Who remembers the last time watching the nightly news on network television was an important part of their evening routine?
No one I know. So when Brian Williams fell into an abyss of amnesia over what he actually went through on a press junket covering the Iraq War in 2003, I just felt sorry for the NBC star because we all make mistakes, and as we get older, our memories aren’t what they used to be—along with every other part of our body. I’ve never taken Williams seriously or anyone from his generation of newscasters. But I do remember growing up with my parents being glued to the tube when the battle in my house was fought over whether we’d watch Walter Cronkite on CBS or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC—whoever was on ABC was never part of the evening equation.
What an uncanny coincidence—as we used to say in the tabloids—that in one week the news shows are the big news in America, and it has nothing to do with what they’re reporting but which anchor is doing the job on the air.
When Jon Stewart proclaimed on the same Daily Show where he announced his heart-rending pending departure from our nightly routines how happy he was that “finally, someone is held accountable for misleading America about Iraq,” we had to take notice because the irony factor was too large to ignore. He was describing how Williams had succumbed to “infotainment confusion syndrome” and that malady had messed up his memory.
Stewart was more sympathetic than the host of talking heads from CNN, Fox, ABC and CBS who were ready to throw Williams to the wolves. Stewart rightly pointed out that if “the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual [bleep] war,” then Williams wouldn’t have been leading the news in the worst way—as a story about a decent guy who’d done himself wrong.
So who is responsible for leading America into, what Stewart helpfully reminded us viewers, “the most catastrophic foreign policy decision in decades?”
Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and, last but not least, President George W. Bush. There were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the terrible attacks against our country on Sept. 11, 2001—but more than a quarter of American voters to this day erroneously believe he did.
To keep that baloney narrative alive and the deliberate distraction as well, now right-wing Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul are still trying to blame the deadly disorder in the Mideast—the beheadings, the burnings, and the bloodbaths perpetrated by the ISIS militants—on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton! His fanatical ilk are doing the impossible job of linking the potential Democratic candidate for president in 2016 to the lethal debacle of Benghazi in Libya and conveniently forgetting a whole lot of history in between.
“I really do blame Hillary Clinton’s war in Libya for creating a lot of the chaos that is now spreading throughout the Middle East,” said Sen. Paul, Kentucky’s junior Republican senator (Sen. Mitch McConnell is the senior one).
So where could Rand Paul get away with such a patently stupid statement? On Fox News’ “America’s Newsroom,” where “we report, you decide” collides with the truth almost every day, especially if the facts deviate from the Republican Party line as determined by Fox News Chairman Roger Aisles, probably the most brilliant man in television today—and the éminence grise of the GOP, considering that he’s been advising their candidates since he got himself hired in 1968 as Richard Nixon’s media adviser. I’ve never seen Aisles’ fingerprints on the despicable smear against Secretary of State John Kerry when he was a senator from Massachusetts running for president and a well-funded gang of liars calling themselves “the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” came out of the shadows and attacked his heroism during the Vietnam War, but Fox News certainly gave them a platform without a doubt. Ah, fair and balanced, indeed!
And now comes the blockbuster about the Iraq war, American Sniper, which furthers the false formula. We see the patriotic Navy SEAL Chris Kyle enlist to fight terrorists after our embassies are attacked in Africa. Practically the next scene he’s shooting “savages” in the back streets of Iraq. We’re rooting for every kill he chalks up, ignoring the fact that al Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi wasn’t even there in 2001 when the World Trade Towers collapsed in a thick dark cloud of ugly smoke visible for 40 miles on that all-too-clear September day and seared into our collective consciousness forever! This sociopathic terrorist leader came into power in Iraq after we’d deposed Saddam Hussein, who, let’s remember, had been our ally when Bush 41 was president and Iraqis were killing Iranians by the thousands. But once Saddam got greedy for Kuwaiti oil, that’s when we had to “take him out.”
How the fog of facts gets lost in the fog of war! The great American showman PT Barnum may never have said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but that truism attributed to him is borne out every moment on the Internet and on TV. It took a fearless comedian like Stephen Colbert to call out the “truthiness” of Bush 43’s propaganda machine, not the hallowed anchors of the nightly news programs. Maureen Dowd aptly described the phenomenon in her Times column, “As the late-night comic anchors got more pointed and edgy with the news, the real anchors mimicked YouTube.”
While the mainstream media abdicated their First Amendment duty to speak truth to power, the American people were mislead, willingly and unwillingly, and the sovereign Mideast nation, albeit run by a despot, was invaded even though it had done nothing to our shores. There’s still 28 pages from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 9/11 report that the White House ordered classified when the rest of the report was released in December 2002, reportedly to hide Saudi ties to Osama bin Laden. Then came the torture of suspected al Qaeda prisoners in the CIA’s “black sites,” the water-boardings that violated the Geneva Conventions, the NSA invasion of our privacy in the name of fighting terrorism. The missing billions of U.S. dollars reportedly “stuffed in gunnysacks and hauled on pickups” that were lost to corruption and waste. The priceless archaeological treasures looted from the cradle of civilization. Even the Great Recession worsened here at home in no small part because our government had no money to invest in our crumbling infrastructure but we had plenty of money to destroy Iraq’s. Yes, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld smugly summarized the debacle: “Stuff happens.”
But you won’t get any of that important narrative by watching Clint Eastwood’s latest feature film about the legendary exploits of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. In some sense, Americans get played for chumps, particularly the audience lapping up this hit. It is a movie based on falsehoods, but it so gripping and so well done! And there’s the contradiction. If only it wasn’t this war. I couldn’t comfortably sit there with my disbelief suspended and enjoy all its production values—Clint Eastwood at the top of his game, the great acting by Bradley Cooper and the under-utilized but no-less stunning Sienna Miller—without that truth gnawing at my brain.
If the Oscars award this film any high honors next Sunday, well…that’s Hollywood! But it ain’t reality. Our democracy deserves a lot better in the 21st century. Jon Stewart’s first film, Rosewater, didn’t fare quite so well when it came out, but maybe his next one will be vying for that strange gold statuette handed out by the Academy when the whole world is watching.