Everyone misremembers something. We mostly draw our lives’ meaning from the private world, so we tend to misremember sex: doing it better than we did, with somebody sexier than they were. Many of my own mismemories involve the media. I’ve a vivid visual memory, for instance, of walking down a car-free Fifth Avenue around 10:15 on a Tuesday morning in September 2001, eyes numbly fixed on an billowing void at the tip of Manhattan where the south tower of the World Trade Center had been (somebody running past told me it had gone down, but I didn’t believe it); the north tower was burning alongside and then I watched it collapse, thundering down slowly while dust and smoke blossomed like a flower on fire. Except I didn’t watch that. Just before it crumbled, I turned onto 27th Street, to a hotel where some of my employees visiting town were staying; that’s why I was on the avenue — racing to make sure they were all right; and a girl rushed into the lobby and gasped that the south tower had fallen. The image of the collapse, replayed on TV for weeks, imposed itself on what I actually witnessed like a double exposure; something a camera saw for me, scrawled in a palimpsest over what I saw.
Things like this give me sympathy for Brian Williams. You all know: the newsman claimed repeatedly that, during the Iraq invasion in 2003, enemy fire downed his helicopter. “We landed very quickly and hard and we put down and we were stuck, four birds in the middle of the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans. … Our captain took a purple heart injury to his ear in the cockpit, but we were alone.” So vivid; such grunty language; not a word true. His helicopter wasn’t hit, one way ahead of him was. Williams was safe and sound.
I feel for his confusion. If my own memories get mixed up with what the media tells me, then what about the media’s own memories? Those talking heads are conduits for all the stories the public knows. So don’t all the stories become theirs, part not just of their talk but of their heads too? Don’t American anchormen contain multitudes, like Walt Whitman— their lives absorbing by imperial osmosis all the unused experience around them, trivial and forgettable until filmed and told? I remember (I think) a story about Lyndon Johnson, Caesar of another of our imperial wars. Setting off to Camp David, striding the White House lawn toward a line of helicopters, he headed for the wrong one. A nervous Marine intercepted him: “Mr. President, that’s not your helicopter.” Johnson draped his arm around the soldier’s shoulder. “They’re all my helicopters, son.”
What I don’t get is why this is an issue. Williams made up a story. But he was in the middle of the most fantastic made-up story in American history. The Iraq war, written by Bush with a little help from Tony Blair and Micronesia and Poland, was a gigantic fiction, as beautifully told and expressive of the moment’s cultural mythology as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or A Million Little Pieces, or Three Cups of Tea. The reasons were fake, the goals were fake, the triumph was fake. Nothing was true except the dead people, who aren’t talking. The war countered imaginary threats and villainies with imaginary victories and valor. Williams added his embroidery in the spirit of invention. Why are the other tale-spinners turning on him now?
The story of Williams’ little story is all personal now, background blacked out: it’s not about the war or the news business, it’s about Brian Williams. This is consistent with Williams’ career, built on the purely personal trust you can repose in words escaping that imposing lower jaw. The New York Times says he
long had been considered one of the most trusted people in not only in [sic] the news business but in the country as a whole. He was trusted by about three-quarters of consumers, making him the 23rd-most-trusted person in the country.
But where does that confidence come from? I remember (I think) reading a terrifying linguistic analysis of Iraq war TV coverage, terrifying because its prose made the analysis sound like a high-tech military campaign. (“Activating the partition, that parameter becomes the pivot from which further exploration can move, that is, we can make comparisons within the corpus on the basis of the selected parameter” …) One chapter was: “The news presenter as socio-cultural construct.” Here I brightened. My sexuality and gender are already social constructs; will Katie Couric join them? Alas, all this means is that “the news presenter creates a socially acceptable persona.” But buried in that bland description is the reality. Williams, like the modern news business, is a construct of his audience. He challenges nobody: he sensitively serves up fictions they long to see and hear.
