Here’s my essay in full: it wasn’t easy to pick one good title in a year in which I read many enjoyable and mind-stretching books.
Words that Saved the World
By Nalaka Gunawardene
Although it lasted only a thousand days, John F Kennedy’s presidency was eventful and memorable in many respects. His legacy has inspired an estimated 40,000 books and films. This year, which marked the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I read an exceptional addition to this (still rising) pile.
To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace (Random House, 2013), by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, revisits the extraordinary days from October 1962 to September 1963. That was JFK’s Annus mirabilis (Year of wonders) when he marshalled the power of oratory and political skills to achieve more peaceful relations with the Soviet Union and a dramatic slowdown in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
During that year, which started with momentous ‘13 days’ of the Cuban missile crisis, JFK he gave a series of speeches where he argued that peace with the Soviet Union was both possible and highly desirable. One delivered to the American University in Washington DC in June 1963 is generally referred to as his Peace Speech. Sachs shows why it was one of the most important foreign policy speeches of the 20th Century – ultimately more consequential than any other by JFK.
If Winston Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle” during World War II, Kennedy used his mastery of the same language to talk the US and Soviet Union down from the brink of a planetary nuclear war.
What I’d love to get for Christmas is Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela (Seven Stories Press, 2013) just written by my journalist friend Danny Schechter. We can count on Danny, who has spent 40 years chronicling the story of Mandela and South Africa’s struggle for freedom and equality, to provide plenty of depth, nuance and analysis.
Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer and blogger.
The BBC Trust – an independent body which safeguards the values of the publicly funded British Broadcasting Corporation – recently faulted the BBC Panorama series for faking child labour footage in India, apologised to the corporate house falsely implicated, and returned a prestigious TV award won by the 2008 programme concerned.
This was certainly a welcome move. But there is much more that the guardian of BBC values can and should investigate, among them the conduct of the BBC’s global TV broadcasting arm currently branded as BBC World News (earlier called BBC World TV). In this context, I want to draw attention to an op-ed essay I wrote in August 2007 that flagged an on-going practice where publicity-hungry development agencies were paying intermediaries who are apparently selling editorial coverage on BBC World. This is unethical and possibly illegal. I called it ‘Cheque-book development’.
The essay originally appeared in MediaChannel.org, an outspoken media-watch website produced from New York by the highly respected ‘News Dissector’ and media activist Danny Schechter. MediaChannel.org has since experienced funding difficulties and their online archive is currently not accessible. My op-ed also appeared, in full, at Asia Media Forum where it is still available.
I am reproducing the full text of my op-ed essay without any changes so it is more widely available. Despite expressions of dismay from fellow media watchers, there was no reaction of any kind from the BBC at the time. Let us hope the BBC Trust will now consider it worth looking into.
‘Cheque-book development’ corrupting the media?
By Nalaka Gunawardene (August 2007)
BLURB: In their ceaseless efforts to keep their organisations in the media spotlight, spin doctors of development agencies are distorting news values and corrupting the media, turning issue-based communication products into ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.
There is a new kind of ‘tout’ accosting development and humanitarian agency officials at international meetings.
These smart and well-heeled persons are not looking for a supply contract. In the age of spin, they are offering agencies ‘product placement’ – in the globalised news media.
“I can get your agency on BBC World,” is a common claim. In some quarters now, Al Jazeera International (AJI) is also being mentioned.
This is not an over-enthusiastic journalist looking for a scoop. These intermediaries are peddling the jealously-guarded access to highly visible news and current affairs TV channels.
Some are freelancers or stringers, while others are film production company executives. Their media access is hard earned: they all have track records of producing TV news features or documentaries to international broadcast standards.
There is only one problem: they are not supposed to sell this media access to the highest bidder.
But it happens more frequently than we suspect.
I have personally witnessed this kind of offer being made. Worryingly, the development community does not find anything ethically or morally wrong with this practice.
One possible reason: the competition among development and humanitarian organisations for public recognition has intensified in the past decade. Their communication officers are under tremendous pressure to raise the profile of their organisations -– and in some cases, of egotistic bosses.
So when a cash-for-media coverage opportunity comes along, it is too good to be missed.
The obvious question is hardly raised: how come access to a trusted news outlet is being marketed? Instead, many development professionals simply ask: how much?
The answer depends on how many precious seconds of air time, on which broadcast outlet and for what kind of story. But we are not talking about small change: some of these deals involve fifty or hundred thousand US dollars.
And those funds are drawn from the already tight communication budgets of development and humanitarian agencies.
At Asia Media Summit 2006 in Kuala Lumpur, the regional communication chief of a leading UN agency told me how she’d worked with such an ‘access peddler’ to get a post-tsunami story on BBC World TV. The few minutes of coverage almost drained her budget – but the agency management was highly pleased with their ‘few minutes of fame’.
I found that it was not a BBC staffer but a freelancer who was involved. Money had exchanged hands, though I didn’t find out how much, or on what kind of contractual arrangement it was done.
This is not an isolated incident. As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.
Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ’embedded journalists’ – all at agency expense.
In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.
