Brian Williams, American television network anchor caught telling his audience a fantasy version of his experience on a foreign assignment, has unintentionally provided us with a near perfect allegory and tale of caution about American journalism and the role it plays in politics and foreign affairs.
I am not referring to the fact that a number of prominent Americans have done exactly the same thing Williams did making false public claims of risky deeds, this Münchausen-like condition being surprisingly common among American politicians. Hillary Clinton, in her 2008 nomination campaign, claimed she came under fire in Tuzla, Boznia in 1996, when her plane landed. Actual video of the harrowing event showed her being greeted peacefully by a young child with a welcoming poem. John Kerry, in his quick four-month “grab some glory for a future political career” stint in Vietnam made exaggerated claims of risk and bravery and certainly decency when indeed most of his activities involved shooting at peasant farmers working their fields from his heavily-armed patrol boat on a river, ferrying the odd cutthroat assassin for the CIA’s ghastly Operation Phoenix project, and killing a man, likely Viet Cong, who was lying on the ground badly wounded by the boat’s heavy machine gun fire. Rich men’s sons do get medals for rather hard to understand achievements.
The awful truth is, given the state of American journalism, stunts like that of Williams, despite their symbolism, are virtually without concrete importance. American network anchors like Williams are expected to have good looks, good voices, and sincere, home-townish demeanors while reading scripts. Beyond that, they have almost no connection with what most people understand as journalism. There is the odd effort by large American networks to make their handsome talking heads seem to be at the center of events, the most hilarious of which in my memory was CBS’s Dan Rather garbed in Afghan-style robes crawling around on the ground somewhere pretending to be secretly reporting something or other about Afghanistan, his soundman, lighting technician, cameraman, and make-up artist never making an appearance. Such absurdities lend theatrical flair to American news and probably help frustrated journalists stuck with million-dollar, talking-head jobs feel slightly useful, and you might say they are therapeutic, but they have nothing whatever to do with journalism.
Journalism, as it is taught in schools, is about discovering, or at least suggesting, through a series of well-defined techniques what is actually happening in events of interest and reporting the findings in a non-biased, almost scientific, way, but, remarkably, this is something which virtually never happens in American journalism. Truthfulness and journalistic principles simply have no place in the intensely politically-charged atmosphere of America where no event and no utterance is without political dimensions. Actually, this has been the case for a very long time, but it just hasn’t always been so starkly clear as it is now. The same Dan Rather mentioned above, rising star reporter back in 1963, shortly after the Kennedy assassination, told an audience of millions he had seen the legendary Zapruder film – an amateur 8mm film taken by a man named Zapruder which unintentionally recorded Kennedy’s death. Rather, in almost halting words and with eyes often turned downward suggesting the immensity of what he claimed to have seen, described to millions how the film showed Kennedy slumping forward after being hit in the back by a shot from the “sniper’s nest” with Governor John Connally then hit while turned around towards the President, coat open, widely exposing his white-shirted breast, and with a third shot causing the President “to move violently forward” as his head explodes. Except for the count of three shots striking the car’s occupants, Rather’s description was close to a complete fabrication, but the public didn’t know that until 1975, twelve years later, when the film was first broadcast. (There was actually at least one more on-target, non-lethal shot plus a missed shot hitting a street curb, but even Rather’s three shots, given before security officials had sorted out their story line, was ignored by the feebly-dishonest Warren Commission when it later told us there were only two shots plus a miss.) Even in the film’s almost-certainly doctored state – after all, it had been purchased immediately after the assassination, and held for years, by Life magazine, a known cooperating resource for the CIA in its day – the film shows Kennedy in distress from a neck wound as he emerges from behind an expressway sign, almost certainly having been shot from the front owing to his body position and the motions of his hands. Connally does turn but his coat is not open exposing his shirt front, and, judging by the time interval involved, is hit by a separate bullet (something he himself maintained in all testimony). The film then shows Kennedy hurled backward as his head explodes, absolute proof by the laws of physics of a shot from the front.
