In the Wake of 9-11, the American Press Has Embraced a ‘Demented Caesarism’


Just after 9/11, I was one of those who thought, and said out loud, that the catastrophe might knock some sense into the gibbering “culture” of the US media. Now there would be no more prime-time seminars about the likely cruising style of Gary Condit, no more shark watches, and quite a lot more coverage of, and talk about, the wider world. (The term “Afghanistan” had long been used inside the TV news biz as a handy term for all those faraway and over-complicated stories that the advertisers didn’t want to see.) And I believed that there would be a lot less dumbbell irony, a lot less potty comedy, and a lot less homicidal stand-up from the right. In short, I thought that Adam Sandler was all through, and that Ann Coulter would soon be forgotten, if not gone, and that the news would finally try to tell us some things that a free and democratic people needs to know.

Boy, was I wrong. Everywhere you look, Ann Coulter’s up there on her broomstick, cracking manic jokes about mass murder, and Adam Sandler’s said to be involved in seven movies soon to flood the multiplexes. Now I am old and wise enough to know that such bad acts are always with us, so I’m only disappointed – and, on cool reflection, not surprised – that there isn’t more stuff out there like “The Simpsons,” “The Sopranos,” “Lovely & Amazing,” Wilco. On the other hand, I find that I am absolutely flabbergasted at the many jumbo helpings of outright crapola that our “free press” has been laying out for us day after day since 9/11. While foreign journalists routinely tell their readers and/or viewers what’s going on – inside Afghanistan, Iraq, DC and all throughout this land of ours – our journalists don’t tell us anything.

They haven’t bothered to report, for instance, that the war against Iraq has already begun. Last week the US and UK together hit the largest air-defense installation in western Iraq – a mission that involved 100 jets. At the same time, “we” began the largest military build-up in that region since the start of Operation Desert Shield twelve years ago. Neither story was reported by a single mainstream news source in this country. “Despite the assurances of President George Bush and Tony Blair that ‘no decisions’ had been made on how to deal with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, compelling evidence has emerged in the past week that the US has begun a military build-up not seen since the last Gulf war,” reported the Observer, which, along with the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and, in Canada, the National Post, among other foreign press outlets, has duly covered what should be big news, but isn’t news at all, in these United States, whose soldiers – and civilians – are the ones who stand to suffer once this war begins.

Instead of learning that the re-invasion of Iraq has started up already, we’re hit with frequent payloads of alarmist blather from the president’s top dogs – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and now Powell, too – who carry on that crucial propaganda work with little challenge from the press. The press also facilitates Bush/Cheney’s propaganda drive by running the administration’s claims as if they were well-documented facts; by breathlessly describing Iraq’s desperate measures under fire as sinister offensive moves – and, above all, by letting Bush routinely (and preposterously) call himself “a patient man,” who will of course gravely “deliberate,” and carefully “consult” with all the world before he makes a move. Beyond our borders, people know that that’s a crock, because there is a free press functioning out there, even in some places where they don’t have the protection of our First Amendment.

What has happened to the press in the United States? Certainly it wasn’t anything to brag about ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, but now its irresponsibility is simply staggering. Why? A proper answer to that question has to be complex, entailing many factors – corporate concentration, radical deregulation under Reagan, Bush and Clinton, TV’s touchy-feely influence, the laziness and (yes) conservatism of a corporate press corps grossly overpaid, the fervent, brilliant rightist propaganda drive against “the liberal media,” and so on. While all such factors surely have a lot do with it, however, 9/11 clearly made a very sudden difference, turning a bad situation even worse.

Although the press was always marvelously soft on Bush – reveling in his ignorance, saying not a word about his many scandals past, approving his bald theft of the election – after 9/11 such mere protectiveness mutated swiftly into a demented Caesarism, such as one would once have found among the Soviets, or as one finds today in places like Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba (and Iraq). At first, this sort of thing was understandable, if nauseating, the fearful pundits and reporters – as usual excessively responsive to the mass hysteria, and at the time also hysterical themselves – exalting Bush into the leader that a stricken nation dearly wished it had. Thus Bush was hailed as “eloquent,” “commanding” and “astute,” “Churchillian” and “another Roosevelt,” etc., although he clearly wasn’t ever any of those things. Such rapturous delusion was a sign of the horrific times just after 9/11, and therefore would have been forgivable as a mere human failing – if the reporters had just knocked it off once everyone recovered, more or less, from that first shock.

The fact that they did not, but kept on treating this Bush as a god – even after he began descending in the polls, and notwithstanding the abundant evidence that he was not at all divine but barely human – makes it quite clear that the press was transformed big-time by the shock of 9/11. Although the evidence of our own senses tells us otherwise – after all, he’s right there on TV – the press accounts routinely fix his grammar (he said “gooder” several times at one recent event, but that weird goof was not in any transcript), and sometimes even call him “a six-footer,” which is very clearly not the case. Such frank cosmetic touches are, to put it mildly, un-American, more reminiscent of the cult of Stalin than of anything in US journalistic history.

And yet such frank improvements of the president’s own voice and person are not half as troubling as the journalists’ refusal to stay with those major stories that pertain directly to the ugly fix that we are in today: Dick Cheney’s criminal involvement in the arming of Iraq (against which brutal nation he now urges us to war); John Ashcroft’s kid-gloves treatment of the robber barons at Enron – and that firm’s many links to the administration (a scandal from which Gulf War II might help distract the rest of us); the abject failure of the “war on terrorism,” as bin Laden walks (or sits) at liberty, along with most of the al Qaeda leadership (a big distraction would help there); and, speaking of the bombing of Afghanistan, the ruinous effect of that impulsive move on our attempts to nab the terrorists. (There’s no distraction needed there, because the press has barely mentioned it.) Raining bombs down on (or near) the Taliban was comparable, as one intelligence insider put it, to “hitting a bee-hive with a baseball bat.” Despite their clear importance, such expert views are quite unknown to most Americans, because the press, since 9/11, evidently sees it as somehow unpatriotic to report the hard, cold truth.

And then there’s 9/11 itself – the day that knocked the US press clean out of its collective mind, and into full-time propaganda mode for this war – hungry president. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate that day’s disastrous impact on the pundits and reporters than their mawkish exploitation of this anniversary. As they repackage the catastrophe as tearful patriotic super-spectacle, the journalists persist in not reporting any aspect of the story that might somehow spoil the solemn mood of awesome ceremonial that both the White House and the media’s parent companies have planned for us. And so George W. Bush will come and flex his gravitas before the cameras, with certain “heroes of 9/11″ at his side – and most of those Americans who watch won’t even know, or won’t recall, that this same president, abetted by Dick Cheney, has done everything he can to thwart a full inquiry into how and why that worst of crimes occurred.*

Such obstruction is, at best, completely indefensible, since it prevents our grasping what occurred, and how we might best keep such things from happening again. At worst, it indicates that Bush and Cheney must be hiding something – something that we have the right to know. In any case, their interference ought to be sufficient grounds for their immediate impeachment; and yet our journalists have been so dazed by 9/11 that they have failed to call for a commission looking into it – an investigative body of the sort that we have had before, and that the government of any normal country would have organized at once. Over-eager, even now, to help prop up this failing president (and, of course, to keep their ratings high), they display no interest in enlightening us, but are intent on dunking all of us in an immense “emotional bath” (a phrase Tom Brokaw used not long ago, approvingly). They seem to think that such submersion is a patriotic act – but nothing could be further from the truth.


*Nor will they know that Bush just cut the funding to monitor the health of 9/11′s rescue workers, all of whom were long and heavily exposed to many toxins.

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