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publication.... I certainly credit Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham for fighting for the freedom of the press.”
Meanwhile, farther north along the elite media corridor, columnist Anthony Lewis likes to extol his bosses for their bravery. Five years ago, he wrote about “the decision that, more than any other, established the modern independence of the American press—its willingness to challenge official truth. That was the decision of the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers.” He added, “the episode had a galvanizing effect on the press”—and now, “the spirit is there to hold government accountable.”
As summer 2001 began, Lewis was at it again, assuring readers that the Pentagon Papers marked a profound transformation of American journalism: “What changed the attitude of the Times and other mainstream publications was the experience of the Vietnam War. In the old days in Washington the press respected the confidence of officials because it respected their superior knowledge and good faith. But the war had shown that their knowledge was dim, and respect for their good faith had died with their false promises and lies.”
In contrast to all the talk about the glorious defeat of prior restraint, we hear very little about the ongoing and pernicious self-restraint exercised by media outlets routinely touted as the best there is.
High-profile reporters and commentators like Hunt, Novak, and Lewis are much too circumspect to mention, for instance, the November 1988 speech that Graham delivered to senior CIA officials at the agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, where the Washington Post publisher said: “There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”
On an earlier occasion, Graham recounted: “There have been instances in which secrets have been leaked to us which we thought were so dangerous that we went to them [U.S. officials] and told them that they had been leaked to us and did not print them.”
During the 1980s, the powerful publisher enjoyed frequent lunches with Nancy Reagan, often joined by Post editorial-page editor Meg Greenfield. Graham comforted the president's wife while the Iran- Contra scandal unfolded.
Graham developed close relationships with such high-ranking foreign policy officials as Robert Mc- Namara, Henry Kissinger, and George Shultz. But she has always denied any harm to the independence of her employees at the Washington Post and Newsweek.
“I don't believe that whom I was or wasn't friends with interfered with our reporting at any of our publications,” Graham wrote in her autobiography, published in 1997. However, Robert Parry—who was a Washington correspondent for Newsweek during the last three years of the 1980s—recalls firsthand experiences that contradict her assurances. Parry witnessed “self- censorship because of the coziness between Post-Newsweek executives and senior national security figures.”
Among Parry's examples: “On one occasion in 1987, I was told that my story about the CIA funneling anti-Sandinista money through Nicaragua's Catholic Church had been watered down because the story needed to be run past Mrs. Graham, and Henry Kissinger was her house guest that weekend. Apparently, there was fear among the top editors that the story as written might cause some consternation.” Overall, Parry told me, “The Post-Newsweek Company is protective of the national security establishment.”
With key managers at major news organizations deciding what “the general public does not need to know,” the government probably won't face enough of a media challenge to make a restraining order seem necessary.
Simulating Democracy Can Be A Virtual Breeze
Few media eyebrows went up when the World Bank recently canceled a global meeting set for Barcelona in late June—and shifted it to the Internet. Thousands of street demonstrators would have been in Spain's big northeastern port city to confront the conference. Cyberspace promises to be a much more serene location.
The World Bank is eager to portray its decision as magnanimous, sparing Barcelona the sort of upheaval that has struck Seattle, Prague, Quebec City, and other urban hosts of international economic summits. “A conference on poverty reduction should take place in a peaceful atmosphere free from heckling, violence and intimidation,” says a World Bank official, adding, “it is time to take a stand against this kind of threat to free expression.”
A senior adviser to the huge lending institution offered this explanation: “We decided that you can't have a meeting of ideas behind a cordon of police officers.” Presumably, the meeting of ideas will flourish behind a cordon of passwords, bytes, and pixels.
The World Bank's retreat behind virtual walls may keep the “riffraff” away, with online discourse going smoothly, but vital issues remain—such as policies that undercut essential government services in poor countries, while promoting privatization and user fees for access to health care and education.
“The objectives of the World Bank with this failed conference were simply an image-washing operation,” said a statement from a Barcelona-based campaign that had worked on planning the demonstrations. Now, the World Bank is depicting itself as the injured party.
Protest organizers are derisive about the Bank's media spin: “The representatives of globalized capitalism feel threatened by the popular movements against globalization. They, who meet in towers surrounded by walls and soldiers in order to stay apart from the people whom they oppress, wish to appear as victims. They, who have at their disposal the resources of the planet, complain that those who have nothing wanted to have their voice heard.”
The World Bank's gambit of seeking refuge in cyberspace should be a wake-up call to activists who dream that websites and email are paradigm-shattering tools of the people. Some who take it for granted that “the revolution will not be televised” seem to hope that their revolution will be digitized.
There's nothing inherently democratizing about the Internet. In fact, it has developed into a prodigious conduit of political and cultural propaganda, distributed via centrally edited mega-networks. America Online has 27 million subscribers, the New Internationalist magazine noted recently. “They spend an incredible 84 percent of their Internet time on AOL alone, which provides a regulated leisure and shopping environment dominated by in-house brands—from Time magazine to Madonna's latest album.”
At the same time that creative advocates for social change are routinely putting the Internet to great use, powerful elite bodies like the World Bank are touting online innovations as democratic models—while striving to elude the reach of progressive grassroots activism.
