|And if, by chance, an eminently forgettable actor from a mindless 25-year old TV series is suddenly arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife, it is only to be expected that the media coverage of this phenomenally insignificant event will be massive, easily dwarfing discussion of every other issue. There will be "interviews" on Larry King, with "experts" who won their spurs during the frenzy of the O.J. Simpson trial.
We all learned in school that democracy cannot survive without a free press. To drive this lesson home, we were presented with the notion of a "dictatorship," understood in those days to be typified by the Soviet Union. In a dictatorship, we were told, government directly controls the press. The danger inherent in this arrangement was explained as follows: if a newspaper in a dictatorship ever dares to criticize the government, the offending journalists are sent to a gulag. Thus, power cracks its whip, institutions that set the tone for public discourse are intimidated, and everyone is kept in line. The government can never be subjected to critical review, no matter what it does -- and the path to tyranny is wide open.
We were taught, in comforting contrast, that in the American system the press is free, so that many diverse viewpoints may find expression. Journalists may criticize the government without fear of being summarily arrested. In this way, so our cheerful theory ran, news organizations can perform their crucial watchdog function, and government is subjected to responsible scrutiny. This process, over time, was supposed to safeguard against misguided government policy and potential abuse of power.
From the vantage point of 2002, it is apparent that the theory of the role of the press in American democracy -- the theory that sounded so comforting and admirable to us during our school years -- contained a few flaws. The system breaks down in the case where the government and the media are both agents of the same powerful interests. In this case, the entire concept of "an independent press" is exploded. The press cannot be a "watchdog," because it is not truly distinct from the forces animating the government -- any more than a left hand can serve as a "watchdog" over the right hand of the same creature.
What happens when the press and the government function as two arms of the same creature? The same thing that was feared in the classic case of the police state: the voice of the press becomes corrupted. It assumes the tinny, inauthentic hysterical tone that we associate with the Pravda of the bad old days. ("Our Great and Wise Leader has proclaimed that our glorious factories have once again surpassed the goals of the Five-Year Plan.") The press no longer guards the public interest, but becomes an instrument of privilege and power. It blurs issues and spews propaganda. Its voice becomes shrill as it praises its master, insisting on its own rightness and glory. That is the American press of 2002 -- all lies, all the time.
With the exception of Bill Moyers on PBS, there is practically no source or analysis of news on American television that is worth seeing. Most of the rest is -- let's be honest -- a nauseating rude low-minded cesspool. Not only does it have no value, it is positively injurious to the wisdom and understanding of those who watch it. The major print media are scarcely any better, and for precisely the same reason: all of them, when stripped of their flimsy disguises and superficial differences, are nothing more than obedient servants of power. They are the left hand, while the government is the right hand; they are all one and the same. That is why the media are incapable of telling the truth about our government and about what is happening to our society. That is why they are incapable of discussing any of the burning issues that must be discussed, upon which the future of our planet depends.
Public discourse in the US is now a rotting edifice. While it never has been wholly pure, the last few years have greatly accelerated the corruption. The terminal phase of the process began when no major US media voice summoned the courage or integrity to speak out against the Supreme Court's appointment of George W. Bush as president. There were certainly many serious observers who immediately recognized that something profoundly dangerous had occurred. The New York Times published one (and only one) full-page announcement from a group of hundreds of law professors across the nation, candidly expressing their feelings of anguished betrayal at the Court's decision. But neither the Times itself, nor any of its prestigious major-circulation brethren, used its editorial voice to oppose -- or even to analyze! -- the decision. None had the principles or courage even to undertake a careful editorial examination of the potential ways in which such a decision might prove damaging or antithetical to the spirit of democracy. Instead, all chose to be silent; to pretend that nothing much out of the ordinary had transpired. The path of cowardice was chosen, and the die was cast.
Having shown their true colors that fateful day, it was henceforth no longer possible for the American media to speak the truth. Its shameful silence at the blatant hijacking of a presidential election required a progressively deepening entanglement in the web of lies. Since the election could no longer be spoken of as what it in fact was, since the fact dared not be uttered that the Supreme Court was now just a partisan subsidiary of the American far right, now all matters touching on those sensitive subjects, and all matters that grew inexorably from them, could likewise no longer be called by their true and proper names. Sixteen short months later, we no longer have a real democracy in our country. We have a nation of great military and financial might that pretends to still be a democracy; that pays empty lip service to the vestigial trappings and nominal forms of democracy [emphasis added], while behaving with a unilateral belligerence that is terrifying to the rest of the world. The American media is organically unable to seriously criticize George W. Bush, his policies, or his appointments. They cannot discuss or explicitly identify the forces that are controlling the trajectory of the nation. They can only speak with fawning obsequiousness of those powerful forces, because they are the left hand, while the Bush government is the right hand, of the same creature. And this creature would be disturbed, perhaps angered, should it receive too much direct attention.
