The Journalists Do The Shouting

Photograph Source: Poster Boy – CC BY 2.0

The loudest pro-war voices are nowhere near the fight

It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours.

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

There seems to have been a distinct decline in the quality of war propaganda in the 21st century. It all seems so predictable and calculated now. Maybe the Bush and Trump administrations were and are simply terrible marketers, though the latter certainly advertised his fake populism with a deft hand in 2016. Or maybe the general populace has simply gotten smarter, its overtaxed nervous system weary with propaganda fatigue. To some degree if not a critical mass, the population’s flagging credulity has mutated into an enervated cynicism. It has really only been a couple generations since modern sarcasm was broadly anchored in the mainstream, probably with the tired response of Gen X to the caffeinated optimism of Reaganite consumerism.

For decades prior, at least looking through the warped lens of hindsight, past generations appear to have been so comprehensively conditioned by the media that they essentially resembled a particularly memorable parody poster. On it was a deeply perturbed middle-aged white man, exclaiming, “Of course I want to fight Communism! But how?” It was evidently an era when the mainstream press was next to godspeak in its authority. When Reefer Madness conditioned entire generations to cower in terror at the murderous effects of marijuana. When the art world hastily transformed itself into Jackson Pollock abstraction, eschewing political content for fear of blacklisting, until even the thought of politicized art seemed to be a corruption of the medium itself.

Things have changed. Today’s meaningful art is samizdat stickers on wireline poles and spray-canned corporate advertising. Corporate media is no longer considered a sure source of credible reporting. There are no Cronkites at the ready with a reassuring word. Watching the Trump “regime” hector for regime change in vulnerable nations is like watching a scene from Woody Allen’s early slapstick Bananas. In that excellent deadpan satire, “Wide World of Sports” reports from the fictitious island nation of San Marcos, where it is broadcasting the live assassination of the sitting president, who will be replaced with a military dictatorship. A “series of colorful riots” begins with “the traditional bombing of the American embassy.” Then, the local labor leader is dragged from his home and beaten by a frothing mob. Howard Cosell reports from the presidential square where “El Presidente” will be assassinated as he leaves his office. Amid a throng of locals excited to witness the coup d’état, Cosell reports, “The atmosphere (is) heavy, uncertain, with overtones of ugliness.” He compares the event to the first Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay fight in 1964. On cue, the president exits his office to walk down the broad stone steps into the square. A gun-wielding hand appears in front of the camera, points at the president, and empties its chamber. The president collapses on the steps. The crowd explodes with excitement. Cosell shouts, “And down! It’s over! It’s all over for El Presidente!”

As if this wasn’t enough, Cosell shoulders his way through the crowd (yelling, “American television!”) and crouches beside the fallen president. “When did you know it was all over?” he questions the gasping victim, who exhales, “Fascist dictators…” Cosell, in a perfect parody of modern American war propagandists, says, “Well, of course you’re upset under the circumstances.” As the president expires, Cosell enthusiastically leaps up and pushes through the crowd, anxious to question the new dictator, a cliched thug who immediately vows to shut down the presses and destroy his critics. As comic as all this is, it smartly satirizes both the utter predictability of modern regime-change operations, and also the stupefying amorality of the American media in covering them. We’ve seen nearly this same blueprint unfold with Iraq, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, and now Iran.

The Impeccable Logic of the Big Lie

At this very moment, we’re seeing the narrative being constructed for war against Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has told us, “It is the assessment of the United States government” that Iran perpetrated the oil tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman. He offered no evidence. He then attempted to situate the recent attacks in a historical context in which he blamed Iran for, “forty years of unprovoked aggression against freedom-loving nations.” This is easily as sophomoric as various claims from the Bush administration, if not more so. No one bothers to ask why Iran would attack a Japanese oil tanker while the Japanese prime minister was conducting a state visit to Iran. Indeed, the U.S. assessment was quickly contradicted by one of the owners of one of the Japanese tankers. This calls to mind the still-unanswered question of 2013 of why Bashar al-Assad would have launched a chemical attack on his own people just as U.N. investigators were arriving in Syria. Or why he would have done so just as the Syrian Arab Army was closing its vice grip on terrorist factions huddled in Idlib, knowing that only a chemical attack would summon direct foreign intervention. The motivational logic behind such attacks is unfathomable, and yet no explanations are provided by the handmaidens of our imperial oligarchy. Why? Because none are necessary.