If, in 1968, the Democratic National Convention had been held in cyberspace instead of in Chicago, on what streets would the antiwar protests have converged? If, on Inauguration Day this year, the swearing-in ceremony for George W. Bush had taken place virtually rather than at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where would people have gathered to hold up their signs saying, “Hail to the Thief?”
Top officials of the World Bank are onto something. In a managerial world, disruption must be kept to an absolute minimum. If global corpor- atization is to achieve its transnational potential, the discourse among power brokers and their favorite thinkers can happen everywhere at once—and nowhere in particular. Let the troublemakers try to interfere by doing civil disobedience in cyberspace.
In any struggle that concentrates on a battlefield of high-tech communications, the long-term advantages are heavily weighted toward institutions with billions of dollars behind them. Whatever our hopes, no technology can make up for a lack of democracy.
Media and Vietnam
Media commentators are split about Bob Kerrey and what happened 32 years ago in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. Some journalists seem eager to exonerate the former senator. Others appear inclined to turn him into a lightning rod for national guilt.
Syndicated columnists have been a bit unpredictable. “This is a murder story that lacks the basic underpinnings high standards should require,” liberal Thomas Oliphant wrote. Conservative John Leo was less evasive: “The village was a ‘free-fire' zone, meaning that all who lived there were regarded as enemies who could be fired on at will. Did that policy amount to a blank check for American troops to commit atrocities? Even at this late date, we need to know the answer.”
In some media quarters, fury erupted after a New York Times editorial declared: “It is a story that—with its conflicting evidence, undeniable carnage and tragic aftermath—sums up the American experience in Vietnam and the madness of a war that then, as now, seemed to lack any rationale except the wrecking of as many lives as possible on both sides.”
The punditry duo on the “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” condemned the Times as terribly unfair to Kerrey. The editorial was “an act of moral arrogance rarely seen,” Mark Shields charged. Paul Gigot chimed in: “Mark stole my thunder beating up the New York Times.” Similar noises, on “Fox News Sunday,” came from the host of NPR's “Talk of the Nation,” Juan Williams, who claimed that reporters were giving Kerrey shabby treatment.
Striving to encourage such sentiments, Kerrey has resorted to the kind of media-as-traitors bombast that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon found so irresistible as commanders in chief. “It's disgraceful,” Kerrey complained during an Associated Press interview in late April. “The Vietnamese government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort.”
New York Times columnist William Safire is also sounding familiar themes these days. While not bothering to note his own specialized war-making services as a top speechwriter in the Nixon administration, Safire rushed to the defense of Kerrey—and the war on Vietnam. In a column that decried a “humiliating accusation of national arrogance,” Safire urged us to “recall a noble motive.”
But when motives were based on lies and illusions, how could they have been “noble?”
Commonly, in the U.S. media frame, the vast majority of the war's victims—including a few million dead people in their home countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—are rendered as little more than props for the anguish of Americans. How much we have suffered as a result of killing those people. Their importance grows only to the extent that they underscore our own.
A year ago, Kerrey wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece that concluded: “Was the war worth the effort and sacrifice or was it a mistake? Everyone touched by it must answer that question for himself. When I came home in 1969 and for many years afterward, I did not believe it was worth it. Today, with the passage of time and the experience of seeing both the benefits of freedom won by our sacrifice and the human destruction done by dictatorships, I believe the cause was just and the sacrifice not in vain.”
Only our own national narcissism, mendacity, and denial can preserve the binary myth that the war was either “worth the effort” or “a mistake.” The war was wrong not because it proved to be unwinnable but because it was, fundamentally, mass murder from the start. Propaganda aside, U.S. forces invaded Vietnam—welcomed by a succession of Saigon regimes that Washington installed and propped up.
Kerrey did his deadly work in the Mekong Delta in early 1969. So did Brian Willson, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. As a ground security officer, he saw bombing operations up close and witnessed effects on the ground, in villages. “The only difference between Kerrey and me is that I was never in a position to personally kill while in Vietnam,” Willson says. “But I was part of a killing machine, even being complicit in the bombing campaigns, and I saw dozens and dozens of the bodies of women and children.”
Willson went on to become an Air Force captain. Later, he studied the Pentagon Papers and other official documents clearly showing that—from the outset—U.S. leaders knew the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese wanted the U.S. out of their country. “It was true that we could not determine friend from foe,” Willson remembers. “Most, at least secretly, were foe.” Vietnamese people “were defending their integrity and sovereignty from us invaders.” The entire war was “immoral and illegal.”
One day in 1987, Willson lost his legs when he joined with other peace activists for civil disobedience on some train tracks in California. A train—carrying munitions on the way to Central America—ran him over. At the time, Willson was trying to impede the shipment of weaponry destined for use in warfare largely aimed at civilians.
Since the early 1990s, the bombing and ongoing embargo of Iraq has killed at least several hundred thousand children. A current billion-dollar military aid package from the United States, under the guise of a “war on drugs,” is boosting the death toll in Colombia. Just foreign-policy business as usual. Rest assured, we have no blood on our hands.
“They have destroyed and are destroying...and do not know it and do not want to know it,” James Baldwin wrote a few decades ago. He added: “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” Z
Norman Solomon's latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media. His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.