Fahrenheit 451 and the Problem of the US Media

[talk given as part of “One Book New Jersey 2003 Reads Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, William Paterson University, April 15, 2003]

We are at the tail end of a war which has placed severe restraints on a free press. Not the fire of Fahrenheit 451, but bombs.

When a US tank fired a shell into the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, killing two foreign journalists, the Pentagon had no apologies. Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke stated that

“a war zone is a dangerous place. Baghdad in particular&. And we were saying it is not a safe place, you should not be there.” [1]
Leaving aside the fact that 4.5 million Iraqis didn’t choose to be there and thus were at grave risk if Saddam’s military hadn’t collapsed when it did, notice the implicit threat either you’re embedded and accept the censorship and constraints that embedding involves, or else you’re in a dangerous place and might get hit by a US tank shell.

And if you work for a news outlet deemed suspect, like Al Jazeera, your office is struck by a US missile, despite having provided your exact coordinates to the US military to avoid just such a incident. Is this a message from the Pentagon, which, coincidence of coincidence, also accidentally hit Al Jazeera in Afghanistan, in fact wounding the Al Jazeera journalist whom they managed to kill this time around.

So the theme of Fahrenheit 451 is certainly relevant today. But I’d like to suggest that government censorship does not represent the greatest threat to a democratic media in the United States today, and in that respect Fahrenheit 451 misleads us as to the real dangers. A more serious problem than government censorship of the media is self-censorship.

I am reminded of the lines penned by Humbert Wolfe in 1930:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! The British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.[2]
This same phenomenon applies, I would argue, with special force to the US media.

Consider the story of the US government ordering the bugging of the offices and homes of the UN ambassadors from the non-permanent members of the Security Council. This was a front page story in the London Observer, [3] and well it should have been for it revealed the total disregard that the Bush administration had for the United Nations, despite its claims that it was trying to make the UN relevant.

How did the US media cover this story?

The Los Angeles Times said in their headline: “Forgery or no, some say it’s nothing to get worked up about.”. The Washington Post downplayed it saying, it was “no shock.” But at least they mentioned the story. The major networks, however, didn’t mention a word about it. In fact, they had scheduled interviews with one of the British reporters who had broken the story, but cancelled them. And the New York Times, our newspaper of record, didn’t cover the story at all.[4]

Humbert Wolfe might have written:

The State can’t hope to ban the Times
from running news of U.S. crimes.
But seeing what the Times thinks “fit
to print,” the censors well might quit.
Take another example. The Donahue show was cancelled by MSNBC despite having the best ratings on the network; this occurred, according to published reports, after a study commissioned by NBC described Donahue as “a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace” who would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.” The report warned that the Donahue show could be “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”[5]

All the cable news stations kept telling us we were watching their continuing coverage of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” essentially using the Pentagon’s choice of terminology, framing their entire coverage. This was obviously a deliberate choice. What if the Iraqi army had called the war “Operation Stop Aggression” or “Operation Stop the Cowboy” — does anyone imagine that the cable news shows would have used that as the name of their coverage?

The Pentagon, it never blocks
The news from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox.
But hearing Fox’s pro-war screed,
It dawns on you, there is no need.
Henry Waxman, a US representative from California, wrote an open letter to George Bush. In public statements in support of the war. Bush, Powell, and others had charged that documents revealed Iraqi attempts to obtain enriched uranium from Niger. Waxman noted that these documents were not only now known to be forgeries, but had long been known within the US intelligence community to be highly dubious. Was this, asked Waxman, an attempt to railroad the American public and the Congress like the Tonkin Gulf incident of 1964? This was an important and troubling question asked by a respected member of Congress, one who had voted in favor of authorizing war back in October.[6]

How was this story covered in the New York Times? Nothing. The Washington Post. Zilch. In fact, the Post had, in the months leading up to war, an op-ed and editorial page that was heavily skewed toward war, despite the fact that much of the population was extremely skeptical of the pro-war case.

The White House can’t suppress the Post
(its editors will proudly boast).
But given every pro-war gem,
There is no need to stifle them.


[1] DoD News Briefing, 4/8/03.

[2] The Uncelestial City, New York, A. A. Knopf, 1930.

[3]  Martin Bright, Ed Vulliamy, and Peter Beaumont, The Observer (London), 3/2/03.

[4] Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, “Times, Networks Shun U.N. Spying Story,” 3/11/03.

[5] Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, “MSNBC’s Double Standard on Free Speech; ‘Turd World’ is OK’anti-war, anti-Bush’ is not,” 3/7/03.

[6] Henry A. Waxman to George W. Bush, 3/17/03, available at http://www.house.gov/reform/min/pdfs/pdf_inves/pdf_

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