Why is it a scandal when Williams admits misrepresenting himself, but not when NBC admits misrepresenting the world? Why isn’t the scandal that NBC’s Tim Russert said, before the Iraq war, ‘‘I’m a journalist, but first, I’m an American. Our country is at war with the terrorists, and as an American, I support the effort wholeheartedly’’? Why isn’t the scandal that CBS’s Dan Rather promised, ‘‘George Bush is the president. As just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where’’? The belief that war journalism was about fealty, not fact, came to infect every sentence said on air. The same linguistic study analyzed CBS broadcasts during the Iraq invasion, and here are snippets to set the mood:
They [US soldiers] gave the last full measure of devotion to their country. We honour their memories and send our condolences to their families … (March 21, 2003 CBS)
Just ahead on the CBS evening news, ties that bind: fathers and sons, duty, honour, country and war … (April 1, 2003)
When President Bush sent American servicemen and women to war, the entire nation went with them … (April 4, 2003)
We dedicate this broadcast to our fellow Americans who have died fighting in the war so far … (April 7, 2003)
The scandal is journalism’s complete submission, as the “war on terror” raged, to the fantasies of patriotic allegiance.
Some of us remember this capitulation (or think we do) and we’re likely to blame government pressure. And the Bush administration did lean hard on the press. Just a month after 9/11, they reprimanded TV networks that had dared to air videos from Al-Qaeda. David Dadge, in The War in Iraq and Why the Media Failed Us, writes that Condoleezza Rice
placed a conference call with the media executives of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News Channel, and NBC. Rice told the executives that security personnel were worried at the inflammatory language of the videotapes and feared that they might contain hidden codes with which to direct other attacks on American soil. … At that point, Rice withdrew from the conference call allowing the media executives to discuss the matter on their own.
In their discussion, the media executives agreed that, in future, the videotapes would be heavily edited and greater context would be provided. … The President of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, said, ‘‘This is a new situation, a new war, and a new kind of enemy. Given the historic events we are enmeshed in, it’s appropriate to explore new ways of fulfilling our responsibilities to the public.’’
New ways! … Meanwhile, the administration had its own propaganda machine, untraceably intricate. According to James Bamford’s book on Bush-era abuses of intelligence, “a shadowy American company, the Rendon Group” was “paid close to $200 million by the CIA and Pentagon to spread anti-Saddam propaganda worldwide.”
Soon after the attacks of September 11, the company received a $100,000-a-month contract from the Pentagon to offer media strategy advice. Among the agencies to whom it provided recommendations was the Orwellian-sounding Office of Strategic Influence … apparently intended to be a massive disinformation factory.
In the 1990s, Rendon had helped create the Iraqi National Congress, the front for con-man Ahmed Chalabi to promote himself as Saddam’s successor. Come 2001, Chalabi called on a former Rendon employee — Australian journalist Paul Moran — to generate bogus news stories about “bunkers for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons research hidden throughout Iraq.” Chalabi wielded these stories to push any wavering Bush officials toward war. In other words, the administration was paying for propaganda to lobby itself.
Yet it’s a mistake to suppose state pressure was the main factor corrupting US media. The internal logic of news as business was what shut down their critical functions.
I remember (I think) a brief, brief window after 9/11 when some on-air independence was possible. I remember (I think) a broadcast on CBS, probably September 13 or 14, where an Afghan civilian displayed some of the devastation Clinton’s 1998 missile strikes caused. The message was that a history of violent action and reaction underlay the attacks; the implication, that Americans should also examine what their own government had done. I remember (I think) remarks on TV suggesting that the President’s September 11 speech, where he faced the camera panicked as a rabbit being fucked by a howitzer, displayed a lamentable default of leadership. These glimmers of critique shut down after Bush bestrode the ruins of Ground Zero with a bullhorn, hugging firefighters and walking tall. They shut down mainly because the proprietors of news saw, in that image of rejuvenated manhood, what sold.
They needed to sell. Broadcast media were besieged by the increasing popularity of cable news outlets, Fox first among them. Print media were beleaguered by the Internet and the near-impossibility of making web platforms pay. Competition didn’t cause better news-gathering. In keeping with the pattern of corporate restructuring in the neoliberal era, it prodded cost-cutting, not product improvement. Foreign news suffered most. Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber write, “The time devoted to foreign coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC fell from 4,032 minutes in 1989 to 1,382 in 2000, rebounding only slightly following the 9/11 attacks to 2,103 minutes in 2002.” Cable news was even worse.