The access peddlers know this weakness very well, and have turned it into a veritable cottage industry.
It’s not just the development sector’s vanity that fuels this process. Many 24/7 news channels are struggling to fill their hours inexpensively. Some turn a blind eye to ethical sourcing as long as they can have a steady supply of subsidised content.
Some media outlets are harder to penetrate than others. CNN International regulations prevent access peddling by its staff or intermediaries. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the United States does not allow interviews with representatives of any entity sponsoring the production or broadcast of a programme.
Sadly, not every broadcaster is as careful.
This practice is wrong on two counts. One, allowing intermediaries to sell access to the airwaves is a form of corruption. Two, every time this happens, it siphons off tax-payer supported development funds intended for combating poverty and suffering in the majority world.
It is the reverse of cheque-book journalism, where some media organisations pay celebrity or other sources for exclusive access to their stories. When development agencies are paying sections of the media to get promotional or favourable stories aired, we must call it ‘cheque-book development’.
Some practitioners might argue that the end justifies the means. But beyond narcissism, the development benefit of logo-delivery media coverage is highly debatable.
Journalistic stories, whether on development, humanitarian or any other topic, must earn their place in the media on their intrinsic value. Despite greater corporatisation of the media, a good story can still stand up on its own.
Attaching cash to a development story seriously distorts those news values, making it harder for other development players to get rightful media coverage for their stories.
The origins of this unhealthy trend dates back to at least the 1970s, when the World Bank and some UN agencies started buying air time on public television networks to broadcast promotional films. Throwing money was a lot easier than working with producers to generate sustained coverage on issues of public interest. This spoilt the chances for others who were not willing or able to buy airtime but had public interest content to offer.
Paradoxically, the same development agencies take to the moral high ground on transparency and corruption in the global south. But as they broker more cash-for-media coverage deals behind the scenes, we are left gasping at the hypocrisy of it all.
Nalaka Gunawardene writes on media, development and society. The views in this essay are entirely his own. He can be reached on and he blogs at https://movingimages.wordpress.com
Ending his long walk to freedom on 11 February 1990, he gave a speech which ended with these words from the defence statement he’d made during his trial for treason 27 years previously: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
American journalist and film maker Danny was a long and persistent supporter of the struggle against Apartheid: in all, he has made six films with and about Mandela. Here are his reminiscences in full, borrowed from his News Dissector blog:
WAITING FOR MANDELA, by Danny Schechter
Twenty years ago during this very week, I was leading the production team of Globalvision’s inaugural TV series, South Africa Now. We were all consumed by the rumors that best known political prisoner in the world, Nelson Mandela, the leader and symbol of the African National Congress, was about to be released from prison in South Africa after 27 years.
It was exciting and nerve-wracking to contemplate what would come next—but with all the joy and anticipation, there was a fear too, fear that Mandela would be freed into an unfree society with power still in white hands dominated by their pro-apartheid Generals and securocrats. No one was sure what would happen. Would he be going from one jail to another? Would he be assassinated? Would it even happen?
Back then, we were rushing to finish a South Africa Now PBS special slated to air in prime time on Sunday February 11th. PBS correspondent Charlayne Hunter Gault, later to become first NPR’s and then CNN’s bureau chief in South Africa, had agreed to anchor it, and we were busy putting the final touches on the show which we had titled WAITING FOR MANDELA.
It was all rush, rush. We wanted to be timely but we were covering all bases because we weren’t sure if he would be freed or not. On Friday, February 9th, we went into the studio at the old WNET–Channel 13 in New York to record our studio introductions. We finished our graphics. Charlayne prercorded her open. She was great, We were ready to go. All that remained was for the special to be packaged and aired.
But then, late on Friday Night or was it Saturday Morning, we heard that South African President DeKlerk was going to make a special announcement, a key speech to mark the opening of their Parliament. He was considered a liberal Afrikaner and had been part of a process or internal coup that ousted hardline pro-apartheid president. P.W. Botha known there as “the crocodile.”
What would he say? What would he do?
The next day, were glued to our TV sets and saw DeKlerk shock the world. He announced that Mandela would be freed the next day, on Sunday. He was then in Victor Verster prison in South Africa’s wine country north of Capetown. It was happening!
Not only that. DeKlerk announced that the ANC and the South African Communist Party and all other banned organizations would be, after decades, unbanned and allowed to participate in South African politics. This meant that the ANC leaders and their MK guerrilla fighters would be able to come home from so many years in the pain of exile.
The world was upside down. ANC people worldwide had to pinch themselves to see if they really heard what he said.
It was mind-blowing. We screamed. We cried. And then, we panicked. Our TV special was now out of date. The Waiting for Mandela was over. We had a little more that 24 hours to come up with a new TV hour with virtually no budget. We had won a hour of prime time TV. We couldn’t allow it to go to waste.
The world media was rushing to the scene. They had satellites, crews, reporters galore. What could we do that was different? We had been covering the situation there on a weekly basis and had all sorts of footage the networks didn’t. We had contacts and context. But we couldn’t go there because there wasn’t enough time. And besides, we were, in effect, banned there working with South Africans. (The ANC would be unbanned before us!)
