I’m going to follow a thread linking the weapons of mass destruction to the FCC’s move to relax the media-ownership rules, and—trust me—through to Tina Brown.
First, the weapons: The Bush guys obviously played Saddam for a fool. He wanted to have those weapons. He was a broken man without them. The Bushies, by their wild accusations, conceded to him the very illusion of power that they knew he would happily and fiercely cling to and that they could then set out with appropriate fervor to protect us from and to take away from him.
Saddam had a get-out-of-jail-free card: He just had to reveal to the world that he was bereft of resources, spent as a force, bankrupt as a ruler. But Rummy and Wolfowitz and Perle, and everybody else in the Bush administration who has been obsessing about Saddam for fifteen years, understood that it would be at least as difficult for him to admit to not having such power as to get tarred for having it.
He needed to appear threatening. We needed him to appear threatening.
We needed him to dissemble. He needed to dissemble.
Everybody was party to the creation of an alternate—and, likely, entirely false—reality.
There was even a neat moral justification for letting Saddam hang himself: While the Bush people surely had an extensive understanding of the truly dismal nature of the Iraqi military resources, Saddam’s squirreliness allowed them to maintain an iota of less-than-absolute certainty (and then, of course, Wolfowitz and company couldn’t help throwing in a little bogus intelligence). Indeed, North Korea, threatening to blow up the world in the middle of this, turned out to be helpful. Here was a down-on-its-luck regime apparently producing serious offensive weapons—so it could happen. (But since we weren’t running to the barricades on this, it probably meant that the weapons produced by a down-on-its-luck regime were of limited usefulness; or, on the other hand, it means that if we do really fear that a rogue regime has them, we tread carefully.)
Even in the aftermath of the war—where looking for the weapons has become something of a Monty Python routine—the Potemkin-village logic continues:
If we can’t find them, they still must be here—or they must have been here—because Saddam could have avoided all this if he had just admitted he didn’t have them (and while he did say he didn’t have them, he didn’t say it as convincingly as he would have said it if he really didn’t have them).
The logic of the war is the logic of the Jesuitical-style arguments popular on right-wing television and radio. It’s been war by syllogism.
We settled—and continue to settle—for an abstract deduction over actual proof.
Still, this deduction was not so ironclad, or brilliant, or irrefutable, that it could not be—indeed, it has been—disassembled.
And yet this low-rent logic remains, in the public mind, largely unassailable, because nobody—certainly not with any concerted attention—has assailed it.
Why not? It was a setup. A ruse. A cheat. Hello?
How come the Bushies are getting away with it? Sheesh.
Now the FCC:
Every news organization from CNN to Fox to the networks to the big newspaper chains to the New York Times (although, heroically, not the Washington Post) was eagerly petitioning the Bush FCC (led by the secretary of State’s son, Michael Powell) for the freedom to substantially alter the economics of the news business. And as the war got under way, everybody knew the decision would come soon after the war ended.
It’s important to understand how much this FCC ruling means to these companies. News (especially old-fashioned headline news) is a sick business, if not a dying game. For newspaper companies, the goal is to get out of the newspaper business and into the television business (under the old rules, it’s a no-no to own newspapers and television stations in the same market). For networks with big news operations, the goal is to buy more stations, which is where the real cash flows from. The whole point here is to move away from news, to downgrade it, to amortize it, to minimize it.
Anyway, you’ve got all of these media organizations that want something for the most basic reason up-against-the-wall companies can want something: because they think this is what will save them (and transform them). There’s almost nothing—really—they won’t do for this. They’ve already spent many years and millions of dollars trying to make the FCC change the rules. What’s more, all of these companies are in lockstep (save for the Washington Post)—nobody’s breaking ranks.
All right then. The media knows what it wants, and the media knows what the Bush people want.
So is it a conspiracy? Is that what I’m saying? That the media—acting in concert—took a dive on the war for the sake of getting an improved position with regard to the ownership rules? Certainly, every big media company was a cheerleader, as gullible and as empty-headed—or as accommodating—on the subject of WMDs as, well, Saddam himself.
But conspiracy wouldn’t quite be the right word.
