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Aaron Sorkin’s “Newsroom”

By Dennis Loo (6/26/12)

HBO’s newest series, Newsroom, which debuted on Sunday, is written and produced by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote West Wing, Sports Night, and the movie The Social Network. The show is written from an idealist perspective – how the news ought to be and could be in a best of all worlds - rather than a materialist one – how and why news media have degenerated so far and what could be done about that.

What is most interesting about Newsroom, which drew a large opening audience for its Sunday debut of 2.1 million viewers, just behind HBO’s lineup of Game of Thrones (my choice for the best show ever) which had an opening audience of 2.2 million, and Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire of 4 million plus, and twice the excellent, but unlucky, Luck’s opening of 1.1 million, is the reaction of the real media to it.

In general the media strongly dislike the show.

Imagine that. A show that criticizes the media as being tawdry, superficial, money driven and stupefyingly misinforming, provokes the real media to say that they do not like the show!

Washington Post’s former media writer Howard Kurtz panned it at the Daily Beast (the successor to Newsweek) as “bad satire,” preachy and overblown:

Naturally, Will [anchor Will McAvoy played by Jeff Daniels] delivers a boffo NewsNight, running roughshod over government and corporate flacks, and at this point the audience is supposed to cheer. Except the characters have taken turns acting like such jerks that it’s more exhausting than uplifting.

As someone who is in and has been in the media, Kurtz does not know journalists who are jerks? Where have you been Mistah Kurtz? Are you dead to what real journalists can be like? Having been a journalist myself, and having been around a good number of them, I'd say the characters in Newsroom are a lot more appealing than their real counterparts generally are.

Read more: Aaron Sorkin’s “Newsroom”

Julian Assange and What Is At Stake

Julian Assange and What is at Stake

Editor's Note: This article appeared on June 21, 2012 in Revolution Newspaper. Revolution asked Loo to write about Assange's case.

by Dennis Loo (Dennisloo.com)

Newsflash: While this article was being prepared, news came from London that Julian Assange managed to escape from his house arrest and formally requested political asylum at Ecuador's Embassy in London on June 19, 2012. Given the fact that Assange had just lost his legal appeal before the British Supreme Court to block his extradition to Sweden, discussed in part in the following article, to face what for all the world appears to be reactionary, politically motivated sex abuse charges as a prelude to possibly extraditing Assange to the U.S., and the fact that he has already been openly targeted for assassination by various high U.S. public officials and pundits (perhaps by drones), Ecuador's comments sympathetic to Assange's request is good news.

*****

Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' founder and leader, the international whistle-blower who has devoted himself to uncovering damning secrets that governments try to—and must—conceal from their citizens in order to carry forth with their dirty deeds, is facing an extremely serious court case that could cripple his work and that of WikiLeaks. At stake is not only Julian Assange's personal fate: should he lose, the ripples of his case (perhaps waves would be the better metaphor) both legal and political, will have profound effects on everyone who seeks justice, transparency, and fairness. What Assange is on trial for, in essence—his dastardly crime in authorities' eyes—is doing what journalists are supposed to do—tell the truth and reveal to the public corruption, malfeasance and criminal behavior, especially by those on high who have the greatest power to commit towering crimes and who have the most extensive ability to conceal their deeds in the absence of investigative journalism.

Assange (born July 3, 1971) is an Australian Internet-activist-journalist. His stepfather describes Julian as a young boy as someone who "always stood up for the underdog. I remember that, like with his school friends. He was always very angry about people ganging up on other people. He had a really good sense of equality and equity." As a young man he was a curiosity-driven hacker, later a computer programmer, then he founded WikiLeaks in the mid-2000s. He is the recipient of numerous honors, "including the 2009 Amnesty International Media Award, Readers' Choice for TIME magazine's 2010 Person of the Year, the 2011 Sydney Peace Foundation gold medal and the 2011 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. Snorre Valen, a Norwegian parliamentarian, nominated him for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize." (From Wikipedia's bio of Assange. Wikipedia and WikiLeaks are unrelated.)

WikiLeaks maintains a website at wikileaks.org which it launched in 2006. It is perhaps most famous for its June 2010 release of the U.S. Apache Helicopter's videotape ("Collateral Murder") of its killing of nine Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists who were casually strolling through a Baghdad suburb in 2007 when they were fired upon and killed. After the incident, which The New York Times described falsely in its original article about it as a firefight by U.S. forces against "insurgents" who allegedly attacked the American troops, Reuters tried unsuccessfully for three years to get a proper accounting and explanation for the deaths of their journalists. The truth was finally revealed when WikiLeaks released the video. Private Bradley Manning was subsequently charged with treason for allegedly being the whistle-blower who made this video available to WikiLeaks.