Still, Pompeo’s crack team at State later released a fuzzy video of a boat alongside one of the tankers, presumably as the ‘hard evidence’ that this time the U.S. government was not lying. The president quickly fell in line and accused Iran for the attack, and told Congress Iran has ties to al-Qaeda (as though the U.S. doesn’t). Democratic conspiracy mongerer Adam Schiff forestalled the thought that Democrats might resist the march to war by instantly blaming Iran for the sabotage as well. And so, within just a few days, the White House and Congress, Democrats and Republicans, had both jumped aboard an unproven and highly dubious claim from the inveterate fabricator heading the State Department. Call it narrative uniformity, a critical first step in establishing the fake authority for aggression.

Then the snowball effect kicks in. Once U.S. leadership has staked its claim, its media surrogates slip into view with clamorous denunciations and calls for action. Look how swiftly the corporate media rushed to not only confirm Pompeo’s assessment, but call for a decisive response. Washington Post writer Reuel Marc Gerecht, who helped holler for the Iraq War while at The New York Times, uses his considerable platform to assure readers that “America Can Face Down a Fragile Iran” suggesting that the Islamic Republic would falter during a “prolonged confrontation.” Another respected warmonger, Bret Stephens of the Times, rather artlessly declares that if Iran won’t behave (note the imperial condescension in the use of ‘behavior’ as though the nation were a wayward child), then “we should sink its navy.” CBS reporters chimed in with a deeply biased report that positions Iran as a hostile power dangerously close to cutting off access to the Strait of Hormuz. Reporter Charlie D’Agata, standing in the region, on a ship, the Strait of Hormuz churning brightly behind him, gazes grimly into the camera after telling viewers that Washington’s sending of an aircraft carrier into the area has not been a successful “deterrent” to Iran. Note here how Iran is repositioned as the aggressor and how American efforts to defend the “free flow of commerce” are insufficient, raising the specter of armed conflict, something the reporter need not actually say. It is already implied in his framing.

The PBS NewsHour hosts Gerecht, who reiterates his arguments for war. Host Judy Woodruff fails to note that Gerecht is, as journalist Adam Johnson has meticulously outlined, a paid-up member of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), a right-wing think tank with deep Zionist pockets. Viewers are left to assume Gerecht is a passive observer. The general tenor and tone of the NewsHour serves to reify the feeling that PBS guests can be trusted. A drab set, a platform free of hectoring ad content, a deliberate and sedate host, and the general sobriety of the entire show–from its dry title to its ponderous topics–all militate in favor of a false impression of Gerecht. For its part, the FDD has been badgering its more rarefied audiences with histrionic howls for conflict. “Trump should get tougher” with Iran, which will “exploit American weakness”. Lost in all this rhetorical belligerence is another appeal from the FDD, this time for the U.S. to “deploy a sub-launched low-yield nuke” on the basis that it thinks Moscow would not hesitate to use one.

Dark Drones Matter

All of this, mind you, was before Iran destroyed an American drone evidently flying over Iranian territory. The drone sent signals that it was in Iranian territory and its debris was recovered in Iranian territorial waters. This was likely a second action designed to pressure President Trump into a showdown with Iran. Hostilities have been on the books since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but most especially since the neocons drafted their harebrained scheme to topple seven countries in five years. Syria and Libya and Iraq and Somalia are all now nations wasted by war. Iran still stands, the most imposing of the challenges. One would expect perhaps that it would be quickly drafted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with Russia and China coming to Tehran’s aid, promising to support the defense of its sovereign territory. It may yet happen. Iran has attended recent SCO meetings as an observer and was involved in SCO dialogues at a summit in Kyrgyzstan when the oil tanker fiasco occurred. It used to be the vaunted Shia Crescent that unnerved Washington. Now it is the SCO that has beltway neocons spooked. The latter is a much more formidable alliance, its swift consolidation caused as much by American pugnacity than anything else. Once again, Washington unwittingly manifests its own fears.

A congress of feverish warmongers wouldn’t be complete without the noxious presence of the Gray Lady herself, perched in the middle of the mainstream like a brittle, chain-smoking house mother overseeing a house of ill repute. And so the Times, anxious to steer public opinion toward conflict, to benefit its betters and enrich itself, quickly published an article stating, “Iran Says It Shot Down a U.S. Drone, Escalating Tensions.” It is always the deceitful ‘other’ that is escalating tensions, while level-headed, pure-hearted America frowns at such childish aggression, realizing it must yet again discipline these prodigal sons of U.S. hegemony. If only they would, like Britain and the Saudis and Australia and Japan, register their fealty in the public square, parroting American propaganda and voting in lockstep with Washington. Then all would be well.