CNN by 1995 had a news-gathering network worldwide of only 20 bureaus, with 35 correspondents outside the United States—“only half of what the BBC has had for a long time to cover world events on radio and television” and “only a fraction of what the three largest international newswire services maintain on a permanent basis.”
But if behemoths like Fox News were one kind of competition, there was rivalry from below. I remember (I think) all the laudatory screeds proclaiming blogs the new frontier of Truth — faster, fresher, interactive, untrammelled by editorial control. For “citizen media,” the citizen media told us back in 2004,
News is a conversation, not just a lecture. The story doesn’t end when it’s published, but rather just gets started as the public begins to do its part — discussing the story, adding to it, and correcting it.
The participatory ideal meant, of course, the blogger didn’t have to do her own checking or correcting. Fake facts would flood the world.
Back then, blogs were novel. Michael Massing wrote with astonishment in 2005 about a “technological innovation that, along with the rise of talk radio and cable news, has made the conservative attack on the press particularly damaging …. Internet Web logs, which allow users to beam their innermost thoughts throughout the world, take no longer than a few minutes to set up.… many of them are by adolescent girls writing their diaries on-line.” But some were influential, and most were conservative. One pro-blog blog speculated:
Imagine, say, the coverage of Watergate being treated in part this way. Rather than Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward being the sole storytellers, blog-influenced journalism would have had them in part leading a conversation about the scandal … I suspect that a Watergate investigation in the blog era would have come to a conclusion faster.
I remember (I think) the Nixon administration in its conceit and power, and I doubt a “conversation” would have done the trick. Unpaid bloggers would have given up, discredited or ignored. Citizen journalism didn’t usually fight the status quo. More typical was Andrew Sullivan, who thanked God for giving us George W, and famously inveighed against “terrorist fellow-travellers” and “the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts.” Blogs denigrated dissent with glib, factitious certainty, while forcing a cornered mainstream media to come up with low-cost, easy stories to tell.
“A disciplined and well-organized news and opinion campaign” brought the press to heel, Massing declared, “directed by conservatives and the Christian right.” Paul Krugman, in 2004, pointed to “the role of intimidation” in silencing criticism. “If you were thinking of saying anything negative about the president, you had to be prepared for an avalanche of hate mail. You had to expect right-wing pundits and publications to do all they could to ruin your reputation.” I remember (I think) a short essay by Susan Sontag in late September 2001 that asserted simply:
This was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions … A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened.
Sullivan answered by calling her “contemptible” and a “pretentious buffoon”; others dubbed her “moral idiot” and “traitor.” The New Republic asked, “What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Susan Sontag have in common?” Historical awareness was an orphan in the new permanent now.
No one idealizes the hierarchical old media, but the faux-democracy of new media, where a thousand schools of thought supposedly contend, is in fact even more malleable to the market’s mandates. As war impended, the press ignored unpopular voices:
While Williams dodged imaginary bullets in Iraq, his employers axed Phil Donahue’s talk show because, an internal network report warned, he presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.” The show risked becoming “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” Meanwhile, the US dropped murderous cluster bombs, and laced munitions with poisonous depleted uranium. “These important stories,” writesNorman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy, “became known to many news watchers on several continents. But not in the United States.”
When CBS obtained the infamous Abu Ghraib torture photos, the Pentagon asked them to spike or delay the story; the network complied for weeks. A CBS executive later explained, “We are like every other American. We want to win this war. We believe in the country.’’ When the pictures finally aired, right-wing media bayed in fury. ‘‘CBS should be ashamed for running the photos,” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg wrote: “What was gained by releasing these images now? CBS could have reported the story without the pictures.’’ (A decade later, the identical Goldberg complained that news outlets were not publishing the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons. “Running satirical pictures of Mohammed,” he intoned, “is now a requirement of news reporting — because those images are central to the story.”)
TV viewers got plenty of patriotic music, though.
