The degeneration of journalism into “infotainment” has been bemoaned by the mandarins of the profession ever since the cable news revolution knocked the networks off their pedestal. Now the Internet is overtaking the cable channels as the place news consumers go to get their infotainment fix or, alternatively, where they go to find out what the mainstream media isn’t telling us. In any case, the perception of a rapid degeneration of the news-gathering business into something other than journalism is not exactly a new complaint. What is new is that this long-standing complaint has a fresh angle on it. With the entire concept of reporting the “news” already endangered, the hysterical warmongering that followed in the wake of 9/11 completed the process of degeneration begun long ago. In the post-9/11 world, the news, as such, no longer exists: what we have now is a “narrative.”
Listen long and hard to the talking heads on TV and you’ll hear that phrase echoing down through the cable-vision canyons, bouncing off the walls and endlessly repeated by reporters, bloggers, and water-cooler savants: It’s the narrative, stupid.
The meaning and danger of the narrative was masterfully demonstrated in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The facts were tossed aside, or else cherry-picked and arranged in such a fashion as to mimic the truth while telling a brazen lie. The tallest of tales were woven around a story line, in which the central figure was a power-mad dictator whose quest for “weapons of mass destruction” posed a danger not only to his neighbors, but to the whole world. George W. Bush even suggested that Saddam was about to launch an armed attack on the continental United States. Iraqi drones, specially made to launch biological and chemical weapons, were supposedly assembled and ready to drop WMD on American cities. As dumb as this idea appears to be, some members of Congress apparently fell for it. After the truth came out about the “drones,” however they never existed at least one vexed congressman found out that the photos he had been shown of these purported “weapons of mass destruction” were fakes, taken somewhere in the American Southwest.
That’s not the only forgery that figures among the War Party’s key bits of “evidence” against the Iraqi regime. Don’t forget the famous Niger uranium forgeries, a cache of documents so crudely faked that it took IAEA scientists only a few Google sessions to unmask the fraud. Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, the source of most of the “intelligence” that lied us into war, reportedly maintained a forgery factory that churned out these productions with clock-like regularity. (All of it paid for, incidentally, by you, the American taxpayers: we paid Chalabi millions to dupe us, thanks to Bill Clinton and his administration’s sponsorship of the Iraq Liberation Act, which was supported by the leadership of both parties.)
The point is that no one seems to care about these forgeries, although their promulgation and distribution to members of Congress and U.S. government agencies is a federal crime. Presidents have been impeached for less. Yet I wouldn’t hold my breath until the indictments start coming down, because it isn’t going to happen, and only part of the reason is political. The real reason is that lying is no longer considered beyond the pale. It’s expected, and near-universally accepted as normal, as long as it’s done by the right people, in the right way.
Lying with style is certainly one way to describe the selling of the Iraqi WMD myth as “fact,” one dutifully reported by news organizations worldwide until the final evidence of their nonexistence was unveiled. John Edwards lying about his relationship with a woman who is not his wife is a prime example of how not to do it: no style.
On the other hand, Franklin Delano Roosevelt lying us into war for our own good now that‘s style! FDR gets a pass, and even a pat on the back, because the narrative of the farseeing father-figure who knew what was best for his people allegedly trumps any considerations of truth as a higher value.
As they passed off faked photos and forged documents as valid arguments for attacking Iraq, the War Party doubtless conjured FDR’s example as a rationale and an inspiration. After all, Saddam, according to them, was the modern-day equivalent of Hitler, so anything was justified in removing him from power, a task that only a war of “liberation” could accomplish.
The mainstream media turned itself into a transmission belt for this pack of lies, with the front page of the New York Times given over to Judith Miller and her pals in the administration to use as their personal bulletin board. Certainly the neocons made the job of journalists a lot easier: in writing about Iraq, reporters always had plenty of colorful (albeit improbable) stories to relate, fully realized fantasies carefully constructed out of whole cloth by a talented (if sometimes careless) cadre of war propagandists. Take, for example, the Mohammed Atta meeting at Prague airport with a high-ranking official of Saddam’s intelligence service. It never happened, yet it was an enthralling story, one that had all the elements of a good drama, which in part accounts for its persistence in spite of repeated debunkings. It became a kind of urban legend, right up there with those giant alligators in the New York City sewer system.
The Iraq narrative of Mad Dictator Armed With Nukes was useful, as long as it lasted. By the time it was finally and definitively debunked, we were already waist-deep in the Iraqi quagmire, with not much hope of getting out any time soon. Outing a CIA agent was the least of the crimes committed by the pro-war cabal within the administration, but they’ll never do jail time for the worst of their actions, because, after all, it was part and parcel of the narrative that everyone supposedly believed at the time. Why, every intelligence agency in the world believed Saddam was hiding his WMD that’s the fallback position of the War Party these days, a curious tautology that makes one wonder whether they were prepared to believe anything else, and ignores the fact that all contrary evidence was systematically suppressed.
