The Founding Fathers of the United States, well-versed in the principles of Athenian democracy, understood the relationship between democratic government and an educated, informed electorate. To choose just one from among those distinguished framers and implementers of our Constitution, James Madison wrote: "A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy. A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives them."
Amy Goodman, the tirelessly crusading host of radio and public access television's "Democracy Now!" program, brilliantly demonstrates in THE EXCEPTION TO THE RULERS just how far we have strayed from Madison's (and Jefferson's) ideals of an educated electorate. At a time when Americans have more news sources than ever - newspapers, magazines, radio, public television, cable television, books, 24-hour news channels, weblogs and Internet websites - we are less well-informed than ever. Rather, we are more ill-informed than ever, bathed every day in such news as the six major corporations who control over 75% of our media outlets choose to present.
As Ms. Goodman aptly illustrates, these six companies are not only motivated by profit, they pander to government officials to preserve their all-important access to even more government propaganda. Ms. Goodman identifies their collective failings as sins of both commission (one-sided reporting, willingly adopting the official government viewpoints, and allowing themselves to be co-opted through such techniques as embedded reporting) and omission (failing drastically to present alternative viewpoints). The end result is a dramatic failure to inform the populace. Parroting official government pronouncements, limiting access to public airways to those who represent or side with government, suppressing or trivializing dissent, fearing government retaliation for too-critical reporting, refusing to demand meaningful answers, kowtowing to business interests - what sounds like the press in Communist China is now what constitutes the mass news media in the United States. If this sounds exaggerated, read Chapter 10 of this book, entitled "Killing the Messengers;" George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were right.
EXCEPTION TO THE RULERS is a stunning indictment of modern news media. Amy Goodman offers numerous examples, ranging from the shameful, pre-war shilling of the New York Times's Judith Miller to the collective media failure to report on U.S. involvement in Indonesia's 15+-year genocide in East Timor. In addition to her own experiences in East Timor and with Bill Clinton and Sally Jesse Raphael, she describes the failings of post-9/11 reporting, the run-up to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Jessica Lynch propaganda fiasco, the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, domestic use of psyops (Psychological Operations) techniques during the current Iraq war, and Michael Powell's near-dismantling of the FCC's regulatory function. One quote alone from Mr. Powell is worth the price of this book: "The night I was sworn in, I waited for a visit from the angel of the public interest. I waited all night, but she did not come. And in fact, five months into this job, I still have had no divine awakening and no one has issued me my public interest crystal ball." Aside from its appalling, Brobdingnagian hubris, could any single comment speak more to the current Bush Administration's blatant disregard of democratic principles?
Still, this book is not a mere academic diatribe. What makes EXCEPTION TO THE RULERS so powerful is that Ms. Goodman speaks from firsthand knowledge - she risked her life in East Timor, she reported from the streets of Seattle during the 1999 WTO demonstrations, and she had the nerve to confront Tom Brokaw. Ms. Goodman is a model of journalism in its proper sense, as a search for truth and a stubborn insistence in asking the difficult questions. Her life is not the gleaming, pampered, high-profile, content-free, uncontroversial, corporate party line reporting of Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, but the down-and-dirty work of a journalist seeking the other side of the story. Her approach characterizes the news media we idealize in a democratic society, yet sadly these voices are in danger of disappearing or being marginalized into irrelevance.
Where are the Jeffersons and the Madisons when we need them to remind us of the critical underpinnings of democratic government? Read this book and weep for what has been lost, and what more we are in danger of losing as the Amy Goodman's of the world are forced into steadily smaller corners.