MSNBC joined Fox in using the Pentagon’s own code name for the war—“Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The logos featured fluttering American flags or motifs involving red, white and blue. … Promos for MSNBC featured a photo montage of soldiers accompanied by a piano rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Then there was “embedding,” cementing friendly journalists in military units. Thrilling as Space Mountain, it kept reporters secure in the propaganda cocoon. Michael Massing devastatingly dissected the work of one embeddee, the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable. “I quickly became part of an all-American military microcosm” in Fallujah, Constable wrote, with the Iraqi enemy “invisible” and the residents “frustratingly beyond our reach.”
I strained to listen for signs of humanity in the darkened city. I imagined holocaust—city blocks in flames, families running and screaming. But the only sounds were the baying of frightened dogs and the indecipherable chanting of muezzins, filling the air with a soft cacophony of Koranic verse. … We knew people were running out of food, and we heard rumors of clinics flooded with the dead and wounded. But the few Fallujans we encountered were either prisoners with handcuffed wrists and hooded heads, or homeowners waiting sullenly for their houses to be searched, or refugees timidly approaching military checkpoints with white flags … Sometimes on patrols, people approached us reporters and pleaded for help in Arabic, but there was nothing we could do.
Al-Jazeera, by contrast, had a correspondent and crew inside the city, and several times a day they were filing dramatic reports of the fighting. According to their accounts, the US bombing was causing hundreds of civilian casualties plus extensive physical destruction. As for what Constable took to be the Koranic chantings of the muezzin, Arabic speakers could tell that these were actually urgent appeals for ambulances and calls on the local population to rise up and fight the Americans. So while Arab viewers were getting independent (if somewhat sensationalized) reports from the field, Americans were getting their news filtered through the Marines.
Embedded, of course, is what Brian Williams was during his fantasy brush with death. This illumines the last key tool in the propagandization of US press: personal melodrama replaced analysis. If Al-Jazeera sensationalized the situation, US media sensationalized the individual story. There was no big picture. The war was a pointillistic canvas of feel-good or feel-frightened tales, politics and context painted over.
One story is still emblematic. In March 2003, Iraqi troops captured Private Jessica Lynch, a 19 year-old from Palestine, West Virginia. American officials claimed she was wounded in a heroic fight, firing her weapon down to the last bullet. US special forces rescued her two weeks later from a hospital in Nasriyah; dramatic footage of the mission was broadcast worldwide.
Except, as David Dadge writes, “Lynch had not been wounded, she had not been tortured, and the raid by the Navy Seals was staged for the cameras. Indeed, her injuries were entirely consistent with a road traffic incident.” It took the BBC, not US media, to unravel the story: “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.”
Witnesses told us that the special forces knew that the Iraqi military had fled a day before they swooped on the hospital. “We were surprised. Why do this? There was no military, there were no soldiers in the hospital,” said Dr Anmar Uday, who worked at the hospital. … “They cried ‘go, go, go’, with guns and blanks without bullets, blanks and the sound of explosions. They made a show for the American attack on the hospital — action movies like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan.” …
The Pentagon had been influenced by Hollywood producers of reality TV and action movies, notably the man behind Black Hawk Down, Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer advised the Pentagon on the primetime television series “Profiles from the Front Line”, that followed US forces in Afghanistan in 2001. That approached [sic] was taken on and developed on the field of battle in Iraq.
Surreally, the movie that became news became another movie. Networks besieged Lynch to buy the rights to her story. CBS came in for especially harsh criticism for chasing a film deal while seeking a news interview — giving them a vested interest in not unearthing the truth. The onetime sacrosanct news division shrank to an extension of the entertainment arm. Even Lynch’s hometown newspaper objected: “The need for journalistic independence should be self-evident. Reporters have a hard enough time trying to get to the truth without having to worry about spoiling a book deal.” The military version, debunked, still became an NBC TV movie: Saving Jessica Lynch.
All the elements of Brian Williams’ fable are there: danger, rescue, rhetoric. It’s as if Williams took Lynch as a pattern for his lie.
Williams himself has been central to transforming news into personal narrative. He’s expert at making himself the story, assiduously chasing celebrity. He’s vital to NBC’s brand, even the entertainment division – think his cameos on 30 Rock. The “ultra-viral supercuts of Williams’s newscasts” that his pal Jimmy Fallon sets to hip-hop tracks have “viewer metrics that rival Williams’s marquee hard news interview with Edward Snowden.” Walter Cronkite polled as the most trusted man in America (22 notches above Williams) back in the 1970s. But it’s hard to imagine him playing himself on Family Guy.