The specifics of the case being made against Assange by authorities are these: in 2010 Sweden's chief prosecutor sought to question Assange about allegations of sexual assault and rape by two Swedish women and has been seeking his extradition to Sweden since 2010. Assange denies these accusations as utterly false.

On May 30, 2012, Britain's Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 vote that Assange, who has been under house arrest in England while contesting Sweden's efforts to extradite him, should be turned over to Swedish authorities. The court majority held that Sweden's prosecutor is the equivalent of a "judicial authority" and therefore entitled to get his hands on Assange, even though the majority admitted that during the Parliamentary debate about the law, a British minister explicitly stated that the term "judicial authority" should be understood to be a court/judge, and not a prosecutor. How did they manage this sleight of hand? By citing the French meaning of the term that allegedly includes prosecutors as "judicial authorities."

What this court's decision underscores is how courts, despite their official role as impartial, law-bound entities, are all too readily subject to the will of those who rule society. As Glenn Greenwald, speaking to KPFA's Democracy Now!, put it on May 30, 2012:

“Julian Assange is one of the people most hated by Western governments because of the transparency that he brought. And typically, unfortunately, judicial branches in the United States and in the United Kingdom do the opposite of what they're intended to do, which is they protect institutional power and help to punish and deprive the rights of those who are most scorned. And so, I would have been shocked had the court ruled in favor of Assange, even though, as the two dissenting judges on the high court pointed out, the argument of Sweden and those advocating extradition is directly antithetical to what the statute says. No one thinks that a prosecutor is a judicial authority. He hasn't been charged with a crime, and therefore, there's no court or judge seeking his extradition. It's purely a prosecutor. But the law in these cases typically is not what governs. What governs are political considerations and the views of the party. And so, absent some unexpected event, highly unexpected event, at some point in the near future, it's likely that he will be extradited to Sweden.”

Contrary to Sweden's reputation as a more humane society, Sweden's prime minister (the equivalent of the U.S. president) publicly attacked Assange one week before Assange's hearing before the British Supreme Court, a clear attempt to poison public opinion against Assange.

Sweden's pre-trial practices, as Glenn Greenwald has described it, are "borderline barbaric." Prisoners awaiting trial are not given bail, and Assange would likely be kept in oppressive solitary confinement without any access to the outside world. The pre-trial hearings are conducted secretly, away from any public scrutiny.

The significance of this lies in the fact that the charges in Sweden are merely a prelude to getting Assange extradited to the U.S. where U.S. authorities want to charge him with espionage and eliminate him as a rival, whether through judicial hanging or the potential for an extrajudicial killing. As another indication of how high the stakes are in this matter, right after announcing that they were going to rule in the Assange appeal of extradition, Sweden tweeted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would meet with Sweden's top officials on Sunday, June 3, 2012. This would be the first visit to Sweden by a high U.S. official in a very long time.

These charges were brought after Assange and WikiLeaks released to the world voluminous records that showed the U.S. government and others such as Britain and the former Tunisian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to be world-class liars and war criminals. (The damning revelations in secret U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks regarding Ben Ali's corruption played a key role in triggering the Tunisian Revolution, thus helping to spark Arab Spring. Its role vis a vis Arab Spring shows how incendiary the revelations that WikiLeaks has made public are and how powerful an ally their work has been and will be in the future for those who seek fundamental change in society.) This is, of course, precisely why U.S. imperialism's godfathers seek to snuff out Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, whistle-blowers such as the charges brought against Bradley Manning, journalists who still regard the truth as their jobs, and all those who speak out against injustice. As it has done on so many very critical issues, the Obama administration has one-upped the Bush regime by going after whistle-blowers and journalists more aggressively than Bush and Cheney did.

WikiLeaks and Assange, in other words, are the 21st century equivalent of Daniel Ellsberg who was attacked for being a whistle-blower by the Nixon administration when he released the famous "Pentagon Papers" that showed that the U.S. government had been lying about its actions and motivations in the Vietnam war, thus helping to further fuel the anti-war movement. Because the documents that Ellsberg released and the far more extensive documentation of crimes that Assange and WikiLeaks have released posed and pose a real threat to the U.S. government's not-ready-for-prime-time real agenda, and because the documents themselves are uncontestably authentic and therefore cannot be denied as forgeries, both Ellsberg then and Assange now have been pilloried by personal assassination launched by those who stand to lose the most from their revelations. In Assange's case, these attempts to discredit him are more than "only" character assassination. They include very explicit and public demands for his murder.

