BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Dollarocracy means the rule of the dollars. One dollar, one vote. Those with lots of dollars have lots of power. Those with no dollars have no power.
JOHN NICHOLS: Dollarocracy has the ability to animate dead ideas. You can take an idea that's a bad idea, buried by the voters. Dollarocracy can dig it up and that zombie idea will walk among us.
BILL MOYERS: And…
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Information in this country, personal information, is the new commodity.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Whether you were pleased or not with how your candidates and issues did in last Tuesday’s election, the amount of money spent on many of the campaigns had to leave most people more dispirited than ever about our politics.
In two states, local referendum battles were won by outside corporate interests pouring money into TV ads. In Washington State alone, $22 million was spent to beat back a plan to label genetically modified food. And across the country in Maine, a ballot motion to stop the building of a tar sands pipeline terminal was thwarted when oil companies pumped in hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat it.
Democrats and some forces on the left have embraced the corrupting kiss of cash as well. In Virginia, liberal billionaires, including environmentalist Tom Steyer, shelled out millions of dollars to elect Terry McAuliffe as governor. McAuliffe himself is the celebrated bagman, the crony-est of crony capitalists, whose chief mission as an adult has been to raise multimillions of dollars for other politicians while enriching himself.
And as Republican Chris Christie was handily being re-elected governor of New Jersey, Democrats spent millions trying to hold down his margin in the hope of wounding his expected race for president in 2016. But between now and then, we still have the 2014 midterm elections to further line the pockets of the political class.
So here's how you can prepare for the next avalanche of campaign cash: read this new book, Dollarocracy, by John Nichols and Robert McChesney.
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine and a pioneering political blogger. The late Gore Vidal said, “Of all the giant slayers now afoot in the great American desert, John Nichols’ sword is the sharpest.”
Robert McChesney is one of our leading scholars of communications and society, a professor at the University of Illinois, the author or editor of 23 books, and according to Utne Reader, one of the “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.”
Welcome to the show.
JOHN NICHOLS: Thank you.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Great to be here.
BILL MOYERS: “Dollarocracy”. What does that mean?"
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, democracy means rule of the people, one person, one vote. Those are the powers, the demos. “Dollarocracy” means the rule of the dollars. One dollar, one vote. Those with lots of dollars have lots of power. Those with no dollars have no power.
So elections are the one time people have an opportunity to come in and select who's going to control the government, really weigh in on what the policies will actually be.
It's the one moment of real leverage citizens have. And we think what's happened in the last generation, and especially in the last decade, is the power of citizens to act as effective force has been reduced to the point of near elimination.
BILL MOYERS: So why rub our nose in it? I mean, everybody, as I've said in the opening, knows it; knows that money and media are destroying our elections, as you say. Why another autopsy?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, this isn't an autopsy, this is the product of three years of work. Bob and I are political junkies. I mean, there's no other way to say it. We love politics. We love covering it, we love talking about it. And we feel a sense of loss. We feel a sense of loss in America, where our elections are no longer these great battles of ideas, but, in fact, very controlled events, managed events. And so after the Citizens United ruling of 2010, which essentially freed up corporate money to flow into politics, we knew that this is a big enough pivot point that we should step back and spend the next few years looking at how an American presidential election and all the elections beneath it play out. And so we looked at the 2012 cycle from start to finish, over a three, four year period. And what we determined was that we didn't know much at all about how bad it was. And so, instead of the $6 billion that all the news headlines said was spent on the 2012 election cycle, it was actually more than $10 billion because most of the groups that analyze it don't look at state, local and referendum elections.
And we also brought I think something very different to this. We're saying that, as you have this inflow of money, this huge amount of money flowing in, we also have the stand down of journalism. We have lost tens of thousands of journalists. Newsrooms closing down, newspapers cutting back. The worldwide web has not filled the void by any means.
And so, we have a situation where massive inflow of money and the check and balance of journalism declining. You end up with almost a perfect situation for propagandizing the American people, from managing their debates into a narrow zone where those with the money will invariably prevail.
BILL MOYERS: Let me be particular for a moment. Look what's happening to local television stations. In just the last few months Gannett Company offered $1.5 billion for the 20 local stations of the Belo Corporation based in Dallas. The Tribune Company $2.7 billion for 19 local stations. Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is the nation's biggest owner of stations, $1 billion for seven more stations. One analyst calls it a renaissance of the local television business. He says, it's the best it's been in a long time. More big companies buying more local news stations. But is it good for the country?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, the fact of the matter is that what has made local television boom in recent years is political ads. That $10 billion we talk about, roughly $6 billion of it goes into political ads. These folks aren't buying those stations to because we want to really help democracy. They're buying them to make money. And here's one of the--
BILL MOYERS: From political advertising?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, among other things, admittedly. But here's one of the things we chart in the book that just absolutely blew our mind. In the 2012 cycle there were local stations in big battleground states where they actually shaved minutes off the local news so they could fit more ads in.
