David Michael Green
So much is spot on in Robert Parry's discussion of the media and the Downing
Street Memos scandal. But not (necessarily) his conclusion.
Parry's certainly been around, and around the capital block, longer than I
have, but I remain considerably more hopeful than he does about the ultimate
power of the DSM revelations.
Let's recap this fast-unfolding mini-story. It begins with 'congressional
hearings' held on Thursday by Congressman John Conyers, along with thirty or
forty other House Democrats. Of course, they weren't real hearings, since
Republicans couldn't possibly be less interested in investigating the topic
under discussion, the DSM scandal. Conyers literally barely got a room in
the capitol for the hearings, and what he did get was a tiny SRO box in the
basement, overstuffed with cables, cameras and sweaty people. But whatever
and wherever these hearings were or weren't, the important thing is that
they were nevertheless held.
Next, so-called reporter Dana Milbank filed perhaps the ugliest hit-piece of
so-called coverage I've ever seen, printed in Friday's Washington Post. It
was a virtual primer on how not to report, a near-perfect precis which
inadvertently cataloged everything wrong with that which goes by the
increasingly farcical name of journalism in America today. Can you say
'vicious smear job'?
John Conyers responded with a justifiably angry letter to the newspaper's
publisher, rightly complaining of bias, and setting straight the basic (and
easily obtained, had Milbank wanted it) factual record
He was then followed most recently by Robert Parry, who addressed the entire
debacle in a pessimistic reading of this affair-within-an-affair. In his
article (http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0618-30.htm ), Parry argued that
"the Post's attacks on the Downing Street Memo hearing should serve as a
splash of cold water in the face of the American Left", and wound up calling
impeachment a "pipedream".
Perhaps. But perhaps not.
Parry makes many excellent points in his essay, not least of which include
his detailing of the thug-like behavior of America's sycophantic and
self-reverential mainstream media, the free ride the right tends to get on
news stories, and the breathtaking ineptitude shown by the left in recent
decades when it comes to media matters. He then illustrates his points by
reference to a case he knows well - having literally written the book on it
- the sad tale of the Contra-cocaine importation connection of the 1980s.
But while many of Parry's critiques are well-founded, his bottom-line
pessimism is not. An excavation of the differences between the
Contra-cocaine case he invokes to prove his point, and the Downing Street
affair to which he relates that case, serves to show why such pessimism is
not (yet, anyhow) warranted.
There are many such differences, and they are not trivial. To begin with,
the story Parry refers to in comparison to the present case was literally
old news when it broke. That didn't make it less sensational or less
significant, but the fact that a crime from the 1980s was being exposed a
decade later did make a difference. By 1996, Reagan was long gone, as were
the Sandinistas, and the contras were no longer murdering Nicaraguan
peasants. That hardly makes the story of CIA sponsorship of drug sales to
Americans irrelevant, but it does take a considerable bit of the edge off.
In any case, nothing analogous to this is true in the Downing Street case.
It concerns a scandal only three years old, perpetrated by the currently
sitting administration, and done so in support of a war continuing to
consume American soldiers and tax dollars at this very moment and for the
foreseeable future. All of which makes a big difference in terms of public
interest in the story. To fully appreciate how much timing matters, note
carefully how assiduously the administration and its apologists keep
insisting that there's "nothing new" in the Downing Street documents.
Making it appear to be old news, if they can, would take a large degree of
the sting out of the allegations.
The war itself also makes this very different from the Contra-cocaine case.
A war is the most highly visible of national affairs, driven by an explicit
policy choice made by the government. (Again, for a gut-check of the
plausibility of this argument, look at how the administration tries so hard
both to make Iraq invisible, and to argue that it was a war of necessity,
not of choice.) The same cannot be said about the perception of drugs or
drug-related violence, even should they take more American lives. Rightly
or wrongly, most Americans will see drugs as a spontaneous personal or
social malady, like alcoholism, which is 'just one of those things' in life.
For most, it's a lot bigger stretch to hold a government responsible for
drug abuse, as a phenomenon, than for the decision to go to war.
