Donald Trump is exploiting a weakness in our media — its quest for eyeballs at any cost. Trump is best at gluing eyeballs to the screen — he inflames his supporters and infuriates his detractors. Meanwhile, he oversees a train wreck of an administration that dominates headlines. “If it bleeds, it leads” — and our country is bleeding under his leadership.
Media owners seem to see synergy here: empower Trump with free and sweeping coverage and watch ratings and profits soar. But Trump is a parasite. He’s drawing strength from the media even as he sucks its power and influence dry. But the biggest loser is democracy, since the Trump-media nexus is degrading (and perhaps destroying) fact-based decision-making.
These thoughts came to mind as I read Tom Engelhardt’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. Trump, Engelhardt notes, has the unique and ultimately pernicious ability to drive — and often to dominate — discourse:
Never, not ever, has a single human being been so inescapable. You can’t turn on the TV news, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, wander on social media, or do much of anything else without almost instantly bumping into or tripping over… him, attacking them, praising himself, telling you how wonderful or terrible he feels and how much he loves or loathes… well, whatever happens to be ever so briefly on his mind that very moment.
Engelhardt highlights an important truth later in his piece: Trump’s true “base” is the very “fake news” media he’s so happy to attack.
Of course, Trump has always been a relentless, even ruthless, self-promoter. Now that he’s president, the media can’t exactly ignore him (or can they?). But what’s truly shocking is how the mainstream media is so supinely subservient to him. How unwilling they are to call him a liar when he lies; and how unwilling they are to critique their own obsequious coverage in a way that would lead to meaningful changes.
The media can’t get enough of Trump. Knowing this dependency, Trump exploits it, relentlessly. He reminds me of Agent Smith in “The Matrix” movies. He’s a rapidly-replicating virus that, if left unchecked, will destroy the matrix of American democracy . The question is: How is Trump to be neutralized, or at least contained, when the media keeps feeding him?
Breaking News: Jim Acosta got his press pass back. Big deal. Now Trump can score more points off of CNN and its “fake news” machine.
The supposed big news here is that Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, didn’t know about President Trump’s invitation to Vladimir Putin to visit the White House this fall.
The real story is in plain sight: all the corporate sponsors of the Aspen Security Forum, including Lockheed Martin, the nation’s leading weapons maker. I like the way the logo for Lockheed Martin hovers just above Dan Coats’s head. Who works for whom here?
(Other military contractors with prominent logos included Symantec, which specializes in cybersecurity, and MITRE, which technically is a not-for-profit corporation that works mainly with the Department of Defense; I worked with MITRE engineers when I was in the Air Force.)
The other obvious story: the mainstream media’s cozy relationship to those in power. Andrea Mitchell’s interview with Coats is downright chummy. It’s all very polite and non-confrontational, with Mitchell hinting we all should be very concerned and nervous about Trump negotiating alone with Putin.
Perhaps so, perhaps not. But I am concerned about all those cozy relationships within and across the national security state, and the way our media eagerly joins in on the fun. Collusion takes many forms; let’s not focus so tightly on alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia that we miss what’s in clear sight in photos and videos such as this.
Update (7/22/18): Is the mainstream media focusing on cozy relationships and possible collusion among the various players at Aspen? You know, the military-industrial complex, the government and its seventeen intelligence agencies, universities and think tanks and the media, i.e. the usual suspects? Of course not. At ABC News, they’re focusing on whether Dan Coats’s chuckle and off-the-cuff remarks about Putin’s proposed visit to the White House were disrespectful to Trump. And there you have it.
John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff and a retired Marine Corps general, held a press conference on Thursday to deny he’s quitting or that he’s about to be fired. In passing, he referred to two common myths in America that go almost completely unexamined. (By “myth” I mean a defining belief, held in common, and usually without question.)
The first myth: That the United States has “the greatest military on the planet.” The second myth: That the U.S. military’s value is its “deterrent factor.”
The U.S. certainly has a powerful military, one that costs roughly a trillion dollars a year, when all national security expenses are tallied (e.g. Homeland Security, intelligence, nuclear weapons, and interest on the national debt associated with these expenditures, among other costs). But is it “the greatest”? More importantly, why should a democracy and a people allegedly dedicated to peace and freedom be so proud of possessing “the greatest military on the planet”?
There was a time when Americans were proud of having a small standing military. There was a time when Americans were proud of protesting arms sales around the world by “merchants of death.” Those days ended with the Cold War. Now, America leads the world in military spending and arms exports; no other country comes close. Is this something to boast about?
