William Rivers Pitt: One of These Days
One of These Days
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 11 May 2005
Truthout Editor's Note: The following remarks were delivered Tuesday night by William Rivers Pitt at an event hosted by the North Bridge chapter of the Alliance for Democracy in Concord, Massachusetts. The topic under discussion was corporate control of the mainstream news media.
- to editor
Whenever I get asked to speak about the media and its role in our world, I always remember something that happened to me in the fall of 2002. My book on Iraq had been out for a few weeks, I was writing for truthout, and I was also carrying a full teaching slate of high school classes. Needless to say, I was busy.
I was driving home from a long day of teaching back in the fall of 2002, and my cell phone rings. Now, and this is kind of a funny aside, I had always resisted getting a cell phone. Didn't like them, didn't want them. But all of a sudden I had all these radio interviews to do because of the Iraq book, and I did not want to do those interviews on the school phone for obvious reasons. So I went down to the phone store and got the cheapest one there. That meant, of course, that the phone was huge.
So the phone rings and I answered it while trying to navigate Memorial Drive in Cambridge - yes, at that moment I was the jerk on his cell phone who almost kills you with his car - and on the line is a producer from MSNBC who wanted me on the Connie Chung show. Hot damn, I thought. This is getting serious. The producer wanted me on the show to talk about Hans Blix and the weapons inspections taking place in Iraq. Great, I said. Yeah, she went on, we want you to talk about how the inspectors are doing a really bad job.
So picture this moment. There I was, trying to drive down one of the worst roads in Cambridge with a cell phone the size of a gallon of milk stuck to my ear, and I have this MSNBC producer telling me that if I go on the show, I have to dump all over the inspectors who at that time had been in-country about a week. Coincidentally, that was exactly the same line of rhetoric being pushed by the White House at exactly that time. I'm sure the look on my face was priceless, and I'm lucky me, the car and the giant cell phone didn't wind up in the Charles River.
I asked her if she knew who she was talking to. She didn't understand. My book, I told her, says there are no weapons of mass destruction and therefore no reason to go to war there. I'm the last person on the planet, therefore, who is going to haul water for the idea that there are weapons in Iraq. Furthermore, I said, I don't know where you get off trying to gin up resentment against the inspectors. They just got there, and if they can finish their work without getting derailed by nonsense like this, it'll hopefully keep a lot of people from getting killed. The MSNBC producer laughed quietly - that's the part I will never forget, how she laughed - and hung up.
For me, that's it in a nutshell. That's what ails us as a nation. The corporate media does not report the news anymore. They create consensus, they manufacture the common fictions under which we are expected to live. With the TV media, this behavior is all the more insidious because TV reaches everyone.
Television is the most extraordinarily effective tool of mass control that has ever been invented by anyone anywhere.
If this MSNBC producer is an appropriate example - and I think she is, because she was asking me to basically be yet another Bush administration mouthpiece - the fictions they create do not merely soothe and placate the populace. They kill. They kill in large numbers, and a few people (who coincidentally own large chunks of the corporate news media) get paid handsomely for that killing.
The print media is not in any way immune to this. Their disinformation does not have the reach of television news, simply because nobody reads anymore, but it is there all the same. My most recent brain cramp actually came up this morning, and has to do with the venerable New York Times. It was the Times that allowed the Bush talking-point about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to be broadbanded across the media spectrum.
Times reporter Judy Miller hunkered with convicted embezzler and alleged Iranian spy Ahmad Chalabi, and reported on the pages of the Times that Iraq was absolutely covered with weapons of mass destruction. This helped Chalabi, you see, because he had been chosen by the Bush folks to run Iraq after the war. So far, he has only gotten to be the Oil Minister...yes, the embezzler is now the Oil Minister, but that's a whole different mess.
The point is that like it or lump it, the Times is the flagship of American journalism. If they say it, it must be true, and so when Miller reported that Iraq was covered with weapons, it became axiomatic. Then the TV outlets felt safe in saying it, and we were off to the races.
Well, my brain cramp today came when I read the Times' response to the fallout from this situation. They were duped by a Bush administration lackey, the published gross fabrications, they empowered the war rhetoric...and in response to criticism, they have decided to move their perspective farther to the right. Yes, you heard me, and welcome to my brain cramp.
The frustration I feel personally knowing that I and everyone else are being deliberately deceived and misdirected is topped by only one thing: The rage, horror and sorrow I feel when I finally do manage to carve through the crap and get to the truth. Because the truth, friends and neighbors, is so much worse than you can possibly imagine.
