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Want balanced political reporting? Maybe, maybe not

Backstory - Pacific University professor traces the media's role in 'demonizing' dissent in America
by: Chase Allgood, Jules Boykoff, who teaches politics and government at Pacific University, has written a book about the suppression of dissent in the United States.

It's a gray morning, the color of gunmetal, the color of pavement, the color of approaching storms. But it isn't raining - which is good, since Jules Boykoff is arriving at the coffeehouse by bike.

Lean, mid-thirties, hair with a mind of its own - you might peg him as the former pro soccer player. Or the poet whose latest collection is called 'Once Upon a Neoliberal Rocket Badge.'

Would you cast him as one of the country's leading thinkers on how government and the media meld to suppress dissent?

Or as the respected researcher whose work on how the long-held notions of 'balanced' journalism can backfire to create bias was cited by Nobel Prize winner Al Gore in the book and film 'An Inconvenient Truth'?

Probably not, unless you shifted or otherwise reshaped your perspective. Which, in fact, is exactly what Boykoff would like everyone to do.

An assistant professor of politics and government at Pacific University, Boykoff is the author of 'Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, ' a meticulously researched look at the rise of today's public-relations-drenched culture and the Orwellian savvy with which our current government moves to preempt protest and dissidence.

Boykoff believes that political dissent isn't simply disagreement with government policies.

'To qualify as actual dissent,' he says, 'there must be some form of action tied to that disagreement. In one way or another, boots must be put to pavement.'

Where once Plan A was to grind those boots into the pavement (Chicago, 1968, anyone?), today that is a last resort.

'There's a much more preemptive dimension to the way government suppresses dissent today,' explains Boykoff, 'which, of course, dovetails with the notion of 'preemptive' wars. Once, the state would allow something to flower into dissent, then crush it with batons or bullets. Now, there's a different zeitgeist.'

Boykoff describes the rise of public relations sophistication and how it has served government from the outset:

'Spin was really given birth during World War I,' he says. 'Today we are drenched in PR. It's absolutely inescapable. It's much more difficult to be an informed citizen now - you have to somehow slice through all that spin without becoming enveloped in cynicism! It's not easy.'

Boykoff has identified 12 ways that government and mass media converge to suppress dissent.

A prime example on the government side is surveillance, which has a long history, justified and otherwise.

'The rise of new technologies,' Boykoff argues, 'and new laws have made surveillance an even more important mode of suppression. Warrantless wiretapping, Section 213 of the Patriot Act - the so-called 'sneak and peak' provision that allows the FBI to enter your home secretly - these are just the most publicized examples.'

Knowingly or unknowingly, media joins with government to suppress dissent in what Boykoff calls 'bilevel demonization.'

'You have an external enemy,' he explains, 'and you have a domestic dissident group, which the government then links to the external enemy based on ideology or ethnicity or simply a label.

'The Earth Liberation Front is a good example. The government calls them a 'terrorist' group, but are they in reality? The ELF has never injured anyone.

'The media get involved when they transmit the connections drawn by the government at face value,' he says. 'I don't mean that there is some wide conspiracy in place, often it's just the structure of journalism at work.'

For Boykoff, traditional objective journalism isn't always a good thing. He and his brother Max, a research fellow at Oxford University, published a hypothesis they call 'balance as bias' in relation to mass media coverage of global warming.

This was the work that caught Al Gore's eye. Simply stated, so-called balanced reporting actually misleads readers when the opinions of one or two scientists who don't believe in man-made climate change are given equal coverage with the opinions of the thousands of scientists who do.

So how do we resist this overt and covert suppression of the dissent that Boykoff sees as 'an absolutely crucial cog in the machine of democracy'?

'What we really need now,' he says, 'are courageous, engaged artists taking up this moment as a call to duty. The antidote is art and artists who can step up and provide a serious dose of necessary spunk to the process of political dissent. That's how you turn spin on its head: with creativity.'

Todd Schwartz is a Portland-based writer. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Oregon Humanities magazine. It can be read online at www.oregonhum.org.