In one circumstance we looked at a situation they expanded the time period set aside from local news. And you're, like, great. We had this intense election. You must really want to tell us more. No, they expanded it so that they could get more ad revenue because citizens go to the local news to find out about politics. But when you're shaving the newscast, when those citizens show up to get information, the information's coming from the ads, not from the news.
JOHN NICHOLS: And there are many countries in the world, the Scandinavian countries, for instance, which are they basically ban political ads. They allow party election broadcasts, which are very structured. But--
BILL MOYERS: Because?
JOHN NICHOLS: Because they say, at the time of an election, people need news and information, not, you know, some sort of managed statement from candidates that might actually cause them to think badly about the other candidate.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: I think this is something that most Americans, because, are unfamiliar with if they're under the age of 65 or 70, that our elections weren't like this for the first 170 years of American history, prior to the 1960s. And even in the 1960s and the '70s, the amount of political TV advertising was much smaller for campaigns.
So there were only a handful of ads that were negative, relative to the lion's share of TV candidate ads, which were positive and about the candidates.
But increasingly, they've become more and more negative over time, to the point that by 2000 roughly half of them were negative. And I think we haven't seen the final tally for 2012. But probably 85 percent, 90 percent in that range of ads were negative--
JOHN NICHOLS: We know that in some key Senate races--
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Almost all--
JOHN NICHOLS: --it's way over 90 percent. In some cases--
ROBERT McCHESNEY: The--
JOHN NICHOLS: --close to 100 percent.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: The closer the race, the more negative ads you see. And the--
BILL MOYERS: Trying to demolish the other, your opponent. And also, turn people off.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well--
BILL MOYERS: That's why you call it voter suppression.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: That's right. Basically all you're getting are messages that are telling you that candidates are horrible from either side. It's going to make people not want to participate.
JOHN NICHOLS: What we're doing is squeezing the enthusiasm, the energy, the hope out of our politics and making it a drudgery for citizens. Politics shouldn't be drudgery. I'm never as angry about anything as I am about people who blame the American people for what's wrong because the fact of the matter is, we have very, very wealthy people who spend a lot of time with very, very smart people trying to figure out how to manipulate and manage our politics so that it is negative and ugly and a drudgery.
Norway just had elections a couple of months ago. They had around an 80 percent turnout. Germany just had what they said was one of the most boring elections in their history and they had around a 72 percent turnout. In 2012 in an incredibly intense election, 53 percent of America voted. In 2010, when Republicans swept to power 37 percent participated. We're getting the measure of what's happening. People are opting out.
BILL MOYERS: One of the antidotes should be journalism. And we all know what's been happening to newspapers and magazines. So is there any real competitiveness left in commercial, serious commercial journalism?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: The commercial basis of journalism that we've understood for the last century that's produced vast fortunes and household names is dying. It's dying rapidly and it's not coming--
BILL MOYERS: Advertising supported journalism?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Advertising, commercial journalism. Advertising supported. And this has only become clear in the last few years. And it's a point that can't be exaggerated. As advertising is going online, it's not supporting websites that do journalism like it supported magazines or TV shows or newspapers. Instead, they go through digital ad networks, run by companies like Google and Microsoft and AOL and Yahoo that basically you buy your demographic.
And they find people wherever they are on the web. They no longer have to go to a website and support the website's content production. As a result of that, the commercial journalism model is online, is nonexistent. It really, there's no hope for it. And it changes everything because it means now we're accustomed to a certain number of reporters, a certain number of news media to have a functional democracy.
Well, it's disintegrating in city after city. We talk to journalists, we got into city after city and we say to old timers, we say, How many paid reporters are there in your city today, editors, reporters. Include sports, weather, the works. Editorials function compared to a generation ago in your city? And there's not a single city I can think of where anyone said that there's, you know, at least half are gone.
And this includes digital. So we're including anyone who's making a buck online. And sometimes it's much lower than that. Especially in small cities it's like a plague has hit the city. There's just hardly anyone covering the community. That means they're not covering elections, they're not covering the relationship of government to commercial interests. All this has disappeared and it's not coming back.
JOHN NICHOLS: You know, as we travel around and as we look at the reality of how our media system is developing, one of the things you realize is that digital media and the internet is a rapidly evolving zone. And you say, well, how do people make money there? Well, how do they make money on the internet? Boy, it's hard, right? They struggled in all sorts of ways to do it.
But one of the things they figured out is when you gather all this data on people, when you really find out a lot about them, then if you crunch that data, if you mine it right, you can figure out where they're at and you can follow them online. This is the key to it. In the old days, you open up a newspaper, there's an ad there. I may want, not want to look at that ad, but as the story kind of wounds around it, I may notice it.
Television, I'm watching it. The ad pops up. I'm not, I'm too lazy to get up and walk out, so I watch that. Radio in the car, the ad comes on, I hear it. In the digital world, they don't have to put the ad on the page that I'm looking at. They can go right to me. They can track and follow me as I go from place to place.
Even when you buy an ad, right, let's say you buy an ad on a digital news site, the big reward for designing, you know, that ad and where you go to is when somebody clicks on the ad to go look at a coat or some shoes, you make the next site so exciting that they never go back.
