As the US entered World War I in 1917, Hiram Johnson, a US senator from California, issued a warning that goes to the heart of our current predicament. “The first casualty when war comes is truth,” he explained. Although he didn’t mention it, the second casualty is just as obvious: freedom. Since Sept. 11, both have been offered up eagerly as the national media stokes primal fears, setting the stage for the most dangerous rollback in basic rights since the 1950s.
Consider what’s happened just in the first months since this “new kind of war” was declared: massive secret detentions, curbs on privacy and dissent, media outlets self-censoring their coverage. More than 1100 people have been held without criminal charges, often on the basis of weak evidence. Under the so-called Patriot Act, investigators can now monitor talks between detainees – whose names and supposed crimes are classified – and their lawyers. Wire-tapping, e-mail surveillance, and searches have all become far easier. Solitary confinement and restrictions on visitors can be imposed for a year, rather than the previous 120 days. Meanwhile, the FBI publicly considers using a “truth serum” to crack recalcitrant suspects, and may begin deporting detained foreigners to countries that use torture.
Much of this is covered by the corporate press, but at the same time, it’s explained away as part of an absolutely necessary response to the terrorist threat. More to the point, major news outlets openly debate whether the public is being told too much. CNN Chair Walter Isaacson ordered his staff to “balance images of civilian devastation in Afghan cities with reminders that the Taliban harbors murderous terrorists,” saying it “seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.” In a memo, he admonished reporters covering civilian deaths not to “forget it is that country’s leaders who are responsible for the situation Afghanistan is now in,” suggesting that journalists lay responsibility at the Taliban’s door, not the US military’s.
As Fairness and Accuracy in Media put it, if anything is perverse, “it’s that one of the world’s most powerful news outlets has instructed its journalists not to report Afghan civilian casualties without attempting to justify those deaths.” CNN has essentially mandated that pro-US propaganda be included in the news, while rationalizing its decision to ignore the genocide looming ahead.
The story is the same at Fox, where news anchor Brit Hume recently wondered why journalists should bother covering civilian deaths. “The question I have,” he said, “is civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really. Should they be as big news as they’ve been?” Others, including NPR’s Mara Liasson and US News & World Report’s Michael Barone, go further, arguing that civilian deaths aren’t news at all. What is? Apparently, wild speculation on every imaginable catastrophe, keeping viewers in a permanent state of anxiety – and, hopefully, glued to the tube for the next live disaster.
An epidemic of self-censorship and convenient distortion is spreading across the country. In Panama City, Florida, a News Herald memo warns editors: “DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the US war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like. DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the US war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only exception is if the US hits an orphanage, school or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children.”
The fact that truth has taken a back seat isn’t even hidden. As Hume told the New York Times, “Look, neutrality as a general principle is an appropriate concept for journalists who are covering institutions of some comparable quality.” But, he added, “This is a conflict between the United States and murdering barbarians.”
Hollywood has also jumped on the bandwagon. Stars and heads of production companies confer with government officials on how best to spread the official line. Concerned about his role in Mission: Impossible III, Tom Cruise met with CIA agents in hopes of “presenting the CIA in as positive a light as possible,” according to his spokesperson. At the Institute for Creative Studies at the University of Southern California, Hollywood talent consults with military brass to speculate about future attacks.
At the same time, “inappropriate” comments bring a reprimand or worse. When Bill Maher, host of TV’s Politically Incorrect, said the World Trade Center terrorists might be more brave than the US military, several affiliates dropped the show and ABC boss Michael Eisner almost fired him. Others haven’t been as lucky. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer warned that, in times like these, “people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that a new McCarthyism – you could even call it pre-fascism – is on the rise. Following several incidents in which academics were reprimanded for expressing allegedly unpatriotic views, the American Association of University Professors pleaded for an end to an atmosphere where thinking out loud is considered subversive. But who’s still listening? Well, clearly the government, which has invoked “national emergency” to violate even one of the most basic legal rights – attorney-client confidentiality. “If we can’t speak with a client confidentially,” says Irwin Schwartz, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, “we might not speak with him at all.”
The new anti-terrorism law gives the government sweeping new powers to conduct secret searches or tap phones with only a suspicion of crime, rather than the old standard, probable cause. Agents can seize medical and student records, or track credit-card purchases and large cash transactions. Any US attorney can get the FBI to launch its Carnivore Internet surveillance system to monitor a suspect’s Internet surfing. “It’s a very serious shift in policy and in American culture,” notes Ken Gude, an analyst with the Center for National Security Studies. “We’re getting to the point where it’s guilt by association.”
The clich of the moment is that “if we give up our freedom, the terrorists have already won.” But the reality is more unsettling: We’ve surrendered much of our freedom already – without seriously taking note – and the only winners, at this stage, are the US national security elite and their media mouthpieces.