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Friday, October 15, 2004


Get Me Rewrite

It’s no coincidence that the definitive verb of contemporary American political practice has become “to spin.” As the country hurtles uninterruptedly toward its rendezvous with itself on November 2, it’s clear that the society is caught in a web of myth so intricately woven, so thoroughly entrapping of wayward and random truth, that, regardless of who wins next month, the endlessly spun mesh that surrounds us will continue to slowly suffocate us all.

The most disturbing aspect about watching the three presidential debates has been the degree to which we have all clearly accepted the fact that we are now lied to as a matter of course, not merely with impunity, but baldly, in living color and on 60-inch screens. It is as if we are now all continually tested to see if we were actually paying attention just a few minutes before, and heard what we thought we had heard, and seen what we thought we had seen, since all the pundits and talking heads and, above all, spinmeisters tell us (actually, scream at us) that, no, you didn’t hear what you thought you just heard, you didn’t see what you thought you just saw, but—really, really—you heard and saw the exact opposite. Ergo, although the “debates” between John Kerry and George W. Bush were contests of almost bizarre (and, in truth, sometimes painful) imbalance, we were told in the end, in a particularly breathtaking example of the continuing Pravdaization of the American mind, that the president “held his own” or even won.

It is one thing when a politician lies: it is done in a well-manufactured fog of dis- or misinformation, and in a context of purposely controlled response. When an entire government lies, it does so under the cover of all sorts of bureaucratic protections and, more often than not, with the full complicity of the law, since so much of the rationale for what passes as “national security”—or, as the British more honestly call it, “official secrets”—legislation is, frankly, predicated on preventing the public from ever learning about governmental misdeeds in a timely fashion.

But when “journalism” becomes a confederacy of minions, when “commentary” is an act of witchdoctery in which delusion worthy of an opium addict is sold as political sobriety and intellectual focus, when the New York Times and PBS and NPR become—in essence and in fact—indistinguishable from Fox News in the degree to which they are enmired (or, rather, have wittingly enmired themselves) in obviously fraudulent reportage and thoroughly concocted “news,” one can fairly assume that the fourth estate has been effectively absorbed by the powers that be.

One of the most persistent canards regarding the American media is, of course, the notion of liberal bias. The absurdity of the accusation is easily confirmed by anybody who actually watches American television, listens to American radio, or reads American newspapers. The American media are so unashamedly and self-consciously coopted that if Gramsci were alive today, his analysis of “organic intellectuals” would actually constitute a case study of the Times, Washington Post, or CBS and NBC. Furthermore, in what is truly an ideological assault of devastating efficiency, the entire spectrum of American media has followed the rest of American society in moving profoundly to the right in the last 30 years.

When William Safire became a commentator for the Times (a year after Richard Nixon’s mauling of that other war hero, George McGovern, which immediately confirmed to the newspaper of record’s editorial board that they didn’t have to be weathermen to know which way the wind was blowing), it became the media story of the year. The fact that the Gray Lady, dowager of the liberal establishment, had opened her doors to someone who had heretofore been known only as a right-wing hack (and whose sole claim to fame, moreover, had been his service as a speechwriter for Nixon) provoked a profound sense of betrayal—almost post-coital tristesse—among bleeding hearts from sea to shining sea. By contrast, when David Brooks, the Times’s new resident anthropologist manqué, inaugurated his column last year, nary a peep was heard across the great liberal commonwealth. (I should add that, in Brooks’s relentlessly superficial and unapologetically mendacious gibberish, the right has finally found its Bouvard to match Thomas Friedman’s Pecuchet.)

Meanwhile, back at Black Rock, Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite labored mightily and brought forth…Dan Rather. Once upon a time, when intelligence was considered a virtue and not a sign of Satanic corruption, Walter Cronkite unembeddedly went to Vietnam (immediately following the Tet offensive), came back, and calmly told the American people, in plain and easily parsed words, that what he saw wasn’t good and that we were headed to a place not worth going (“It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out…will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people…,” he said). The loud, sucking noise that was heard from coast to coast the moment Cronkite’s face faded from the screen was support for the war and, more to the point, Lyndon Johnson’s policies, rushing out of the body politic. Johnson himself is famously said to have turned from Cronkite’s broadcast, which he had been watching, and to have remarked, much more in sadness than in anger, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.” On the last day of the following month, LBJ announced to a stunned nation that he would not seek reelection to the presidency.

Can anyone imagine any president nowadays turning to his staff and saying, “If I’ve lost Rather, I’ve lost the country”? Nobody cares anymore what Rather, or Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings, thinks, mainly because nobody believes anything any of them say. When Edward R. Murrow and his “boys” (including Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, and Richard C. Hottelet) broadcast from England and the front lines of Europe during the Second World War, Americans back home clung to their every word in front of their radios. When Murrow took on Joe McCarthy in that historic See It Now broadcast of March 9, 1954, it was not only because he had the courage to do so—which, not at all coincidentally, he had—but also because he knew that his fellow citizens expected him to do it. (David Halberstam wrote of Murrow that he was “one of those rare legendary figures who was as good as his myth.”) When Cronkite would sign off his television broadcast every night, “and that’s the way it is,” most people in America—right, left, or indifferent—actually believed that, yes, that’s the way it was. Journalism requires one simple moral quality above all: trust between the journalist and his/her fellow citizens. Once gained, that trust is a lifelong bond. 

Last year, my wife and I went to the demonstration in New York that was part of the worldwide protest against the then-looming war in Iraq. It was a bitterly cold February day, and after a couple of hours of standing around and listening to uninspired speechifying (because the city had prohibited us from marching, as was originally planned), we slowly wended ourselves through the crowd, and the police barricades put up to keep people penned up in the street and away from the sidewalks, to Billy’s, a First Avenue bar and restaurant that’s an East Side institution.

We were lucky to get a table, as the place was filling up. We ordered lunch, and then, as the waitress was taking away our menus, I noticed the couple sitting at the next table: it was Walter Cronkite and his wife. They, too, had just stepped in from the demonstration (Cronkite was holding literature and, more revealingly, a camera). Everybody noticed them, of course, but we all left them alone. After they had had their lunch and were getting up to leave, however, my wife could not restrain herself (she never can); she stood up, too, and just went over to Cronkite and thanked him. That’s it: she simply said, “Thank you, Mr. Cronkite,” and returned to our table. All the adjacent tables burst into applause.

Those of us who came of age watching Walter Cronkite actually report the news “the way it is” (and not the way so many would like it to be) might have all eventually veered off into our separate ways (right, left, or avoiding the road kill down the middle of the road) but we all knew—still know—that we could trust him, for better or worse. It’s ironic (and the height of hypocrisy, of course) that the same right-wing spin-and-attack machine now calling for Dan Rather’s scalp made him the poster-boy of “anti-terrorist” American unity following September 11 when he sententiously announced (on the Letterman show, appropriately enough) that George W. Bush “s my commander-in-chief. All he has to do is tell me where to line up and I’ll do it.” Meekly lining up to follow orders is not what Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow or their colleagues ever did, for the self-evident reason that it would have immediately disqualified them from the vocation of journalist in what was then still a genuinely democratic society. But twenty-first-century America is a brave new world indeed.  In 1958, Murrow accused the people who ran television of becoming “fat, comfortable, and complacent” and of using their power “to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us.” He had no idea.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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