The worst crime you can commit, in the eyes of the powerful, is to embarrass them and to reveal their crimes. That is what Julian Assange did, most notably about U.S. war crimes in Iraq, and that is why he is being hounded and punished. Assange is being made to suffer, and suffer greatly he is, because he spoke truth about the powerful to the powerless. That is arguably the number one job of a real journalist, to hold powerful people accountable, to reveal the truth when so many conspire to keep it hidden. But most journalists are not profiles in courage, just as most people aren’t. The courageous are few, and counted among their number is Assange.
If you’re a journalist looking to make a difference, to shed light in dark corners, do you dare to take on the U.S. government and national security state given its persecution of Assange? Do you want to spend years in a maximum security prison, almost in total isolation, facing extradition to the U.S. for a bogus and nonsensical charge? The U.S. government’s persecution of Assange, though it’s meant to punish him and silence him, is really about intimidating and silencing other journalists. Who now dares to follow Assange’s example?
Power operates most freely, meaning most tyrannically, when it’s unconstrained by accountability. The more Assange suffers, the more America slips into authoritarianism. Joining America in its drift toward tyranny is Great Britain and Australia, with Britain imprisoning Assange and approving his extradition and Australia doing nothing to stop the persecution of one of its own citizens. Such is the corrupting influence of power.
As usual, George Orwell explained all this in “1984” when he described the nature of power:
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power … [No] one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end … The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”
Assange, like the character of Winston Smith in “1984,” now has a full understanding of the nature of power. It’s come at an enormous price to him. Yet Assange has also revealed the nature of our government to the rest of us, the way it brutally uses power to keep its monopoly on power.
The question is: Are we going to do anything about it? Or is it already too late? And if we do choose to resist, like Winston Smith (and Julian Assange), will we be taken to our own versions of Room 101, after which we too will profess our love for Big Brother?
Addendum: A comment by Dan White stimulated this reply by me. I think it’s worth adding here.
If not obliteration [of people like Assange], then marginalization, incarceration, diminishment, denouncement, and so on. Chelsea Manning. Daniel Hale. Daniel Ellsberg. And many more. Put them in prison and/or accuse them of treason. Seize their assets. Destroy their lives.
Most of all, intimidate those who are wavering, who are thinking, but who perhaps don’t have quite the nerve, or perhaps too much to lose.
The best way to silence whistle blowers is to make them choose to throw their whistle away before it even reaches their mouth.
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.
At Salon.com, Patrick Smith has a telling article on the Obama administration’s foreign policy. He details the way in which style has triumphed over substance, and how tightly the Obama administration controls the narrative in the mainstream media. Essentially, Smith provides more evidence of the way in which reporters and journalists serve as stenographers to the powerful.
Many journalists, notes Smith, are twenty-somethings who attempt to provide coverage of foreign affairs from inside the Washington Beltway. Under such conditions, even a diligent reporter has to rely far too heavily on official mouthpieces at the Pentagon, State Department, and similar governmental agencies. Those reporters who buck the system risk losing access; in short, they risk losing their privileges — and their jobs. Most end up conforming.
This is nothing new to anyone familiar with Stephen Colbert’s famous take-down of insider journalists at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006. As Colbert said a decade ago:
But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!
Along with that critique, Smith is excellent on critiquing the fundamental unoriginality, the militarized banality, of much of Obama’s foreign policy. As Smith notes:
There can be no radical shift in American conduct abroad, of course, until goals and purposes are addressed very forthrightly. This means taking on, in explicit fashion, our inherited tropes—our claims to exceptionalism and universalism—as well as the hegemonic ambitions the Pentagon shares with American corporations. It is a question, as noted in a previous column, of techne and telos, two words from ancient Greek. You can change the former—your method, your means—all you like, but it will matter little until you alter your telos, your aims, the ideal you strive for …
What is the new [Obama administration] narrative, then? May we know, please? I address the question to Ben Rhodes, David Samuels and Samuels’ editors at the Times Magazine. All this palaver about a brilliant foreign policy innovator and not one word about his masterstroke innovation, a reimagined frame for American conduct abroad?
The lapse is a symptom of the above-noted problem: style without substance, form without content. We cannot count even the openings to Iran and Cuba as any great departures, given Washington’s behavior since. There is no new narrative, only a new way of telling the old narrative.
Just so. Consider recent events. More U.S. “advisers” (troops) to Iraq. More foreign weapons sales. The commitment of ABM missiles to Romania. Sending B-52s (a symbol of the Cold War) to strike at ISIS. More talk of the dangers of a resurgent Russia. And (of course) more talk of enlarging the Pentagon and feeding it more money.
Yes, the Obama administration has been more reluctant than Bush/Cheney to commit big battalions of the regular army to overseas invasions and wars, but otherwise the foreign policy song has remained pretty much the same. Obama just prefers a smaller stage presence or “footprint,” as defined by Washington as drones and special ops, together with privatized militaries and extensive weapons sales, rather than big battalions.
That’s hardly a new narrative in U.S. foreign policy — precisely the point of Smith’s telling critique.