And so, we have effectively created a situation where advertising on the web is designed to lead people away from journalism, not to it.
BILL MOYERS: You remind me that when AOL bought Huffington Post two years ago, the CEO at the time, Tim Armstrong, ordered the company's editors to evaluate all future stories according to the, and I'm quoting, "Profitability consideration." Translate that for us.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: What that means is that the commercial pressures on journalism today are so immense, that they’re, so finding ways to raise money, that the traditional standards of commercial journalism is that editors and reporters did their job well and they would automatically get an audience. And then the advertise people could sell the ads. And they didn't really have to have too much contact. There was sort of a separation of church and state, as the saying went, in news media. That's disappeared. Now the reporters and the editors have to be every bit as cognizant of the commercial value of what they produce as the advertising sales people had to be.
BILL MOYERS: You must've seen the story that Time Inc. has abolished the position of editor in chief. And the editors of all of Time's magazines will now report to the business side through a new senior content officer. What does that tell you?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, what it tells us is Time's catching up with just about everybody else. And this is the painful reality. You know when broadcast media came into being and it was initially thought of as a service, right? You didn't expect to make a profit off the news. Well give credit to the folks at “60 Minutes”. They showed you can make money doing news.
And so now in broadcast media for a long time, news shows have been profit centers. They're supposed to make money. They're supposed to have a return. We've seen this come into newspapers now. Newspapers are expected to return massive profits for their investors even in tough times.
And the problem with that is that the least profitable stories are the ones for about working class people in tough neighborhoods, that's the old afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted journalism that we, that I was trained in journalism school was important. That doesn't fit into a profitability calculus.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million, what was lost in the story was that if he'd tried to buy The Washington Post 13 years earlier he probably would've had to spend $5 billion, something in that area. And the reason is that the commercial, Wall Street has decided you can't make money doing journalism anymore. That's why we have so few journalists.
And, you know, the reason Bezos is interested in it was less for commercial reasons than for political influence. You still have great political influence when you own a monopoly daily newspaper, especially in the nation's capital. Journalism's got to be understood first and foremost, as a public good. It's something society needs, but the market doesn't produce in sufficient quality or quantity.
BILL MOYERS: Oh, you dreamer, you.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: No, but wait. This is, it's not a dreamer. Advertising gave the illusion that journalism could be a commercial entity and the market would take it wonderfully. But it doesn't. Now that the advertisers are leaving, we can see that isn't the case. If we just rely on the market, we will not have journalism. But this isn't a dream. This is actually not just how other countries have figured it out, all the other most Democratic nations of the world have large subsidies and investments in journalism. But this country was founded on that notion. We actually were the pioneers of understanding the importance of investing in a free press that is--
BILL MOYERS: The founders?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: -- the founders.
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, yeah.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: The first century of American history is all about massive public subsidies through the post office and printing subsidies to create the most diverse, dissenting news media ever known in the human race.
JOHN NICHOLS: Everybody says to us, "What's the new model? What's the new model for paying for journalism?" As if, you know, there's going to be some sort of magical calculus that comes up. And over time, we came to the conclusion that the answer's actually very simple. We found the model. We got it. It's established, it's working. It's very, very functional. Germany, Norway, Britain, all the countries with which we might compare ourselves all have massively funded public and community media. They make sure that there is an independent, nongovernment controlled, they create strong firewalls.
The model is there. The problem is in the United States we have ended up in a horrible situation, where the basic questions about funding the journalism we the people need to know what's happening, to know how to be participants fully in our democracy, that we have debates in Congress about Big Bird. And what we say to journalists and to citizens, to civic activists is we can't play this game anymore. We have to step up and demand massive funding.
BILL MOYERS: Meanwhile, the downward pressure, as you know, on wages and working conditions for reporters is accelerating. I talked to a young journalist, well, he's 40 years old now. He said, fifteen years ago I could get by on $25,000 a year. I make $40,000 a year now and I can't, I'm not able to do it.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: We're losing a generation of young people who desperately want to be reporters for the right reason, who really believe in the importance of journalism. But they simply can't find gainful employment. There’s one other issue that's here that we're starting to see too that's even as important, when journalism loses its institutional basis and strength, then people in power no longer respect journalism. One of the striking findings in the last year was when the Committee to Protect Journalists for the very first time in its history did a report on oppression and suppression of journalist activity in the United States by the government.
Now we've got reports by credible groups, the Committee to Protect Journalists, on how our government is hassling journalists and whistleblowers in America who are just trying to do their job. That's a frightening thing. And that's the consequence of having a weak media, not having an independent media. The people in power now aren't that scared of working them over.
JOHN NICHOLS: What we document in the book is the painful struggle of people who love their communities and are trying to do it at a local level. You can, I do believe that in the internet world you can compile together an existence, maybe even a decent and powerful one, if you're dealing with the biggest issues of the day. But the fact of the matter is that for a working class family in Toledo, Ohio, the biggest issue of the day may be food stamps. And or it may be layoffs. Or it may be something else happening in that town. We need a full newsroom in Toledo, Ohio. We need a full newsroom in Steubenville.
