Media Beat


publication…. I certainly credit Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham for
fighting for the freedom of the press.”

Meanwhile,
farther north along the elite media corridor, columnist Anthony Lewis likes to
extol his bosses for their bravery. Five years ago, he wrote about “the
decision that, more than any other, established the modern independence of the
American press—its willingness to challenge official truth. That was the
decision of the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers.”
He added, “the episode had a galvanizing effect on the press”—and now, “the
spirit is there to hold government accountable.”

As summer 2001
began, Lewis was at it again, assuring readers that the Pentagon Papers
marked a profound transformation of American journalism: “What changed the
attitude of the Times and other mainstream publications was the
experience of the Vietnam War. In the old days in Washington the press
respected the confidence of officials because it respected their superior
knowledge and good faith. But the war had shown that their knowledge was dim,
and respect for their good faith had died with their false promises and lies.”

In contrast to
all the talk about the glorious defeat of prior restraint, we hear very little
about the ongoing and pernicious self-restraint exercised by media outlets
routinely touted as the best there is.

High-profile
reporters and commentators like Hunt, Novak, and Lewis are much too
circumspect to mention, for instance, the November 1988 speech that Graham
delivered to senior CIA officials at the agency headquarters in Langley,
Virginia, where the Washington Post publisher said: “There are some
things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe
democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its
secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”

On an earlier
occasion, Graham recounted: “There have been instances in which secrets have
been leaked to us which we thought were so dangerous that we went to them
[U.S. officials] and told them that they had been leaked to us and did not
print them.”

During the
1980s, the powerful publisher enjoyed frequent lunches with Nancy Reagan,
often joined by Post editorial-page editor Meg Greenfield. Graham
comforted the president’s wife while the Iran- Contra scandal unfolded.

Graham
developed close relationships with such high-ranking foreign policy officials
as Robert Mc- Namara, Henry Kissinger, and George Shultz. But she has always
denied any harm to the independence of her employees at the Washington Post
and Newsweek.

“I don’t
believe that whom I was or wasn’t friends with interfered with our reporting
at any of our publications,” Graham wrote in her autobiography, published in
1997. However, Robert Parry—who was a Washington correspondent for Newsweek
during the last three years of the 1980s—recalls firsthand experiences that
contradict her assurances. Parry witnessed “self- censorship because of the
coziness between Post-Newsweek executives and senior national security
figures.”

Among Parry’s
examples: “On one occasion in 1987, I was told that my story about the CIA
funneling anti-Sandinista money through Nicaragua’s Catholic Church had been
watered down because the story needed to be run past Mrs. Graham, and Henry
Kissinger was her house guest that weekend. Apparently, there was fear among
the top editors that the story as written might cause some consternation.”
Overall, Parry told me, “The Post-Newsweek Company is protective of the
national security establishment.”

With key
managers at major news organizations deciding what “the general public does
not need to know,” the government probably won’t face enough of a media
challenge to make a restraining order seem necessary.


 


Simulating Democracy Can Be A Virtual Breeze



Few media eyebrows went up when the World Bank recently canceled a global
meeting set for Barcelona in late June—and shifted it to the Internet.
Thousands of street demonstrators would have been in Spain’s big northeastern
port city to confront the conference. Cyberspace promises to be a much more
serene location.

The World Bank
is eager to portray its decision as magnanimous, sparing Barcelona the sort of
upheaval that has struck Seattle, Prague, Quebec City, and other urban hosts
of international economic summits. “A conference on poverty reduction should
take place in a peaceful atmosphere free from heckling, violence and
intimidation,” says a World Bank official, adding, “it is time to take a stand
against this kind of threat to free expression.”


A senior
adviser to the huge lending institution offered this explanation: “We decided
that you can’t have a meeting of ideas behind a cordon of police officers.”
Presumably, the meeting of ideas will flourish behind a cordon of passwords,
bytes, and pixels.

The World
Bank’s retreat behind virtual walls may keep the “riffraff” away, with online
discourse going smoothly, but vital issues remain—such as policies that
undercut essential government services in poor countries, while promoting
privatization and user fees for access to health care and education.

“The objectives
of the World Bank with this failed conference were simply an image-washing
operation,” said a statement from a Barcelona-based campaign that had worked
on planning the demonstrations. Now, the World Bank is depicting itself as the
injured party.

Protest
organizers are derisive about the Bank’s media spin: “The representatives of
globalized capitalism feel threatened by the popular movements against
globalization. They, who meet in towers surrounded by walls and soldiers in
order to stay apart from the people whom they oppress, wish to appear as
victims. They, who have at their disposal the resources of the planet,
complain that those who have nothing wanted to have their voice heard.”


The World
Bank’s gambit of seeking refuge in cyberspace should be a wake-up call to
activists who dream that websites and email are paradigm-shattering tools of
the people. Some who take it for granted that “the revolution will not be
televised” seem to hope that their revolution will be digitized.

There’s nothing
inherently democratizing about the Internet. In fact, it has developed into a
prodigious conduit of political and cultural propaganda, distributed via
centrally edited mega-networks. America Online has 27 million subscribers, the
New Internationalist magazine noted recently. “They spend an incredible
84 percent of their Internet time on AOL alone, which provides a regulated
leisure and shopping environment dominated by in-house brands—from Time
magazine to Madonna’s latest album.”

At the same
time that creative advocates for social change are routinely putting the
Internet to great use, powerful elite bodies like the World Bank are touting
online innovations as democratic models—while striving to elude the reach of
progressive grassroots activism.