American major news broadcasts and newspapers all have become hybrids of infotainment, leak-planting, suggestion-planting, disinformation, and other manipulative operations. Many of them, such as the New York Times or NBC, maintain a seemingly unassailable appearance of authority and majesty, but it is entirely a show much like a grand march being played as a Louis XIV sauntered into a room, at least when it comes to any important issue in foreign affairs and even most controversial matters in domestic affairs, as with the Kennedy assassination or a thousand other examples from election fraud to corporate bribery. Massive corporate media consolidation (six massive corporations supply virtually all the news Americans receive), the dropping of most foreign correspondent and investigative journalism efforts owing to high costs, the constant and ready compliance of the few remaining owners of news media to adhere to the government line no matter how far-fetched, plus America’s now non-stop interference into the affairs of other people, have made American television and newspapers into a kind of Bryan Williams Media Wonderland where no reported item of consequence can be accepted at face value.
The owners of America’s news media have every reason to comply with government wishes. Failure to do so would immediately cut them off from access to government officials and from the kind of juicy leaks that make journalists here and there look like they are doing their jobs. It would also be costly in the advertising department where the sale of expensive ads to other huge corporations is what pays the bills. And it would simply not be in keeping with the interests of the very people who own massive corporate news outlets. After all, it was an American, A.J. Leibling, who told us with precise accuracy, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”1
Americans, the broad mass of them, simply do not know what is happening in Ukraine or in Syria or in Palestine or in a score of other places under assault by America’s establishment, its de facto, ongoing, non-elected government. Those place names are mentioned of course, and regularly, and various interviews are conducted, and maps and charts are shown, but the careful listener or reader will see that none of what is offered is genuinely informative, all of it serving to build one pre-determined idea of events, many of the words resembling the kind of one-liners politicians repeat over and over in America’s literally content-free political campaigns. We see many bits and pieces of seeming information, but they are all just pieces taken from the same jig-saw puzzle, capable only of being assembled in one way.
Americans also have very little idea of the nature of the men who are the actors in these various places, America’s press and networks virtually never granting or soliciting the insights of foreign leaders and representatives not already toeing the American line. Thoughtful foreign leaders generally are only seen through brief images and highly-colored descriptions.
Americans also are rarely informed of the consequences of their government’s acts, informed in hard facts and numbers such as the number of deaths and injuries and the extent of destruction. America’s press has covered up countless facts such as the number of Iraqis killed in the First Gulf War, the number of Iraqi children who perished under an American embargo so feverishly championed by Madeline Albright, or the number of Iraqis killed and crippled by the George Bush’s “I’ll go one better than Pappy” invasion. They never saw pictures of women and children torn up by cluster bombs unless they deliberately searched them out on the Internet. When Americans are given numbers, such as deaths and refugees, as in the American-induced Syrian conflict, it is only because the numbers are said to be the Syrian government’s responsibility, with no reference to the gangs of foreign mercenaries and thugs paid and armed by America or its associates in the region.
For Ukraine, any numbers and facts Americans receive are shaped to fit the construct of an aggrandizing Russia, led by a new Czar intent on upsetting the balance of Europe, opposing a now free and democratic government in Kiev. You can almost imagine the smiles and snickers of the good old boys gathered in planning meetings at Langley a few years ago when they realized how their scheme could both give them Ukraine and discredit Putin, the only reasonable actor in the whole dirty business. No images of Ukrainian militias and thugs displaying swastikas and other neo-Nazi symbols, no discussion of repressive measures taken by the new crowd at Kiev against Russian-speakers, no discussion of a country starting a war on its own people who stood up for their rights, and no discussion of an incompetent Ukrainian military shooting down a plane-load of civilians.
I don’t know whether Brian Williams just became so comfortable over his years of work broadcasting fantasies that he grew easy about adding a personal tall tale or whether he may suffer from some unfortunate disability, but his ridiculous affair does provide us reason to focus on contemporary American journalism’s real function, which is anything but journalism. I think it likely the reason corporate news executives were in a flap over the affair, having handed Williams a 6-month suspension, is not scrupulous concern for truth — there simply is no such thing in such organizations — but fear of having one of the chief presenters of so many other misrepresentations made a laughing-stock.
- Quoted in “Do you belong in journalism?”, The New Yorker (14 May 1960). [↩]