What we find painfully as we go across the country is young people in every community who are trying as hard as they can, but the avenues just aren't there. And if we don't intervene pretty soon, seriously, we're going to have communities that literally are dead zones as regards media coverage.
BILL MOYERS: Isn't that, to be blunt about it, isn’t that capitalism as it's presently functioning, the core cause of the decline and almost fall of journalism?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, of democracy, actually. I think the broader tension is between capitalism and democracy because there's been a tension in the United States really from the beginning. But especially since the Industrial Revolution and the great industrial fortunes began in the Gilded Age.
You know, we've had great waves in the United States. In which democratic forces won amazing victories. It's our history is a history of victory and defeat from this vantage point of democracy. We won the right for labor unions. We won the best public education in the world for working class people. Higher education for a higher percentage of the people anywhere else in the world.
You know, we won a number of victories. Social Security, Medicare, that made this a much better country. And in that sense, your question's absolutely right. This sense of capitalism having to dominate and being antithetical to democracy comes from the capitalists. It comes from they're saying, we don't work well in democracy. We need to basically have a really weak democracy, or what we call a “Dollarocracy,” for our system to function.
It's clearly true that their world, the world we live in today and they've won. Let's be clear. Their world is not one that works for the rest of us. And we're really in the classic moment we were in in the Progressive era, the New Deal and the 1960s, where people have to come together and assert the popular power to say, we need policies in the governing system that works for us, not just for them.
BILL MOYERS: But don't you think that corporate America knows that both parties are up for sale?
JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. I mean, that's not, I don't think that's a debatable point at this time. What we're really talking about is monopoly. We're talking about creating a situation where you really can kind of control things at all levels. And certainly, controlling political parties, controlling the politics is a very, very important thing.
We talk a lot to politicians, to elected officials and former elected officials. And one of the things that fascinated us is the extent of their frustration, literally saying, you know, we're becoming spectators to this thing. The politics is literally playing out now beyond the parties. It is independent groupings coming in, spending more on an election campaign than the parties themselves do or candidates do. And here's what really happens. Those who have a lot of money and have a lot of desire to influence the process, they come into it as transactional players. Not transitional players. They do not want to--
BILL MOYERS: Meaning?
JOHN NICHOLS: They don't want to change everything. What they want to do is make sure things work for them. And--
BILL MOYERS: We have an exchange here. I give you--
JOHN NICHOLS: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: --money and in return--
JOHN NICHOLS: And--
BILL MOYERS: --I get a political outcome, a policy outcome. I get a loophole, I get a tax break.
JOHN NICHOLS: What really matters is the shaping of the debate. What is the range of debate that is allowed in America? You know, what are we going to argue about?
The fact of the matter is our debate has become fully shaped by the money. And whichever party comes to power, you know, you may have a party, Democrats might be a little better on some issue, Republicans on some. But whichever party comes to power, at the end of the day, there's very little pushing of the limits of that debate.
BILL MOYERS: Last weekend on all the Sunday talk shows there wasn't a word about the cuts in food stamps that went into effect that weekend, even though those cuts were going to mean some kids and some families lost meals. What does that tell you?
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, what it tells me is that “Dollarocracy” has prevailed, right? I mean, that what you can do in a “Dollarocracy” is you can buy the debate. That doesn't mean that you'll win every election. That's not the point. But what it does mean is that even if you lose, you can turn around, spend a little more money and come right back. Give you an example from the 2012 election cycle.
I don't think anyone missed the 2012 election cycle was about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. If anybody was missing the point, Mitt Romney helped them out by putting Paul Ryan on the ticket as his running mate. So we had absolute clarity. Paul Ryan said, this is an election about big ideas. Well, people went to the polls.
We had our election. Obama wins by five million votes. Overwhelming majority in the electoral college. Well, it's roughly a year later. We've got this, you know, now we have a conference committee on the debt. And what does everybody come in and talk about? Well, maybe we can pull together a grand bargain. Well, we can tinker around on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Well, with all due respect, I thought we settled that issue. We didn't settle it because “Dollarocracy” has the ability to animate dead ideas. It, you can take an idea that's a bad idea, buried by the voters. “Dollarocracy” can dig it up and that zombie idea will walk among us.
BILL MOYERS: So when the conservative majority on the Supreme Court decides to monetize free speech, free speech becomes bought speech, we get what?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: What happened in the Citizens United case is that it really had no effect whatsoever for 99 percent of the population. Some very few people spend so much money, that being unleashed from existing laws would affect them. Most people don't give money at all, and those that do only give $50 or $100, $200. And the idea though that spending $25 and $250 million is the same is untenable. And what we chronicle in the book is how there's a qualitative shift once you get above a certain amount, whatever it might be, a few thousand dollars where you're spending, like, John said, in a transactional sense.
You're spending with results. I mean, it's part of your business model. It's not about your civic duty. It's buying the government. And so, we see people like Sheldon Adelson, who says he's for socialized medicine, believes in science. Has all sorts of other viewpoints that people say, well, this guy should be a liberal Democrat. But concedes when I'm investing in candidates, I'm looking for someone that's going to deal with taxes and I don't like labor unions.
The Koch brothers, if you looked at some of the Koch brothers' donations they make, you know, they're against the Patriot Act. They're concerned about militarism. They're for gay marriage. They're concerned about marijuana laws. They want to legalize marijuana. You look at all these things they support and well, these guys must be hanging out with George Soros.
Then you look at the candidates they support, without exception. And the criteria for their candidates in all the election support are very simple. Are you going to lower my taxes? Are you going to weaken labor? Are you going to make sure there's no regulation of business? Are you going to basically do stuff that supports our business and our view of how business should dominate society? And so, they end up supporting candidates like Ken Cuccinelli--
JOHN NICHOLS: Ken Cuccinelli--
ROBERT McCHESNEY: --in Virginia.
JOHN NICHOLS: --in Virginia.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Who on all those other issues they support, marijuana, civil liberties, is horrible. Gay rights, women's rights. But, he's with them on class issues. And they invest purely for business and class issues.
BILL MOYERS: The other side of the issue is that Democrats are left with the choice of one of the most notorious bag men in the history of the party.
Terry McAuliffe, spent his lifetime raising money for Democratic candidates, including the Clintons, and made himself rich in the process. He said in his own book that, governors are good because they have favors to give away. In other words, transactional politics--
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, but--
BILL MOYERS: And that's who Democrats in Virginia were left to vote for.
JOHN NICHOLS: But this is the crisis of our politics, Bill. When you've created a “Dollarocracy,” right, if you're going to play, how do you play? You figure out how to raise money. Now, Terry McAuliffe is the realization of an awful lot of the trends that we've talked about because he's never been elected to office in Virginia before this gubernatorial race. His great skill, or a lot of his great skill, was as a political fundraiser.
And this is the power of “Dollarocracy.” It takes ideas out of the process and it puts tactics, skills, maneuvering, manipulation, to the front of the process. That's what matters.
JOHN NICHOLS: And it's amazing we get the turnout we do.
BILL MOYERS: This has been called the year of the liberal billionaire.
BILL MOYERS: In Virginia Mayor Bloomberg spending $3 million on guns regulation. You have Tom Steyer, who's a hedge fund manager, worth several billion dollars, spending lots of money on climate change. Billionaires are setting the agenda for what is discussed.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: What we're seeing with the rise of the so-called liberal billionaire who cares about social issues and maybe the environment, but what we're seeing is that billionaires have become the only real citizens of our times. They're the ones who get to pay for candidates. They're the ones who get to run for office.
We know, for example, of a leading liberal left wing political campaign consultant who organizes political campaigns for liberals across the country, now refuses to take on new candidates unless they're already millionaires. Unless they've got enough money to buy their way in, it's not worth his time. So basically even to be opposed to money in politics, you've got to be a millionaire or a billionaire to even play in the game. We have a situation now where billionaires get to bankroll the media we have. Now that advertising's leaving it, they're the only ones who get to pick what who gets to be involved as a journalist.
BILL MOYERS: "The Nation" magazine, your magazine, published an excerpt from your book earlier this fall. And it prompted a lot of letters, including this one from a reader in Georgia. Let me read it to you. "I'm sure John Nichols and Robert McChesney are correct about the threat to democracy posed by money. But I've grown weary and apathetic reading about the powerful rich and how they are buying America. Most Americans like me feel more and more helpless in the face of moneyed power. Tell us how to fight for democracy and don't say (Go out and vote). We do that. Until you can give me a solution, no more articles on democracy sliding into decay." And her name is Virginia S. Anderson from Ellijay, Georgia.
JOHN NICHOLS: Bob and I are probably as big a pair of optimists as you'll ever meet. And the fact is that we have a great relief in what political theorists and political scientists refer to as critical junctures, points in history where things get to a level where something has to happen. That is the American story. It is not true that the arc of history bends steadily toward justice. The arc of history kind of bends, it gets broken, it bends again. We repair it. But when you reach a real critical juncture, when things get really serious, all of American history tells us that Americans actually start to get serious as well. We let things get pretty bad before we act.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: There's this enormous movement that's already taken place beneath the surface that's not known. We see it all over the country. It's part of our optimism.
BILL MOYERS: What is it? Where is it?
ROBERT McCHESNEY: It's a movement that's first of all to amend the constitution to take money out of politics, to guarantee the right to vote and the right to have your vote counted. Already in this country, 16 states have already petitioned Congress to change the constitution along these lines.
BILL MOYERS: Takes a long time, but I understand what you mean. We've done it 27 times before --
ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well--
BILL MOYERS: --including lowering the voting age to 18 in my time.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: 500 communities have already voted. I don't think we've lost a single election. And John and I have looked at other movements like this in the last 50 or 100 years. There's nothing that compares. This is spreading like wild fire without any news media coverage.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, the big feet of media say, impossible.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: That’s right.
JOHN NICHOLS: A that’s the crisis of it. But here's the other thing that we think is dramatically undercovered in America. The bipartisan and multi-partisan nature of this movement. You know, I think there's too much of a tendency, and we should say it straight out, of an awful lot of people to think that reform is sort of a liberal thing, right? That the liberals want to get money out of politics and want to, you know, make our elections work. When you move down out of that money and media election complex in Washington, you get to states like Maine.
When Maine voted to tell Congress to do a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics or to make it possible to get money out of politics, 30 Republicans voted with the Democrats.
The fact is, Bill, it's happening, but the tragedy is our media so often covers what Ted Cruz is saying, what's happening in Washington, but it doesn't go out and cover what people are trying to do about a broken system.
ROBERT McCHESNEY: The system is collapsing. We're living through the pain now of a corrupt system that isn't delivering, that's not addressing the great crises of our times. And that great despair that that brings.
And then ultimately, what every individual has to do, it's very simple. You've got to look in the mirror and understand, you know, if you act like change for the better is impossible, you guarantee it will be impossible. That's the one decision each individual faces.
BILL MOYERS: You two guys don't give up.
The book is “Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America.” John Nichols, Robert McChesney, thanks for being with us.
JOHN NICHOLS: Thank you so much.
BOB McCHESNEY: A pleasure.
BILL MOYERS: Take a look at this perfect headline for the age of surveillance: “No Morsel Too Minuscule for All-Consuming NSA.” There it sat, above a chilling account by New York Times reporter Scott Shane of how spying by the national security agency has spread like a contagious virus. And there’s more, another Times article reports that the CIA has been paying AT&T more than $10 million dollars a year for access to its telephone records. Gives new meaning to the phone company’s old slogan: “Reach out and touch someone.”
True, it's a dangerous world out there and someone has to keep an eye on it. But if you think that the only targets of illicit snooping are suspected terrorists, foreign dignitaries, and journalists too close to the truth, guess again. Every one of us is under the omniscient magnifying glass of government and corporate spies. Yes, remember the corporations. Their data banks cover every sector of American society, aimed, as the foreword to a new book notes, “at school-children and mothers of school children, at church congregations, credit card members, and Facebook friends, at everybody and anybody at work or at play, with the tracking device otherwise known as a cell phone.”
How do we respond to this smog of surveillance? Well, start by reading this book: “Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance,” by Heidi Boghosian. She's executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, that’s a progressive legal organization started almost 80 years ago as an alternative to the more establishment American Bar Association. She’s collected story after story of how innocent lives are turned upside down. Even her own group has been subjected to surveillance and eaves dropping.
Heidi Boghosian, welcome.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: It's an honor to be here.
BILL MOYERS: How do you deal personally with the possibility that you might be tracked, tapped, or monitored?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: When you write an email, when you're on the telephone certain privileged information, especially between clients and attorneys, or about a client with a reporter for example, one must assume that is being monitored now. And we knew that years ago under the Bush administration with the warrantless wiretapping program, when many organizations actually filed lawsuits saying that they suspected their communications were being monitored.
And that really changes the relationship and makes an organization, have to travel long distances to have private communications in person with clients. You can't do as much on email or on the phone.
BILL MOYERS: So it's not a matter of your saying, as so many people are, "What if I'm not doing anything wrong, why should I care if anybody's watching?" You've heard that, haven't you?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Of course. I think that's a very simplistic answer because when one is under constant surveillance, be it from a surveillance camera on the city block and we have so many here in New York, to the possibility that internet communications are being monitored, it necessarily alters how you communicate. It makes us tamp down things that we might say.
And I think-- attempt to conform more to the greater corporate surveillance state. Whether or not we realize that, we may not engage in the kind of robust dialogue with our friends or our colleagues. We may not meet at public assemblies, because it's become really under the watchful eye and wanting to maintain the status quo of big business.
BILL MOYERS: You say in your book that we've become a surveillance state, a “government-corporate partnership that makes a mockery of civil liberties." Talk about that partnership.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: There is a revolving door really between the Pentagon and private business. For example, I think it's 70 percent of retired three and four-star generals then take jobs in the private sector as consultants advising the government through work with companies such as Raytheon and others, about policy.
And I think that's a conflict of interest. But more importantly, CEOs from many of the big businesses like Boeing, Raytheon, advise the president on matters of technology and national security. And they're conflicted out, because their profit motive really is the duty that they have, whereas the government officials have a duty to uphold the Constitution. I don't think that having 70 percent of our national intelligence conducted by private business is a way to ensure that our civil liberties are really protected.
BILL MOYERS: You write in here that from the moment you wake up, your everyday activities are routinely subjected to surveillance. Do you think that everyday Americans know that?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: They didn't a few months ago. I think that with the Snowden revelations and “The Guardian” coming forth-- we have a greater sense of the extent to which our communications are monitored. In fact, it seems not to be the exception, but rather the rule.
BILL MOYERS: That's what--
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Literally everything is gathered.