The impact of the two stories is also different because Ronald Reagan was a
much-beloved president, especially by the mid-1990s, when the combination of
his illness, his perceived achievements, and a whopping dose of historical
myopia about his failings (much of all this the non-accidental product of
right-wing hagiography) conspired to make him an American 'Immortal',
halfway up Mount Rushmore even then. Bush is not that, will never be that,
and is instead fast consummating the downward trajectory in popularity begun
on his first day in office, and only interrupted by 9/11 and the
rally-around-the-flag effect attendant to two wars. To be sure, lots of
starry-eyed political Moonies of the right adore this guy no matter what,
but he is now more broadly reviled in America, and its only gonna get worse
from here, Downing Street or not. There is a surly mood in the country
right now, and much of that biliousness is directed toward incumbent
officials in government (read Republicans). Even if impeachment remains a
'pipedream' today, it may not be come January 2007 when a new and possibly
Democratic congress (and possibly Democratic because of this very issue and
the failure of incumbents to act on it) is seated.
Next, it's worth noting that it was the CIA, not the president, which was
accused of the crimes in the case Parry compares to the present scandal. In
addition to the fact that the public more or less expects the CIA to be
involved in nefarious activities (albeit against other countries), there is
also a very large difference in the scale and quality of the respective
targets of attention. Presidential scandals are much bigger deals, and even
had it been the less-excusable Department of Agriculture, say, instead of
Central Intelligence, a president in trouble will always draw much greater
interest, and much greater ire.
Another very big difference between then and now comes in the form of
evidence. As I remember the Contra-cocaine issue, the evidence acquired was
produced chiefly by means of San Jose Mercury-News reporter Gary Webb's
dogged investigative efforts. Even if what he produced were to have been
more substantively powerful than the Downing Street documents, not much can
compare to the psychological cache of the top-secret, top-level, insider's
leaked government document. As constitutional lawyer John Bonifaz noted at
the Thursday hearings, to walk away from these documents would have been the
equivalent of walking away from the Nixon tapes. People get this stuff,
straight up, and they get the significance of documents which show
government officials talking to each other, sans the spin necessary to
placate the unwashed masses.
Yet another difference is that there are today 122 members of Congress who
have called on the president to respond to the implications of the Downing
Street documents, and that number is climbing. Admittedly, that large
caucus has so far made little dent on either the White House, the official
business of Congress, or the press, but it nevertheless serves as the seed
for a potential cloudburst of major proportions. At some point, a critical
mass may be achieved which even the media can't ignore. At some point, the
reactions of the president's opponents alone make that which they are
reacting to a story that must be told. Could the press ignore it if the
entire Democratic congressional caucus did a sit-down strike on the steps of
the Capitol? (We could only hope the Republicans would add to the spectacle
with some sort of extraordinarily ham-fisted reaction, like arresting the
Democrats for trespassing.) In any case, I don't think the Contra-cocaine
story ever generated anything near even the current level of congressional
interest given to the Downing Street documents, let alone that which may
come down the pike.
Finally, perhaps the biggest divergence between the two cases concerns the
twin dynamics of media r/evolution since 1996. What a difference a decade
makes. The Net is everything in the DSM case, but was in its infancy for
the Contra-cocaine affair. Moreover, the flip side of the Internet's growth
in influence has been the concomitant fall from grace and power of the
formerly monolithic mainstream media. Information consumers have vastly
more choices today than they did in the past, which, coupled with the
insipid work (and gaping omissions) of which Milbank's piece is not even the
worst exemplar, has increasingly caused eyeballs to migrate away from the
former towering pillars of American journalism and toward something more
real. Next to 9/11, this war is the biggest story in America during the
post-Cold War era. But if somebody wanted to accurately understand either
its run-up or its current run-down, you sure as hell couldn't have done so
by reading the New York Times or watching CBS. Backing the likes of Judith
Miller, Dana Milbank or Dan Rather, the mainstream media is accelerating its
slide into irrelevance just as the availability of alternative sources is
rising to fill the gap. So much for capitalist laws of competition-driven
excellence - these guys are committing suicide right before our eyes. Oh
well. Good riddance.
