Monday, April 18, 2011

How Political Power Controls the Media: A Lesson From Kent State


Preface by Dan Perin

Our personal experiences play a major part in the development of our philosophy of life, our belief system and ultimately our politics.  I have known Lloyd since the “heady” days of the Whole Life Learning Center in Denver in the 70’s.  I first met him not too long after his first-hand experience at the Kent State student killings on May 4, 1970.  It has always been clear to me the profound influence that experience has had on him.  Rather than simply filling him with rage—and there was that—he directed his life more into constructive actions personally as well as in his teaching career.  As we approach the 41st anniversary of the Kent State affair, I hope that in the sharing of his personal experience readers will find reasons to more deeply review their own politics and belief systems, and especially bring a critical eye to the “news” they accept as gospel truth.

By Lloyd Agte

My experience at Kent State University, particularly the aftermath of the killing of four students by the Ohio National Guard May 4, 1970, educated me on how the government controls the media.  Nothing like being in the eye of the storm and then looking out at how the storm is being reported to sear into consciousness a life-long skepticism about what is reported through the mass media.

As a harbinger of things to come, my wife and I drove from Laramie, Wyoming past Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention on our I-80 trip to our Doctoral studies and Teaching Fellowships at Kent State University in Ohio.  The radio was full of the conflict, and I was sorely tempted to join the demonstrators who were trying to pressure the Democratic Party to adopt an anti-war platform.  But I was driving a friend's new Ford (she had left Wyoming to attend graduate school in Buffalo and had gone back by plane or with her husband in his car), my wife was following in her Corvair, I was pulling a U-Haul trailer, and I was unfamiliar with Chicago, so caution dictated prudence, and we journeyed on to Kent. 

Kent State was hardly a hotbed of radicalism, but there was considerably more politics permeating the school and area than I had previously experienced.  And the Student Movement wave that had sprung up on the west coast and eastern campuses had reached tsunami proportions that fall following the Chicago Police Riots during the Democratic Convention, when young and old, rich and poor, politicos and bystanders fell under the clubs, batons, fire hoses, tear gas and bullets of the Chicago police which Mayor Daley turned on everyone.  This violent response was a catalyst at campuses across the nation for heating up activist groups such as the American Indian Movement, Black Power, Women's Liberation, Student Rights, Gay Rights, and the anti-war movement.  All this political activity at Kent, a story in itself but beyond the telling here, culminates in the event leading to my "media lesson": the May 4, 1970 hail of 67 bullets (armor piercing and dum-dum) fired by the Ohio National guard in 13 seconds at a peaceful anti-war rally, killing four students and wounding nine.

Lies for the Politics of Fear

The flames of fear in local residents over some downtown property damage Friday night, May 1, and the burning of the ROTC building on Saturday night were fanned by Ohio Governor James Rhodes who called in the National Guard and then deliberately instilled fear in the local people. Campaigning at the time for a U.S. Senate seat on a right wing "get tough with the students" ticket, he lied to the local populace in a radio/television broadcast from the Kent Fire Station that the community of Kent was being overtaken by professional "outsiders," i.e., out-of-state radicals who were going from campus to campus stirring up trouble and fomenting riots.  He told the listeners that these terrorists were worse than the Brown Shirts (Hitler's Storm trooper thugs) and the Nightriders (terrorists in Kentucky forcing farmers to join a tobacco trust), and that "no one is safe in Portage County." Thus, one set of official lies was already in place two days before the massacre. The timeline of events May 1 through May 4 is rather complex one, suffice it to say the origin was triggered by President Nixon's widening of the Viet Nam War through his invasion of Cambodia
 

A Tragedy of Errors:  False Headline

At noon, May 4, the Ohio National Guard marched on a peaceful assembly near the Liberty Bell in the center of campus, eventually firing upon the crowd, killing students Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, William Schroeder (an ROTC student who was just watching) and Sandra Scheuer (who was skirting to the assemblage to get to her client in her student-practicum speech therapy class). The University was then closed, locked down, and all the students, faculty and support personnel banished from campus for six weeks.  The local people, who were already traumatized by the events and the official lies, awoke on May 5 to find that their local newspaper headlines read that two National Guardsmen had been killed by student rioters.  This, it turned out, was an error caused by the local paper, the Ravenna Record-Courier overhearing at paper deadline time a message or rumor on a police radio, and unable to confirm it, went ahead with the headline.  It was changed in a later run of the paper but not before a sizeable run had gone to press and been delivered on local doorsteps.  (I heard this personally from the editor Dix himself, and had no reason at the time not to believe it was an honest, though irresponsible, mistake.) 