If, in 1968,
the Democratic National Convention had been held in cyberspace instead of in
Chicago, on what streets would the antiwar protests have converged? If, on
Inauguration Day this year, the swearing-in ceremony for George W. Bush had
taken place virtually rather than at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where
would people have gathered to hold up their signs saying, “Hail to the Thief?”

Top officials
of the World Bank are onto something. In a managerial world, disruption must
be kept to an absolute minimum. If global corpor- atization is to achieve its
transnational potential, the discourse among power brokers and their favorite
thinkers can happen everywhere at once—and nowhere in particular. Let the
troublemakers try to interfere by doing civil disobedience in cyberspace.

In any struggle
that concentrates on a battlefield of high-tech communications, the long-term
advantages are heavily weighted toward institutions with billions of dollars
behind them. Whatever our hopes, no technology can make up for a lack of
democracy.

Media
and Vietnam

Media
commentators are split about Bob Kerrey and what happened 32 years ago in the
Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. Some journalists seem eager to exonerate
the former senator. Others appear inclined to turn him into a lightning rod
for national guilt.

Syndicated
columnists have been a bit unpredictable. “This is a murder story that lacks
the basic underpinnings high standards should require,” liberal Thomas
Oliphant wrote. Conservative John Leo was less evasive: “The village was a
‘free-fire’ zone, meaning that all who lived there were regarded as enemies
who could be fired on at will. Did that policy amount to a blank check for
American troops to commit atrocities? Even at this late date, we need to know
the answer.”

In some media
quarters, fury erupted after a New York Times editorial declared: “It
is a story that—with its conflicting evidence, undeniable carnage and tragic
aftermath—sums up the American experience in Vietnam and the madness of a war
that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many
lives as possible on both sides.”

The punditry
duo on the “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” condemned the Times as terribly
unfair to Kerrey. The editorial was “an act of moral arrogance rarely seen,”
Mark Shields charged. Paul Gigot chimed in: “Mark stole my thunder beating up
the New York Times.” Similar noises, on “Fox News Sunday,” came from
the host of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” Juan Williams, who claimed that
reporters were giving Kerrey shabby treatment.

Striving to
encourage such sentiments, Kerrey has resorted to the kind of
media-as-traitors bombast that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon found so
irresistible as commanders in chief. “It’s disgraceful,” Kerrey complained
during an Associated Press interview in late April. “The Vietnamese government
likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS
are now collaborating in that effort.”

New York
Times
columnist William Safire is also sounding familiar themes these
days. While not bothering to note his own specialized war-making services as a
top speechwriter in the Nixon administration, Safire rushed to the defense of
Kerrey—and the war on Vietnam. In a column that decried a “humiliating
accusation of national arrogance,” Safire urged us to “recall a noble motive.”

But when
motives were based on lies and illusions, how could they have been “noble?”

Commonly, in
the U.S. media frame, the vast majority of the war’s victims—including a few
million dead people in their home countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—are
rendered as little more than props for the anguish of Americans. How much we
have suffered as a result of killing those people. Their importance grows only
to the extent that they underscore our own.

A year ago,
Kerrey wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece that concluded: “Was the war
worth the effort and sacrifice or was it a mistake? Everyone touched by it
must answer that question for himself. When I came home in 1969 and for many
years afterward, I did not believe it was worth it. Today, with the passage of
time and the experience of seeing both the benefits of freedom won by our
sacrifice and the human destruction done by dictatorships, I believe the cause
was just and the sacrifice not in vain.”

Only our own
national narcissism, mendacity, and denial can preserve the binary myth that
the war was either “worth the effort” or “a mistake.” The war was wrong not
because it proved to be unwinnable but because it was, fundamentally, mass
murder from the start. Propaganda aside, U.S. forces invaded Vietnam—welcomed
by a succession of Saigon regimes that Washington installed and propped up.


Kerrey did his
deadly work in the Mekong Delta in early 1969. So did Brian Willson, a first
lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. As a ground security officer, he saw bombing
operations up close and witnessed effects on the ground, in villages. “The
only difference between Kerrey and me is that I was never in a position to
personally kill while in Vietnam,” Willson says. “But I was part of a killing
machine, even being complicit in the bombing campaigns, and I saw dozens and
dozens of the bodies of women and children.”

Willson went on
to become an Air Force captain. Later, he studied the Pentagon Papers
and other official documents clearly showing that—from the outset—U.S. leaders
knew the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese wanted the U.S. out of their
country. “It was true that we could not determine friend from foe,” Willson
remembers. “Most, at least secretly, were foe.” Vietnamese people “were
defending their integrity and sovereignty from us invaders.” The entire war
was “immoral and illegal.”

One day in
1987, Willson lost his legs when he joined with other peace activists for
civil disobedience on some train tracks in California. A train—carrying
munitions on the way to Central America—ran him over. At the time, Willson was
trying to impede the shipment of weaponry destined for use in warfare largely
aimed at civilians.

Since the early
1990s, the bombing and ongoing embargo of Iraq has killed at least several
hundred thousand children. A current billion-dollar military aid package from
the United States, under the guise of a “war on drugs,” is boosting the death
toll in Colombia. Just foreign-policy business as usual. Rest assured, we have
no blood on our hands.

“They have
destroyed and are destroying…and do not know it and do not want to know it,”
James Baldwin wrote a few decades ago. He added: “But it is not permissible
that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence
which constitutes the crime.”                                Z

Norman Solomon’s latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.
His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.