NBC News anchorman Brian Williams got in trouble for fibbing about a supposed close call while embedded with US soldiers occupying Iraq in 2003. Why didn’t he get in trouble for being embedded in the first place? Or for the bigger lies inherent in the way he and other news networks package US government and military propaganda?
Originally published at Breaking Modern:
You can tell a lot about a society’s values from its lies.
After World War II, Germany abandoned its old values of obedience, conformity, militarism and most recently, Nazism. When veterans of the SS were asked about their military service in the form of that most famous question “what did you do during the war, daddy?” they lied about it. They either claimed that they hadn’t served at all, or that they had served in the regular army, or if there was no way to deny having been in the SS, said they had been nowhere near any atrocities or death camps.
Postwar Germany’s liars projected positive values: anti-militarism, anti-fascism, pacifism, principled opposition to violence.
Here in the United States, our liars lie about the exact opposite things — and their lies reveal an awful set of societal values.
To his credit, NBC News anchor Brian Williams never enlisted in the US military, and thus never shot at a Libyan or a Panamanian or a Grenadian or an Iraqi or an Afghan, or dropped a bomb on one in an undeclared illegal war of imperialist aggression. He should be proud of that. Any American who does not join the military ought to consider it a point of honor to refuse to participate in an institution that has not been called upon to actually defend American territory since at least 1945.
Unfortunately, Williams lives in a country whose media and political class constantly yammer on and on about how “the troops” are the best of the best (although few enlistees are turning down Harvard scholarships), the bravest of the brave (but not as brave as the poorly equipped soldiers they are assigned to kill), and how we owe them our lives and for our precious freedoms (even though the wars they fight do nothing to defend our borders but piss off generations of future terrorists).
So rather than brag about his nonmilitary service as a journalist, talking head and all-around studmuffin, Williams made up at least one story that he thought made him sound like more of a macho man, the next best thing to a real-life actual US soldier. After having been embedded with US soldiers in US-occupied Iraq (see the 2003 US Navy picture above), Williams falsely claimed that he survived the crash of his helicopter after it came under fire in 2003.
I don’t really care whether Williams keeps his job reading the news. That’s not real journalism; no one thinks it is. But it would be nice if this episode were to prompt news organizations to reconsider their participation in the military embedding program.
Since 2002 print and broadcast media companies have almost exclusively assigned their reporters to accompany American troops into war against Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Embedding has become so standardized that when a journalist suggests going into a war zone independently – the way it was often done before 9/11 – his or her editors or producers either refuse to let them do so, or strongly discourage them. It’s a sad state of affairs, one that has led to a complete failure to get the story about what is marketed as a war for hearts and minds in the Muslim world from, you know, the actual Muslims who live there. Locals who watch American journalists travel with hated occupation troops naturally conclude that they are merely propagandists – unfortunately, they’re usually right. It just isn’t possible to think independently when you spend all of your time with soldiers you know may be called upon to shoot people who are shooting at you.
Like other journalist types who got too close to the troops – hey Brian, when’s the last time you spent the night in a private home in Afghanistan or Iraq? – Williams has clearly become a victim of a militaristic variety of Stockholm syndrome.
“People who have worked with Williams say he does not regularly embellish personal stories but does project a kind of confident swagger that can be off-putting. One former colleague said he enjoys throwing around military slang, such as using ‘bird’ for helicopter, despite never having served in the armed forces,” reports the Washington Post.
You can’t report war without covering U.S. troops. But you can’t cover war only covering U.S. troops. Which has been the problem since 9/11.
The cult of militarism is clearly in the Kool-Aid at the NBC break room. Williams’ predecessor at the network, former anchor Tom Brokaw, authored and constantly flogged paeans to our sainted armed forces with books like “The Greatest Generation,” about America’s victory in World War II. If a leader of a US “enemy,” like a member of the Taliban, has ever been interviewed by NBC, I’ve missed it.
In a sense, Williams is a victim: he has fallen prey to a rancid set of national values that places aggressive militarism ahead of the humanism that ought to set the standard for behavior.
What Williams ought to be lying about is having had anything to do with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which will go down in history as one of the biggest mistakes the United States has ever made in foreign policy, which is saying something.
The soldiers Williams was traveling with were all volunteers, which makes them guilty and complicit with a crime of monumental proportions, which ultimately led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people. The fact that he felt motivated to increase, rather than downplay, his purported role in propagandizing the Iraq War to the American people is terribly revealing.
Reports about Brian Williams’ phony Iraq war story have referenced Hillary Clinton’s tall tale about taking fire on the tarmac at the airport in Bosnia, and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s false claims of having served in the US military during the Vietnam War.
They weren’t alone. So many Americans pretended to have received Congressional Medals of Honor, or having served as Navy SEALs or members of the Army Special Forces, that Congress passed and President Bush signed a law, the “Stolen Valor Act of 2005,” to punish the fakers. (The Supreme Court later overturned it as a violation of the First Amendment.)
Most of the world, and many Americans – not least to those who were actually there – view America’s intervention in Vietnam during the 1960s as a mistake at best, an atrocity at worst. Two million Vietnamese lost their lives. Contrary to what pro-war politicians told the public, North Vietnam did not threaten the U.S.; they won, yet over there they stayed.