But here's the important point. Just as Watergate was a minor blip if it
had happened in a time before audio tape, so the most salient difference
between Downing Street and the Contra-cocaine affair may also be
technological: that is, of course, the existence and unfettered power of
The best way to see this is by considering the greatest absurdity of this
whole farce. Where and how, in the mainstream media, has this story been
covered? There have been more than a few editorials on the Downing Street
documents, and even a couple of news stories here and there, but a huge
proportion of the 'coverage' which address this issue take the form of
discussions concerning why the press isn't covering it.
Think about that for a second. The media is devoting considerable ink and
chatter to reporting why it is not reporting a story, whilst continuing to
not report the story. If you're thinking maybe you fell through the looking
glass here, that's because you perhaps did - there could be no more
appropriate media behavior in the Age of Bush than this Madhatter lunacy.
Otherwise we'd have to hear that the war is a fraud that is destroying our
military and thus making us less - not more - secure, that the national
treasury is hemorrhaging red ink like a burst dam, that we're trashing the
environment as fast as you can say 'Hummer', and that more or less the whole
world now hates us. Bummer, man. Who needs that?
But as fun as mental illness can be, none of this actually gets to the more
important point here. There are now scads of newspaper articles and
discussions on the television shout-fests about how (and supposedly why) the
mainstream media is ignoring this story. But how many such pieces or TV
rants are there about, say, the absence of coverage for little Morty
Rosenberg's bar mitzvah in Brooklyn last week? No matter that his parents
may be livid. Not only is the media ignoring this story, they're even
ignoring the story about how they're ignoring the story. Nary a word about
the missing Concord Grape or Aunt Sadie's 'outfit' has made it to print.
What's the difference between the two cases? The only reason the press is
reporting on their lack of reporting on Downing Street is because of the
complete disconnect between what they're doing and what we real people are
doing in the blogosphere. While we rant in anger about a real-life
man-bites-dog story, they struggle to turn it into a dog-bites-man routine,
and that only because they can no longer sustain the cognitive dissonance of
their preferred nobody-bites-anybody take on this, the mother of all
scandals, parked in front of everyone's collective nose.
We pushed them to at least talk about what they're not talking about, and if
we can achieve that in a few short weeks, how long will it take to actually
get them to do the real story, especially with public revulsion and
congressional action growing exponentially?
Robert Parry makes many good points in his article. The state of the
American military-industrial-political-media complex is as abysmal as it is
shameful, just as he tells us. And perhaps Parry will have the last 'laugh'
someday, too, as we sit commiserating on barstools in some Washington dive,
both crying in our beer, him saying "Told ya.", long after this scandal has
fizzled like all the rest and the neocons have conquered the planet.
But I still say now is not the time for pessimism. I don't deny that the
whole disaster of American society could, in the not-necessarily-distant
end, all come crashing down in a foul pile of fascist rubble.
Meanwhile, though, we have the most serious and offensive scandal imaginable
just waiting to affix itself to George Bush like his own personal tar baby.
We have it documented in black-and-white, just the sort of nuance-free,
right-versus-wrong scenario conservatives are always squawking about. No
"It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is" games going on here,
folks. (Wait, what's that you say? 'Fixed' means 'bolted on' in Britspeak?
Oh, that's good to know. Thanks for the clarification.) We have a context
which is perfectly ripe for an angry American body politic to turn quickly
and menacingly on the arrogant criminals who have deceived us in the most
egregious fashion. And we have a sorry collection of media hacks who twist
themselves into six-dimensional pretzels, bloviating perversely in service
to their monetary masters (yep, they're just a little bit nutty and a little
bit slutty), but who nevertheless have also shown themselves vulnerable to
We have, in short, a real shot at this thing. What we need to do is crank
up the pressure massively, right here and right now, not withdraw in sullen
anticipation of yet another shellacking.
Now is not the time for despair or pessimism. Now is the time for hope, and
that hope lives on Downing Street.