In the America that I grew up in, if a politician seriously proposed that this country commit itself to years of an open-ended war against enemies that could be defined, undefined, or redefined as we went along, he would be roundly criticized. To be sure, he would not be criticized by everyone. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal could always be counted upon to support him, as could the National Review. But there would also be a free and strong liberal press, and a worthy opposition party, that would rise together with pride and dignity to denounce and staunchly oppose in principled fashion the destructive insanity of endless war against amorphous phantoms, now offered to the public as the major political project of this country. But the America I grew up in no longer exists. There is no longer a free press with pride, dignity, and principles. There is no longer a real opposition party. Our institutions are so thoroughly corrupt that they are too frightened even to speak of the dimensions or systemic nature of this corruption. All mention of the myriad tentacles of corruption must be swept quickly under the rug and papered over with a layer of fatuous happy-talk -- or the whole structure will come crashing down.
If the government of the United States wants to destroy every international treaty, to ignore the threat of global warming, to build military bases all over Central Asia under the pretext of "fighting a war against terrorism," and to define its principle role in the world by its open-ended "war" -- there is no one on television that will say a word against it. The editorial page of the New York Times will not criticize it, nor will the Washington Post. Like the obedient fawning sycophants that they've become, they will lamely assert that we are "protecting our freedom," or some such nonsense. And if, by chance, an eminently forgettable actor from a mindless 25-year old TV series is suddenly arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife, it is only to be expected that the media coverage of this phenomenally insignificant event will be massive, easily dwarfing discussion of every other issue. There will be "interviews" on Larry King, with "experts" who won their spurs during the frenzy of the O.J. Simpson trial. There will be no time or energy left for discussion of Enron, and the ways in which it was so disturbingly able to have its many friends in Congress pass laws and regulations and make appointments to its liking. This is the America of 2002 -- no discussion of real issues, and hysterical "coverage" of non-issues. That which must be spoken about, because it's so important, cannot be spoken about, because it's too threatening to the powers controlling the system.
If there is a sudden coup d'etat in oil-producing Venezuela carried out by the military and big business interests, and the government of the United States speaks approvingly of the coup, the New York Times will not criticize it. Far from it. No, the Times chortles happily that "a would-be dictator" has been deposed, and "Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened." The US will of course continue to self-righteously style itself the world's great protector of democracy. The New York Times and the US government are two hands of the same master. They speak the same language. In this language, the twice-elected Venezuelan president is a "would-be dictator," while the military and US- friendly oil executives that seize power merely "intervene" to save democracy. The irony of these appellations goes largely unnoticed.
The short-lived Venezuelan coup is a vivid demonstration that neither the government nor the media of today's United States "stands for democracy." They stand, rather, for whatever expediency seems likely to benefit American oil policy. To maintain the pretense of standing for lofty principle [emphasis added], when the reality is so rank and ignoble, is characteristic of decrepit, decaying political institutions.
Our old media rules went something like this: "the free press should act as a watchdog to monitor the government." Our modernized rules work more like this: the media must not discuss any subject in such a way that it's uncomfortable or threatening to moneyed power. It must not examine the type of corruption that exists when government becomes the servant of corporate influence. If a corporation buys the allegiance of a slew of congressmen, this must not be examined. But if a Democratic congressman has an affair with a young woman, this must be investigated in excruciating detail. If the Pentagon buys tens of billions of dollars of weapons that even Rumsfeld said won't work, from companies closely linked to the ruling right wing government, this must not be discussed. It's not polite. If Wall Street touts the stock of various companies on what later proves to be totally fraudulent grounds, this may be mentioned, but not in a way that raises penetrating questions about the breadth of Wall Street corruption. If CEO's earn 450 times what average employees earn, this inequality's rationale may not be explored in too high-profile a manner -- it's unattractive. Serious money doesn't care for that kind of publicity. If the federal budget includes a $48 billion increase in defense spending, this fact may be reported, but the implications may not be examined with any persistence or vigor. If hundreds of billions are earmarked for a missile defense system that will never work -- thus depriving all manner of health, education, housing, and other social programs of funds -- this issue too, cannot be seriously discussed. It may be mentioned, briefly and in low-key fashion, but not pursued with the same relentless intensity that a Democratic congressman's extramarital affair would surely attract. Not with the same ferocious high-megawatt 24/7 coverage that the TV has-been's murder case would attract. If every government agency originally chartered to oversee compliance with rules for clean air and water is now fully staffed by Bush appointees -- loyal agents, one and all, of the most notorious and powerful corporate polluters, who in turn were all big Bush campaign contributors -- this too, can unfortunately not be carefully scrutinized. Not under the new rules. This is how the once-proud American "free press" now operates. It cringes at the feet of its master, more fearful of offending, than interested in speaking the truth.