First Official Lie: Student Sniper 

On May 24 the Akron Beacon Journal and members of the Knight newspaper team released a thirty thousand-word report, which later received a Pulitzer Prize, exonerating the students and criticizing the Guard.  On July 23 the Akron Beacon Journal summarized the contents of a Justice Department summary of the FBI's investigation of the Kent incidents, noting that there was no sniper, the Guard was not surrounded, there was minimal rock-throwing and that the shooting was "not proper and not in order."  But when the first emotional reaction is fixed to an event, it does not get erased completely by subsequent information (unless, perhaps, one is "born again" in some way that casts off that old emotional investment).  Most people had already made up their minds and had blamed the victims.  And what is the power of a dry report on the populace vs. the action-adventure melodrama of live events?

Local Political Lies

The Portage County Prosecutor Ron Kane, trying to create his 15 minutes of fame, raided all the dorm rooms for weapons and proudly displayed them on a table and encouraged photographs for the world to see the violent potential of the students.  Among the clutter of objects were a couple of Civil War replica swords, a BB gun or two, a few athletic-race starting guns, a cross-bow, a few broken pistols, baseball bats, a nautical flare gun, a working shotgun and a hand gun or two--this from a University with over 20,000 students.  But in the photo, with a few guns in the foreground, to the casual observer seeing the picture and reading the suggestive story heading, it appeared that a stockpile of weapons had been confiscated from the student dormitories.  My next-door adult neighbors, both of whom were illiterate, in alarm showed me the picture in the newspaper of "student arsenal." I read the story to them and pointed out the paucity of weapons in the heap on the table.  But for the locals who wanted to believe the students were violent and the Guard was justified in their murder, the lie seemed to work.

Second Official Lie: Students Overrunning the Guard

"Guard surrounded and feared being overrun."  That was the second big lie to justify the shooting.  This then was the lie that went through the summer 1970.  A later variation being there was a surge of violent students charging the Guard at the last minute, forcing them to in self-defense.

First Official Lie Discredited: No Sniper

On May 24 the Akron Beacon Journal and members of the Knight newspaper team released a thirty thousand-word report, which later received a Pulitzer Prize, exonerating the students and criticizing the Guard.  On July 23 the Akron Beacon Journal summarized the contents of a Justice Department summary of the FBI's investigation of the Kent incidents, noting that there was no sniper, the Guard was not surrounded, there was minimal rock-throwing and that the shooting was "not proper and not in order."  But when the first emotional reaction is fixed to an event, it does not get erased completely by subsequent information (unless, perhaps, one is "born again" in some way that casts off that old emotional investment).  Most people had already made up their minds and had blamed the victims.  And what is the power of a dry report on the populace vs. the action-adventure melodrama of live events?

Second Official Lie Discredited: I.F. Stone Leaks FBI Report

I fully expected the FBI, who had gone over the entire campus, every dorm room and every inch of campus and conducted countless interviews, to issue a report sympathetic to the Nixon Presidency establishment.  But I was wrong.  Indeed, the FBI report with its series of photos from various student amateur photographers re-constructed on a time-line showed no surge of students, no threatened Guard.  On the contrary, some students were gawking casually about, and some students near the Guard were walking away from them.  I dope-slapped my head and said, of course! You could not have the FBI constructing a phony report.  That is the job of politicians.  A political leader has to have accurate information on what has happened, conclusions based on evidence and verifiable facts.  Not that Nixon on his own would ever have released the FBI report.  Rather, part of it was leaked by famous journalist I.F. Stone in his book The Killings at Kent State: How Murder Went Unpunished. (Available at Amazon.)  Stone's book popped the entire balloon-bouquet of lies that had been officially huffed and puffed up by State and Federal Governments.  But Stone's book, coming out in 1971, did not make much dent on the general public, whose opinion had already been formed around the initial official lies and who had emotionally gone on to other issues.

Local and National Early Reaction: Killings Good More Needed

Reading the letters to the editor that poured into the Record-Courier, the Akron Beacon Journal, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and other papers in the aftermath, I reached the stunning (to me) and depressing conclusion that if one were to tally up the reactions, overwhelmingly the largest percentage of them reflected the opinion (which many blatantly stated) that it was good that the National Guard had killed and wounded the students, that they should have killed more, and they should have done it sooner.  In the process of writing this, I surprisingly came across in my files an old Record-Courier, the local Kent paper, dated May 12, 1970.  The editor had dedicated a page to letters to the editor, eighteen in total, of which about 70% are clearly anti-student and in support of the National Guard.  Ohio National Guard General Canterbury elsewhere stated that they were overwhelmed with letters and that they supported the Guard 18 to 1.  But what would one expect after the initial waves of deliberate official lies, reinforced by the President and Vice- President. 

The Formula: And the Beat Goes on

Tell the big lie on the front page and on Breaking News on national television, and if it has to be corrected, offer a correction after a few days or weeks go by and bury the correction in a few lines at the bottom of page 13 or in a short comment at the end of the 10:00 news.  Or today, in the era of total corporate control of mass media, ignore the correction.  The public forms its initial emotional reaction around the first release of information, and it seems the human psyche is loathe to ever fully give up that initial reaction.