No less than Vice President Joe Biden on Meet the Press called Assange in December 2010 a "high-tech terrorist," a term which, of course, would rightly apply to him and the Obama administration more than anyone and right-wing pundit Jonah Goldberg, National Review editor-at-large and American Enterprise Institute Fellow, in the October 29, 2010 issue of the Chicago Tribune declared a fatwa (death warrant) against Assange asking why the CIA hadn't already offed Assange:

I'd like to ask a simple question: Why isn't Julian Assange dead?

In case you didn't know, Assange is the Australian computer programmer behind WikiLeaks, a massive—and massively successful—effort to disclose secret or classified information. In a series of recent dumps, he unveiled thousands upon thousands of classified documents from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So again, I ask: Why wasn't Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?

It's a serious question.*

The fact that a syndicated American journalist such as Jonah Goldberg, Vice President Biden, and many others who made similar grotesque calls for Assange's assassination, could do so in major American media outlets such as the Chicago Tribune or the pulpit of the land's highest offices and not be condemned for their bloodthirsty foaming at the mouth tells you what kind of times we are now living in: it's apparently all right if fatwas are declared by American pundits and open threats come from the mouths of our leaders, why that's them bein' True Blue American Patriots. But let anyone dare to tell the truth about real crimes, well those whistle-blowing traitors deserve to be tortured and die for that!

These authorities' fulminations tell us something profound about how precarious their continued rule actually is. They cannot do what they've been doing and they cannot do what they plan to do going forward if they are not able to garrot what the people know. Whistle-blowing and genuine journalism are far too damaging to their designs: real journalism reveals our leaders' hypocrisy and deceit. The workings of their system are so awful that our esteemed leaders must carry out an unprecedented level of repression against truth-telling, inquiry, and protest, or else their castles will be shaken and face ignominious destruction from the fury of the populace rising up to challenge them. WikiLeaks and Assange have already demonstrated the potential for this. We must all rise to defend Julian Assange for his heroic stand against their horrid acts so that we can create more room and not less for him and others to do what must be done.

As Tyrion Lannister in the George R.R. Martin saga that HBO has turned into the Game of Thrones series says in A Clash of Kings, "When you tear out a man's tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you're only telling the world that you fear what he might say."

Dennis Loo is a Professor of Sociology, Cal Poly Pomona and author of Globalization and the Demolition of Society.

*Jonah Goldberg, "Why Is Assange Still Alive?" Chicago Tribune online, October 29, 2010, www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/ct-oped-1029-goldberg-20101029,0,5734943.story, accessed November 3, 2010.

Selfishness, Co-operation and Leadership: Gossip and Other Forms of Social Suasion

By Dennis Loo (6/20/12)

One of neoliberal philosophy’s central tenets is that people are inherently selfish and driven solely by material incentives. They argue, as Margaret Thatcher famously did while English Prime Minister, that “there is no such thing” as society, “there are only individuals and families.” The way to get people to do what you want, according to these sages who are collectively in charge of all of our major institutions now (including, notably, politics, media, economics, and education), is to offer people material rewards because people are not going to act altruistically.

This is how the proponents of the privatization of public services such as public education and other public goods such as governmental services see things: everyone is out for themselves and the devil take the hindmost. Neoliberal views are based in part on Adam Smith’s “laissez-faire” economic philosophy: selfishness is the highest and best value. Gordon Gecko of Wall Street fame put it bluntly: “Greed is good.” Frederick Hayek and Ayn Rand are also central contributors to neoliberal thought, with Hayek being its theoretical godfather and Ayn Rand the arrogant Queen Bee lead cheerleader (along with her fellow cheerleader Milton Friedman, channeling George W. Bush at Yale, on the bullhorn).

What these geniuses in charge of our collective fates have never bothered to do is study what science can tell us about human behavior. If they have dared to venture into the strange and exotic realms of social psychology, anthropology, and sociology, they promptly got lost, rejecting the findings of these scientific endeavors as so much hogwash. Once in a while I have a student taking a sociology class from me who is majoring in a field like business who experiences great cognitive dissonance when studying sociology because its findings and its perspective so directly contradict the philosophies that they have been imbued in. “You mean individuals are not the sole determinants of why society is the way that it is? You’re saying that social structure matters more than individual values and choices? What?!”

