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Solomon's Unspinning of War
By David Swanson
Norman Solomon's new book, "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death," opens with a disturbing prologue. The U.S. media has refused to give serious coverage to the Downing Street Memos on the grounds that they are "old news." In the initial pages of his book, and supplemented by the rest, Solomon makes a case that both outdoes and undoes that claim.
Solomon outdoes the "old news" claim by providing evidence that the Bush Administration's campaign to take the country to war in Iraq on the basis of lies was remarkably similar to President Lyndon Johnson's use of the media when he wanted to attack the Dominican Republic and Reagan's when he was inclined to invade Grenada, not to mention Bush the First's when Panama was his chosen victim. In fact, Solomon draws disturbing parallels to Johnson and Nixon's lies about Vietnam, Reagan's about Libya and Lebanon, Bush the First's about the First Gulf War and about Haiti, Clinton's about Haiti, Yugoslavia, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and Somalia, and Bush Jr.'s all too recent lies about Afghanistan. There just doesn't seem to be anything new about a president taking this country to war on the basis of laughably bad lies that anyone who was paying attention never fell for.
Solomon undoes the "old news" claim by documenting how hard the media has always made it for people to be paying proper attention. Not only are the Downing Street Memos not old news to most American media consumers, who've never been told what's in them, but the facts about many past wars are still not known to much of the country. The Washington Post has never apologized for or retracted the Jessica Lynch fictionalization, but that itself is nothing new. Solomon writes:
"In July 1998 I asked a number of Washington Post staffers whether the newspaper ever retracted its Gulf of Tonkin reporting. Finally, the trail led to someone with a definitive answer. 'I can assure you that there was never any retraction,' said Murrey Marder, a reporter who wrote much of the Washington Post's political coverage of Tonkin Gulf events in August 1964. He added: 'If you were making a retraction, you'd have to make a retraction of virtually everyone's entire coverage of the Vietnam War.'"
The Washington Post further distinguishes itself in Solomon's account of past media coverage of wars with this opinion it published when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War:
"King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."
Damn liberal media!
Of course, many of the facts that Solomon employs in his critique of the media's role as megaphone for presidential warmongering falsehoods come from the media. But they come from passing stories in lower paragraphs on back pages, not from endlessly repeated headlines and sound bites. Solomon does not present a lot of new information in his book, but by gathering together key facts from extensive research he performs the reporting that he criticizes the media for failing to have done.
A good analogy for much of the U.S. media's coverage of war, I think, is the coverage Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, gave to Columbus in a text book critiqued by Howard Zinn in the opening pages of "A People's History of the United States." Zinn writes:
"One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide.
"But he does something else – he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it's not that important – it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect very little what we do in the world….
"To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice."
Of course, there's plenty of lying outright in the US media's coverage of wars, but there's a lot more Morisonizing.
Solomon's book is not a chronology and does not have any plot that progresses from event to event. Nor is it organized in a predictable manner around an argument. In fact, it reads a little like a book written by someone who's used to writing 700-word columns. But that is, of course, something that Solomon does with a brilliance that is seldom surpassed. And, while there is something I prefer about his columns, this book doesn't fall far short of brilliant itself.
It's organized by a series of statements often made by our media pundits. These serve as chapter headings. If they strike you as false and damaging, this book will provide you with the ammunition to refute them. In that way, this is a resource book that can be regularly consulted. If any of the statements strike you as true, then you really must read this book. Here's a sampling from just the first five chapters:
1. America is a Fair and Noble Superpower
2. Our Leaders Will Do Everything They Can to Avoid War
3. Our Leaders Would Never Tell Us Outright Lies
4. This Guy Is a Modern-Day Hitler
5. This is About Human Rights
DAVID SWANSON is a co-founder of After Downing Street, a writer and activist, and the Washington Director of Democrats.com. He is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, and serves on the Executive Council of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, TNG-CWA. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including Press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, Media Coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as Communications Coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Swanson obtained a Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia in 1997.