The Face of Fear: A Snapshot of American Journalism
Every US conflict since the Civil War has been fought abroad. Thus the US government and military have learned, through trial and error, the significant quantity of domestic support necessary to carry troops, supplies, and munitions across oceans into the poorest corners of the world. Historically, fervent nationalism solidified through shoddy journalism has fueled the American war machine. From the sinking of the Lusitania, to the Gulf of Tonkin, to the post-9/11 wars, military and news communities have aligned themselves to propagate fear and gain authority. In times of war, US nationalism maintains a stranglehold on public opinion by instilling fear through the media, and thus achieves its ideological goals with little concern for the democratic process.
In his 1918 essay “War is the Health of the State,” Randolph Bourne lamented the demise of America’s democratic principles in times of war. Almost a century after his untimely death, Bourne’s words read like a chilling prophesy from a forgotten sage. Bourne, lashing out against the yellow journalism that led America into the First World War, wrote: “the Government, with no mandate from the people, without consultation from the people, conducts all the negotiations, the backing and filling, the menaces and explanations, which slowly bring it into collision with some other government, and gently and irresistibly slides the nation into war.” An ardent socialist, Bourne felt that every citizen has the right to voice opposition in times of crisis. After all, government was bought and sold by corporate America, and therefore comprised of “common and unsanctified men” worthy of criticism.
Bourne astutely foreshadowed the conflicts of the 20th century. The police actions of Korea, the Cold War, and Vietnam all drew support from a collective hypnosis by fear that profited corporate and governmental elites, who were often one and the same. During the Eisenhower Administration, the spoils system arose in the shadow of industry when men such as Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay openly promoted an administrative overlap between corporations like General Motors and the federal government. Similarly, Alexis Johnson, President Kennedy’s undersecretary of State during the early years of US involvement in Vietnam, showed the real motivation behind the Domino Theory in a 1963 speech to the Economic Club of Detroit when he stated that Southeast Asia “provides a lush climate, fertile soil, rich natural resources, a relatively sparse population in most areas, and room to expand.” Clearly, economic expansionism, corporate-government synergies, and social fear accompanied each other.
Examining major newspapers from early 2003 — the immediate proximity of America’s war on Iraq — suggests that the US invasion was fundamentally rooted in the creation of a paranoid citizenry. On March 22, 2003, for example, The New York Post ran an article that warned of “six Iraqi nationals suspected of possessing dangerous toxic materials” on the loose in Mexico or the United States. The article failed to say exactly what ‘toxic materials’ the suspected terrorists possessed or where in the US they hoped to strike; the information came secondhand from the Fox News Channel. That same day, an editorial from The Boston Herald complained about an alleged lack of state security in Massachusetts, citing that “New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut governors joined forces this week, in front of a backdrop of National Security troops, to announce a tri-state deployment to deter terrorism on the commuter rail system.” Its author, echoing public fears, felt that state security meant massive deployment of guards on Boston’s transport system.
One of the most flagrant shows of propagandist zeal surfaced in articles distributed by the Associated Press. On March 25, 2003, for example, an AP article ran in hundreds of national and international newspapers stating, “Federal officials fear the nation is vulnerable to a bioterror attack with a little-known agent that is easy to find and produce. Just a gram of botulin toxin — the weight of a paperclip — could kill more than one million people.” The writer grabbed readers with this fear-mongering statistic, only to concede seven paragraphs later that “unlike smallpox, the most widely publicized bioterror threat, botulism is not contagious and, with medical treatment, most victims survive.”
The underlining theme in journalism during early 2003 was that any cognizant citizen should be afraid. Fear keeps readers coming back, and thus creates a vast circulation built on exaggeration and conjecture. With the demise of local newspapers as reliable institutions in the 20th century, more and more people now turn to national publications — The New York Times, The Washington Post among others — for a quick and reliable dissection of the day’s events. The tragedy of unquestioning faith in journalism is that the majority of national headlines are written by a handful of organizations. Reuters International, the Associated Press, and a small fraternity of other news agencies have an enormous public at their mercy. Subtle bias becomes a stealthy operation, a calculated game of diction and omission that most readers fail to recognize. Despite multiple technologies — digital radio, television, and the Internet — the average American is too busy or too careless to explore multiple avenues for their news. People choose sources that strengthen rather than challenge their political views, and thus the nation entrenches itself in rhetoric and slanted evidence. The net result is conformity.
During the 20th century, many intellectuals decried the conformity of the American public. Some of the best criticism came from modern and postmodern novelists. George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Heller wrote stunning depictions of the American Empire at war, and their critiques attacked the blind obedience of a witless, herd-like populace. In similar fashion, Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci once wrote that “bourgeois discipline is the only force which keeps the bourgeois aggregation firmly together.” Citing the ‘Fordism’ of labor and the uniformity of economic desire, Gramsci hypothesized that American culture would dissolve into a cultural vacuum of bad art, propagandist media, and widespread ignorance once super-industrialization ran its course. Likewise, novelist Nelson Algren blasted the literary community’s silence during the McCarthy hearings in his obscure treatise Noncomformity. Although the motivations and political affiliations of these writers were as varied as their style, they all radiated a central theme: individuality, skepticism, and a sense of communal obligation must be balanced to ensure American prosperity.
However, the tenor of US journalism showed that this intellectual and artistic criticism largely failed to improve public awareness, the quality of reportage, or the democratic process when war loomed in March 2003. Despite the overwhelming support for the Bush Administration — one ABC News/Washington Post survey found 72 percent of Americans backed the war in Iraq at the time of invasion — everyone from embedded journalists to Hollywood celebrities were censored or silenced. The most prominent examples, perhaps, were the play-list bans and rampant boycotts after Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines made an anti-Bush remark during a London concert.
How disturbingly hypocritical is the notion that dissent is unpatriotic in a democracy? Is not intellectual debate the right and duty of an informed citizen, whether that citizen is a construction worker or a rock star? When the world calls for peace, it seems America prefers to cover its ears, indulge its fears, and squelch criticism.
Adam Tavel is a graduate student in English at University of Toledo.