips-tom-hank

Prairie Schooners transporting goods across the plains are attacked by savage Indians. The cavalry comes to the rescue and slaughters the “tribals.” We all go home feeling safe and proud of our armed forces.

Mutatis mutandi, that’s the basic story of “Captain Phillips” starring Tom Hanks and the splendid Somali actor, Barkhad Abdl. Though familiar in basic plot-structure, the film spins a nonetheless gripping account of the 2009 piracy of the container ship, Maersk Alabama, on the open seas. The ship is waylaid by four Somali ex-fishermen turned pirates. The captain, Rich Phillips, is abducted by the bandits. The Navy Seals are called in. They kill the pirates, rescue the captain. And normalcy returns.

The inattentive will no doubt experience the simple catharsis afforded by such “action thrillers.” However, in the case of “Captain Phillips,” there is more to the story than good guys rescuing the innocent from the clutches of savages. In fact, the story, based on actual events occurring in 2009, has much to tell about globalization, national sovereignty, and the military-industrial complex.

Begin with globalization.

The back story of “Captain Phillips” demonstrates that we’re living through an era of buccaneer business, where multinational corporations act like lawless pirates. They roam the globe and operate where they will, regardless of international law, territorial waters, national boundaries, environmental impact, and the noxious effects their investments might have on local populations.

Somalia provides a case in point. There, overfishing by factory ships from Europe and the United States has left tribal fishermen without income. What fish escape the nets of the giant sea trawlers have been poisoned by toxic waste flushed from container ships off Somalia’s coast. Along with loss of income by local fishermen, plummeting living standards, and otherwise avoidable deaths from poverty and starvation are the predictable results.

This is where national sovereignty comes in.

In the absence of an effective national coastguard, such practices have forced locals to form citizens’ defense groups like the National Volunteer Coast Guard . Initially, these attacked the offending ships to drive them from Somalia’s territorial waters. Though characterized as “pirates” by western media, such groups enjoyed the support of Somalia’s affected population. According to a survey by Wardheer News, about 70% in Somalia’s coastal communities “strongly support[ed] the piracy as a form of national defense of the country’s territorial waters.”

Eventually, such “pirates” discovered that responding in kind to buccaneer businesses (represented by container ships) could itself replace lost revenue from fishing. Whether understood as such or not, “reparations” could in effect be seized by attacking ships on the open seas. There goods could be confiscated and hostages taken in return for large ransoms. Ensuing battles amounted to one highly financed buccaneer business competing against another more primitive, poorly financed counterpart.

Never mind limiting concepts such as open seas, territorial waters, international boundaries, or other legal considerations. From viewpoint of the impoverished “pirates,” if such limitations did not apply to their competitors, neither did they apply to them. It’s all “free enterprise” at its rawest – the law of the jungle, the Wild West, or of Cowboys vs. Indians. As Muse, the “captain” of the pirates attacking the Maersk Alabama put it, “No al-Qaeda here. This is just business.”

But then comes the overwhelming response from the military-industrial complex. Giving the lie to right-wing claims of independence from government, Maersk Shipping demonstrates the ability to call in the Navy Seals to protect its private enterprise operations. As portrayed in “Captain Phillips,” the White House itself is involved. After all, if private firms are threatened, “America’s” credibility is on the line.

Two cruiser ships, their crews of hundreds, several helicopters, and parachuting Seals are all employed to enforce the Law of the Sea on four impoverished “pirates.” This is a law whose rejection by the big-time pirates and their protectors was the root cause of the Somalis’ small-time piracy in the first place.

What to take away from all of this? Myths are powerful. And we should beware of their ability to blind us. Though Hollywood can no longer get away with enforcing such archetypes by portraying Indians as savages, it’s still free to do so with Muslim tribals. After all the West has already been won; there is no longer need to vilify “Indians.”

Muslim tribals are another story. Their resources are still up for grabs.

Movie Review: “Cloud Atlas” (A film for the ages but perhaps not for ours)

A couple of friends and I saw the film “Cloud Atlas” last week. It was a wild ride to say the least. The movie was visually spectacular – Academy Award quality indeed. Though its storyline was at times difficult to follow, its message about revolutionary resistance and liberating reincarnation was beautiful and inspiring. It made me think about the worth of self-sacrifice and about what happens after death.

Featuring actors like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and other well-known stars, “Cloud Atlas” chronicles the six lives of the Hanks and Berry characters over a period of roughly five hundred years.