Negotiation, however, would be the right one. An appreciation of the whole environment, the careful balancing of interests, the subtleties of the trade (at this point, the ritual denial: “There was no quid pro quo”).
The interesting thing is that in most newsrooms, you would find lots of agreement as to this view of how businessmen and politicians get the things they want. A general acceptance of the realities of ass-kissing, if not a higher level of corruption. You’d find nearly everybody saying, Yes, duh, everybody gets something in return—but not when it come to the news. Not like that. Not so … quid pro quo.
Now, this is not entirely true. The people at Fox certainly wouldn’t swear on the life of their grandmothers that the news wasn’t customized for larger business purposes.
And everybody at NBC seems to understand that if Bob Wright doesn’t like what he hears, he’ll be calling the control room—that GE guys aren’t exactly committed to the independence of news.
And certainly, while at the New York Times there would be resistance to the notion that Arthur Sulzberger might have said to Howell Raines, You know, there’s this FCC thing—there would be less resistance to that notion now.
And ABC and Disney, oy.
And CBS and Viacom and Jessica Lynch!
Still, it comes down to the literal point of influence. Who said what to whom? Did anybody in any news organization actually say, “Go easy on the war”?
We tell ourselves it doesn’t go that far.
But do we believe it?
The BBC meticulously dismantled the Jessica Lynch–rescue story weeks ago, but we’re still defending it (although ever so steadily it gets chipped away, altered, recast).
Even the term WMD is a nod to an inside joke—that the existence of the weapons has been established only by constant repetition.
And set the war justifications against this moment in time when the media theme is not to give anybody any wiggle room. Anybody in any position of authority—political, business, journalistic—is being held to the strictest interpretations of meaning and context and responsibility. This cannot equal that. Transparency is the grail. Everybody is held to meticulous account. Except for the Bushies. They have a media pass.
The war is one of those great, suspicious, excessively justified, what-you-see-is-not-what-you-get, dubious-accounting, reality-distorting, even Clintonian (although it seems far vaster in its plasticity than anything the Clintons ever did) endeavors. They piped it. Wolfowitz is Jayson Blair.
And yet as the whole mess continues to unfold, it remains, in the media mind, a pretty good war, with or without the weapons of mass destruction.
And the FCC thing graciously sailed through.
And now, Tina Brown’s new show:
I think it’s good. I think it’s strangely good. I think it’s the kind of fairly verbal, almost nuanced, culturally attentive, smarter-rather-than-stupider show that people see and say, What’s that doing on television?
Where are the blowhards and nutcases? The vulgarians?
The show is oddball. It has a late-night fifties air. Tina should be smoking.
The discussion the other night among Brown and her guests—Nora Ephron, Whoopi Goldberg, and Laura Ingraham (I swear, it was a good match)—might possibly be the first time in the history of television a group of women has gotten to speak about something other than women’s-category issues.
Whereas almost all talk television is downmarket, from-the-gut, red-state stuff, this show is upper-middlebrow, discursive, almost European (the certain kiss of death).
Hence its strangeness. It seems entirely out of place among the reactionaries and the shouters on the Fox-influenced cable lineup. And obviously, given its now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, almost sheepish schedule, the programming people don’t know what to do with it.
Tina’s show is clearly not where anyone in the media business believes the world is going (network stooges as well as the crowd at Michael’s).
So, all right, it isn’t just that media execs sucked up to Bush and his war effort for a favorable FCC ruling. They did, but the supplication goes well beyond that. After all, there’s nobody but a fabulist or paid believer who doesn’t think the Democrats are going to lose in 2004. What’s more, you can’t have any reasonable sense of commercial and political equilibrium and not feel the pull: It’s a right-wing country! The only question is how bilious and fanatical.
And so, given the president’s amazing popularity, together with Fox’s continued success (moving the news business in an ever-more-imitative conservative direction), on top of the continued sickly showing of the Democrats (and the real prospect of a conservative supermajority), added to the continuing regulatory concerns of big media, I don’t hold out much hope for our ever getting to the bottom of the WMD fraud or for some network tastemaker really getting behind Tina Brown’s (yes, say it) liberal-minded show.