Protesting A Captured Country

October 6, 2011 — the day Occupy Wall Street comes to Las Vegas, and the spinmeisters will be at play seeking to parse the meaning of the disaffection of the 99%’ers.  There’s the Newt Gingrich spin served up for CNN’s cable audience, “They are protesting Obama’s economy.”  Probably not.  Then there’s the “fed up with corporate greed, and Congressional inaction,” interpretation.  Closer to the truth.  [Fox5]

There’s this take from the Gleaner: “What do protesters hope to achieve? Lots, and shifting the parameters of the debate is a prerequisite to meaningful change. Occupy protesters have already done more to reset the national discussion than anything the perennially wimpy and irredeemably bent Democratic establishment (also part of the problem) has done in who knows how long — or is likely to do any time soon.”   This hits much closer to the core.  Why?

The tentacles of Corporate Capture

Those already familiar with the connections between broadcast outlets, conservative think tanks, legislative activities, and conservative electoral strategies are invited to skip this cursory review.

Media:  The Gleaner’s perception of the situation points out the narrow range of discussion in the media, from that which is acceptable to polite political punditry to radical right wing hysteria and well fertilized talking points.   It’s been obvious for some time now that the conservatives were “working the referees” by continuously clamoring about the “Liberal Media.”  [FAIR] Other elements of the right wing have captured an audience, some of whom are happy to attach bumper stickers to their vehicles saying in effect, “I don’t trust liberal media,” meaning that their opinions are ready-made from the daily  Limbaugh-Hannity talking point compilations.  Add an entire cable news network slavishly devoted to asserting the corporate perspective, and we have a significant distortion in the national discussion of legislative priorities.

No analysis of trends in cable news should exclude the Ratings Races, which also play a role in distorting those parameters of public inquiry.  That which shocks (sharks, bears, crimes and  scandals) will get air time — and has since the days of the penny dreadful.  That which is more difficult to digest will be presented in ways which almost appear to assume that the corporate broadcast  media has decided that “the masses are asses” and must be offered pre-digested information using a form of “acceptable enzymatic action” which further narrows the perspectives.

The formula for this “enzymatic action” has devolved into a He Said She Said version of false equivalency, well documented and interminably addressed by media critics.  For all intents and purposes what passes for news amounts to little more that dueling press releases.  Given the desire to put news on the air as parsimoniously as possible, we will get “If It Bleeds It Leads,” and “Instant Analysis” served up by those most easily accessed from a producer’s Rolo-Dex.

Policy Proposals:  Nothing would be gained by capturing the media if there were no agenda to be promoted.  Corporations have supported numerous Think Tanks which feed the pundits who in turn find their way onto the Rolo-Dex lists.  The Heritage Foundation was established in 1973 by Joseph Coors (Coors Brewing) and Richard Mellon Scaife (Mellon fortune), and corporations such as Pfizer, the Altria Group (tobacco), Chevron-Texaco, and Exxon-Mobil are contributors.   For the past 25 years the Manhattan Institute  has promoted “market oriented policies,” and has ties to ALEC.  The American Enterprise Institute has been around since 1943, but moved into brighter limelight in the 1970s.  Its funding also includes the Castle Rock Foundation (Coors) and the usual Olin-Bradley-Scaife connections.  [For those wishing to go further into this topic see Michael Dolny's 1998 discussion]

Legislative Agendas:  ALEC has been  lobbying in state legislatures since its founding in 1973.  One of the prime movers was right wing activist Paul Weyrich, also associated with the founding of the Heritage Foundation.  A list of corporate sponsors of ALEC can be located here, including Pfizer, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, PHARMA, State Farm, United Airlines, and Archer Daniels Midland.

Electoral Politics Citizens United took the gloves off, allowing corporate donations to candidates for elective office:

“Political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections. While corporations or unions may not give money directly to campaigns, they may seek to persuade the voting public through other means, including ads, especially where these ads were not broadcast.”

The Super-Pacs like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, and the secretive Crossroads GPS which spent $38 million in 2010 House and Senate races [CBS] are the logical extension of the influx of corporate money and the desire of corporations to further their interests, and a cause for some concern:

“The most dangerous vehicle for corruption in the political system is the candidate-specific super PAC,” said Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate for campaign-finance limits. “If we can’t shut them down, they are going to spread like wildfire to members of Congress, and they’re going to eviscerate contribution limits enacted over a period of a century to prevent corruption of federal officeholders.” [CBS]

Captured Agencies

Politics is only half the saga of corporate influence in government.  There are several agencies which have been “captured” as well.

