The New York Times published a fine obituary on U.S. diplomacy today.
But the New York Times, as well as the rest of the U.S. media, needs to shoulder a significant portion of the blame for this colossal failure. The Bush Administration succeeded in pulling off this war campaign with the help of the American public’s belief in “facts” for which there is no evidence, including that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9-11 and that there was a recent nuclear weapons program in Iraq.
It matters that the public believes these falsehoods. The media cannot escape culpability in the dissemination of these strategic lies–it’s their job to discover lies and point them out to us, even if that task is difficult, and even if the government stands in the way. In this country, they failed–at a fundamental level, at the level of simple facts–to present the truth to the American public. With their gullibility, they encouraged the Bush Administration to present one deception after another (9-11 connection, the scary drone plane made of balsa, the faked evidence of Iraq’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons), and those deceptions were instrumental in achieving what support there is in the U.S. for this unilateral war.
That American ignorance about basic facts was manufactured is clear. The Christian Science Monitor puts it succinctly:
Polling data show that right after Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans were asked open-ended questions about who was behind the attacks, only 3 percent mentioned Iraq or Hussein. But by January of this year, attitudes had been transformed. In a Knight Ridder poll, 44 percent of Americans reported that either “most” or “some” of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens. The answer is zero.
Lest you take refuge in the thought, “Well, at least 56 percent of the nation actually knows an important basic fact about 9-11,” the rest of the numbers provide only more reason for astonishment: Only 17 percent knew the correct answer. Six percent believed “one” hijacker was Iraqi, and 33 percent just didn’t know.
The most devastating proof of the U.S. media’s failure is the possession of basic knowledge by the rest of the world. Polls prove that average citizens around the globe, if asked simple and relevant questions–is there evidence of a Saddam/9-11 connection? is there proof of a nuclear-weapons program? did Iraq hide missiles from the inspectors?–by and large know the answers. The average American, by contrast, would reveal an embarrassing ignorance of the record. The citizens of the country perpetrating this war, with regard to basic facts that prop up their support for it, essentially believe that the sky is green.
There are people in Middle America right now–good, decent people who just happen to get their news in the most convenient way–who no doubt believe the rest of the world is insane for not helping us out in this war. I’m thinking of the guy–to be specific, let’s say a middle-class Dad in Nebraska–who was looking over the paper this morning at the breakfast table and said to his wife, “Honey, can you believe it? Iraq sends planes to destroy the Trade Center towers, and our allies won’t even help us fight back.”
“I know,” responded middle-class Mom. “And just recently Hussein tried to get nuclear weapons to use on us next. Doesn’t France understand this? What’s wrong with these people?”
What’s wrong with them? They’re informed. To some degree, it’s not middle-class Mom and Dad’s fault they’re ignorant. What were they supposed to do, seek out international papers at the newsstand? Go to my blog? All they did was trust the outlets that have been bringing them the news all their lives. They formed their impression–not an unreasonable one, really–from what they had to work with. They had what got through to them via the mainstream media.
I don’t claim to know what caused this failure of the U.S. media to deliver the truth to its audience. I know it was hard to make those decisions in the newsroom. There are tough questions to answer: Do we report what the government says, or do we report what we know to be the truth? Isn’t a claim “news” if the government makes it? Shouldn’t we let the people decide if they believe the government or not? I’m not claiming the media’s failure was due to a lack of thought or deliberation on these important issues.
But U.S. media, you failed. However hard it was, you were not up to the task. The evidence demonstrates it clearly. Condemn the Bush Administration’s deception all you want on your editorial pages. You failed in your basic obligation to the American people. You helped lead an ignorant nation into war.