The action takes place in the South Pacific of 1849, England of 1936, San Francisco of 1973, the United Kingdom of 2012, Neo Seoul (South Korea) of 2144, and the Hawaiian Islands of 2321. Over the course of the epic’s nearly three hours, six separate apparently unconnected stories are told. The first tells of Adam Ewing, a lawyer who converts from his father’s slaving business to abolitionism because a Maori slave responds heroically to Ewing’s own act of kindness. That tale is followed by Robert Forbisher’s, a bi-sexual musical genius, who commits suicide after accidentally murdering a mentor who attempts to steal Forbisher’s musical masterpiece, “the Cloud Atlas Sextet.” The story helps viewers appreciate a love story between two men in a culture hostile to relationships like theirs. The third narrative introduces us to the journalist, Luisa Rey, who fights to expose big oil companies intending to stage a nuclear accident for the benefit of the oil companies themselves. Rey’s fate turns out to be reminiscent of Karen Silkwood’s. Then there’s the account of Timothy Cavendish who at age 65 is imprisoned in a nursing home by a vengeful brother. Cavendish triumphs over the nursing home’s ageism by executing a successful escape along with three other patients.  “Cloud Atlas’” fifth episode takes us to Neo-Seoul where a clone named Sonmi-451 joins the Resistance to take down an all-controlling multinational fast food giant which, she discovers, is turning “fabricants” like her into food. Finally, “Cloud Atlas” tells of Zachary whose tribe lives in a post-civilization wilderness after modernity has been destroyed by global warming.

Though each of these stories at first seems unrelated to the others, the Hanks and Berry characters bring them all together – but not without some work on the part of the viewers. Hank’s post-apocalyptic Zachary is the film’s unifying narrator. He begins and ends “Cloud Atlas” telling its stories to his wide-eyed grandchildren around a fire on the Cloud Atlas planet itself. In the starry distance, he points out a faint blue dot – the destroyed Planet Earth where he used to live. “Grand-P’s” stories assert the connection of everything and about how acts of kindness or cruelty influence not just the reincarnated selves of the agents, but the entire planet and all of its inhabitants.

More specifically, the film is about ordinary people sacrificing themselves in the face of overwhelming odds. The rebellious heroes include a slave, that bi-sexual man in prudish England, a power plant whistleblower, a crusading reporter, a rebellious clone, and a man facing his own internal guilt and fears following a haunting act of cowardice. All are pitted against systemic abuse caused by slavery, homophobia, big oil, ageism, the fast food industry and the devil himself. Against such forces, each act of sacrifice is infinitesimally small – a mere drop in the ocean, as one of the films characters puts it disdainfully. Nonetheless, as another character replies, the ocean itself is made up of innumerable drops. Each human has a small part to play, but the final effect can have the force of a tsunami. That’s the revolutionary message of “Cloud Atlas.”

What the film says about reincarnation is equally thought provoking. What happens to us after death? The movie’s response: We pass through an open door moving from one room to another, from one time, from one place to others. And we carry our karma with us. What we sow, we reap.

In the meantime all of us are one. “Cloud Atlas” conveys this idea by having all of its actors play wildly different characters. In one epoch we’re born as men, in another as women; we are heterosexual and homosexual; we are black and white, Asian and European; we are clones; we are primitives and technological wizards; we are heroic; we are knaves. In hating others belonging to any of those categories, we hate ourselves. Our loathing will come back to haunt us shaping both our destinies and that of our planet.

Some reviewers have found offensive the film’s insistence on having each actor play multiple roles. Why, they ask, did the film’s directors cast westerners as Asians with unconvincing make-up chiefly having to do with eyes? Couldn’t the casting directors easily have found suitable actors from Korea or China?

Though reflecting an admirable concern for inclusion and equal opportunity, the question misses one of the film’s major points about reincarnation and karma. Differences in each incarnation, “Cloud Atlas” implies, are superficial like badly applied makeup. After all, body appearances really are only cosmetic.  Underneath it all is our true essence, our real Self which is the same in every instance.  Therefore we must be careful about whom we despise because we may well come back as those very people.

And so it is that Tom Hanks appears as a malpracticing doctor, a hotel manager, a nuclear power plant employee, a thuggish novelist, as an actor, and as a member of a survivalist tribe after the apocalypse. In each case, viewers can recognize the Tom Hanks we know and love underneath the cosmetics, no matter how heavily or skillfully applied.

Our recognition of Tom Hanks in every instance gestures towards the film’s (dare I say it?) spiritual question.  What is it that enables us to say that each character is Tom Hanks?  Or put more generally, if reincarnation is a reality, how can we say that the same person appears across eons of time? If I was a woman, but now am a man and don’t even remember having been a woman, how can I really be described as “reincarnated?” In what sense does the reincarnation represent a continuation of me?

Buddhists and others, of course, have a ready answer to such questions. However this is not the place to address them. But in provoking the question, “Cloud Atlas” will create suitable places for doing so across coffee tables, in classrooms, and in those quiet moments when each of us considers our final destiny.

As OpEdNews’ Rob Kall has indicated, “Cloud Atlas” is a movie for revolutionaries – perhaps the best since “Avatar.” Like “Avatar,” I also see it as a deeply spiritual film. But don’t expect your right wing brother-in-law to like it, or that it will get favorable reviews in the corporate media.

This is a film for the ages – but maybe not for ours.