Yet Sen. Blumenthal obviously believed that his prospects as an American politician would be bolstered by pretending to have participated in that mistake/atrocity.
He was actually ashamed of not having blood on his hands.
Then there were George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, both of whom avoided service during the Vietnam War, and were repeatedly attacked – from the left! – for having not participated in the killing of people who had never threatened the United States.
I long to live in a country whose values are more like – this is quite a thing to say – Germany after 1945. If you are going to lie to make yourself better, the thing that makes you look better ought to be something that is objectively good. Voluntarily participating in, and using the media to promote illegal wars for fun and profit is something that we should never do.
But if and when we do succumb to militarism, at least we should lie about it.
Herman Cain and the Criminalization of Poverty
Pizza baron Herman Cain leads in the polls. Yet nobody believes he can win the Republican nomination. The fact that the #1 candidate doesn’t stand a chance is an improbable truism emblematic of our broken-down political system.
Partly it’s that he’s black. Republicans are racists.
Partly it’s that the nomination was promised to Mitt Romney. He’s been waiting. It’s Willard’s turn.
It’s not the accusations of sexual harassment. Republicans are sexists. For the GOP touching the hired help (or wannabe hired help) is the droit du CEO.
The reason Cain isn’t allowed to be president is money. Romney is spectacularly wealthy. Cain is merely rich. As of October Romney had used his white-male Wall Street connections to raise $14 million. Cain had a paltry $700,000.
After reports surfaced that Cain had groped Susan Bialek, a woman who asked him for help landing a job, Cain received $250,000 in contributions in a single day. Attempted rape—she says he tried to force her head into his special place—pays.
Unsurprisingly, the Cain campaign went to work smearing the credibility of his accusers. One of his proxies, right-wing radio talker Rush Limbaugh, took to pronouncing Bialek’s surname “buy-a-lick.”
Cain’s main attack, however, is focusing on the women’s finances. “Who Is Sharon Bialek?” asked a Cain campaign email to reporters.
It was a perfect illustration of what’s wrong with the media.
“The fact is that Ms. Bialek has had a long and troubled history, from the courts to personal finances—which may help explain why she has come forward 14 years after an alleged incident with Mr. Cain, powered by celebrity attorney and long term Democrat donor Gloria Allred,” said the Cain camp.
Well, sure, Bialek’s past-due bills “might” explain why Cain waited so long to speak out. For that matter, she “might” be a delusional space alien who prefers Domino’s. Heck, she “might” even have vomited at the thought of her groper becoming president.
Who knows anything, really?
Not Cain—he’s never heard of neoconservatism. But I digress.
Back to Cain’s smear campaign. The narrative is simple: this bitch is poor. I’m rich. She’s lying about me to pay her bills.
The fact that the media plays along with such reasoning shows how elites wage class war against the 99 percent of us who work for a living.
“Ms. Bialek was also sued in 1999 over a paternity matter,” spat the Cain campaign. “In personal finances, PACER (Federal Court) records show that Ms. Bialek has filed for bankruptcy in the Northern District of Illinois bankruptcy court in 1991 and 2001…Ms. Bialek has worked for nine employers over the past 17 years.”
The New York Times added some context.
“Saddled with $17,200 in legal fees related to a paternity fight with the father of her infant son, Ms. Bialek filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001. Her income had dropped to $19,000 in 2000 from $38,000 the year before, court records show, and she had only a few thousand dollars in assets. Court records show that Ms. Bialek has continued to experience money troubles in recent years. The Internal Revenue Service in 2009 filed a lien against her for $5,176 in unpaid taxes, and an Illinois lending company won a judgment last year for $3,539.”
Bialek and her attorney anticipated attacks that she was planning to profit from her account, announcing that she would not sell her story. That should have done the trick, but no. Cain’s smear tactics appear to be working so far.
No one but Bialek and Cain know what happened that night back in 1997. Regardless of the truth, the implications of Cain’s approach should be troubling. To follow Cain’s argument to its logical conclusion, anyone who has ever had money problems can’t be trusted to tell the truth.
Poor people are liars.
Rich people are not.
Which no doubt comes as news to former clients of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC.
Bear in mind, there is no evidence that Bialek or the other women committed perjury, or fraud, or embezzlement. Their characters are not at issue. Bialek’s sin, if you agree with Cain, is that she’s broke.
These days, who isn’t?
Over a million Americans a year file bankruptcy. One in nine Americans have seriously considered it since the economy died in 2008. According to Cain, they are all—to a man, or is it just women?—lying sacks.
The I.R.S. filed liens against over a million Americans in 2010, a 60 percent increase from the year before. Are they inherently untrustworthy?
I’ve gone to court. I’ve had judgments against me. I don’t think I was more honest before those things happened.
The Tories of Great Britain widened the gap between rich and poor, then cast the poor into debtors’ prisons. Like their ideological forebears, Cain and his fellow Republicans want to criminalize poverty. Thanks to their pro-corporate policies, which have dominated the U.S. for 40 years, the economy is dead. The ranks of the poor, the dispossessed, the bankrupt and the tax non-payers like Susan Bialek have grown and continue to expand.
To be poor, Cain and the GOP argue, is for your word to be worthless.
Bialek may or may not be lying. Either way, her veracity has nothing to do with her income. “It’s not about me,” she told an interviewer. “I’m not the one running for president.”
COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL