Reading From Left to Right

How the News Media Forge the Big Lie—Spring 2003

by Joe Auciello

What is the political mood of the country, the tenor of the times, according to the mainstream media? What do we learn, or what messages are inflicted on us, when we read the newspapers and listen to the news?

War approaches, patriotism swells, ranks close, and minds close, too. Here’s a country, after all, where “freedom fries” have just been invented to get back at the French for daring to disagree with the American president about war with Iraq.

Radio stations trash and burn Dixie Chicks CD’s because their lead singer said she was ashamed of George Bush. Newspapers run political cartoons showing Osama Bin Laden participating in an antiwar protest holding a sign saying “No Blood for Oil.” The message is unmistakable.

A national news reporter comments, after film footage showing U.S. troops training in Kuwait, “These soldiers and pilots are ready to do their job, but are diplomats at the UN ready to do theirs?” It takes a few minutes to sort out the underlying assumptions in that kind of rhetorical question. Is the “job” of the United Nations to nod “yes” when the U.S. president speaks? Apparently so. There’s objectivity in reporting for you.

When we turn on the television or unfold the daily newspaper, we are witness to the forging of a myth, the telling of a big lie. It says, real Americans, patriotic Americans, support their country in times of crisis when it is threatened by the enemies of freedom and democracy. The president will identify those enemies, and we will enlist to fight them. It is a misuse of freedom and liberty, they say, to protest against the U.S. government and its policies. (“Go protest in Russia/China/Vietnam/Iraq!”) Protests are organized by enemies of our country and draw in only the naive and uninformed.

It’s a lie, of course. And, if you were young and/or politically active in the 1960s, it’s a lie you have heard before. Back then it was called “the silent majority.”

As public opposition to the U.S. war against Iraq increases, as the antiwar movement becomes more sizable and as demonstrations become more frequent, the more the movement will be attacked as an abnormal, fringe group of anti-Americans. That’s the lie. It’s a lie that is born out of fear, fear that, as the New York Times described it, “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion” (Feb. 17, 2003).

To turn away or to be driven away from protest is to be silenced. Silence is not neutral. If it is not support of the president’s drive to war, it is complacence and complicity. Silence is consent to power. Silence smoothes the road to war.

Soon we will hear a good deal about the heroism of U.S. soldiers, but there is courage, too, in every person who stands up and speaks out against their government.

So, the Bush minions resort in snarling prose to a familiar line of attack. Split the movement, divide it, turn it against itself, try and keep “average Americans” away from it.

In the past, agents of the federal government, as part of an illegal operation called COINTELPRO, invented and encouraged conflict among antiwar organizations. In fact, the government tried to disrupt or destroy every form of organized protest from civil rights to women’s liberation. Divide and conquer—your tax dollars at work.

Within the mainstream media there are not a few who lend an eager hand to the people in power. Take, for starters, a glance at what the rabid right has to say. From the March 24 issue of National Review: “We are seeing the emergence of social forces that are prepared to violate the laws of this country and its allies in order to aid America’s enemies in time of war—and not just any old enemy, but enemies whose sole aim is the deliberate mass murder of the innocent.” This is what’s called “the Communist-Islamicist alliance.”

Writing in the Mirror (Britain), Christopher Hitchens condemned the February 15 antiwar demonstration in London. He wrote, “It should be a cause for great pride that pilots of the Royal Air Force take a leading share in patrolling the skies over northern Iraq, protecting a decade-long experiment in successful regime change.” As for the estimated two million who turned out in London, “the assortment of forces who assembled demanded, in effect, that Saddam be allowed to keep the other five-sixths of Iraq as his own personal torture chamber.”

There is not a little deception here. One is the convenient phrase, “in effect.” This allows Hitchens to ignore what protesters actually said and instead substitute his own interpretation as fact. Then, the largest antiwar action ever seen in London is waved away in phrases such as “the assortment of forces.” (How many? 100? 200?)

This “assortment,” as Hitchens sees it, consists of a “bunch of clapped-out pseudo-Marxists,” “fundamentalist Muslims,” and “the sincere, fuddled stage-army of the good—people who think that a remark such as ‘peace is better than war’ is an argument in itself.” This massive outpouring in London was reduced to “the silly who are being led by the sinister.”

The purpose of this kind of attack—because it is certainly not reporting or even journalism—is to separate the normal, “good” people from the extremists who somehow trick them into protest movements. J. Edgar Hoover spent much of a lifetime attempting no less.

Then came the episode of Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine. The antiwar coalition in San Francisco that was organizing for the February 16 demonstration adopted a simple measure to maintain unity:  members would not attack each other publicly, and proposed speakers for the demonstration were to be held to the same standard.

Lerner failed to meet the criteria. A month before, he had publicly accused the ANSWER coalition of anti-Semitism. True to its word, the San Francisco coalition did not present Lerner as one of its speakers.

Lerner then took to the Internet and portrayed himself as a victim of censorship who was “banned” from the demonstration because of his support to Israel. These charges later appeared in the Nation and major newspapers around the country, including the Wall Street Journal.