BILL MOYERS: That's what you call a staggeringly comprehensive network, tracks where we go, how long we stay, and what we browse, read, buy, and say. That's pretty exhaustive.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: It's exhaustive. And I think when the government says, for example, that metadata-- that doesn't collect the contents of our communications-- is an acceptable thing to collect, you have to realize that associations can be very easily garnered and tracked.
BILL MOYERS: What's metadata?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Metadata shows, for example, that I called you on a Friday night. It doesn't say what we discuss, but it says that we talked. So that if I called a physician, say, at a cancer clinic several times the government might surmise that I have cancer. Or if I engage in a certain political activity over a period of time, it allows them to develop a profile, even though they don't know exactly what we discussed.
BILL MOYERS: Well, what would they want that for?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Well, retailers want that information because they want to develop profiles about our purchasing and spending habits. We have groups such as Acxiom, which is a data aggregator, that really has quite complete profiles on many of us in this country.
BILL MOYERS: That's a market research firm, right?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: It's a market research firm. And they very cleverly recently came out with a website called “About the Data,” that allows you to go on and check what information they have about you and to correct it, therefore giving them actually more accurate information, if you were to do that.
BILL MOYERS: Where do they get that data?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: They get the information from a number of public sources but they also go to retailers and they purchase it from, say J C Penney, who has tracked what you've purchased from them over the last year. And then they sell it to third-party companies, including the US government. The problem being, of course, that they need to simplify profiles of us.
They may categorize us as sort of an up-and-coming 20 year old interested in-- maybe starting a family. Or you're about to retire. But they also put in information about your political activities, your personal interests, health interests, things that we may not want shared.
BILL MOYERS: This is the company I think Natasha Singer wrote about in “The New York Times” and she said that Acxiom “peers deeper into American life than the FBI or the IRS.” Quote, "If you are an American adult, the odds are that it knows things like your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, politics, buying habits, household health worries, vacation dreams, and so on." Why does our government contract with a market researcher?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Well, the government is constricted by the Fourth Amendment's provision that it may not engage in unreasonable searches and seizures. But businesses don't have those same constraints. So they can collect information about us that the government lawfully is not allowed to do.
BILL MOYERS: So you have said in here that data mining is the gold standard for spying on democracy now. Explain that.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Well, as we've become an increasingly consumerized nation and reliant on the internet. You'll know that when you do a search, for example, for a pair of shoes, you're going to be bombarded on the internet with other shoes from different companies. And I think that it's become hugely profitable for these organizations, such as Acxiom and others, because they really keep this information for years on end, we don't know exactly what they do with it. But we do know that they profit handsomely from it. And that really, information in this country, personal information, is the new commodity.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that Americans are largely in the dark about what we're talking about? Or do you think they now take it for granted and are complacent about it because what they're doing fits their convenience?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Certainly, generations that had been brought up on the internet and taught to type on a keyboard at the same time that they learned to read have a different notion of privacy and are willing even as children who may not know it, to give over personal information, for example, when they sign onto a Walt Disney site, or even a Coca-Cola site.
They are bombarded again with friendly images, animal type characters, that ask you for your date of birth, where you live, what your preferences are, we're becoming from a very early age accustomed to being groomed to be consumers for life. And along with that comes a kind of trust, I think. Corporations are so much a part of our daily lives, I would argue for the worse, but they market themselves as our friends.
And then the close partnership they enjoy with the government, blurs traditional lines of what government functions have been, and notions of privacy. So I think that most people who grew up on the internet may not be aware of traditional notions of privacy and are willing, as you say, for the convenience that it offers us and the, I think, appearance of ease of friendship and communication. But I think that we do need to take a step back and realize that protections haven't been put in place along with the fast pace that technology has really sped ahead.
BILL MOYERS: Some people will say, "Well, I hear what Heidi Boghosian is saying, and I'm as concerned as she is about the government use of data. But I'm not really concerned when she talks about the business, the corporate consequences of this, just because it's a-- I'm complicit I'm buying these things knowingly, I probably assume that somebody's going to be using this data to profile me and aren't-- and track me and, we think there should be a distinction between our fear or concern about government surveillance and corporate or business surveillance." Now, respond to that challenge.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: People need to know that for all intents and purposes, the distinction right now between government and the corporate world is virtually nil. They are hand-in-hand working to gather information about Americans as well as people across the globe, to really be in a race to collect more information than any other country can, because I think in their eyes, having this information, storing it, and being able to access it for years on end is a symbol of power and control. So that you can't really make that distinction anymore between big business and government.
BILL MOYERS: But government is looking, is it not, for that needle in the haystack, that potential terrorist that people want to stop before the terrorist strikes this country. And with the corporations and the business, aren't they looking for the person to whom they can market something? Or it helps me make my way through a busy life to be able to buy online. And if I have to give up a little information about myself, that's okay.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: And that's what they're telling us. And of course, that is part of it. But they're also looking to quiet those individuals who may be critical of corporate policies. And remembering how much corporations really factor into our daily lives, that should be of concern.
Many corporations have their own intelligence sections, for example, so that they may have a unit that spies on activists, animal rights and environmental activists are one of the prime targets, because the F.B.I. has labeled them a top domestic terrorism threat. So that if you go to a protest and you're an animal rights activist, you can expect that you're being tracked in one way or another.