We went to work, re-editing, tapping into a South African broadcasting company feed, and setting up the first televised exchange between the ANC and a government that refused to recognize the liberation movement.
We worked around the clock. Two editors collapsed in reworking the material under pressure. We just made air, as TV people say, by minutes. We believe our special was the best on TV.
The program was now called MANDELA: Free At Last. And we have tapes for anyone interested!
Walter Cronkite, the broadcast journalist and newscaster who redefined television news of his generation, has just signed off for the very last time. A leading light in the history of moving images is gone. What a light…and what a voice.
The New York Times reported the loss as its front page lead: “Walter Cronkite, who pioneered and then mastered the role of television news anchorman with such plain-spoken grace that he was called the most trusted man in America, died Friday at his home in New York. He was 92.”
Cronkite was best known as anchorman for the CBS Evening News for 19 years (1962–81). He was at the helm at a time when television became the dominant news medium of the United States. His influence spread well beyond one network, one medium and one generation.
Danny Schechter, the News Dissector and head of MediaChannel.org, said in a tribute: “He figuratively held the hand of the American public during the civil rights movement, the space race, the Vietnam war, and the impeachment of Richard Nixon.”
His own former network, CBS, noted in a tribute: “Known for his steady and straightforward delivery, his trim moustache, and his iconic sign-off line – ‘That’s the way it is’ – Cronkite dominated the television news industry during one of the most volatile periods of American history. He broke the news of the Kennedy assassination, reported extensively on Vietnam and Civil Rights and Watergate, and seemed to be the very embodiment of TV journalism.”
The New York Times report added: “On the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Cronkite briefly lost his composure in announcing that the president had been pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Taking off his black-framed glasses and blinking back tears, he registered the emotions of millions.”
Walter Cronkite announces death of President John F Kennedy: 22 November 1963
He is especially remembered for publicly opposing the Vietnam War. In 1968, he traveled to Vietnam, where he called the war a stalemate and advocated a negotiated peace. “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said after seeing the broadcast, according to Bill Moyers, an aide to the president at the time.
In July 1969, Cronkite anchored the historic 32-hour CBS broadcast that covered the first Moon landing, which became the most widely watched live broadcast event worldwide up to that time. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, Cronkite exclaimed, “Oh, boy!” — another rare show of emotion for the leading anchorman of his era who chose to keep his opinions separate from the news he covered and presented.
Cronkite missed the 40th anniversary of Apollo only by a few days. He will be sadly missed when astronauts and space buffs mark the event.
In this excerpt from for a 4-hour interview filmed for the Archive of American Television in 1998, Cronkite explains the origin of “That’s the way it is”– his signature sign-off:
The true professional he was, he never retired. Long after leaving CBS News, he remained fully active, engaged and supportive of good journalism in the United States and around the world. He lent his name to educational and charitable causes nurturing investigative journalism.
Danny Schechter writes in his blog: “In his later years, Walter Cronkite abandoned the pretense of only being above the fray and started speaking out as an internationalist for arms control and world federalism, and on many other global issues. He supported progressive causes but never too blatantly. He was very conscious of his image and reputation and identification with the media and power elite. He lived up the street from the United Nations and was often a speaker at UN events.”
Reproduced in full below is the endorsement Walter Cronkite gave our friends at MediaChannel.org, an online media activist group that keeps the spotlight on the media. In the dark during our own war, and in the days since the war ended, I have often found solace, inspiration and courage in his words.
* * * * * * Walter Cronkite On The Media And The MediaChannel.
Good evening, I’m Walter Cronkite. I really wanted to be with you in person tonight for Globalvision New Media’s launch of the new Internet site the Media Channel, but unfortunately I was called out of the country. Yet the issues that led to the creation of this unique global resource, and the crisis that’s facing all of us who work in and care about journalism and the media, are so profound that I simply felt compelled to tape this message so that you would know that I am with you in spirit at least.
As you know, I’ve been increasingly and publicly critical of the direction that journalism has taken of late, and of the impact on democratic discourse and principles. Like you, I’m deeply concerned about the merger mania that has swept our industry, diluting standards, dumbing down the news, and making the bottom line sometimes seem like the only line. It isn’t and it shouldn’t be.
At the same time, I’m impressed that so many other serious and concerned people around the world are also becoming interested in holding media companies accountable and upholding the highest standards of journalism.
The Media Channel will undoubtedly be worth watching and taking part in. I am intrigued by its potential, and its global reach. The idea that so many leading groups and individuals around the whole world have come together to share resources and information about a wide range of media concerns is very promising, and I urge you to make the Media Channel your media ‘bookmark’ and your portal to the Internet.
I’m particularly excited about one aspect of the Media’s Channel’s work: its encouragement to people inside the media to speak up to speak out about their own experiences. Corporate censorship is just as dangerous as government censorship, you know, and self-censorship can be the most insidious form of pulling punches. Pressures to go along, to get along, or to place the needs of advertisers or companies above the public’s need for reliable information distort a free press and threaten democracy itself.