Are there leading Republican congressmen with close ties to white supremacist groups? Yes, quite a few of them -- but this is an uncomfortable topic; better that the media ignore it. Did the new director of Bush's "Office for Democracy and Human Rights" plead guilty to lying to Congress under oath in the Iran-Contra affair? Yes, but let's overlook that; why be divisive in this "time of war?" Is the new US ambassador to the United Nations another Iran-Contra criminal? Yes, but better not to focus on that unattractive detail. Is the new Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs closely linked to the terrorist bombing of a passenger jetliner? Yes, but it was only a Cuban jetliner, so why raise a fuss? Let's just refer to him respectfully as "Mr. Reich" in mainstream coverage, and ignore the furtiveness with which the White House appointed all three of these men while Congress was in recess, so as to avoid open confirmation hearings and the attendant adverse publicity.
If the president himself is the financial creation of the Enron Corporation, if most of the people in his administration come from Enron, consulted for Enron, and invested heavily in Enron, and if his administration makes appointments and passes legislation favorable to Enron, that allows Enron to loot hundreds of billions of dollars from the state of California, its own employees and shareholders, and the United States Treasury, you might think that this would amount to a bit of a scandal. You would be wrong. In the United States of 2002, it's not a scandal unless the corporate media says it's a scandal, and they will not call something a scandal if it centers on the ability of large corporations to procure gargantuan favors from government. It is only a scandal if a member of the political party that's less than 100 percent devoted to granting corporations their every whim is caught doing something wrong. (Of course, strictly speaking, it is not really necessary that he/she actually be caught doing something wrong; it is only necessary that he is repeatedly said to have done something wrong. Being repeatedly said to have done something wrong is fully sufficient cause for the corporate media to declare the matter a scandal of the highest megawattage; "in-depth interviews" with "experts" on Larry King will quickly follow.)
Was the terrorist attack of 9-11 important? Oh, yes, just give the media a moment, and they'll be glad to solemnly assure you that the Bush regime's mammoth giveaways to defense contractors and its attacks on civil liberties and its turning our entire society into a giant war machine - all this is amply justified by the outrages of 9-11. But, if the attacks were important enough to justify all that, aren't they important enough to be fully investigated by Congress? And didn't the president himself take steps to make sure that there would be no serious congressional investigation of the intelligence lapses leading to 9-11? Here, one can confidently expect the media to suffer a bout of sudden amnesia, regarding the importance of 9-11. For these are the kinds of questions that servants of power will not pursue.
In the America I grew up in, people would have noticed that the Bill of Rights was being blatantly violated by the USA PATRIOT Act. People would have noticed that hundreds of persons arrested last fall are still in jail with no charges being filed, and that the US Attorney General told a panel of senators in December that if they had any serious questions about what the government was doing, they were just "giving comfort to the enemy." People would have noticed the administration's new "Nuclear Posture Review" that was released in March, putting the world on notice that the United States might well be expected to use "battlefield" nuclear weapons in its upcoming war against Iraq. People would have noticed the absurdity of a vice president claiming to be upholding some lofty principle of office, by keeping secret the details of how he designed our national energy policy together with a bunch of rich cronies -- even though he supposedly works for us, and we thus have a right to know everything about how that policy was made. People would have noticed these things because some degree of vibrant political awareness was part of the America that I grew up in. The media was part of that -- not all the media, to be sure, but enough of them to make a difference. But in the new America, the one born on 12/12/00, such things are barely noticed and quickly forgotten. This is because the media is the social organ charged with conducting the public discourse, and it is no longer anything but the left hand, while the Bush regime is the right hand, of the same creature. In this America, one must confidently expect dictators who support us to be described in leading newspapers as "defenders of democracy," while popularly-elected foreign presidents who criticize us are termed "would-be dictators." We can confidently expect any news story whose essence centers on corruption in high places to be downplayed, deflected, and marginalized. We must expect that the transfer of the hundreds of billions of federal budget dollars now stuffing the maw of defense contractors -- not augmenting the security of the American people but probably decreasing it, as US military aggression inevitably inflames world resentments -- will receive far less media attention than the combination of Al Gore's beard, Gwyneth's dress at the Oscars, and the TV has-been's murder trial. We can now look forward to the next media extravaganza -- the new and improved all-channel "Demonization of Saddam Hussein" campaign, opening soon on a TV screen near you, which will surely whip up the fervor necessary to bomb and kill a hundred thousand people or so, possibly with nuclear weapons. The cheerleading machinery will ramp to proper pitch by tirelessly flogging the lofty moral pretext ("protecting us from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction") -- and scarcely a word will be said about oil.
My teachers were exactly right, back in the old America that I knew, loved, and was so proud of -- democracy cannot survive without a free press.
All Lies, All The Time
By Richard Mynick - 05/04/02
Posted on the Independent Newswire on 5 May 2002
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