The National Lawyers Guild gets calls all the time about people whose families and friends have been visited by the FBI in advance of a certain, say, Republican National Convention, or another demonstration, wanting to know information about certain activists. They definitely have files, they circulate photographs.
They now identify what they call the anarchist threat. And that's basically anyone who I think may be continuously critical of government and corporate policies, who speaks out, and who isn't intimidated by corporations. So they spend vast amounts of money to track these individuals.
BILL MOYERS: So this is why you write that corporations no longer spy merely to protect or steal trade secrets.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security created what are called Fusion Centers, allegedly to better streamline the coordination between local law enforcement, federal law enforcement, and businesses. So that these some 75 centers across the country work hand-in-hand with businesses, gathering information about local threat assessments including anarchist and so-called activist threat assessments. We saw that with the Occupy Movement, where the Department of Homeland Security worked with financial businesses and banks to let them know that there would be protests in their municipalities all around the country, well before the protests started.
BILL MOYERS: But you say this has a fallout on dissent and truth-telling.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: When you are afraid to go, for example, to a mass assembly because you know that law enforcement will be there in riot gear with so-called less lethal munitions, when you know that corporations have done their research, gathered dossiers on you, may have their own private security guards, as they do now at most protests it makes people who maybe have never gone to a protest before, who want to express a view on something, afraid of that.
I think that's very damaging to the notion of democracy because the streets, the public parks, which are now increasingly corporatized in many urban areas don't belong to us as a people anymore. They belong to corporations. And if we're afraid to go there and congregate it's a sad testament to where we are.
BILL MOYERS: One of the surveillance cameras down at the site of Occupy Wall Street is still there.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Right.
BILL MOYERS: A couple of years later. So what do you think's happening to us as a free and democratic people?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: I think that we've been understandably enticed by all the exciting forms of technology, and I think that of course there are many wonderful uses of technology that we should harness for the appropriate reasons. I just think that our laws and our social conscious has not kept a step with those developments.
We need to take a breath and say, "Where are we? What do we value? What do we want to recapture in terms of our rights as Americans and our constitutional protections? And how can we balance the positive gains of technology with privacy and the laws of the land?"
BILL MOYERS: You say, "We need more troublemakers to bring us to our senses." Troublemakers?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: That was a quote from a judge in New York over an Occupy Wall Street case, and the judge said that Occupy, in effect, had shone a light on these so-called troublemakers. The police department called them troublemakers. And he said that they really provide an invaluable service in terms of reminding us what's important in our country.
BILL MOYERS: You would consider Edward Snowden a troublemaker, right?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: A troublemaker, and a true hero and patriot.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Working as he did for a private corporation, handling sensitive information, and being told basically that there was no problem, there was nothing he could do, he then took matters into his own hands, knowing that he would probably face imprisonment for the rest of his life. And I think that doing that, because he saw something wrong, contrary to the values and contrary really to, I think, why he went into his work make him the ultimate hero because he sacrificed his life to uphold the nation’s values, democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Could you have done that?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: I would like to think I'd be brave enough to do that. I'm cautious in some ways because I am a lawyer and I know I have taken an oath to uphold the law. I would like to think that I could've done that. I'm not sure.
BILL MOYERS: I really like your last chapter, which is called “Custodians of Democracy.” Who are the custodians of democracy?
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: The custodians of democracy are the ordinary people that make up this country and make us so special. They believe that we can be a thriving democracy and that we do not have to cede our lives and our autonomy to multinational corporations who I think have really robbed us of some of the privileges that we've been so fortunate to have over the history of this nation. And they're not afraid to stand up to leaders.
I was inspired by the school child who did not want to wear a tag, an ID tag at school that had a radio-frequency-identifying chip in it, RFID chip. And she fought, brought a lawsuit, she had to transfer to another school, but it raised attention. And I think especially when a child says, "I don't want this," knowing that she can then be tracked for a number of other reasons, I applaud that courage.
And there's a community in California, for example, that went to their city council meeting and said, "You've just approved having a surveillance drone in this area and we don't like that." And they put pressure on their elected officials and there's not going to be a surveillance drone there.
And the custodians of democracy, they're not afraid to take action that may get them in trouble, get them expelled from a school, for example, or even arrested. They take to the streets, they speak out, and they lead by example, by doing something that unfortunately has required a great deal of bravery in what should really be the ordinary way we conduct our lives.
BILL MOYERS: Well, one way to become a custodian of democracy is to read “Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistance.” Heidi Boghosian, thank you very much for being with me.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN: Thank you so much.
BILL MOYERS: Last week, after our report on the innocent lives taken by US drone strikes, I asked what you thought. I'm still reading your responses there have been more than fifteen hundred of them. At our website billmoyers.com you can see a summery.
Now I want to ask you to do it again, this time in response to my conversation with Heidi Boghosian. Here’s the question: just how comfortable are you with the constant invasion of privacy? When, if ever, is it justified? You can write me on Facebook or at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.