End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair

End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate (Petrolia, CA and Oakland, CA: CounterPunch and AK Press, 2007)

Reading this book is like eating a plate of savory barbecue – there’s plenty of meat (or tofu if one’s vegetarian) and tasty sauce to dig into and enjoy in its meticulous dissection of our presently moribund Fourth Estate.

The book consists of 50 articles; all but one were written for CounterPunch between 1999 and 2006. They are grouped in six sections: “Whipping the Press Back into Line,” “New York Times: Decline and Fall,” “White on Black in Black and White,” “The Dogs of War,” “Faking It: Why Does the Press Mostly Believe Prosecutors?” and “CounterPunch’s Side of the Story.” Most of these articles are written by Cockburn or by Cockburn and St. Clair, the co-editors of CounterPunch, but three are written by guests: CounterPunch founder (now Washington editor for Harper’s) Ken Silverstein; writer and editor of the online zine Konch, Ishmael Reed; and Bruce Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report.

There’s a wealth of substantive, eye-opening reportage within each of these categories, on topics including the deliberate PR job undertaken to sell the Iraq War; the real nature of “black paranoia”; the pillorying of Gary Webb and the San Jose Mercury News for breaking the story of the CIA/Contra/Crack connection, and how the CIA eventually confirmed the facts that Webb had unearthed; the New York Times’s gingerliness in reporting on the Bush Administration’s illegal spying and wiretaps; and much more, including some interesting exposés of Al Gore, Billy Graham, Norman Podhoretz and John Kerry – exactly what would be called “real news” but didn’t make its way into the “mainstream” press. Cockburn, St. Clair and guests deliver it all as solid journalism appropriately tinged (but only tinged, not overpowered) with indignation, in classic muckraking style. This is the kind of journalism that inspires writers to take up the craft, the kind that serves to remind us what journalism should be all about – and has been at its best moments. And to remind us that the Fourth Estate properly stands in an adversarial role to Power, that it is not Power’s secretary or stenographer.

One of the most revealing of the exposés in End Times is how the corporate powers-that-be (yes, read: ruling class) and their media henchmen whipped the press and the public back in line after the Sixties and Watergate, cowed and curbed investigative reporting, and re-imposed an acquiescent conformism over U.S. society. This ruling class was really quite jittery at that time, and brought its heaviest intellectual guns to bear – along with lots of money to fund “the right way of thinking.” Harvard’s Samuel Huntington would issue an official report for the Trilateral Commission decrying the Sixties’ “excess of democracy”; corporate leaders founded the Business Roundtable and reactivated the Chamber of Commerce; right-wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation saw massive increases in their endowments and budgets; and complaisant journalists tasted the big money. Katharine Graham, owner of the Washington Post, supposedly flushed with vindication and success after Watergate, now sternly lectured the press in 1974 that it “should… be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had better overcome” (21). All this and more is compellingly related and documented in the first two sections of the book, which deal thoroughly with this nation’s two Establishment press beacons, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The two Establishment beacons of “public” media, PBS and NPR, are rightly dissected as well. The first article in End Times, “When Tedium was Totalizing,” deftly satirizes the boring “even-handedness” of PBS’s McNeil-Lehrer Report, while Bruce Dixon takes on the ideological role played by NPR’s Black radio personality Juan Williams. Dixon’s piece follows sequentially after Ishmael Reed’s “How the Media Use Blacks to Chastise Blacks” and St. Clair’s “What You Didn’t Read about the Black Vote in Florida” – about the Democratic Party’s lack of interest in African-American and Haitian voters disenfranchised in 2000, set against its vigorous complaints about the disenfranchisement of Jewish voters. Taken together, just these three articles give a most thorough understanding of the actual role race and class play in U.S. media and politics today, and reveal why supposed “black paranoia” among lower-class Blacks has become such an important issue for the media’s “right thinkers.”

This is the substantive and critical “real news” slighted by the “mainstream” Fourth Estate, but so well provided throughout End Times, that moves Alexander Cockburn to specifically take note in his article, “Join the 14 Per Cent Club! We Won!” that “45 per cent of Americans believe little or nothing of what they read in their daily newspapers,” with “21 per cent of readers believing all or most of what they read in the [New York] Times and 14 per cent believing almost nothing. Chalk up another victory for the left” (105). He thus concludes optimistically in this article that “We’re infinitely better off than we were thirty years ago” now that “The corporate media are discredited, the same way corporate political parties are” (108). In the Introduction, Cockburn and St. Clair bolster this optimism with the readership statistics for CounterPunch: the “daily breakdown of our 3 million or so hits, 300,000 page views and 300,000 unique visitors.” This is a positive illustration of the existence and power of an Internet alternative Fourth Estate playing much the same role as the Underground Press played in the Sixties.

Alas, this alternative media success doesn’t translate into organizational and political clout, something also noticed by Cockburn in “Join the 14 Per Cent Club! We Won!” For on the same page as his conclusion above, he writes: “The only trouble is, the left hasn’t got too many ideas. We should stop whining about the corporate press and get on with a new program. If it’s credible, then the people who don’t trust the New York Times may start trusting us.” I share the optimism cum pessimism that Cockburn expresses here. The problem for the left today, in 2007, is that it is just too disorganized and unclear about what it is and who it represents to draft such a “credible” program (although more than capable of drafting myriads of non-credible programs). This is not the Sixties, when “Revolution was (seemingly) in the air,” and we, the left, were seemingly invincible. Watergate and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam left in their wake mostly cynicism leading to inaction and resignation, and a few years earlier – well, the left itself had collapsed in Byzantine ideological squabbles, and the intervening forty years haven’t improved matters for what little of the left actually survives.

Yes, there’s a public mood of distrust the left could tap into, but at present it lacks both the means and the will to do so. Albert Fried, in his anthology Socialism in America (1992), rightly characterized the New Left that came out of the Sixties as “a mood” rather than an ideology (15), and this New Left “mood” still characterizes the left today, despite the “Marxist” coloration it undertook at the end of the Sixties, and the political anarchist coloration the next wave of activists adopted in the Nineties. Today’s left has nothing effective programmatically and organizationally for the mass of those disaffected who turn to alternative media such as CounterPunch. Still, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair have given us some very useful tools for organization, information and agitation. It’s up to us to decide how to use them effectively, by trying them out. That’s the most we can do right now, and it’s the most we can expect from this meaty book. But that could well be a lot, or at least a good start – if we do it right.

Reviewed by George Fish

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