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Paramedia and Parrot Media

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

I wrote back in July of the volcanic rise of the paramedia, a cheerful enragé’s jumble of rambunctious media outbursts in many flavours: comedy shows and DVD docs (latest: Mark Crispin Miller’s devastating rant, “A Patriot Act”), the variously witty and witless ditties, gags, cartoons, and parodies, the blogs and diminutive movies (“Visualize Winning” was one of last week’s larks) and suddenly sprouting data-rich websites (watch for the upcoming, to monitor Republican dirty tricks in the realm of vote suppression). A sort of come-as-you-are flea market, an American hodgepodge of outrage and paradoxical hope is rising up fast and furiously against the prospect of impending disaster.

Is there anyone supporting John Kerry who isn’t circulating at least the odd haiku or animated doodle or potential bumper sticker in his behalf?

“Bush/Cheney: Don’t Change Horses in Mid-Apocalypse.”

“What’s the difference between Iraq and Vietnam? Bush knew how to get out of Vietnam.”

And so on. In the week before the week before The Week, the paramedia decibels are soaring. It would seem that the upsurge in campaign media matches – albeit more deliriously and in more flavours – the turnout machinery that is so insistently revving up on the ground. In the battleground states, Democrats and Republicans who shiver or burn in recollection of Florida in 2000 are deploying as if their lives depended on it, massing their campaigns to squeeze out the maximum vote. The Democrats are doing it mostly with unions and legions of miscellaneous volunteers; the Republicans, with churches and the National Rifle Association. This is what Armageddon feels like in a democratic country.

In working-class, Democratic-voting Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I spent the last four weekends, some two hundred volunteers – perhaps one-third local, the others having driven two hours plus from New York City, upstate New York and New England – showed up last Saturday and Sunday, both rainswept days, to canvass in neighbourhoods to fire up on-again-off-again Democrats and Kerry-inclined independents. More showed up in other towns in the region. Hardly any of these volunteers has ever taken part in a national campaign before. They went out in the late morning and were supposed to return to headquarters by four in the afternoon. Some stayed out till eight at night or later, overfulfilling their quotas and then some. In the past couple of weeks they are discovering that the undecideds are melting away to either side, but not equally – in culturally conservative northeastern Pennsylvania, more of them seem to be resolving their ambivalence in Kerry’s behalf than in Bush’s.

The Republican headquarters a block away was sleepier. They push the anathema declared by some Catholic bishops against John Kerry. They circulate a photo purporting to show Kerry grinning at the prospect of taking the people’s guns away. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the Republicans pay their campaign workers. Count on the Republicans to count on the market.

This is a mobilization never before seen in modern American politics.

But just because the amateur armies are on the move and the paramedia are busily filling digital space with political urgings, it would be foolish to forget that big media remain a bully force. Unprecedented things are being seen there, too. One big battleground this week concerns the old-fashioned screen, where America’s largest owner of television stations, the Sinclair Broadcasting Company, has enlisted in the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Sinclair owns 62 local television stations, which can reach some 25% of the American population. They include affiliates of CBS, NBC, and ABC – and they first came to notice last spring when they ordered their ABC affiliates not to air a Nightline broadcast calling the roll of America’s dead in Iraq. They are deeply right-wing as a matter, you might say, of principle. They editorialize against Kerry as a matter of course.

And now they are forcing their stations to preempt ordinary Friday night programs (22 October) in favour of a fictional nonfiction they call a news broadcast reviling Kerry over his Vietnam-era politics – the already amply heard-from Swift Boat Veterans supplemented by a supporting cast of former prisoners of war declaring that their North Vietnamese captors used to flood their skulls with Kerry’s antiwar testimony.

The fictional nonfiction in question, Stolen Honor was recently manufactured by Carleton Sherwood, a former employee of Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge and the author of a glowing portrait of the self-declared messiah and Washington Times proprietor Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

I doubt that anyone – least of all Sinclair’s management, for all their committed audacity (their top executives have donated some $65,000 to Republican candidates during the current election cycle) – anticipated the national campaign of focused revulsion that ensued, approximating the proportions of the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore crusade loving evoked in the 1976 movie Network. Those who took offence at the company’s patent intervention ten days before the election called the broadcast the equivalent of a cash contribution worth $9,900,000. They began calling companies that advertise on Sinclair stations urging them to drop out, and some did. A national campaign ensued to place anti-Sinclair ads in swing-state newspapers and on rival TV stations.

Sinclair’s stock tumbled. Owners of the stock at pension boards and the like were heard to argue that management, in preferring propaganda to profit, was proving itself derelict in its fiduciary responsibility.

Sinclair’s Washington bureau chief, Jon Lieberman, had the audacity to call Stolen Honor “biased political propaganda.” Before nightfall, the whistleblower was fired.

Reeling from widespread public fury, Sinclair tried to recoup by declaring that they had never planned to air Stolen Honor in toto – false – and that they would incorporate parts of it in a “documentary” about, what do you know, political documentaries during the election season. Sinclair stock came back.

Not living in one of the Sinclair jurisdictions, I can’t report directly on the hodgepodge surrogate show they ended up broadcasting 22 October. But an account by the watchdog site Media Matters makes it plain that the surrogate was rigged to batter away at Kerry.

So go the unprecedented convulsions of this campaign.

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