Williams is a Jay Gatsby for our condition, taking over a self and story nobody else was using, to compensate for the vacancy of his own. But precisely because of that you mustn’t make his fable his personal fault. What matters isn’t the man but the environment that made him, where news isn’t fact but a superior sort of fiction, a compound of inflated personalities and imagined stories, a mirror to reality TV. That should be the scandal.
The Iraq war was a turning point, when news dropped even the pretense of informing people. In fact, news about the war left them even less informed than before. In late 2003, for instance, a study found that 69% of the mainstream media audience believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11; 57% believed Iraq was closely tied to Al-Qaeda; 22% percent believed weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. And these delusions couldn’t just be blamed on liberals’ usual bogeymen. 71% of CBS viewers held one or more of these fictions as gospel — only slightly behind Fox News viewers, at 80%.
Writing this, I’ve immersed myself again in the non-events, the fake history, between 9/11 and the fall of Baghdad, and I find it horrible anew. The years were a delirium when hardly anything you heard was true. The war was like those lost seasons of Dallas or Roseanne; like Pam, we dreamed it all, and Williams’ dream was only a segment in the greater reverie. Yet while we were dreaming, others were dying. Why aren’t we scandalized by that? They died because we could not endure opening our eyes. Estimates of “excess deaths” among Iraqis in the war years range from 100,000 (for the war’s first 18 months) to 650,000 (by 2006). Those include deaths from disease and deprivation; one figure for those who died by violence alone is 150,000. That is thirty times the mortality of U.S. troops in our violent dreamtime. Our dreams had no responsibilities. Are we awake yet? “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”
I didn’t watch US news often during the 2003 war. During the months of buildup and the war itself, I remember (I think) being in Cairo, working for Human Rights Watch. I remember (I think) going to weekly demonstrations, at Sayyeda Zeinab or Cairo University, where a few hundred brave people protested the wars: students, leftists, Nasserists, Islamists. I remember (I think) cordons of Central Security police and intelligence officers around the demonstrations, helmeted, black-clad, armed, outnumbering the protesters ten to one. I remember (I think) the day the war broke out; I remember seeing Edward Said in the garden of the Marriott Hotel, gaunt and sick, amid an atmosphere too grim for me to dare approach. I remember (I think) the smell of tear gas drifting across the garden. I remember (I think) how forty thousand people gathered against the war in Midan Tahrir that afternoon, a presage of the revolution eight years later; I remember (I think) how Mubarak’s police beat them back, broke bodies, arrested thousands of leftists and tortured them. I remember (I think) spending the next week with lawyers day and night, going to police stations, collecting names and testimonies, documenting the brutality of America’s Egyptian proconsul. I remember (I think) the night that Baghdad fell. I was in the Greek Club, the ancient gathering place of Cairo’s intellectuals; a funereal somberness hung over the place, because the dictator had fled, and that should be an reason for rejoicing, but no one could see anything to come of the manner of his overthrow but violence, vengeance, division, death.
I remember they were right.
I remember something that did not happen. Late in 2002, while war talk crescendoed, I had a dream. I dreamed I was in a house somewhere on the American coast, I think in South Carolina (one of the most militarized states in the Union, fat with factories and military bases). There was a highway between the house and the grey ocean. In the dream, I heard a rumble as of something monstrous on the move; I looked out and the road was thick with a long convoy of tanks, of armored personnel carriers, of trucks loaded with anti-aircraft guns and missiles, with armaments I couldn’t even name; they thundered by endlessly, more and more and more. I asked what they were and a disembodied voice said, “They are going to Iraq.” They spent hours passing while I tried to sleep, an incessant cavalcade, as if all the destruction the world was capable of were amassing somewhere and could not be stopped. They drowned the surf under the grind of wheels. I huddled in bed, terrified. When I say that didn’t happen, I mean it was a dream; it wasn’t true. But it was more real than any of the news I saw over the long years since.
A version of this post originally appeared on Scott Long’s website A Paper Bird.