How about General Kelly’s claim of the military’s “deterrent factor”? The U.S. military has 800 bases around the world, with U.S. special operations forces involved in more than 130 countries. Is this all about “deterrence”? Is the U.S. deterring or preventing wars in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other places throughout the greater Middle East and Africa? That hardly seems to fit the facts on the ground.
Of course, the media focused on Kelly’s message that he isn’t being fired and that President Trump is both “thoughtful” and a “man of action.” His claims about the “world’s greatest military” and its strong deterrent value went unreported and unquestioned. Such claims are now as “American” as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.
NBC news reports that President Trump is skeptical about the U.S. military’s prospects in Afghanistan. The military is losing, not winning, Trump said, and he further suggested the U.S. commander on the scene should be fired. Meanwhile, China is cleaning up with mineral rights (such as copper mining), even as America’s generals continue with a “stay the course” policy, a policy that’s led to sixteen years of “stalemate” (the U.S. military’s word) at a cost of roughly a trillion dollars.
I highly recommend reading the NBC article for at least two reasons. First, Trump is right to question his advisers’ stale advice. He’s right to question the generals. Indeed, that’s his job as president and commander-in-chief. If sixteen years of effort and a trillion dollars has produced “stalemate” (at best) in Afghanistan, can one blame the president for seeking a new strategy? Perhaps even a withdrawal?
Second, and most interesting, is the push-back from NBC News and its hired guns: the retired generals and admirals who work for NBC as “consultants.” Let’s look closely at their comments.
Retired Admiral James Stavridis, a former head of NATO and an NBC News analyst, basically blames the Trump administration, not the military, for the Afghan stalemate. In his words:
“The situation in Afghanistan is not improving, but I think it’s hardly irretrievable at this point, and what the president needs to be doing is deciding on the strategy.”
“What is hurting the process at the moment is this back and forth about do we stay or do we go, how many troops,” he added. “Any commander is going to be incredibly handicapped in an environment like that. So I think the fundamental problem here is lack of decisiveness in Washington, specifically in the White House.”
Now, let’s turn to retired General Barry McCaffrey. President Trump had the audacity to ask experienced combat veterans in Afghanistan (i.e., not only the generals) for advice on the war. and McCaffrey is having none of that:
“One of the last things you necessarily want to do is form policy advice based on what the current combatants think about something in a war zone,” said Gen. McCaffrey, an MSNBC military analyst. “They’re qualified totally to talk about tactics and things like that and what they’re seeing, but the president’s job is to formulate strategy and policy not to do tactical decisions.”
In short, a retired admiral and general at NBC News are taking the President to task for (1) Not being quick enough to rubber-stamp the military’s latest call for more troops in Afghanistan; (2) Daring to listen to the advice of lower-level U.S. combat veterans of the Afghan war, veterans who are rightly critical of the war.
Tell me again: Where’s that “liberal” media bias we’re always hearing about?
Trump is right to question his generals, and he’s right to seek advice from those who don’t wear stars on their shoulders. And he’s certainly right in not making a hasty decision.
Finally, to NBC News: Can’t you find military experts who aren’t retired generals and admirals? And with critical perspectives? Your article essentially supports the generals and their strategy (if that’s the right word) for endless war in Afghanistan. Is that really the best and only course for America and Afghanistan? Where’s the talk of negotiation? Withdrawal? An end to America’s seemingly endless commitment to Afghanistan?
Trump is more skeptical of the Afghan war than NBC News and its team of “starry” experts. Advantage, Trump.
The term “collateral damage” is a terrifying euphemism. The U.S. military didn’t invent it, but it sure has embraced it. The dictionary definition is “unintended civilian casualties or damage in a war,” which is about as anodyne a description as one could imagine.
In common usage, “collateral” is something we put up to secure a loan, so it often has a positive meaning. (No worries: I have lots of collateral.) “Damage” is a neutral-sounding word: the book was damaged in shipping. Storm damage. And we also speak of “damages” when we sue someone. In sum, “collateral” and “damage” are impersonal and imprecise words.
Let’s think personally and precisely. What is “collateral damage” in the “war on terror”? Bodies blown to bits. Blood everywhere. Skin burnt and melted by Willy Peter (White Phosphorous). Eviscerated children. Rotting corpses.
The military has a colorful saying: “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” Maybe we need a new saying: “Don’t murder my child and tell me it’s collateral damage.”
In his latest mini-essay introduction at TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt notes how “collateral damage” has become a central and defining reality of America’s endless war on terror. The main article (Burning Raqqa) by Laura Gottesdiener details U.S.-led air strikes in Syria that go horribly wrong:
By the beginning of May, the Abdos’ neighborhood was under almost daily bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition forces. On May 3rd, coalition warplanes reportedly launched up to 30 airstrikes across Tabqa’s first, second, and third neighborhoods, striking homes and a fruit market and reportedly killing at least six civilians. The following night, another round of coalition airstrikes battered the first and third neighborhoods, reportedly killing at least seven civilians, including women and children. Separate airstrikes that same night near the city’s center reportedly killed another six to 12 civilians.
On May 7th, multiple bombs reportedly dropped by the U.S.-led coalition struck the building where Muhammed and Salam had taken shelter, killing them and their 12-year-old grandson. Three days later, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had fully seized control of Tabqa and the dam. The militia and its U.S. advisers quickly set their sights east to the upcoming offensive in Raqqa.
But for the Abdo family, the tragedy continued. Muhammed and Salam’s bodies were buried beneath the collapsed apartment building. It took 15 days before Wassim’s brother Rashid could secure the heavy machinery required to extract them.
“Nobody could approach the corpses because of the disfigurement that had occurred and the smell emanating from them as a result of being left under the rubble for such a long period of time in the hot weather,” Wassim told me in a recent interview.
That same day their bodies were finally recovered. On May 23rd, his parents and nephew were buried in the Tabqa cemetery.
Specifics such as these are generally not reported by the U.S. military or in the U.S. media. Instead, we get headlines about militants or terrorists being killed, along with snippets about collateral damage, “regrettable” but framed as unavoidable.
Tell that to the families of the dead.
George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms. As I wrote a year ago, words about war matter. Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars. They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.
Silencing War Criticism: The Iraq Invasion of 2003
Update (7/19/17): I posted this article at HuffPost, and the site added a video that shows the mainstream media gushing over Trump’s strike against Syria. The video is well worth watching. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/596df7a3e4b07f87578e6bd7 or follow this link.
Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota (1999-2003), was a hot media commodity as the Bush/Cheney administration was preparing for its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ventura, a U.S. Navy veteran who gained notoriety as a professional wrestler before he entered politics, was both popular and outspoken. MSNBC won the bidding war for his services in 2003, signing him to a lucrative three-year contract to create his own show – until, that is, the network learned he was against the Iraq war. Ventura’s show quickly went away, even as the network paid him for three years to do nothing.
I heard this revealing story from a new podcast, the TARFU Report, hosted by Matt Taibbi and Alex Pareene. By his own account, Jesse Ventura was bought off by the network, which back then was owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor that was due to make billions of dollars off the war.
Of course, Ventura was hardly the only war critic to run afoul of GE/NBC. Phil Donahue, the famous talk show host, saw his highly rated show cancelled when he gave dissenters and anti-war voices a fair hearing. Ashleigh Banfield, a reporter who covered the Iraq war, gave a speech in late April 2003 that criticized the antiseptic coverage of the war (extracts to follow below). For her perceptiveness and her honesty, she was reassigned and marginalized, demoted and silenced.
So much for freedom of speech, as well as the press.
As Phil Donahue said, his show “wasn’t good for business.” NBC didn’t want to lose ratings by being associated with “unpatriotic” elements when the other networks were waving the flag in support of the Iraq war. In sidelining Ventura and Donahue, NBC acted to squelch any serious dissent from the push for war, and punished Ashleigh Banfield in the immediate aftermath of the war for her honesty in criticizing the coverage shown (and constructed) by the mainstream media, coverage that was facilitated by the U.S. military and rubber-stamped by corporate ownership.
Speaking of Banfield’s critique, here are some excerpts from her speech on Iraq war coverage in April 2003. Note that her critique remains telling for all U.S. media war coverage since then:
That said, what didn’t you see [in U.S. media coverage of the Iraq war]? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story, it just means you’re getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that’s what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism, because I’m not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn’t see what it took to do that.
I can’t tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you’ve got to be on both sides.
Some of the soldiers, according to our embeds had never seen a dead body throughout the entire three-week campaign. It was like Game Boy. I think that’s amazing in two different ways. It makes you a far more successful warrior because you can just barrel right along but it takes away a lot of what war is all about, which is what I mentioned earlier. The TV technology took that away too. We couldn’t see where the bullets landed. Nobody could see the horrors of this so that we seriously revisit the concept of warfare the next time we have to deal with it.
I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I’m very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people’s opinions. It was very sanitized. [emphasis added]
This TV show [Iraq invasion coverage] that we just gave you was extraordinarily entertaining, and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious, because there’s nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do. [emphasis added]
War is ugly and it’s dangerous, and in this world the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans. It’s a dangerous thing to propagate.
I’m hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.