I’m pleased that the Media Channel opens an immediately available resource for media whistle-blowers. Anonymity will be protected, of course if their stories check out, of course. And, of course, are backed up with the facts.
We have all been supportive for years of dissidents around the world who take great risks to stand up for what they believe in. But here at home, in our own industry, we need to make it possible for people to speak out when they feel they’ve been wronged, even if it means shaming newsrooms to do the right thing. Journalists shouldn’t have to check their consciences at the door when they go to work for a media company. It ought to be just the reverse.
As I’ve said on other occasions, the strength of the American system is possible and can be nurtured only if there is lively and provocative dissent. In a healthy environment dissent is encouraged and considered essential to feed a cross-fertilization of ideas and thwart the incestuous growth of stultifying uniformity.
We need to encourage and support those among us who face either overt or covert threats or even a more subtle absence of encouragement to search out the truth. We all know that economic pressures and insecurities within news organizations have reduced the scope and range of investigative reporting. Sometimes projects are spiked with just a simple phrase: “It’s not for us.”
We’re always ready to speak out when journalists are at risk. But today we must speak out because journalism itself is at risk. That’s why I’m speaking out and reaching out to you tonight, to tell you that I like the idea of the Media Channel and want to encourage your participation.
In this essay, I have expanded some points originally made in two recent blog posts, on 30 April and 1 May 2009.
Here’s an excerpt:
“Flu shots, quarantine measures and hospital care alone cannot counter the current flu outbreak. While medical doctors and researchers spearhead the public health response, we need the mass media and other communicators to mount the public awareness response. Ideally, they should reinforce each other.
“For the first time in history, we now have the technological means to quickly reach out to most of humanity. More than four billion mobile phones are in use, a majority of them in the developing world. Nearly a quarter of the world population (over 1.5 billion people) have access to the web, even if at varying levels of bandwidth. Thousands of radio and TV channels saturate the airwaves – these still are the primary source of news and information for billions.
“Can these information and communication technologies (ICTs) help disseminate the right kind of flu awareness? How fast can we mobilise 24/7 media outlets and telecom networks to inspire preventive and curative action? What can the blogging, texting and twittering new media activists do in such efforts?”
I then return to one of my favourite points about communicating disasters and crises: the need for credible messages and credible messengers. This was a core theme in the Asian book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in 2007. I also highlighted it in this interview given to APC in early 2008.
Here’s how my essay ends: “Whether it is SARS, HIV or tsunami, many Asian governments have suffered from a credibility gap in managing information about emergencies. For example, the initially slow and guarded media reporting on SARS allowed the virus to spread quickly in China, with devastating results. We cannot afford to repeat these mistakes with the latest flu pandemic.
“Nearly a century ago, British author H G Wells talked about human history being a race between education and catastrophe. In the coming weeks, we would find out if humanity has what it takes to outrun and outsmart a stubborn virus.”
Read the full essay at MediaChannel.org
My latest essay is a humble birthday present to MediaChannel.org as it completes 10 years. Unique among websites, MediaChannel.org holds the rest of the media accountable with the best of the world’s media criticism and analysis — offering news, diverse global perspectives, and commentaries tracking international news flows. They cover breaking controversies, showcase change-makers, trends and cutting edge issues that you need to know about – produced by journalists for journalists and citizens.
“Our survival alone is a cause for celebration – a decade of growth and impact is impressive in ‘Internet years’,” wrote the website’s founders in a special 10th anniversary message. They added: “Over the past 10 years, we have survived financial crises and organized hack attacks. We have managed to remain relevant and on the cutting edge in a quickly evolving online landscape when many other sites and organizations have come… and gone.”
The team is making an urgent appeal for donations to keep this excellent service going. I’m very happy to amplify this – few services can deliver better value for money, and our troubled times and troubled media sure need the soul-searching constantly provided by MediaChannel.org
When Barack Obama and his running made Joe Biden won the US Presidential Election held on 4 November 2008, they not only beat the Republican duo McCain-Palin but also a host of other also-rans. It’s too soon to tell, but that date might also mark the beginning of the end for the old media, also called the mediasaurus, who have been dominating the public’s access to news, information and commentary for over a century.
But how did it all happen? Who can tell us the real story as it happened, and why, without filters and biases so rampant among the mediasaurus?
On this blog, we have watched with deep interest and some fascination the rise of Barack Obama from relative obscurity to become the President of the United States. On 6 November 2008, soon after the election results were confirmed, we noted how Obama had just been elected ‘President of the New Media world’. I explained: “Obama’s rise has epitomised change in many ways. Among other things, he is the first elected leader of a major democracy who shows understanding and mastery over the New Media World, which is radically different from the old media order.”
On 20 January 2009, when he was inaugurated, we wrote: “For four or eight years, Obama’s every move, word and gesture will be captured, dissected and debated to exhaustion by admirers and detractors alike. And his administration will be under scrutiny by thousands of citizen journalists who don’t share much except the digital platforms and social networks on which they post their impressions. Welcome to the New Media Presidency. The hard work – and real fun – begin now!”