In the June 15, 2012 issue of The New York Times comes this article about the upside of gossip:

Bianca Beersma, an associate professor of work and organizational psychology, and Gerben van Kleef, a professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam, told a group of people that they had been randomly chosen to distribute 100 tickets for a lottery with a cash prize. The participants could either generously distribute the tickets to others or selfishly keep many tickets for themselves.

Half the time, the participant was told the choice would be kept private and no one would know. The rest of the time, the decision would be publicized in the group.

In addition, participants were sometimes told that other group members were likely to gossip; other times they were told their actions probably would not be discussed.

Now, people being people, all the players acted selfishly to some degree, keeping more for themselves than they gave to the others. But when they knew their actions were public and the chance of gossip was high, they became quite a bit less selfish, Professors Beersma and Van Kleef found.

Their study, “How the Grapevine Keeps You in Line: Gossip Increases Contributions to the Group,” appeared in the April 12, 2011, issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In other words, when people know that others are observing them, they generally act differently. In a related event, the other day I was leaving the grocery store and one of my bags filled with baby food (for the cat) spilled onto the floor. A bystander came to my assistance immediately to help me collect the bottles strewn on the ground. I thanked her and thought to myself: “Now what would the Ayn Rand say about this woman’s actions? What is this woman getting out of this altruistic action?”

In governments and businesses around the globe the trend is for authorities to be insulating themselves more and more from the watchful eyes of the public, with governments treating protest as a form of terrorism and businesses being given license to be self-policing. We all know how well self-policing works, don’t we?

When cooperation is the expected norm (because people know this without having to be explicitly told this), then that will be the overall guiding principle. As I wrote in Globalization and the Demolition of Society:

In any society the mainstream is going to conform to mainstream values, institutions, ideas, and leading figures. In a feudal society the mainstream supports feudal values and norms. In a socialist society the mainstream support socialist values and norms. In a capitalist society the mainstream supports capitalist values and norms.

If the existing authorities embark on a radical turn in policy but mask the magnitude of their actions with persuasive rhetoric, and if the mass media go along, then how can we reasonably expect society’s mainstream to break with the leading authorities? Is the average person, or are even the most highly informed citizen, going to be ready to break with both the leading political parties and the mass media by concluding that their reading of the situation trumps that of the leading institutions and individuals? The mainstream will not do so unless and until a powerful enough alternative political and moral authority emerges that contends against the existing authority. Such an unusual scenario happens, when it happens at all, in part because the alternative authority does its work very well; but it mainly happens because the existing authorities become unable to hold things together. As a rule, people in any society are reluctant to break with convention. Conventional ways of doing and thinking must be at or near the breaking point, while simultaneously beset by a major challenge from an alternative path and alternative leadership, in order for a significant portion of the people to rupture from the existing system and its leaders. This is not a process that happens slowly and gradually, even if there are some building actions involved. It is a process that occurs in a concentrated span of time, in an accelerated fashion, under conditions of crisis.

This is what happened for a time in the 1960s when the existing authorities suffered from a “credibility gap” and the Left exercised broad influence, even though its actual numbers were small. As one indicator of this, during the high tide of the 1960s, a large majority of college students endorsed the idea of a revolution. The way that people defined revolution varied widely, but the mere fact that eighty percent (in at least one poll) believed that revolution was necessary was indicative of the mood of the times, the degree of crisis of the system, and the strength of the Left relative to the Right.

The problem in the US today, in brief, is not mainly that the people are bad or indifferent or gullible or immoral or consumed personally in pleasurable pursuits, though these elements exist in abundance. The main problem is that the established and widely recognized opinion leaders upon whom people rely and from whom they receive their overall orientations have been installing neoliberal policies in the driver’s seat. The American psyche’s degradation, to the point where Americans in all too many instances are going along with explicit and monstrous violations of international and national laws and widely and readily understood principles of morality and decency, is not primarily a product of average Americans forsaking their consciences. Leaders are primarily responsible. The soldiers guilty of committing atrocities at places like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Bagram do not commit their acts because they are particularly depraved individuals; they were and are doing what they were and are expected to do and are ordered to do by their superior officers. This does not make those frontline soldiers guiltless of awful crimes; it does, however, make them relatively less guilty than their superiors.

Social psychologists have shown in experiments designed to measure people’s willingness to go against the group that most people will adopt the group answer, even when they know indisputably that the answer given by everyone else around them is wrong. In experiments, for example, where five people sit around a table and are asked to answer very simple questions (such as which straight line is longer even though both lines are obviously the same length), and when four of the respondents have been secretly instructed by the experimenters to give the same wrong answer, about eighty percent of the time the fifth respondents adopt the group’s wrong answer. Most people do not wish to be socially isolated and will do what they know is wrong, even deeply immoral things, rather than be isolated from the group. Breaking with the group not only means possible social isolation, the consequences for which can range from being made fun of to being killed, but it also means that you have to be willing to stand out and say to the others that they are wrong and you are right. Most people are not comfortable assuming that stance.

