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Abby Martin and Amber Lyon: When Conspiracy Theories Collide

There isn't a damn thing wrong with turning your back on corporate media, what it represents, and what it can occasionally mean for your process and your product. But to take that personal statement to mean that you then have to travel out into the hinterlands of ethical journalism is just shockingly stupid.
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At face value there admittedly shouldn't be much left to say about Abby Martin. She made a statement against Russia on a Russian state network; she unfortunately has a long history of being a player in the conspiracy theory movement headed by Alex Jones; she's still working for RT as a news presenter and will likely continue to. That's really about it. People can put all of that together and view her and her views however they'd like. But something happened on her show yesterday that seems worth at least mentioning and examining a bit.

There's a clip now online, posted yesterday and shown above, labeled "Punishing Reporters for Truth in a Censored Media." The segment from Martin's RT show features a conversation between her and former CNN correspondent Amber Lyon and deals with the pressures mainstream media journalists are supposedly put under to toe the corporate and U.S. government line and the problems they can run into if they refuse. There isn't a journalist working at a big media outlet who isn't at least vaguely aware of his or her newsroom's corporate oversight, whether it's the presence of various suits from the adminisphere that must occasionally be genuflected before at staff meetings or questions on yearly review sheets about what you've done to "increase shareholder value" (an actual part of the evaluation process at CNN). But whether or not that kind of oversight leads to direct editorial interference is a different question altogether.

Lyon contends that not only is that influence direct, it's also anything but benign. She claims during her interview by Martin that she was censored at "every single one" of the mainstream media jobs she held during her ten year career and that it was done to please either corporate interests or, yes, the United States government itself. She claims other "journalists" (she does in fact make air quotes around the word) have called her at times and asked her to change her stories on behalf of the U.S. government which she would of course refuse to do. She says there is no editorial freedom at a corporate outlet.

Having worked in a corporate media environment for years, let me say that I think Lyon's doing more than a little exaggerating here, as well as taking standard procedure in a newsroom and giving it nefarious-seeming overtones. During my time in the trenches and at middle-management, I certainly watched upper-level managers wrangle with D.C. on occasion, but it was typically a matter of trying to get stories right or make them better. Sometimes everything worked out; sometimes everything failed. What I never saw, however, was a news manager completely buckle because of pressure from either the government or corporate. There's certainly a kind of unspoken agreement that editorial won't openly attack corporate or defame its direct interests unless doing so is absolutely necessary in the context of a headline story -- in other words, don't go looking for negative things to say about corporate, but if a story breaks or is uncovered and it portrays corporate in a negative light you often have no choice but to run it -- but that kind of arrangement exists almost anywhere, no matter the ownership of an organization. (There's been quite a bit written lately about how even Glenn Greenwald, the self-appointed patron saint of journalistic integrity, almost certainly won't be looking into Pierre Omidyar's questionable financial dealings because Omidyar is his boss.)

Continuing with the RT interview, the following exchange between Martin and Lyon occurs:

Abby: How would you say the editorial process works when people pitch stories they want to cover? I mean, do most journalists have that editorial freedom?

Amber: No they don't and I didn't have that when I was at CNN.

Again, what Lyon is doing here is making something routine sound dark and malevolent. Of course correspondents, producers, and so on don't get to cover whatever the hell they please, nor do they win every pitch. You work at a global news network with a million moving parts, not a pirate TV station you're broadcasting out of your own basement. You have to run ideas by management and often committee. Some get a greenlight; some get shot down. This is simply the nature of the beast. Very few people are so good and so highly regarded that they're basically given autonomy, and a decision to pass on a story, rather than being a product of bias, is often the result of just thinking that story would be boring or could be done later or simply wasn't all that great.

Which brings us to Amber Lyon's favorite topic, the proof she supposedly has that corporate media censors intrepid muckrakers like herself: the treatment her Bahrain documentary got at CNNi, in that it never actually ran there because of alleged financial pressure from the Bahraini government exerted on the network. I've actually written about this before, back in June of last year. Here are the details, and note how what I said about the reaction to her documentary and complaints about it echo what I just wrote here about how newsrooms work.