And now, one of the world’s leading new media activists, Danny Schechter, is about to release a new documentary on how the Obama campaign rode the new media wave to the White House — and more importantly, how the same new media can help the American public to keep Obama Administration accountable.
The film “Barack Obama, People’s President”, (slated for DVD release later this month by ChoiceMedia.net), documents the online and on the ground techniques that were used to win the highest office in the land.
As the film’s advance promo blurb says: The one story that most TV outlets didn’t tell in the 2008 election was the most important one -how did a young and relatively unknown candidate become President? If you voted for Barack Obama or not, this is a story you will want to know because it shows how the face of presidential politics changed forever. Barack Obama used techniques never seen before in a nationwide election — his grassroots mobilization and use of the internet was unprecedented, inspiring and effective. You have seen the rest of the coverage — now see the real story.
The film goes inside the official and unofficial campaign to show how Barack Obama was turned into a political brand to appeal to young first time voters. It shows how social networking on the internet — blogs, Facebook, texting and other techniques — were used carry the message to the masses and to raise tens of millions of dollars for the campaign. Popular online videos such as “Obama Girl”, along with those created by regular yet passionate supporters to engage their own communities, became one of the most important tools in the campaign’s success.
Watch the trailer of “Barack Obama, People’s President” directed by Danny Schechter:
Emmy award winning film-maker Danny Schechter, who is also blogger-in-chief at MediaChannel.org that keeps a critical eye on the media, just wrote this explaining why he made this film:
“It is hard to remember that two years earlier Obama was barely known, registering on the radar screen for just 10% of voters. He was also hardly a brand name as a first term Senator who spent more time in state politics in Illinois than on the national stage. Moreover, he was young and a man of color — not qualities that usually prevail in a presidential arena which tends to draw far older, far whiter, and far more centrist candidates. The thought that he would beat frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the primaries was, quite frankly, unthinkable to most of the elite.
“And yet he prevailed, as he used a phrase appropriated from labor organizer and Latino legend Caesar Chavez. Obama turned the farm workers Spanish language slogan “Si Se Puede” into “Yes We Can.” Rather than focus on specific political issues, he built a campaign on the promise of “Hope.” Rather than just rely on traditional fundraising — although by the end, he was plush with it — he reached out over the internet for smaller donations from millions of donors.
“Few in the major media gave him a chance, but he was not discouraged because he had created his own grassroots media operation using sophisticated organizing and social networking techniques to build a bottom-up movement, not the usual top-down apparatus. While his campaign ran the show, he encouraged independent initiatives including citizen-generated media, music videos, personalized websites, twittering and texting, etc..
“This is the new direction our politics has taken. It is a story that may be somewhat threatening to old media – and older activists – who prefer a one to many approach to communication, as opposed to forging a more interactive empowering platform. There is no question that young people — especially those mobilized by Obama — prefer online media and that choice is making it harder and harder for traditional outlets to sustain their influence and, in some cases, even their organizations. Old media may be on the way out.
“This is why our film is, in my mind, so important, not just as a record of how Obama won and what happened in 2008, but in what will happen, can happen, and is happening in the future. This is why I believe its critical for Americans to see it — and others in the world as well — to recognize how Obama represents more than just another politician, but a whole new approach to politics. That old adage is worth remembering: “It’s not the ship that makes the wave, it’s the motion of the ocean.”
As 2008 – clearly an Annus horribilis for tens of millions around the world – draws to an end, we announce the Moving Images Person of the Year 2008: Danny Schechter.
Nicknamed “The News Dissector,” Danny is a television producer, independent filmmaker, blogger and media critic who writes and lectures frequently about the media in the United States and worldwide.
He has worked in print, radio, local news, cable news (CNN and CNBC), network news magazines (ABC) and as an independent filmmaker and TV producer with the award-winning independent company Globalvision. He is a blogger and editor of Mediachannel.org, a web and blog site that watches and critiques the print and broadcast media.
Another way to introduce Danny is to recall the scary headlines and TV news images that have dominated 2008 – of reputed banks going bust, leading stock markets crashing and these events triggering a global financial meltdown that, for now, has been slowed but not completely averted by unprecedented governmental intervention…by the very governments of the industrialised countries who should have kept a sharper eye on what was going on in their free market economies.
As the carnage on Wall Street and other global financial centres continued, some hard questions were asked: Did anyone see this coming? If so, why weren’t they listened to? What is the real cause of all this chaos? Where was the news media and why weren’t they doing their job of sounding the alarm?
Well, one man who saw it coming and tried very hard to raise the alarm was Danny Schechter. In 2006, as part of this effort, he made a documentary film called In Debt We Trust. In this, he was the first to expose Wall Street’s connection to subprime loans and predicted the global economic crisis.
This hard-hitting documentary investigated why so many Americans – college and high school students in particular – were being strangled by debt. Zeroing in on how the mall has replaced the factory as America’s dominant economic engine, Emmy Award-winning former ABC News and CNN producer Danny Schechter showed how college students were being forced to pay higher interest on loans while graduating, on average, with more than $20,000 in consumer debt.