One of the more dramatic stories of agency capture concerns the Securities and Exchange Commission, which according to a whistle-blower:

“…has been systematically destroying records of its preliminary investigations once they are closed. By whitewashing the files of some of the nation’s worst financial criminals, the SEC has kept an entire generation of federal investigators in the dark about past inquiries into insider trading, fraud and market manipulation against companies like Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and AIG. With a few strokes of the keyboard, the evidence gathered during thousands of investigations – “18,000 … including Madoff,” as one high-ranking SEC official put it during a panicked meeting about the destruction – has apparently disappeared forever into the wormhole of history.”

When states attempted to regulate the behavior of some banks doing business within their jurisdictions, the reforms were undone by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

 “…the states were stopped in their tracks by a powerful federal agency that operates deep inside the Treasury Department: the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). Relying on a dubious legal justification, the OCC declared many of these state laws preempted by federal law and told national banks to ignore them. Then, in 2004, the OCC issued a sweeping preemption order that basically nullified all state laws governing consumer lending. ” [NR]

Even the FDA was characterized as a “captured agency” in 2004:

The FDA is no different. The revolving door of employment between it and the largest American pharmaceutical companies is, by now, a very poorly hidden secret. You can bet your last dollar that the large pharmaceutical companies, whose very livelihoods depend upon drug approvals, possible recall campaigns and good or bad publicity by the FDA, pay exacting attention to all of the activities of the FDA, and they pay well. This is not to say that there are not good people in any of these agencies, or that these people are all compromised. In fact, I have personally met many dedicated FDA and other agents whom I truly respect. It is just that the nature of the institutional framework of the agencies works against the idealists and in favour of those seeking power, promotion, and money. The good guys are all too often marginalized and limited to small victories, if any at all, while the power-hungry muscle their way to the top. This is because the FDA and other regulatory agencies like it are bureaucratic institutions that only very weakly and indirectly respond to voter (consumer) influence but respond very strongly to political influence and log-rolling. [NHF]

In 2003 critics declared the FCC a “captured agency: “The big players are Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp./Fox, General Electric/NBC, Viacom/CBS, Disney/ABC and the Tribune Corp. You will notice that television is not giving this story, with its enormous impact, any coverage at all, and many newspapers have done no better. (William Safire of The New York Times is a noble exception.)”  [AlterNet]

If You Can’t Capture It, Kill It

The National Labor Relations Board, formerly dominated by corporation oriented members, has now become a corporate target after Obama Administration appointees shifted the orientation towards labor interests. “A House Republican-led effort to defund the National Labor Relations Board failed Thursday, but the agency remains a target for spending cuts that would slash its annual budget by $50 million, or nearly one-fifth.”  [WSJ]

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been a target of corporate wrath.  The efforts to defund the agency continue:

“The moves are part of Republican efforts to trim $100 billion from the budget, largely driven by a raft of Tea Party candidates who joined the House of Representatives after the 2010 mid-term elections. The GOP originally sought cuts totaling $32 billion, but freshmen legislators forced the party to ramp up cuts and make good on their campaign promises.

Also on the chopping block: the position of climate and energy advisor. The CR would prevent President Barack Obama from filling the position left vacant by departing Carol Browner.

Other cuts include: $3 million from a greenhouse gas monitoring system; $10 million in climate change-related state grants; $500 million for the World Bank and emissions-reducing projects in developing countries; $10.5 million from the Energy Star program; $5 million from the EPA’s greenhouse gas reporting registry; $250 million from the EPA Great Lakes Initiative.” [GreenBiz]

The Department of Education is another perennial target of right wing wrath:

In 2010, Senator Rand Paul, R-KY campaigned on a promise to push for deep cuts in the Department of Education’s (DOE) budget. He stayed consistent on this in his response to President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, declaring that we should defund the DOE by 83%. [AdInfo]

And, so it goes…that which cannot be captured must be killed.

Breaking the Chains

If broadcasters are bemused or confused by the amorphous character of the Occupy Wall Street protests, it may serve them to back away for a broader perspective.

These are not people with sound bite demands for specific legislative or governmental reform, for the most part they appear to be individuals who are no longer content in a country where the political dialogue is constrained by what is acceptable to corporations and financial sector interests.

They are dissatisfied with captured media, captured policy discussions, captured legislative debates, captured politics, and captured governmental agencies.   What they want is to shift those parameters of national debate, and to have a meaningful and free discussion of policy alternatives in the interest of the people not the potentates.

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