|Reuters / Adrees Latif|
The scandals that have erupted around the exposure of Bill O’Reilly and Brian Williams as having lied about their wartime experiences provide us with a glimpse into the nature of corporate media.
These revelations demonstrate just how easily “facts” and narratives can be manufactured to serve a personal and, more importantly, political agenda.
Let’s begin with the obvious: it’s selfishly satisfying to see two of America’s leading corporate media mouthpieces exposed as liars. Undoubtedly, there are many (myself included) who smile with delight at seeing the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Brian Williams squirming under the spotlight of media scrutiny.
O’Reilly in particular has made a career of spewing venom at all the “pinheads” and “liberal liars” who he accuses of “deceiving America” with their “secular progressive” agenda, or some such nonsense. So, one can’t help but revel in seeing him have to defend his obvious lies – they are lies, not exaggerations or memory lapses – on national TV and in the press.It is akin to seeing a crooked cop go to jail for corruption, or a parasitical bank executive imprisoned for money laundering.
But of course, those of us who are interested in global issues, and how propaganda works in the service of the political and geopolitical agenda of powerful actors, have much more to take from these stories than simply the vicarious pleasure we get from watching these debacles. Rather, it is our responsibility to examine the larger significance of these stories. Specifically, what do O’Reilly’s and Williams’ humiliations tell us about the nature of media in America? And how do we translate that understanding into a broader structural critique of the propaganda matrix that passes for “news media” today?
The truth in the lies of liars
The media has been in a feeding frenzy in recent weeks, with seemingly every columnist, political analyst, and blogger chiming in with their opinion about the O’Reilly and Williams stories. But what is conspicuously missing from nearly all of these analyses is the fact that these two scandals reveal the extent to which the corporate media is one big spin factory, producing news and opinion that only provides the mere illusion of disagreement and conflict. It is now an inescapable reality that the news itself is manufactured to fit the agenda of the ruling establishment.
While Brian Williams’ story of being in a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq is an admitted lie, there are still no reporters who have admitted their own roles in selling the “Big Lie” – really the series of lies that led to the Iraq War in the first place. Are we to forget that that entire criminal war was based on outright lies and distortions designed to convince the American people that they should support a war against a country that never attacked them? Who cares about Brian Williams when you stop to consider the more than one million dead Iraqis, to say nothing of the countless more who have been maimed, psychologically scarred, and permanently displaced?
It is critical to recall that the entire corporate media machine, almost without exception, disseminated lies and half-truths leading up to the war. From the utterly discredited story of the yellowcake uranium supposedly being sought by Saddam Hussein, to the absurd allegations of Saddam’s Iraq being in league with al-Qaeda which have since been disproven, the American people were fed a steady diet of lies in order to drum up support for Bush’s illegal war. But only in the aftermath of the war did the media dare to challenge the narrative, dare to ask real questions and show skepticism as to the veracity of the claims made by Bush. Before the war, when it might have actually prevented the needless slaughter of millions, mum was the word.
Every major media outlet, including such vaunted ones as the New York Times, swallowed the disinformation (both knowingly and unknowingly) and dutifully disseminated it as truth. It wasn’t just O’Reilly and FOX News who were guilty of this, but also the allegedly liberal New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, and everyone else. Those who dared challenge the narrative, as Phil Donohue did, paid with their careers, and were endlessly slandered as “unpatriotic” and “traitors” by the likes of O’Reilly.
But of course Iraq is only the most memorable of the completely fabricated war justification narratives, mostly because it was the reviled Bush administration that was responsible. However, the current Obama administration has done precisely the same thing with the media following suit once again.
In 2011, Barack Obama stood before the American people and said: "Faced with... opposition, Gaddafi began attacking his people... In the face of the world’s condemnation, Gaddafi chose to escalate his attacks, launching a military campaign against the Libyan people.Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted, and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off.Water for hundreds of thousands of people in Misurata was shut off. Cities and towns were shelled, mosques were destroyed, and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assaults from the air".
Such was the narrative Obama used to justify the US-sponsored NATO war on Libya.But Obama was only able to make such a case because the corporate media effectively sold the fantasies of Gaddafi “attacking his own people,” “targeting innocents,” and so on.The media reported so-called intelligence from on the ground gathered on twitter and other social media, as well as dubious sources that stood to gain from the war. In effect, just as with Iraq, the media was charged with a public relations campaign to sell what would undoubtedly be an unpopular war.
Never mind the fact that studies conducted by serious investigators after the fact have concluded that many, if not most, of the “crimes” of Gaddafi were in fact completely distorted or, in many cases, entirely fabricated. It should be clear to anyone that the media and military-industrial complex work hand in hand to justify pre-conceived war aims.
The essential point here is that the corporate media does not serve the public interest as some idealistic souls might still maintain.Rather, it serves the agenda of the establishment – the rich corporate elites who own nearly every media outlet through a handful of corporations. It should come as no surprise that many of these corporations are funded by other corporations and conglomerates that profit from America’s endless wars. So you see, it is in their best interests to lie us into wars – it is good for business.
But it is not enough to know that they’ve lied to us before. The most important thing is to realize that they’re continuing to do it as we speak.
The war on Syria is built on a foundation of lies. Everything from phrases such as “moderate rebels” to “Assad has lost his legitimacy” is a pernicious fabrication or distortion designed to influence public opinion. And it is quite successful, as the US is bombing targets in Syria as we speak.
Even more dangerous are the lies being disseminated as “facts” regarding the situation in Ukraine. “Russian aggression against Ukraine,” and “Russia shooting down MH 17,” are merely two of the seemingly endless supply of myths being propagated by the media sycophants to power. The meme of “Putin the maniac” and “Putin as Hitler” are no different from what was said about Saddam, Gaddafi, and Assad, though perhaps with Putin the cries are even more shrill as Russia is no Iraq, Libya, or Syria.
Naturally, the stakes are even higher, as war between nuclear-armed powers could threaten us all. Therefore, it’s even more paramount to counter these lies. Moreover, when these political hacks like John Kerry talk about non-Western media outlets like RT as “propaganda bullhorns,” know that such comments come from fear – fear that their war narrative is being challenged and exposed as a fraud. Know that they’re feeling pressure as they are confronted with real questions, real skepticism, and real analysis.
So, when O’Reilly gets on the television and invites us into his “No Spin Zone” to tell us why Russian imperialism must be stopped and why Washington should supply lethal arms to Kiev, can he be believed? When O’Reilly and John McCain gussy up their lies with talk of Russian imperialism, they cannot be taken seriously. When Brian Williams or Chris Matthews or whomever tries to convince us about how this war will be different and why this time it’s necessary, who could trust them?
It is not up to us outside of the corporate media establishment to discredit these liars. They have done a masterful job of discrediting themselves.