The film empowers as it enrages, delivering an accessible and fascinating introduction to what former Reagan advisor Kevin Phillips has called “Financialization” — or the “powerful emergence of a debt-and-credit industrial complex.”
Danny and his film have done for global financial meltdown what Al Gore did for global warming with his own film: investigate rigorously, gather and present the evidence of a gathering storm, sound the alarm — and keep badgering until the warnings were heard. In both cases, the inconvenient truths they presented were ignored for too long — and we are paying the massive price for such indifference.
Watch the Trailer of In Debt We Trust:
Deborah Emin, writing in OpEdNews in October 2008, noted: “In Debt We Trust…brought Schechter a lot of grief. Rather than being seen as a prophet of doom, which in and of itself was not so terrible, he should have been lauded for sounding the alarm when it would have been in time. It is truly an amazing fact of American life that the powers that be can so disastrously determine what information we are able to see based on their subjective judgment of what is too negative or too harsh a view of a specific topic. From this perspective, we should judge all these gatekeepers as those on the Titanic who did not want to alarm the passengers that the ship was going down.”
Watch an extract from In Debt We Trust: How did we get into this mess?
So here’s the trillion-dollar question: if this film was made in 2006, and has since been running to packed houses scaring a lot of thinking and caring people, why was its message not heard in the corridors of power in Washington DC — and elsewhere in the G8 countries’ capitals?
The short answer could be that there have been no thinking and caring people running the American government for the past eight years.
The long answer is found in a book that Danny published in mid 2008. Titled Plunder: Investigating Our Economic Calamity and the Subprime Scandal, it’s an outgrowth of – and update on – his 2006 film. It documents with shocking evidence how debt has restructured the American economy and put Americans under a burden that many will never overcome.
Plunder also offers an analysis based on current events, going behind the scenes, identifying the key players and culprits, challenging the financial industry, government deregulation — and the financial and most sections of the mainstream media who have been cheer-leading the financiers as the latter took ever larger risks. Danny also argues that this has been a criminal enterprise — a point only touched on in most media coverage — and of global significance, given the globalization of markets.
Read my Sep 2008 blog post: Financial Meltdown: Putting pieces together of a gigantic whodunnit
On a personal note, I have been a great admirer of Danny Schechter and his work since I first met him 13 years ago. In the Fall of 1995, he gave an inspiring and provocative talk to a group of journalists and producers from the developing world who were on a UN-organised media fellowship in New York. As part of our tour of media and development agencies in the US East Coast, we visited Danny’s GlobalVision productions.
Danny introduced himself as a ‘network refugee’ — one who had worked for the mainstream network television in the US and had left in disgust. From outside, he was trying to find alternative ways of speaking truth to power — the original mandate of the mass media which many corporatised media companies had abandoned, knowingly or otherwise.
In that pre-Internet era, Danny engaged in his media activism through independent filmmaking, through which he supported and often participated in struggles for social justice in his native United States as well as in places like apartheid-ridden South Africa and strife-torn Palestine.
Danny was one of the early media activists to take advantage of the web. In 2000, he co-founded with Rory O’Connor MediaChannel.org, the first media and democracy supersite on web. Operating on shoe-string budgets, it has sustained critical spotlight on the mainstream media (MSM) for 8 years in which the MSM landscape has been completely transformed. While its scrutiny and chronicling of the political economy of the media is more crucial than ever, and veterans like Walter Cronkite whole-heartedly endorse the effort, the non-profit effort struggles for survival.
Now in his 60s, Danny is simply indefatigable. Besides running MediaChannel and GlobalVision, he blogs every few hours, writes a regular column on Huffington Post, lectures on media, writes books and still has time to make investigative films. He is extremely well informed, witty, funny and completely irreverent. He writes and speaks with justified outrage but no malice. That’s a tough balance to maintain.
Danny visits Wall Street on 20 September 2007 – typical of his funny, incisive reporting:
I was delighted to catch up with Danny in May 2008 when we both participated in Asia Media Summit in Kuala Lumpur. He and I were in a small minority of participants who were familiar with the inner works of the mainstream media and transformational potential of the new media. In characteristic style, Danny stirred things up, livening the usually staid proceedings, and I did my best to back him up from the audience. We both enjoyed asking irritating – if not outright annoying – questions from the 400+ media mandarins and press barons who’d come together for the Summit.
One evening, Danny and I had a drink with Malaysiakini’s CEO and leading new media activist Prem Chandran where we talked about the slow but inevitable decline of the mainstream media dinosaurs — or what Michael Crichton called Mediasaurus. The trouble with mediasaurus, we agreed, was that they are taking a long time going extinct and for now, they still command significant numbers of eyeballs and the dollars that follow.
After Prem left, Danny and I continued our chat into the evening. Over a spicy Indian meal, Danny gave me a crash course on subprime crisis (or sub-crime as he calls it) and how that was going to have a domino effect on markets everywhere. I listened with growing comprehension — and deep admiration for the man’s ability to communicate complexities without oversimplification.
Events in the weeks and months that followed have shown how remarkably prescient Danny Schechter was. And what a monumental, global scale mistake it was not to have heeded this man’s cautions in his blogs, films, columns and elsewhere.