And the Beat Goes on

Official lies are still with us, of course.  A contender for Oscar for the Big Lie in Gulf War I would be shared by Kuwait, who hired Hill and Knowlton, and Hill and Knowlton, the public relations firm that pulled off the propaganda coup.  I'm referring to the 1990 "news" story coming out of Kuwait that Saddam Hussein's invading troops had attacked a hospital in Kuwait, unplugged the incubators containing premature babies and taken the babies out of the incubators.  It was picked up by the news media and President Bush the First who parroted it until it grew to where 300 such babies were destroyed.  It was all an invention of the PR firm hired by Kuwait and supported by the testimony of the 15-year-old daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S. before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in October of 1990.  But it does not stop there.  According to fair.org, CNN, in their docudrama of the First Gulf War, Live from Baghdad, tried to put a spin on it and present it as if it had really happened and that Saddam had let CNN into Kuwait to interview a doctor who said it did not happen but the doctor's testimony is so feeble that the viewer is led to believe that it really did happen and the doctor is playing his part in the cover up.

The public lies were so rampant in Bush and Cheney's warm up to the Second Gulf War as to stagger the imagination: the hidden weapons of mass destruction, Niger nuclear yellow cake, the imaginary centrifuges, the irrigation pipe that was allegedly for centrifuges, the drums of nerve gas, the rockets with nerve gas heads, hidden nuclear reactors, drones capable of reaching the U.S. with nerve gas, and on and on. Colin Powell is suing now because he was fed the lie about rocket-launching trailers and thus made a fool of himself on world television.  Undoubtedly there are still people out there who think that Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction will still be found in Syria one of these days, so powerful is the imprinting of fear from those official lies.

The Fake Acorn Sting

The deliberately deceptive Acorn "sting" on ACORN (Association of Community Action for Reform Now) by the pathetic fake journalist loser James O'Keefe is one of the most telling recent examples of contemporary media lies.  Note: this was intentionally deceitful conservative media propaganda, not official state propaganda, and thus deserves its own specialized study.  But the formula of how it works through emotional judgment on initial impact is nevertheless the same.  However, with the corporations both owning the media and sponsoring the politicians, one can question whether there is any real substantial difference today between government, corporate and political propaganda.

According to the faked story, in the Fall of 2009, O'Keefe entered an ACORN office dressed as a Super Fly era pimp with an accomplice, Hannah Giles, dressed as a young prostitute, Their story was that they were seeking housing and transportation to bring under-age prostitutes from Honduras into a Mexican border town or the United States.  From the video it appeared that the ACORN employees were encouraging them and providing moral support and implying possible future economic support.

The falsehood of the video is detailed in The Pensito Review, which reports on California having cleared ACORN of having done anything wrong.  In short, O'Keefe wore sport clothes, not a pimp suit; the ACORN employees did not encourage him (rather O'Keefe took a female employee's encouragement to his co-conspirator to keep looking for housing and she would succeed and over-dubbed on other words to suggest her encouragement was for their prostitute scheme).  The male employee was asking him questions, feigning sympathy in trying to get more information on him and his operation so he could help the police arrest him.  As soon as O'Keefe and his partner left, the employee immediately called the police.  But the deceptive video hit the Fox News and other media and the employee was fired without a hearing.  Such is the racist and partisan nature of much the American Public that they were eager to believe the lies. The plot was to destroy ACORN, and it worked.  ACORN subsequently folded.   Some of the media outlets printed retractions when they found out they had been duped and suckered, but others, such as the New York Times stubbornly refuse to print a retraction

Domestic and Foreign Policy as Action-Adventure Melodrama

Moral:  A skeptical eye is the best eye. Don't trust the corporate news, or the Internet news, for that matter.  Don't participate in an emotional reaction to a news event until you have confirmed the facts.

 The government's method of presenting domestic and international politics, and the method increasingly used by the corporate-owned news outlets since the Reagan era has been the Hollywood movie formula of action-adventure melodrama: oversimplified, larger-than-life characters; forces of extreme good and extreme evil; terrible, nefarious acts by The Evil One; salvation by the good, pure cowboy in the white hat or the Christian Knight in shining armor.   How could we not sympathize with that innocent girl tied to the railroad tracks by Oil Can Harry, or sympathize with the innocent babies pulled from the incubators by that epitome of EVIL, Saddam Hussein, or not laugh with glee with the disguised film-makers exposing a corrupt group of community organizers eager to support under-age prostitution.  And how could we not salute with the hand over the heart the courageous National Guard in Ohio fighting for their lives against drug-crazed Communist radicals hell bent on destroying America?

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