Nothing has changed since Banfield’s powerful critique. Indeed, the networks have only hired more retired generals and admirals to give “unbiased” coverage of America’s military actions. And reporters and “journalists” like Brian Williams have learned too. Recall how Williams cheered the “beautiful” U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles as they were launched against Syria earlier this year.
It’s not just that U.S. media coverage actively suppresses dissent of America’s wars: it passively does so as well, which is arguably more insidious. Any young journalist with smarts recognizes the way to get ahead is to be a cheerleader for U.S. military action, a stenographer to the powerful. Being a critic leads to getting fired (like Donahue); demoted and exiled (like Banfield); and, in Ventura’s case, if you can’t be fired or demoted or otherwise punished, you can simply be denied air time.
When you consider that billions and billions of dollars are at stake, whether in weapons sales or in advertising revenue tied to ratings, none of this is that surprising. What’s surprising is that so few Americans know about how pro-authority and uncritical U.S. media coverage of war and its makers is. If anything, the narrative is often that the U.S. media is too critical of the military to the detriment of the generals. Talk about false narratives and alternative facts!
America’s greed-wars persist for many reasons, but certainly a big one is the lack of critical voices in the mainstream media. Today’s journalists, thinking about their career prospects and their salaries (and who is ultimately their boss at corporate HQ), learn to censor themselves, assuming they have any radical thoughts to begin with. Some, like Brian Williams, even learn how to stop worrying and love the beautiful bombs.
Consider this article a work of speculation; a jumble of ideas thrown at a blank canvas.
A lot of art depicts war scenes, and why not? War is incredibly exciting, dynamic, destructive, and otherwise captivating, if often in a horrific way. But I want to consider war and art in a different manner, in an impressionistic one. War, by its nature, is often spectacle; it is also often chaotic; complex; beyond comprehension. Perhaps art theory, and art styles, have something to teach us about war. Ways of representing it and capturing its meaning as well as its horrors. But also ways of misrepresenting it; of fracturing its meaning. Of manipulating it.
For example, America’s overseas wars today are both abstractions and distractions. They’re also somewhat surreal to most Americans, living as we do in comparative safety and material luxury (when compared to most other peoples of the world). Abstraction and surrealism: two art styles that may say something vital about America’s wars.
If some aspects of America’s wars are surreal and others abstract, if reports of those wars are often impressionistic and often blurred beyond recognition, this points to, I think, the highly stylized representations of war that are submitted for our consideration. What we don’t get very often is realism. Recall how the Bush/Cheney administration forbade photos of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Think of all the war reporting you’ve seen on U.S. TV and Cable networks, and ask how many times you saw severed American limbs and dead bodies on a battlefield. (On occasion, dead bodies of the enemy are shown, usually briefly and abstractly, with no human backstory.)
Of course, there’s no “real” way to showcase the brutal reality of war, short of bringing a person to the front and having them face fire in combat — a level of “participatory” art that sane people would likely seek to avoid. What we get, as spectators (which is what we’re told to remain in America), is an impression of combat. Here and there, a surreal report. An abstract news clip. Blown up buildings become exercises in neo-Cubism; melted buildings and weapons become Daliesque displays. Severed limbs (of the enemy) are exercises in the grotesque. For the vast majority of Americans, what’s lacking is raw immediacy and gut-wrenching reality.
Again, we are spectators, not participants. And our responses are often as stylized and limited as the representations are. As Rebecca Gordon put it from a different angle at TomDispatch.com, when it comes to America’s wars, are we participating in reality or merely watching reality TV? And why are so many so prone to confuse or conflate the two?
Art, of course, isn’t the only lens through which we can see and interpret America’s wars. Advertising, especially hyperbole, is also quite revealing. Thus the U.S. military has been sold, whether by George W. Bush or Barack Obama, as “the world’s finest military in history” or WFMH, an acronym I just made up, and which should perhaps come with a copyright or trademark symbol after it. It’s classic advertising hyperbole. It’s salesmanship in place of reality.
So, when other peoples beat our WFMH, we should do what Americans do best: sue them for copyright infringement. Our legions of lawyers will most certainly beat their cadres of counsels. After all, under Bush/Cheney, our lawyers tortured logic and the law to support torture itself. Talk about surrealism!
My point (and I think I have one) is that America’s wars are in some sense elaborate productions and representations, at least in the ways in which the government constructs and sells them to the American people. To understand these representations — the ways in which they are both more than real war and less than it — art theory, as well as advertising, may have a lot to teach us.
As I said, this is me throwing ideas at the canvas of my computer screen. Do they make any sense to you? Feel free to pick up your own brush and compose away in the comments section.
P.S. Danger, Will Robinson. I’ve never taken an art theory class or studied advertising closely.