On Thursday, the fairy king of fairyland will be recrowned. He was
elected on a platform suspended in midair by the power of imagination. He is
the leader of a band of men who walk through ghostly realms unvisited by reality.
And he remains the most powerful person on earth.
How did this happen? How did a fantasy president from a world of make
believe come to govern a country whose power was built on hard-headed materialism?
To find out, take a look at two squalid little stories which have been concluded
over the past 10 days.
The first involves the broadcaster CBS. In September, its 60 Minutes programme
ran an investigation into how George Bush avoided the Vietnam draft. It produced
memos which appeared to show that his squadron commander in the Texas National
Guard had been persuaded to "sugarcoat" his service record. The programme's
allegations were immediately and convincingly refuted: Republicans were able to
point to evidence suggesting the memos had been faked. Last week, following an
inquiry into the programme, the producer was sacked, and three CBS executives
were forced to resign.
The incident couldn't have been more helpful to Bush. Though there is no question
that he managed to avoid serving in Vietnam, the collapse of CBS's story suggested
that all the allegations made about his war record were false, and the issue dropped
out of the news. CBS was furiously denounced by the rightwing pundits, with the
result that between then and the election, hardly any broadcaster dared to criticise
George Bush. Mary Mapes, the producer whom CBS fired, was the network's most effective
investigative journalist: she was the person who helped bring the Abu Ghraib photos
to public attention. If the memos were faked, the forger was either a moron or
a very smart operator.
It's true, of course, that CBS should have taken more care. But I think it
is safe to assume that if the network had instead broadcast unsustainable allegations
about John Kerry, none of its executives would now be looking for work. How
many people have lost their jobs, at CBS or anywhere else, for repeating bogus
stories released by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth about Kerry's record in
Vietnam? How many were sacked for misreporting the Jessica Lynch affair? Or
for claiming that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear weapons programme in
2003? Or that he was buying uranium from Niger, or using mobile biological weapons
labs, or had a hand in 9/11? How many people were sacked, during Clinton's presidency,
for broadcasting outright lies about the Whitewater affair? The answer, in all
cases, is none.
You can say what you like in the US media, as long as it helps a Republican
president. But slip up once while questioning him, and you will be torn to shreds.
Even the most grovelling affirmations of loyalty won't help. The presenter of
60 Minutes, Dan Rather, is the man who once told his audience" "George
Bush is the president, he makes the decisions and, you know, as just one American,
he wants me to line up, just tell me where." CBS is owned by the conglomerate
Viacom, whose chairman told reporters: "We believe the election of a Republican
administration is better for our company." But for Fox News and the shockjocks
syndicated by Clear Channel, Rather's faltering attempt at investigative journalism
is further evidence of "a liberal media conspiracy".
This is not the first time something like this has happened. In 1998, CNN made
a programme which claimed that, during the Vietnam war, US special forces dropped
sarin gas on defectors who had fled to Laos. In this case, there was plenty
of evidence to support the story. But after four weeks of furious denunciations,
the network's owner, Ted Turner, publicly apologised in terms you would expect
to hear during a show trial in North Korea: "I'll take my shirt off and
beat myself bloody on the back." CNN had erred, he said, by broadcasting
the allegations when "we didn't have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt".
As the website wsws.org has pointed out, it's hard to think of a single investigative
story - Watergate, the My Lai massacre, Britain's arms to Iraq scandal - which
could have been proved at the time by journalists "beyond a reasonable
doubt". But Turner did what was demanded of him, with the result that,
in media fairyland, the atrocity is now deemed not to have happened.
The other squalid little story broke three days before the CBS people were
sacked. A US newspaper discovered that Armstrong Williams, a television presenter
who (among other jobs) had a weekly slot on a syndicated TV show called America's
Black Forum, had secretly signed a $240,000 contract with the US Department
of Education. The contract required him "to regularly comment" on
George Bush's education bill "during the course of his broadcasts"
and to ensure that "Secretary Paige [the education secretary] and other
department officials shall have the option of appearing from time to time as
It's hard to see why the administration bothered to pay him. Williams has described
as his "mentors" Lee Atwater - the man who, under Reagan's presidency,
brought a new viciousness to Republican campaigning - and the segregationist
senator Strom Thurmond. His broadcasting career has been dedicated to promoting
extreme Republican causes and attacking civil rights campaigns.
What makes this story interesting is that the show he worked on was founded,
in 1977, by the radical black activists Glen Ford and Peter Gamble, to "allow
black reporters to hold politicians and activists of all persuasions accountable
to black people". They sold their shares in 1980, and the programme was
later bought by the Uniworld Group. With Williams's help, the new owners have
reversed its politics, and turned it into a recruitment vehicle for the Republican
party. Williams appears to have been taking money for doing what he was doing
These stories, in other words, are illustrations of the ways in which
the US media is disciplined by corporate America. In the first case the other
corporate broadcasters joined forces to punish a dissenter in their ranks. In
the second case a corporation captured what was once a dissenting programme
and turned it into another means of engineering conformity.
The role of the media corporations in the US is similar to that of
repressive state regimes elsewhere: they decide what the public will and won't
be allowed to hear, and either punish or recruit the social deviants who insist
on telling a different story. The journalists they employ do what almost all
journalists working under repressive regimes do: they internalise the demands
of the censor, and understand, before anyone has told them, what is permissible
and what is not.
So, when they are faced with a choice between a fable which helps the Republicans,
and a reality which hurts them, they choose the fable. As their fantasies accumulate,
the story they tell about the world veers further and further from reality.
Anyone who tries to bring the people back down to earth is denounced as a traitor
and a fantasist. And anyone who seeks to become president must first learn to
live in fairyland.