Taking advantage of ignorance

by Margie Burns

While bashing the French and knocking the Dixie Chicks, mega-media conglomerates like Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch’s empire continued doing business big-time in France. Would that have made a difference to the public, if they had known?
Simple lack of knowledge can sometimes be a killer. Take the invasion of Iraq, for example.

During the build-up to the invasion, while the news media and all available avenues to public opinion were being manipulated and bullied by the White House, Clear Channel Communications, Inc, did its part--not for the public from which it has made hundreds of millions, but for the Executive branch.

The company widely boosted, for example, the ridiculous anti-French campaign. (A French consortium controlled Nigeria’s uranium commerce; thus the French were uniquely qualified to rebut the administration story about Iraq’s purported efforts to buy Nigerian “yellowcake.”)

Clear Channel’s hundreds of stations ran France-bashing talk show hosts, comedians including Dennis Miller doing anti-French jokes, and radio personalities boosting I-hate-France web sites. Some of the radio personalities supported a boycott of France; Rush Limbaugh, big on Clear Channel, posted an online letter of support for a group moving to return the Statue of Liberty to France.

Clear Channel also sponsored live Iraq war rallies in Houston, Atlanta, Sacramento, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Richmond. Billed as “Rallies for America,” they were spotted with “Boycott France” banners or "down with France" signs, as in Atlanta, where Clear Channel also owns several radio stations including 640 WGST, which hosted the Atlanta rally.

Clear Channel stations also banned the Dixie Chicks (“Vichy Chicks”) briefly--although the company continued to host the Dixie Chicks’ European appearances.

To this point, a Clear Channel spokesperson, Jennifer Gery, responds:

“Actually, the radio company that banned the Dixie Chicks was Cumulus Media, not Clear Channel. That company also hosted the CD-smashing ceremony outside its Atlanta, Ga. headquarters, during which bulldozers crushed the group's CDs. Simon Renshaw, the Dixie Chicks' manager, told the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in July that Clear Channel Communications did not ban the group's music and had received a ‘bad rap.’”

Ms. Gery continues, “In reality, and in response to forceful and overwhelming demands from local listeners, some Clear Channel radio stations increased airplay of the group's music in the weeks after Natalie Maines made her comments; other Clear Channel radio stations temporarily suspended airplay.” In fact, according to Mediabase's Airplay Monitor service, Clear Channel Radio did play Dixie Chicks songs more often--a full 10,069 times--than any other major radio broadcaster in the two weeks following the statement by Natalie Maines.”

This writer appreciates any response from the company and wishes it had responded back when this article was first drafted and ran, in a different version, as an open letter to Clear Channel. Also, one appreciates the fact that other corporations besides Clear Channel went along with the war-drumming. Still, the fact remains that some Clear Channel stations did ban the Dixie Chicks, as the spokesperson acknowledges, and some were also among those hosting pro-war rallies, as she acknowledges: “Actually, only 1 percent of Clear Channel Radio local managers chose to have their stations participate in pro-troop rallies. Clear Channel Radio local managers make their own decisions about programming and community events--including rallies to thank and support those in their communities who serve in the armed forces. The corporate offices of Clear Channel Communications were not directly involved.”

And therein lies the rub.

While some of Clear Channel’s stations were beating the drum for a war in which thousands of people have died, with the France-bashing that was a necessary element of its war-boosting, Clear Channel itself is directly involved in $300 million of business each year in France.

The company has live entertainment venues throughout Europe, including France. Ironically, during the anti-France flap, it had recently won a 12-year, $35M advertising contract in France, where it has significant presence in open-air advertising. The company owns French subsidiaries that in turn do substantial business with French vendors, distributors and sponsors. Of necessity, Clear Channel--at the very time it was subsidizing, condoning, countenancing, and/or directly participating in the pro-war France-bashing--was hiring French employees, paying French taxes, and contributing to the French economy. Its Clear Channel France division (an entire corporate division) had even recently announced its selection of French company Cyberdeck to supply plasma kiosks, including an “Interactive Wine Waiter”.

Boycott French wine at home, sell it abroad. Speaking of cheesy: In Houston, local talk hosts indulged the anti-French humor with some emphasis but without mentioning their corporate headquarters’ own French operations.

Clear Channel’s radio stations in Richmond included WRVA-AM (1140), home of host Michael Graham—who vilified Richmond’s Byrd Theatre for flying the French flag during VCU’s French Film Festival and encouraged Richmonders to complain (“Now, the two largest flags flying in Carytown are both French!”) without indicating that his employer did more business in France than the theater did.

Clear Channel’s stations in Sacramento included Talk 650 KSTE—with Jack and Joe ranting in favor of

Clear Channel is based in San Antonio, site of another rally. It also owns KJ 97, among other San Antonio stations, which blasted the Dixie Chicks, aired a purported “letter from a Marine” about the French, and ran Dennis Miller’s anti-French jokes.

Anti-French razz at home, French business overseas. The spokesperson does not address this criticism directly, but does convey that “other radio groups with stations who sponsored Rallies for America include: Infinity Broadcasting (owned by Viacom), Cox Radio, Federated Media and Susquehanna Media.”

It is probably a hopeful sign that one company is so willing to toss others over the side, regarding Iraq. It is yet another sign of the times that the nation is waking up to what a disaster the Bush invasion really was. Calling this kind of thing “hypocrisy,” as many well-intentioned commentators do, is a miscall. This is not “hypocrisy,” famously defined by Ambrose Bierce as “the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” We could probably use a little hypocrisy--anything that acknowledges the existence of virtue, that acknowledges a difference between better and worse.

This French-bashing by affiliates on the one hand while the corporate headquarters is doing business-as-usual with the French on the other is quite simply corporate imposture--more like false advertising, cooking the books, and evading state and federal taxes than it is like some personality foible.

Such duplicity simply takes advantage of the fact that we are a huge nation, and most of us could not know, going in, that Clear Channel Inc. was doing big business in France while bashing France at home. This—as the White House no doubt appreciates—is why the large media outlets are so important, and why the strategically engineered ignorance of the rightwing propaganda networks is so important. With most people unaware of a topic--any topic--and the committed few hearing only one side in a continuing stream of falsifications and worse, seldom does the will or the best interest of the general populace prevail.

(We’re seeing the same thing in the Schiavo case. Rightwing interest channels are pushing a line that there was foul play in the poor woman’s initial collapse--but most of the general public does not even know about these distorted narratives. And of course, since the large media outlets do not report the lurid allegations, they are also never openly refuted, as they could so easily be.)

Back to Iraq, and France: while Rupert Murdoch’s Fox televisions stations and his New York Post tabloid were also eagerly engaged in France-bashing, few in the audience knew or publicly pointed out that Murdoch’s business empire was also doing major business in France. The Murdoch media empire is huge in Europe as well as in Asia.

All or any of this--and the above information is, to put it nicely, only part of a much larger pattern--could be divulged at any time by our largest newspapers and by the networks. Wall Street cronies of the leaders of these multinational media conglomerates could blow the whistle on them, at any time. But they don’t, and the consequences of this failure of the media bears a heavy cost--not only in loss of faith in “media personalities,” but in loss of innocent lives in places like Iraq.

Margie Burns, a college English instructor, resides in Cheverly, Md. She may be reached at

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This story was published on April 8, 2005.