We end 2008 with my cartoon of the year. As I said in a blog post in September 2008: “This cartoon by Pulitzer prize winning Tom Toles first appeared in the Washington Post in 2007 – it brilliantly anticipated the global financial meltdown that we’re now experiencing. Coming in the wake of confirmed global warming, it is a double whammy.
This cartoon by Pulitzer prize winning Tom Toles first appeared in the Washington Post in 2007 – it brilliantly anticipated the global financial meltdown that we’re now experiencing. Coming in the wake of confirmed global warming, it is a double whammy.
America has been hit hard by the sub-prime crisis. The social and human cost of financial failure has been enormous. An epidemic of home repossessions has left thousands of houses abandoned and boarded-up: whole suburbs are falling into disrepair and dereliction.
Financial institutions in America and in Britain had poured billions into investments backed by these mortgages. As more and more people have defaulted on their mortgage repayments, financial markets have collapsed, causing a crisis that has rippled across the Atlantic, sending the City of London into turmoil and pulling the plug on one now infamous British bank.
Some call it a financial tsunami not been seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s….a crisis that has forced the US government to step in and save the financial system after trillions were wiped off global stock markets and once revered institutions were swept off the face of Wall Street. Is the US intervention too little, too late to save the economy?
In fact, just a few days ago, the People’s Daily of China warned that a “financial tsunami” was approaching, which recalled the Great Depression in the US. It said: “As the contemporary economy has been integrated globally, American consumption and currency exchange rates will directly influence countries dependent on the US as the main export destination for economic growth and employment”.
The Chinese Communist Party organ complained that the US had unleashed financial “weapons of mass destruction” on the world economy in the form of subprime debts and related financial derivatives.
The world’s media have been scrambling to cover these rapidly unfolding events. In fact, many have been caught napping, or worse, been uncritical cheerleaders of the march of capital and credit. Most of them – even the respected financial journals – just didn’t see the crisis building up…or ignored the tell-tale signs that constituted an inconvenient truth.
“This didn’t just happen in the course of a usual business cycle,” insists the American investigative journalist and media analyst Danny Schechter, who has been tracking this issues for many months on his influential News Dissector blog and the MediaChannel that watches and critiques the media.
In his new book, aptly titled Plunder, Danny offers an in-depth investigation into the decline of the economy that’s causing millions to lose jobs and face foreclosures and across-the-board price hikes.
He says: “You wouldn’t know it by relying on our media, but the subprime scandal masks massing looting by Wall Street firms using carefully calculated predatory lending schemes enabled by regulators who don’t regulate and a media that looked the other way. We have lost trillions and dislocated millions with no relief in sight. Every American is paying for the greed of our financiers in the grocery store, gas pump and unemployment line. Bank robberies are not new — but banks doing the robbing is.”
In 2007, his film IN DEBT WE TRUST was the first to expose Wall Street’s connection to subprime loans, predicting the economic crisis that this book investigates.
I have been watching various news media analysis of the current crisis and want to share two that stood out from the rest: Inside Story by Al Jazeera English, and Dispatches by UK’s Channel 4.
In a special show from New York, Inside Story looks at the financial turbulence that rocked the US last week. Will the emergency measures by the US government be enough to stabilise the markets or has the financial system in the US been changed forever? The introductory report from AJE’s Washington correspondent Reynolds is particularly illuminating – he also writes the story for their website.
Inside Story – The US financial crisis – 21 Sep 2008 – Part 1
Inside Story – The US financial crisis – 21 Sep 2008 – Part 2
From the other side of the Atlantic comes a more investigative, one-hour special that was produced and broadcast in March 2008, when the early signs of the banking crisis were beginning to show – for anybody who cared to notice.
As Channel 4 introduces it: “This is a story about the destructive power of finance: what happens when banks are driven by short-termism; when bankers are rewarded with vast bonuses, free to operate under inadequate regulatory supervision, and with the complicity of a government too in awe of big business to step in.”
Dispatches: How The Banks Bet Your Money UK & US – part 1
In this edition of Dispatches, private equity financier Jon Moulton delivers a stinging rebuke to the banks for causing this financial meltdown and explains why the British taxpayer will now pay the price.
Dispatches: How The Banks Bet Your Money UK & US – part 2
Dispatches: How The Banks Bet Your Money UK & US – part 3
Dispatches: How The Banks Bet Your Money UK & US – part 4
Dispatches: How The Banks Bet Your Money UK & US – part 5
And as Mandela himself reminded us in London during the June 2008 mega musical concert to celebrate his 90th birthday: “Even as we celebrate, let us remind ourselves that our work is far from complete. Where there is poverty and sickness, including AIDS, where human beings are being oppressed , there is more work to be done. Our work is for freedom for all.“
American film-maker, social activist and blogger Danny Schechter — who filmed Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid and restore democracy in South Africa — has just remarked: “He (Mandela) is one of those leaders who not only helped free his own country and people but became an icon and symbol for freedom in the world. At a time when darkness seems to be descending again, with the economy on the edge amidst protracted wars and pervasive abuses of powers, he is the one person that people the world over look to as a symbol of that saying that ‘another world is possible.’ He is not perfect – who is? He has taken great risks, and made his share of mistakes, but the love and adoration he inspires speaks to how special he is – even as he sees himself as part of a collective, a movement…“
The Mandela story has been told many times by many film-makers, writers and journalists. Few other leaders have engaged the media’s attention and popular imagination — both in and out of office — as Mandela has, and with reason.