She returned from reporting on the social media angle of the Arab Spring in Bahrain and started making accusations that the reason the documentary she’d shot there wasn’t running on CNN International — it ran intact on CNN — was that CNNi was in bed with the Bahraini government and was taking pay-offs from it in exchange for positive content. She enlisted the help of — surprise, surprise — Glenn Greenwald and together, as the Wonder Twins of Journalistic Integrity, they filed a series of reports detailing alleged pressure put on Lyon by CNN and CNNi’s management to keep the Bahrainis happy. According to Lyon, CNNi never did give her a straight answer about why it didn’t run the doc, but she concludes the fact that the government of Bahrain buys advertising on the network speaks volumes.

Now, is it possible that Lyon’s report was quashed at the behest of the admittedly none-too-pleased officials in Bahrain, who knew in advance that the documentary featured a segment on the government’s crackdown on dissidents? Sure — anything’s possible. Is it just as likely, if not more so, that some programming decision was made somewhere up the food chain of dolts in management that had literally nothing at all to do with the content of the piece that ended with it just being bypassed? No conspiratorial, nefarious undercurrent — just a really dumb decision? Absolutely. The news business is one fucking giant tale of good stories being buried by short-sighted suits and the reporters and producers of those stories — often pain-in-the-ass narcissists in the best possible way — screeching about how the brilliance of their work is being inexcusably overlooked. Lyon had actually been laid off in a standard shuffling of CNN personnel — unfair maybe, but standard stuff — before she really began speaking out about what she felt had gone on with her documentary and when she did, her management got an entirely predictable phone call from CNN saying that if she continued to talk, she’d risk losing her severance. I assume she took this to mean that she was on to something and they were trying to shut her up, rather than simply accepting that she was still being paid by CNN and they didn’t want her, you know, talking shit about the network. (Not defending CNN here by any means, but their reaction is to be expected.)

The thing about corruption at most news networks is that it’s a little like the kind of corruption you find in U.S. politics. The fanciful would love to have you believe that there’s some kind of Star Chamber in an undisclosed penthouse at the top of the Time Warner Center in Manhattan making deals with world governments and money interests just like they’d love to have you believe that there’s a secret cabal at work behind the scenes within our government that pits the Illuminati, the U.N. and the Disney Company against the interests of every man, woman and child on the planet. It’s fun to imagine. It’s also horseshit. Corruption within a newsroom is typically the kind borne from incompetence and lethargy, not cunning. It’s forgetting to do shit; overlooking important news stories because everybody suddenly succumbs to the tunnel vision of groupthink without even knowing it; picking one story over another for a show or a schedule because the former’s reporter has a higher Q-Score or because you just happen to have a hard-on for her or him, or excluding someone from a show because you think that person’s an arrogant little shit who needs to be knocked down a peg. It’s the kind of petty, stupid nonsense you thought you left behind in high school and can’t imagine still being subjected to as an adult.

But what Amber Lyon did with her outrage over the Bahrain story snub -- that's where things get interesting and why it makes sense that she's being hailed as a fearless warrior against mainstream media on Abby Martin's show. Rather than trying to prove that she's a journalist of substance by taking her grievances against CNN and her admitted talent for investigation to a reputable outlet, Lyon went down the Alex Jones rabbit hole. In 2012 she railed against the network to Jones during an interview on InfoWars, then last year she claimed that the U.S. government, using DARPA technology, may have assassinated Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings by hacking his car and causing it to plow into a tree. Amber Lyon is peddling conspiracy theories. That's apparently her idea of hard-hitting journalism. It's no wonder, toward the end of the RT interview yesterday, Martin calls Lyon her "journalistic hero."

I'll never understand why stridently working outside the mainstream seems to always translate into journalists entertaining and promoting ludicrous conspiracy theories these days. It's unfathomable. There isn't a damn thing wrong with turning your back on corporate media, what it represents, and what it can occasionally mean for your process and your product. But to take that personal statement to mean that you then have to travel out into the hinterlands of ethical journalism is just shockingly stupid. Abby Martin and Amber Lyon have both done that: they seem to think that just because the establishment would laugh a story out of the room there must be dissident value to that story. Sometimes that's not the case at all and pursuing it at all costs, as I said once before, doesn't make you brave, it just makes you an irresponsible asshole.

By the way, in the interest of fairness and maybe a little irony given that she seems to believe strange things about 9/11 without any actual evidence, here's Abby Martin putting "Sandy Hook Truthers" in their place.

That loop at the end of her saying, "Just stop?" That's because the clip was posted by someone who wanted to make sure those who believe Sandy Hook was some kind of staged event got Martin's message loud and clear. He or she wanted everyone to know that Martin had turned her back on the movement and was, in fact, a "shill."

Sorry, Abby, but you lie down with dogs...