When people come into a group and see that everyone else is behaving in a particular way, they assume—erroneously—that everyone else is acting that way because they have all consciously decided to act in such a manner. Not wanting to assume that they know better, most people will then adopt the group’s behavior. Social psychologists call this process of reasoning “pluralistic ignorance.” It is more commonly seen in the story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” in which the only person in the crowd willing to point out that the emperor is stark naked is a little boy; all of the adults are too embarrassed and afraid to point out the powerful emperor’s obvious nakedness and instead celebrate his (nonexistent) marvelous new clothes.

People are first and foremost social beings. While Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” captures something critical about what it means to be human, an even more accurate descriptor would be “I adapt, therefore I am.” Most people in any situation go along with the group norms not primarily because they agree with those norms but because they are adapting themselves to what they see most of the others around them doing. This rule of human behavior exists not primarily because people are sheep but because we all recognize that our survival depends on being in good standing with others. In a recent study that reproduced the famous Solomon Asch conformity experiment (with the difference that in the recent study MRI’s were taken of the participants’ brain activity), when people gave answers that agreed with the group, even though the group’s answer was obviously wrong, their brains showed no emotional distress. When they gave the right answers but those answers differed from the group, however, their emotions were triggered. In other words, when we are doing the wrong thing, so long as that wrong thing agrees with what the group is doing, our brains do not evidence emotional distress. But doing the right thing when it means departing from the group’s actions is emotional. The study further found that the group’s stance actually influences people’s individual perceptions.[i]

As social beings, we also follow leaders’ examples. When recognized leaders provide examples that are egregious, those examples set a negative tone for most people. When leaders set a positive tone, they have a similarly powerful impact on those who follow them, this time in a positive direction. How far a leader can go, it is true, depends on what his or her social base is capable of handling. A leader does not have unilateral power to determine what a group will do. But the initiative rests with leaders to determine which of the contradictory aspects of his/her group come to the fore. Stanley Milgram found that in a particular variation of his famous obedience experiment:

The rebellious action of others severely undermines authority -- In one variation, three teachers (two actors and a real subject) administered a test and [electrical] shocks [to the subject in another room]. When the two actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain shock level, thirty-six of forty subjects joined their disobedient peers and refused as well.[ii]

That is a variant of the Milgram Experiment that has not received the amount of attention it richly deserves.[iii] I discuss the Milgram Experiment further later in this chapter.

One measure of the difference between admirable leaders and those who are not is whether they appeal to the better, higher sentiments of the people or to lower sentiments and narrower concerns. In either instance the leaders are resonating with some strain of their social base, but the direction in which the whole group moves depends upon the leaders’ initiating actions. Rather than spending their energy bemoaning the backwardness of Americans, people would do better by actively engaging themselves in providing leadership and setting examples for others to follow. The so-called problem with “the people” always primarily involves the role being played by those in leading positions, whether they are the official authorities or those leaders among the groups who are trying to change the direction of the group/society. (Emphasis added. Pp. 330-334)



[i] Sandra Blakeslee, “What Other People Say May Change What You See,” NYTimes.com, June 28, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/28/science/28brai.html, accessed June 30, 2008: “The researchers found that social conformity showed up in the brain as activity in regions that are entirely devoted to perception. But independence of judgment—standing up for one’s beliefs—showed up as activity in brain areas involved in emotion, the study found, suggesting that there is a cost for going against the group.”

[ii] Stanley Milgram, “The Perils of Obedience,” Harper’s, December 1973, 62-77. The article can be found also at “The Perils of Obedience,” http://home.swbell.net/revscat/perilsOfObedience.html, accessed February 14, 2011.

[iii] Subjects administered electrical shocks to a stranger in another room when the stranger failed to answer a question correctly. The experiment was to see if subjects would follow authority’s injunctions to continue the shocks or refuse to obey. Milgram was pilot-testing his 1960 experiment in the US, planning to take it to Germany to test Germans who he thought were particularly obedient because of their allowing the Nazis to rule in the 1930s and 1940s. Milgram never did go to Germany because he found his answer right here at home: Americans, just like the Germans, were all too willing to follow authority.

Elaine Brower 2

Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12