The Land of the Free* (*terms and conditions may apply)

essay

By Mike Cronin

When asked what kind of government our new country has, Benjamin Franklin is widely quoted as stating “a republic, if you can keep it.”  Apparently we could not.  It’s almost universally accepted these days, to the point of being taught as fact in schools, that we have a democracy. Yet our Constitution outlines a republican form of government with three branches (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial) that functions with some democratic processes. (You can check this for yourself – the word democracy does not appear anywhere in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence).

Unfortunately, we’ve accumulated three additional, unofficial branches of government, and devolved so far from our Founder’s vision that we may no longer have either a republic or a democracy, but an oligarchy (i.e. a form of government where power is held by small group).

What are the three “unofficial” branches that the oligarchs use to wield power?  The donor branch, the media branch, and the education branch; all run by the so-called “elites.”

I’ve written before about the “elites” that steer this country, and you’ve probably read or heard others speak of them without really explaining the composition of the group.

Who are the elites in the United States (international elites are another subject)? They are people at the head of the three legitimate branches and the three “shadow” branches of government. In influential order:

The President of the United States: Head of State. Head of Government. Chief Executive Officer of the Executive Branch and Commander in Chief of the military. The incumbent holds possibly the most influential position in the world; certainly whoever occupies the Oval Office wields the most diplomatic influence backed by the most extraordinary military.

The donor class – the folks who provide significant funds to politicians, PACs, and campaigns and are owed favors and quid pro quos. Think George Soros, the Koch brothers, corporate lobbyists, and the like. If we could dig deep enough, we might also find drug lords and other organized crime dons in this class.

The rest of the elected politicians at the Federal level: the 535 members of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate), plus the vice president.

Next come political appointees: ambassadors, cabinet secretaries and other cabinet-level executives, federal judges, and military combatant commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff – and the emeriti of these positons – e.g. Henry Kissinger.

There is some overlap between the politicians above and the influencers in their networks. These are their fellow Ivy-League and service-academy alumni, corporate and institutional boards, bank chairmen, media moguls, etc.

Perhaps at the bottom rung of the elites are the folks who try to influence us more directly. This group is largely composed of the academic and think-tank intelligentsia and “on-air talent” in the mainstream media.

Perhaps not really elite, but still somewhat culpable for the direction of our country: The entrenched bureaucrats just below the political appointee level. They provide institutional continuity across multiple administrations – and they are largely not accountable. Not because they don’t “report” to anyone, but because it’s so damn hard to fire someone in the Federal government, and because they can just outlast the appointed bosses that can fire them.

Altogether, I estimate that there are perhaps as many as 300,000 to as few as 30,000 people running our country of 300,000,000+ people.  What would you call a form of government where perhaps 1/1000th to 1/10,000th of the population holds almost all of the power?

Bias and the Seven Criteria of Newsworthiness

Be selective about what you pitch and be sure to pitch to the right people

By Mike Cronin

In the “About” section of this blog, I say that bias is one of the main “filters” we have to apply in our media consumption in order to make sense of it all.  The mainstream media (ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and others) are notorious for being biased. The right wing maintains that (with the exception of Fox) the bias is unabashedly liberal. Liberals are certain that Fox News is a propaganda machine for conservative Republicans.  There is no shortage of examples of bias to be found on each side; but for us to detect that bias reliably, it might help to first know what a “pure” news story is supposed to be about. The foundation of a news story is its newsworthiness.  In Journalism 101 courses throughout the country, students are taught several criteria to apply in order to determine if a story is newsworthy. There are various versions of the model, all of which boil down to roughly the same basics. The version I am familiar with has seven criteria:

Impact: The significance, importance, or consequence of an event or trend. The greater the consequence, or the more people affected, the greater the newsworthiness. “If it bleeds, it leads” fits here. National election results, wars, terrorist attacks, mass murder, natural disasters, and major industrial or transportation accidents are prime examples. 9-11 is the quintessential example.

Timeliness: This is the new in news. The more recently the event happened (or the more recently new information became available about an historical event), the more newsworthy it is. It doesn’t get much newer than when an event is broadcast live (or nearly so) as it happens. On the other hand, one can get headline fatigue when a “Breaking News” or “News Alert” ticker demands attention for reportage of every minor development in an ongoing major story.

Prominence: The doings and antics of prominent people (or corporations, major league sports teams, government agencies, etc.) are newsworthy – because they are prominent. Thus, almost anything a sitting president does is newsworthy, but nothing I routinely do is newsworthy.

Proximity: The closeness of an occurrence, either geographically or in terms of connections or values, is a factor in its newsworthiness.  The astronauts making the Apollo 11 moon landing were as far away from us as any humans ever have been, yet they were fellow Americans making momentous history, and that made them “close” in the sense of this criterion. (Of course, the first manned moon landing was newsworthy according to just about all of these criteria!)

Bizarre: The classic “man bites dog” headline is a classic example of the essence of this category.  It’s not news when a dog bites a man, but when the tables are turned, the situation is freaky, so it becomes newsworthy. There are entire publications devoted to this critieria:

Conflict: Controversy, drama, hypocrisy from leaders, investigative reports, political wrangling, etc.

Human Interest: Those stories that are funny, charming, cute, heartwarming, or otherwise entertaining fit here. Here’s a great example.

These criteria can give us a “baseline” to use when examining stories for bias. Sometimes it is not what a newscaster or reporter says or doesn’t say that exposes bias, it’s the selection of what is to be reported, or the time span a particular story spends in the headlines. If you read or watch a story that doesn’t seem to meet any of the newsworthiness criteria, or you know of a newsworthy story that has been ignored or downplayed, or you note that story X has received much more coverage than story Y, even though both are newsworthy, you are be observing bias in action.