Which brings us to the primacy of narrative in the post-9/11 era. The story the government was telling us was certainly geared to the horrors of the post-9/11 imagination, one peopled by monsters armed with the most terrible weapons, mercilessly stalking us. Visions of mass death, imprinted on the popular imagination by the events of 9/11, were projected on every surface, and Congress was stampeded by fear and, for the War Party, a fortuitous episode of anthrax-in-the-mails into passing the so-called PATRIOT Act. The same mass hysteria bullied Congress into sitting quietly while the neocons took us to war and kept most opposition prostrate and halfhearted until it was far too late to reverse the tragic course of events.
That the media was also bullied into projecting the image of al-Qaeda onto a figure who had nothing to do with 9/11 was certainly demonstrated by the rather embarrassing polls that show huge numbers of people still believe Saddam was behind 9/11, in spite of the complete lack of evidence to back up such a thesis. The news media, in uncritically reporting the pronouncements of U.S. government officials, transmitted a fantasy and embedded it so firmly in the American consciousness that no amount of retrospective debunking is ever going to eradicate it completely.
The story the administration was telling reporters was a good one by the standards of Hollywood, but not any school of journalism I’ve ever heard of. And that was considered good enough. One would think that, in view of how they were taken for a ride by their sources, reporters would have learned something from the experience of Iraq. But no, they’re doing the same thing when it comes to reporting Russia’s mini-war with Georgia in the Caucasus. Except in this case, their collusion with the administration seems not just the result of laziness, but of willful blindness.
I’ve already noted the Bizarro World reportage coming out of the Western media that ignores or even denies the signal event that started this war: Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia, which had been de facto independent since the early 1990s. The vicious assault on Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, is slowly coming to light, but the War Party is ready to downplay the casualty numbers. According to Human Rights Watch, less than 50 were killed in the hours-long assault, although Peter Finn, writing in the Washington Post, compared the look of the devastated city to that of Stalingrad during the worst battles of World War II.
Yes, the Georgian government bombed its own alleged citizens, and, yes, many were killed, though how many is not yet known. But whatever the numbers, they won’t be reported except very belatedly by the Western news media with a few exceptions because the facts get in the way of the narrative, the story line being laid out for the next round of warmongering, one that will be conducted, perhaps, by the next American president.
When a good narrative is overused, it becomes counterproductive, and the War Party’s story line with a Middle Eastern background is surely getting a little frayed around the edges. What’s needed, therefore, is a new narrative, one involving an authoritarian dictator who poses an alleged “threat” to our national interests, and preferably one who already possesses weapons of mass destruction. Vladimir Putin seems typecast for the role: his stern, unforgiving visage, the cult of personality that has grown up around him in Russia (unlike our president, he’s popular with his own people), and his background as a KGB officer who rose up through the ranks he’s perfect for the role of the New Hitler, albeit with a dash of Stalin thrown in the mix.
Villains aren’t enough to make a good narrative. What’s needed are heroes, the good guys, in this case the Georgians, whose president, Mikheil Saakashvili, claims to be a friend of “freedom.” Of course, this concept has been used many times as a mask for tyranny, and Saakashvili might want to ask the owners of that television station he closed down on the eve of the last election what the word “freedom” means to them. He might also want to ask the 500 demonstrators injured during protest demonstrations, beaten on the streets by Saakashvili’s police for daring to speak out against his draconian crackdown on the opposition, the primary leaders of which were jailed before they could cast their votes.
Ah, but no matter: the War Party can make a sow’s ear into a silk purse, or reverse the process when necessary. It’s all about the ability to tell a good story and make it stick as long as possible.
So we have a villain and a hero. What’s needed are a few choice historical analogies, and more than a few have been thrown around: the annexation of the Sudetenland, the Munich pact, the run-up to World War II and Hitler, always Hitler, haunting us with his long, dark shadow, loving conjured by the War Party as lessons for today.
Facts, real lives shattered, even thousands of deaths none of it matters. It’s all blown away like so much detritus in the wind. The gale force of the narrative carries us forward, by sheer momentum: NATO condemns the “Russian invasion,” and the Georgians are patted on the back, promised lots of taxpayers dollars, and told to bide their time.
The narrative marches on
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
but not without a few obstacles in its path, and one of them one of the big ones is this Web site.
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