This is how the BBC in the UK reported the release of Nelson Mandela, by then the world’s most celebrated prisoner, on 11 February 1990.
I find it interesting to go back and watch TV coverage of important events as they unfolded. They say journalists write the first draft of history — that’s done on the run, without the benefit of hindsight or chance to reflect for too long.
In that sense, this BBC television reportage did reasonably well to capture the historic moment of Mandela’s release — the reporter and presenter couldn’t have known what lay ahead for South Africa.
In the report, available on YouTube, there’s a reference to South African television giving live coverage for Mandela’s release. That would have been perfectly logical from a ‘breaking news’ point of view — but there is something very significant and symbolic about that.
During the 1950s and 1960s, South Africa was the only wealthy country in the world that did not have a national television broadcasting service. In fact, despite being the most economically advanced country on the continent, South Africa was among the last in Africa to introduce television broadcasting. The main reason: television was viewed as potentially undermining the apartheid government’s ideology. The white minority regime saw it as a threat to its control of the broadcasting media, even though the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) had a virtual monopoly on radio broadcasting.
The minister of broadcasting, Albert Hertzog, simply refused to permit television. He said that TV would come to South Africa “over my dead body”. He denounced it as “a miniature bioscope [cinema] over which parents would have no control.” He also argued that “South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing; and advertising would make (non-white) Africans dissatisfied with their lot.”
Many white South Africans, including Afrikaners, didn’t share Hertzog’s views, and regarded the hostility towards what he called “the little black box” as absurd. When Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969, South Africa was one of the few countries unable to watch the event live, prompting one newspaper to remark that “The moon film has proved to be the last straw… The situation is becoming a source of embarrassment for the country.”
But Hertzog was adamant. A few months later, in an interview with The Cape Times on 1 Dec 1969, he admitted: “If, at the present time, you introduce television, you will pay for it with the end of the white man…”
That was an extremely perceptive remark. From the white minority regime’s point of view, the minister was right: if the pen is mightier than the sword, the camera can be mightier than both.
No wonder that most governments, whether liberal or otherwise, try to control – or manipulate – what appears on television, especially domestic transmissions that a majority of their people regularly watch. The power of the idiot box is not to be underestimated, even if it’s often dominated by….well, idiots.
As events turned out, the national and international media – especially television – did play a major role in the transformation of South Africa during the last two decades of the twentieth century.
And we now know: Albert Hertzog’s worst fears came true.
But the world’s worst fears of South Africa descending into utter chaos did not — thanks, largely, to the compassionate vision and leadership of Nelson Mandela.
Watch Nelson Mendela’s inauguration speech, when he was sworn in as the 11th President of South Africa on 27 April 1994:
Historical footnote from Wikipedia:
In 1971, the SABC was finally allowed to introduce a television service. Initially, the proposal was for two television channels, one in English and Afrikaans, aimed at white audiences, and another, known as TV Bantu, aimed at black viewers, but when television was finally introduced, there was only one channel. Experimental broadcasts in the main cities began on 5 May 1975, before nationwide service commenced on 5 January 1976.
The Mandela legacy continues, on air and off air, and more films are still being made about his remarkable life and times. The latest is a new documentary being released this month to mark his 90th birthday. SABC television will premiere it in 18 July during prime time – how times have changed!
Here’s part of the press release from the South African production company that made it:
Viva Madiba: A Hero For All Seasons, a feature length film produced by Anant Singh and Videovision Entertainment as a 90th Birthday Tribute to former president, Nelson Mandela, will have its World Premiere when it is broadcast on Friday, 18 July 2008 on SABC 2 at 21h00.
Viva Madiba: A Hero For All Seasons is a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s epic life and his status as an international icon. In this, the year of his 90th birthday, he remains a man at the centre of attention, not only in South Africa, but around the world as a moral leader, an elder statesman and an exceptional human being.
Viva Madiba: A Hero For All Seasons takes one on a journey behind the headlines and away from the public eye and looks at Madiba as a loyal friend, a dependable comrade, a trusted confidant, a respected mentor, and a man who has touched and transformed countless lives.
For the first time his complete story is being told – a life of struggle, humanity, destiny and greatness is recalled and celebrated by those who knew him best and who worked with him in the quest to break the chains of oppression, taking us beyond the political and into the personal. The programme features exclusive interviews with politicians, close friends and comrades of Madiba, among whom are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oliver Tambo, George Bizos, Ahmed Kathrada, Pik Botha, Dorothy Masuka, Nthato Motlana, Cyril Ramaphosa, Helen Suzman, Zolani Mkiva, Jessie Duarte, Francois Pienaar, Sydney Kentridge, Mac Maharaj, Christo Brand and Gill Marcus.