In These Times editor Joel Bleifuss joined the fray by reprinting a portion of Lerner’s accusations against the ANSWER coalition and claiming that this group “will not allow a ‘pro-Israel’ speaker on to the podium of any rally it sponsors.” This section of Bleifuss’s column was given the subheading of “Out damn sect” (In These Times, March 17, 2003).

Can anyone miss the intent of Michael Lerner and In These Times? To label the Feb. 16 antiwar rally in San Francisco as anti-Semitic, so that people would stay away from it. The tactics change, but the strategy is the same. Divide, confuse, and weaken the movement by separating the normal, good people from the bad extremists.

There is another kind of attack which is milder in tone but similar in purpose. It’s the type of writing that resonates reasonableness and restraint, writing that is redolent of respectability. Think, in other words, of the New York Times. That paper’s March 9 Sunday magazine printed an article by George Packer, “Smart-Mobbing the War,” which focused on young antiwar organizers and their use of the Internet to spread the word and build the peace movement.

Packer’s attitude to the movement is also hostile, but his derision is less obvious, masked by a pretended objectivity and by recognition of the movement’s popularity and strength. Packer’s attack is subtle, a matter of nuance, emphasis, and choice of language. So, the Oct. 26 and Jan. 15 national rallies were “dominated” (not “led,” for instance) by “more radical groups” (not by the good people who might be reading Times magazine), and the demonstrations featured “the perennial anti-American slogans.”

For Packer, the current political crisis is not just patriots versus the anti-Americans. Oh, no. In between are the mass of protesters who are just too plain stupid to think straight—the people who Hitchens calls “silly.” The civil Mr. Packer writes, “The protesters saw themselves as defending Iraqis from the terrible fate that the U.S. was preparing to inflict on them. This assumption is based on moral innocence…”

Actually, the protesters realize what the Pentagon tells them. The U.S. will wage this war with overwhelming military superiority and inflict terrible devastation to break the spine of Iraqi military resistance.

Sometimes the attack on the movement comes disguised in the form of helpful advice. The harm is hidden like a computer virus. Note the following from Marc Cooper, the American clone of Hitchens. It must be quoted in full because a summary would seem unbelievable:

“…by the time you read this, the bombs will most likely already be falling. And those of us who have opposed the war will be faced with crucial choices. The instinct of the peace movement will be to react with outrage, and that will be unfortunate. Public tantrums and shrieks of ‘Genocide!’ will accomplish nothing at this point.

“The responsibilities of the peace movement are far too weighty to be squandered in sputtering and ultimately politically irrelevant feel-good acts of blocking traffic or ripping down fences at military bases. As war breaks out, the peace movement must engage even more deeply, not marginalize itself. It must exert what influence it can muster to limit and constrain the exercise of American military power and to do all possible to prevent this conflict from becoming a prelude to endless war. But even more immediately, it’s the peace movement that must actually hold the Bush administration to its promises of liberating Iraq. The peace movement should take an active role in debating and trying to shape the post-Saddam outcome by fighting, first of all, for a thorough roll-up of the Ba’ath regime, for indictment and prosecution of Hussein and his gang, for the fullest democracy possible, respect for the Shiahs and Kurds, for a postwar government that respects human rights. That formula includes an authentic U.S. and international commitment to fund reconstruction and development. And let’s not forget the Bush-Blair promise to finally get serious about the Palestinians” (LA Weekly, March 21- 27).

Cooper’s imagination is quite limited, to put it politely. As he sees it, the peace movement can either engage in minor and fruitless acts of civil disobedience, or it can join the warmakers—for the imagined purpose of making the American occupation of Iraq more benign.

Cooper’s suggestion to strengthen the peace movement is to adopt the Bush agenda, albeit in a kinder, gentler version. The peace movement should call for war, just not an “endless” one, only a “limited” and “constrained” war. The movement “must engage even more deeply” in American politics by, first, deceiving itself and taking Bush’s rhetoric for reality and then basing itself on promises that were never meant to be kept. When American presidents go to war, they always speak of peace, freedom, and democracy. It’s the way business is done. A peace movement that demands war will have already defeated itself. No one will respect it or listen to it, least of all the Bush administration, which would fear only a militant movement and has no need of a tamed one to “advise” it on acting more humanely.

Other options are possible and practical. The movement can grow by holding fast to its principles and linking itself up with the unions and working class organizations that are taking an antiwar stand and joining, even initiating, antiwar actions. That is how the peace movement can exert and even expand its influence.

No Dissent

Having written a dismissive review of Martin Amis’s book Koba the Dread in the last issue of this magazine, I was more curious than usual to see what others “on the left” would say about this work. What I have found leaves me feeling embarrassed for some of the cuddly critics. In the Winter 2003 issue of Dissent, for instance, the reviewer takes a potshot or two at Amis’s fiction, but finds Koba “a useful book” with “intelligently marshaled sources.” This opinion squares exactly with the review that the New York Times published. So, where is the “left” perspective? Where is the dissent in Dissent?