Public debate on TV in western societies has long been reduced to the spectacle of the 1% talking to each other: millionaire journalists pretending to hold even wealthier politicians accountable. This usually constrains debate exactly the way one would expect, but gruesome truths are sometimes revealed, inadvertently, because rotten values are shared by elite journalists and western officials.
Consider the infamous exchange between Madeleine Albright and Lesley Stahl in May of 1996:
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.
Albright was then U.S. Ambassador to the UN. About a year after this interview she was promoted and became Secretary of State under Bill Clinton.
In 2004, Amy Goodman confronted Albright over her remark. “It was a stupid statement. I never should have made it…” said Albright.
Of course it was stupid of Albright to display her total disregard for Iraqi lives. A competent state terrorist would have claimed the death toll was lower and argued that any humanitarian disaster was entirely Saddam Hussein’s fault. Albright unmasked herself because she was too comfortable with a TV journalist like Stahl. But did the chilling inhumanity Albright revealed have any discernible impact on Stahl? The answer is no.
In 1999, three years after the Albright interview, Stahl published a book (“Reporting Live”) which primarily looks back at Stahl’s long career as CBS White House correspondent. Her account ends in 1991 when Stahl was hired by 60 Minutes. She reviews the legacies of the presidents she covered (Carter, Reagan and Bush Senior). Iraq is discussed at length, but she completely ignores the horrific death toll, of which she was clearly aware, that resulted from the 1990 Gulf War and the sanctions that followed. Looking back on Bush Senior’s drive towards war she wrote, without a trace of embarrassment or remorse, that in “all the years I covered the White House, I cannot recall having so much admiration for a president”. She proudly recalls how she “threw off any trace of impartiality” in confronting the Iraqi Ambassador about hundreds of westerners who were being prevented from leaving Iraq before the war: “Is there any wonder…the American people see this as an act of unbelievable inhumanity and view your leader, Saddam, as a monster?”
The western hostages were released a month before the USA initiated a merciless assault on Iraq that would last decades and would kill about a million Iraqis by the time Stahl published her book. As an extravagantly overpaid, high-profile journalist (who was once asked to trim her salary a half million dollars) she conveniently expressed no regrets – and most likely had none – over her role in helping to initiate the slaughter. Stahl says that among Carter’s achievements, for which “he rarely got the credit he deserved” were arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the expansion of the US military into the Persian Gulf which “gave George Bush [Senior] the ability to fight Iraq in the Gulf War”. Her retrospective critique of Bush Senior’s war is limited to noting that the “strategic” decision to leave Hussein in power to “balance” Iran came “to be seen as a mistake.”
However, Stahl did regret failing to ask Kuwait’s ambassador to the USA, as his feudal government was being re-installed by US troops, if Kuwait would now “recognize Israel”.
Decades of covering the White House did not compel Stahl to mention, much less analyze, US sponsored bloodbaths that took place while she was on the job, and that collectively cost hundreds of thousands of lives in East Timor, El Salvador, Guatemala or even Nicaragua despite the Iran-Contra scandal being reviewed by Stahl in detail. She made a very brief mention of Daniel Ortega saying she could not understand his appeal in Nicaragua – judging by her book, because she was ignorant of the monstrous Somoza dictatorships that her government propped up for decades and of the terrorist war the Reagan administration waged which cost 30,000 Nicaraguan lives. No doubt, a great deal of ignorance is both a consequence of being a CBS White House correspondent and a requirement for landing that kind of job, but something worse than ignorance explains much of Stahl’s morally stunted work.
Very recently, a TV journalist in the UK, Cathy Newman, also appeared to go morally deaf when Michael Scheuer –a retired senior CIA Operations Officer – advocated Muslim on Muslin genocide. The key part of the exchange follows:
Cathy Newman: So you’re saying ‘send in Western ground troops’ then?
Michael Scheuer: No ma’am, I think we should back away from the whole thing. The thing was ideal when IS was advancing on Baghdad because Sunnis were killing Shias. That’s exactly what we need. We’ve proven that we’re just militarily incompetent or that the military is so shackled by its political leaders, that it can’t defeat these people. But our best hope right now is to get the Sunnis and Shias fighting each other and let them bleed each other white
Newman: There’s no hope of that happening though is there? I mean, President Obama’s talked about being involved in this war for many years.
Newman’s robotic non-response to Sheuer’s bloodlust makes quite a contrast with the way other TV journalists in the UK – Jon Snow and, even more belligerently, Kay Burley – demanded that British Muslims say they condemn beheadings. Compounding the hypocrisy, Saudi Arabia, a close US/UK ally, routinely engages in beheadings, mutilations and other acts barbarism. It also aggressively seeks to spread its brutal and backward ideology abroad. The UK government received some ridicule at home for flying flags at half-mast after the Saudi Beheader-in-Chief, King Abdullah, passed away, but the UK media generally let it slide. In her book, Stahl described the Saudi government and others who joined Bush Senior’s “coalition” against Saddam Hussein as “moderates”. A morally bankrupt alliance – one that also places westerners at risk – is passed over in silence. For lavishly paid TV journalists, the price is well worth it.