Of course, the question that is never asked but should begin every press conference, doubtless with some grim-lipped brigadier general, his epaulets and medals signaling his status, is, “Please explain in considerable detail why we are flying drones in the Strait of Hormuz in the Middle East, thousands of miles from our own shores?” In fact, we should never move beyond this essential point. At its root is imperialism, which is at the root of capitalism, which is at the root of our problems.

Perhaps, in a pique of candor, the general might make the obvious reply that the U.S. has dozens of military bases surrounding Iran, so regular military posturing and heightened tensions are perfectly normal. But this won’t happen, and the resultant perception of Iranian aggression is particularly useful, since it puts the White House in the position of appearing to be responding to the existential demands of the moment, regretfully but bravely returning blow for blow.

The Cold-Footed Killer

Unfortunately for these zealots, in his scatterbrained style, President Trump decided to call off the strikes at the last minute, despite having psychopathic Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and xenophobic National Security Advisor John Bolton trying to bully him into an attack. Trump’s reward for temporarily pushing back on his idiot ‘advisors’? Obloquy. CBS gravely reports that the president got “cold feet” and wouldn’t even pull the trigger on “very limited strikes”. The network dodges the question of the drone likely being in Iranian air space and Iran’s repeated warnings that it was.

In its hysterical warmongering way, CBS then brings in a retired general to advise America on the best course of action. Retired Admiral Sandy Winnifeld said we’d have to respond or “lose a lot of credibility and standing in the region and the rest of the world.” Any sane reporter would ask, with a not inconsiderable amount of sarcasm, “Lose what credibility? As a world-class destabilizer?” Is there a single Middle Eastern nation that sees Washington as anything other than a vicious hegemon, red in tooth and claw? Is there a nation that Washington calls a friend that it has not bribed in some fashion or another, or intimidated into submission? Oh, and by the way, Winnifeld is on the Raytheon Board of Directors. No conflict of interest there, since it would be unpatriotic to question the integrity of an admiral of the U.S. armed forces. In America, the greatest obstacle to successful careerism is integrity. Flexible ethics required.

This dismal piece of propaganda concludes with an open question: whether or not the U.S. would be seen as “weak” if it didn’t retaliate. Camera zooms out on the reporter’s somber gaze. The lack of evidence for the charge against Iran, the admiral’s conflict of interest, and the fact that Washington has already attacked Iran with sanctions, are not mentioned.

Generals on a Hill, Pilots in a Bunker

In John Banville’s beautiful but lethal novel, The Book of Evidence, a kind of raffishly amoral Irish grandee finds himself dangerously in debt, and proceeds to murder a wealthy art patron in order to procure the necessary funds to settle his marker. As he wantonly and even euphorically goes about his crime, he remarks, “I told myself, it was only a madcap game I was playing, I could call it off whenever I wished.” It is in this sense that the brigands in the Trump administration strike one as fantastically unmoored from reality. They seem to think they can act without consequence, and halt a train of events after launching it. Their lemmings in the media are exactly the same, callously calling for conflict as though it were a board game. How can they be so obtuse? Perhaps because, or precisely because, they will suffer no personal blowback of the brutality they enact, they appear to be psychologically indifferent to its grisly and sanguine effects. Little streamlets of crimson never stain their patios. Unstaunched agonies never drench their yards. It is all a madcap game played remotely, like the joystick executioners deep in drone bunkers somewhere in the nightbreeze of the Nevada desert.

Entirely removed from the scene of their crimes, politicians and journalists collaborate to enact catastrophes of momentous violence. But a growing minority of voters, an assemblage of surly cynics, dismiss it all with the wave of an impotent hand. Elections no longer convince us we must hurry to participate in “our democracy,” as the illusion of representation unravels before us. In the end, Orwell was right, the voiceless are finally silenced for good by the remote operators of American empire, a tale foreseen in the unseen press, but unheard of on the wavelengths that make the most noise. If word ever truly got out, the dormant power of the people might finally stir itself awake and rid the empire of its grand and costly illusions.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at