In this mean and meager time of pre-packaged, pre-processed, corporate-controlled infotainment that passes itself off as 'news,' it is a rare and refreshing experience to see and hear a true journalist reporting the facts. I was privileged a couple of weeks ago to share a stage in Boston with Dahr Jamail, the reporter who could not stomach the biased non-news coming out of Iraq after the invasion, and went over there to see and report on what was happening himself.
Jamail spoke in a calm and precise manner on what he had seen while in Iraq. His words carried the weight of witness, but more devastating than what he said was what he showed the crowd. For an hour, Jamail flashed photograph after photograph from Iraq on a large screen. It is one thing to hear the truth. It is another again to see it, in slide after slide, through the eyes of a man who was there and returned to tell the tale.
Jamail's photo essay described the current situation in the starkest of terms. Buildings that had been bombed out during the invasion remain today blasted and unusable piles of rubble. One photo showed a blown-out supermarket with a collapsed roof. He took the picture in 2003, but showed it on Monday night because it looks the same today as it did when the bomb first fell. There are many times many such damaged buildings. The ones that remain standing are often pockmarked from machine gun fire.
In a nation with the second largest proven stores of petroleum on earth, there are today gas lines that make the American gas-line experience of the 1970s seem a picnic by comparison. Iraqis must spend two days in their cars, sleeping in them overnight, to get a rationed 7.5 liters of gasoline, provided the station does not run out before they get to the pump. Jamail interviewed a high-ranking member of the Petroleum Ministry, who reported that the oil infrastructure is stable enough to provide gas to the country. That gas is not being provided, said the Minister, because the Americans are not pumping it, but sitting on it.
Hospitals in Iraq are in utterly deplorable condition, with few specialists to treat common illnesses and the wounds inflicted on civilians by the bomb and the bullet, and almost no medicine. Almost all the best-trained and highest-ranking medical professionals have fled the country because they are targeted by criminal gangs seeking to extort money from them, leaving undertrained residents to handle the load. A Health Minister interviewed by Jamail said Coalition officials had promised $1 billion in medical aid. To date, almost none of that has been provided.
The sanitary conditions are almost beyond description; one photo showed a hospital bathroom that was filled from wall to wall with urine and feces, because the plumbing does not work. To make matters worse, ambulances are targeted by American forces because they fear the vehicles are being used by resistance fighters. Jamail showed a photo of one such targeted ambulance that looked as though it had been driven through a blast furnace.
In the best Iraqi neighborhoods, there is electricity available for eight hours a day. The rest of the nation gets electricity for perhaps three hours a day, if at all. At least two car bombs a day can be heard and felt, and the supposedly-safe Green Zone constantly comes under bombardment. Dead and bloated cattle line the roads, said roads existing in profoundly damaged condition.
Some 70% of the population is unemployed, leaving a great deal of spare time for despair and rage to take root. A good portion of the violent resistance, reported Jamail, is being carried out by foreign fighters, Baathist holdouts and former Iraqi military personnel. But more and more, everyday Iraqis are picking up guns, he said, because conditions are so despicable.
The heavy-handed tactics of the American occupation force, reported Jamail, have also fed that rage. Jamail stated that the Americans have taken to using 'collective punishment' against large segments of the population to try and dampen the violence. In one instance, a road leading out of a remote farm community was blown up and blocked to punish the residents, and the only nearby gas station was machine-gunned and blasted by a tank.
The most glaring example of collective punishment took place within the city of Fallujah. You will clearly recall the events of March 31, 2004, when three mercenary contractors from Blackwater were pulled from their car, butchered, burned and hung from a bridge in that town. The American corporate news media carefully described these four repeatedly as 'American civilians, failing to note that some 30,000 highly-paid military mercenaries just like these four are operating in Iraq, beyond the laws and rules of American military justice. These mercenaries stand accused by the Iraqi populace of a variety of crimes including rape and theft.
It was a despicable and horrifying act of violence, to be sure. Yet the American populace was left with the impression, reinforced by the media, that these 'civilians' were targeted by the entire city of Fallujah. In fact, the act was committed by perhaps 50 people, and the Imams in the mosques spoke with one outraged voice against what was done to those four.
This did not matter. The collective punishment of Fallujah began days later. Civilians were targeted by snipers. Helicopters and bombers rained fire and steel indiscriminately on the city. After a while, a truce was called so the city could bury its dead, and so medical supplies could be brought in. No supplies made it into the city, but the casualties were entombed in soccer fields that were renamed 'Martyr's Graveyards.' Jamail photographed the fields of burial mounds, and translated the names on many of the headstones. A majority of those stones bore the names of women and children.
In the lull between attacks, the citizens of Fallujah flooded the streets in a massive victory celebration, unaware that the worst was yet to come. The rage they vented on the Fallujah streets was proof enough that American tactics are manufacturing resistance fighters every day.
Not long after, the second phase of the punishment of Fallujah began, this time as an aerial bombardment of the city that left thousands dead and wounded. Bodies remained unburied in the streets to bloat in the sun and be gnawed by dogs. One Jamail photo from Fallujah showed the shattered, rotting corpse of a man lying next to his prosthetic leg. It seems this one-legged man was an enemy of freedom, a feast for dogs in the hot Iraqi sun.
The Pentagon has a phrase for the photos and reports Dahr Jamail was able to bring back to us from his time in Iraq. They call it 'Hostile Information,' otherwise known as unassailable facts that cut violently against the pretty portrait and non-news the American people have been spoon-fed about our occupation of that country.
If you believed the situation there was bad, it's worse than you can imagine, a war crime writ large, a grinding of a civilian population that was no threat to America and is now caught between hot steel and a cold grave. 'Horror' is not a strong enough word to describe what Dahr Jamail showed us that night, what he saw with his own eyes, what almost no American has been allowed to see because 'Hostile Information' is not permitted. It does not fit into the consensus contrived by the media. It is not part of the pleasant fiction. But it is happening, every day, right now, it is happening.
Speaking of the pleasant fiction, have you heard about that leaked secret British intelligence memo? Have you seen it covered on the TV news? I haven't. I haven't even seen mention of it in the print realm. It must not be important.
The document almost reads like satire. "Bush wanted to remove Saddam," reads the leaked secret British intelligence memo dated 23 July 2002, "through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." The intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy? You don't say. Some tasty tidbits from this memo:
"It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."
Despite the fact that Hussein was considered less of a threat than Iran, North Korea and even Libya, Bush had made up his mind to invade. Wrapping this around the flatly-declared statement that the intelligence and facts were being framed around the 'policy,' i.e. the invasion, is damning.
"The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defense, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorization. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change."
The British Attorney General made it clear that the war plan as constituted was illegal. Therefore, other justifications for war were required. "The situation might of course change," reads the text. It did. They fabricated WMD evidence to justify self-defense.
"The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. There were different strategies for dealing with Libya and Iran. If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work."
In many ways, this is the worst of the three, and brings to mind again my conversation with that MSNBC producer. Hans Blix and his inspectors went into Iraq and found no weapons of mass destruction in their searches. Ergo, there was no self-defense justification and no legal basis for war. Yet in order to create the legal and political justification of self-defense, as stated in the memo, Hussein had to be seen as blocking those inspections. He didn't. In fact, it was the Bush administration (with a little help from the media) that thwarted Blix while stacking hundreds of thousands of troops on the border. At one point, Bush even went so far as to declare that Hussein had actually not allowed the inspectors in, even as Blix and his people were shaking the Iraqi dust off their boots.
Plenty of people have been bellowing about this for years now, often risking their own well-being and that of their families in the process. Richard Clarke, former White House Counter-Terrorism Czar, spent a lot of time talking about how the books were being cooked to justify an invasion of Iraq. Tom Maertens, who was National Security Council director for nuclear non-proliferation for both the Clinton and Bush White House, backed up Clarke's story with his own eyewitness testimony.
Roger Cressey, Clarke's former deputy, witnessed one of the most damning charges that has been leveled against the administration by Clarke: They blew past al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, focusing instead on Iraq. Donald Kerrick, a three-star General who served as deputy National Security Advisor under Clinton and stayed for several months in the Bush White House, likewise saw this happening.
Paul O'Neill, former Treasury Secretary for George W. Bush, was afforded a position on the National Security Council because of his job as Treasury Secretary, and sat in on the Iraq invasion planning sessions which were taking place months before the attacks of September 11. Those planning sessions kicked into high gear when the Towers came down.
Greg Thielmann, former Director of the Office of Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Issues in the State Department, watched with shock and awe as the White House rolled out the 'uranium from Niger' war justifications that had been so thoroughly debunked. Joseph Wilson, former ambassador and career diplomat, was the one who debunked it.
After Wilson described what he didn't see in Niger in the New York Times, the White House reached out and crushed his wife's career. His wife, Valerie Plame, was a deep-cover CIA agent running a network dedicated to tracking any person, group or nation that would give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. The White House torpedoed her career and her network as a warning to Wilson, and to any other whistleblower who might come forward.
The most damning testimony regarding "fixing intelligence and facts around the policy" came from Air Force Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski. Kwiatkowski worked in the office of Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith, and worked specifically with a secretive outfit called the Office of Special Plans. Kwiatkowski's own words tell her story: "From May 2002 until February 2003, I observed firsthand the formation of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans and watched the latter stages of the neoconservative capture of the policy-intelligence nexus in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq."
"I saw a narrow and deeply flawed policy," continued Kwiatkowski, "favored by some executive appointees in the Pentagon used to manipulate and pressurize the traditional relationship between policymakers in the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies. I witnessed neoconservative agenda bearers within OSP usurp measured and carefully considered assessments, and through suppression and distortion of intelligence analysis promulgate what were in fact falsehoods to both Congress and the executive office of the president." In other words, they fixed the intelligence and facts around the policy. The policy, of course, was invasion.
Each of these people, and others like them who reported similar intelligence book-cooking, were brushed off by the White House, dismissed out of hand as liars, or worse, Democrats. Most of them were likewise totally ignored by the media. With the leaking of the secret British intelligence memo, however, their reports have been confirmed.
Ray McGovern, a 27-year veteran CIA analyst, nails it to the door. "It has been a hard learning - that folks tend to believe what they want to believe," wrote McGovern in an essay regarding this leaked memo. "As long as our evidence, however abundant and persuasive, remained circumstantial, it could not compel belief. It simply is much easier on the psyche to assent to the White House spin machine blaming the Iraq fiasco on bad intelligence than to entertain the notion that we were sold a bill of goods. Well, you can forget circumstantial."
The butcher's bill to date: 1,610 American soldiers dead, times ten grievously wounded; well over 100,000 Iraqi citizens dead, uncounted more wounded, with a recent upsurge of violence claiming more than 300 lives in the last week alone; a twelve-figure price tag that spirals ever-upwards by the day, mortgaging our children's future for the profits of the few; no weapons of mass destruction anywhere in Iraq.
In my humble opinion, we need two exit strategies: one to get our forces out of Iraq, and another to get George W. Bush out of the White House and into a cellblock in The Hague. Save a bunk for Mr. Blair, too. Criminals belong in prison.
But this doesn't fit the fiction, it grates against the consensus, and it also by the way would cut significantly into media profits if they were no longer able to sell fear and war. CNN's viewership went up 500% after September 11. Have you any idea the advertising dollar-value a ratings boost like that brings along? They aren't dumb. Fear sells. Soul-scorching fear sells really well.
People ask me for solutions to this, and I don't have any that will improve things in the near term. The media needs to be re-regulated, and the fairness doctrine needs to be put back into place. In order to do this, however, we have to win a whole bunch of elections, and we have to do so by beating candidates who are supremely well-funded by these media giants. Somewhere in there we have to fix that whole pesky thing about rigged corporate-owned electronic voting machines and the end of participatory democracy as we have known it. One thing at a time, right?
A solution I have been advocating has to do with the alternative media, the online media. While it is great that websites like truthout, alternet, common dreams and the others have been churning out hard facts and good analysis, the problem is that this information is not getting to the people it needs to get to. I give talks like this to people who love truthout, and what happens is that I spend an hour in a room telling people basically what they already know.
What we in the alternate media need to do, and what you media activists need to do, is advocate hard in your own communities for the providing of computers and internet access to poor and rural communities. In other words, we need to wire up the people who need this information, who get lied to by their televisions every day, who send their sons and daughters off to die so Halliburton and Exxon can line their pockets. I know this stuff, you know it, but too many others don't even have access to it. That has to change.
My other solution isn't really workable in the real world. During a book tour I did a couple of years ago, I went to a whole bunch of red states: Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Orange County California (yes, that counts as a red state), North Carolina and the recently blueified New Hampshire. I would talk like this about the TV news media, and then I would ask the people in the crowd if any of them owned guns. These were red states, so a fair number of hands went up. Good, I said. Excellent. Go home and shoot your television. They laughed, but I was totally serious.
I have this dream. In my dream, I turn on my TV and CNN is on. Some talking head is there to do the top of the hour report. In my dream, the talking head says, "Today in Iraq, the 26,000 liters of anthrax, the 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, the 500 tons which is one million pounds of sarin, mustard and VX gas, the 30,000 munitions to deliver these agents, the mobile biological weapons labs, the uranium from Niger and the robust nuclear weapons program that George W. Bush told us about in his January 2003 State of the Union address were, once again, not found anywhere. Now here's Flappy with the weather."
One of these days, my friends. One of these days.
William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.' Join the discussions at his blog forum.