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Willem Lange: A Cat-and-Mouse Game With Much at Stake

East Montpelier

During the presidency of George W. Bush, a bunch of us from Vermont were visiting Cuba to take a look at the state of Cuban media — radio, television, the press, book publishing — under the Castro regime. We stopped one day at Radio Havana, where a trio of very jolly English-speaking employees talked about their role in society. At some point one of the Vermonters asked about free speech in Cuba. You don’t have it, do you? she asked.

“Of course we do!” they responded. “Just like you.” When we looked askance, one of them pointed at me. “You. You write a newspaper column, yes?”

I don’t know how he knew. I affirmed that I did. “Did you ever write anything critical about one of the paper’s big advertisers?” Yes, I’d done that, back in the early ’80s. “And ...?” he asked. I admitted that I hadn’t done it again. I’d heard the paper got a letter from a lawyer heavy with the implied threat of a lawsuit. I wasn’t instructed not to write about the topic, but I decided to steer clear of any potential legal problems.

“See? Just like here!” he said. “You can sit on George Bush’s front lawn with a sign that says, ‘Bush is a crook!’ and they don’t arrest you. I can sit on Fidel’s lawn with the same sign — ‘Bush is a crook!’ —– and they don’t put me in jail.”

Everybody laughed, but he was saying something fairly serious: The media by nature play, like mice, between the paws, and at the sufferance, of a sleeping cat. They irritate and rouse the cat at their peril. Yet it’s their nature —­ their purpose, actually — to be inquisitive, even irritatingly so.

It’s easy to see how a reporter’s urge to write about what he perceives is frustrated in autocratic societies. China’s a good example. The Chinese Communist Party, which (you heard it here first) is reaching its shelf-life expectancy, is inclined to blunt popular dissent by throwing a fish to the discontented now and then; but its need to hold onto power trumps every other impulse. So the journalistic mice between its giant paws tend to go a little light on the exposure of endemic bureaucratic corruption and the displacement of peasants in the way of giant developments. Dissident artists like Ai Weiwei are occasionally detained for “political activity unrelated to art.” In a situation like that, it’s best for writers and artists to have (or pretend to have) little to lose.

Russia, which in many ways still practices clumsy sleight of hand behind a still-iron curtain, appears much less vocal than China in objecting to journalistic dissent. But the life expectancy of the average liberal Russian commentator is discernibly lower than that of the average citizen. You’ve got to marvel at the temerity of reporters and commentators who believe it possible to effect change in such a tightly held autocracy.

Give me France any day, where the government allegedly fears the people. Forbidden to strike, public employees, when disgruntled, begin enforcing a myriad of French regulations, and government grinds almost to a halt. If you think Tea Party-inspired voter identification regulations onerous, you need to visit France during a spasm of regulatory punctiliousness. The newspaper Le Monde gleefully reports it all with little fear of heavy-handed reprisal.

What worries me is the state of journalism in the United States. Our media tend to reflect — some would say, create — our national consciousness, which is at the current time polarized and sclerotic. I was intrigued, 10 years ago, by a conversation between a young man and some of his mother’s friends. The sentence I remember best was his question: “Do you honestly think Fox News is conservative? Huh!”

Fox News, like MSNBC, is pretty transparently partisan, but an astute viewer can easily winnow the wheat from the chaff. Trouble is, many can’t. There’s no real remedy for that, except perhaps switching a few billion from defense to education. It’s not especially scary.

What is scary, though, is the apparent slow smothering of Public Broadcasting — though many Americans think it’s a great idea. Their sentiments lead me to ask the young man’s question: Do you really think PBS a rampart of liberal propaganda, as one critic has called it? I’ve gone through the archive of its subjects and reports and, even allowing for my bias, can’t find it.

Federal funding of PBS amounts to only 12 percent of its budget, and is dwindling. In 2011 the New Hampshire Legislature, in the grip of Tea Party newbies, cancelled that state’s entire contribution to New Hampshire Public Television — $2.7 million, one-third its budget — and as a gratuitous kick in the head of a man down, forbade it to do business with any state agencies. Though now free of political pressure, the station, for which I host the show Windows to the Wild, struggles on mainly viewer contributions.

Far more sinister for independent reporting are wealthy individuals and organizations who underwrite public broadcasting with the implicit threat of withdrawal in the event they’re displeased by any content. This was the case with David Koch, the billionaire supporter of conservative causes and institutions whose ultimate goal is to move the United States to the right. He made big gifts to media outlets, joined the board of WNET, and with his brother is considering buying eight newspapers owned by the Tribune Corporation. An article by writer Jane Mayer in the May 27 New Yorker describes what happened when PBS considered purchasing and airing a less-than-flattering documentary tentatively titled Citizen Koch. If you’re at all interested in independent journalism, you must read it. In short, the cat was upset. And you might be, too.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.