Appearance And Reality In The Relaunch Of Brand America
In 1997, the British media filled with talk of “historic” change. Blair’s victory that year “bursts open the door to a British transformation,” the Independent declared. (Neal Ascherson, ‘Through the door he can begin to create a freer land,’ The Independent, May 4, 1997)
A Guardian leader saluted the nation: “Few now sang England Arise, but England had risen all the same.” (Leader, ‘A political earthquake,’ The Guardian, May 2, 1997)
The editors predicted that, by 2007, Blair’s triumph would be seen as “one of the great turning-points of British political history... the moment when Britain at last gave itself the chance to construct a modern liberal socialist order.” (Ibid)
The Observer assured readers that the Blair government would create "new worldwide rules on human rights" and implement "tough new limits on arms sales." (http://www.antiwar.com/orig/pilger.php?articleid=5063)
This, after all, was the dawn of Blair’s “ethical” foreign policy.
It was a dawn of the dead - Blair left behind him the almost unimaginable horror of Iraq and Afghanistan.
A rare poll conducted by Ipsos last January of 754 Iraqi refugees in Syria found that “every single person interviewed by Ipsos reported experiencing at least one traumatic event in Iraq prior to their arrival in Syria.” (http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/iraq?page=news&id=479616762)
UNHCR estimated that one in five of those registered with the agency in Syria over the previous year were classified as "victims of torture and/or violence." The survey showed that fully 89 per cent of those interviewed suffered depression and 82 per cent anxiety. This was linked to terrors endured before they fled Iraq – 77 per cent of those interviewed reported being affected by air bombardments, shelling or rocket attacks. Eighty per cent had witnessed a shooting... and so on. (Ibid)
John Pilger was a lonely voice in 1997 warning that Blair was a dangerous fraud, a neocon in sheep’s clothing. As Pilger later pointed out, the media could hardly plead ignorance:
“Blair's Vichy-like devotion to Washington was known: read his speeches about a new order led by America. His devotion to Rupert Murdoch, who flew him and Cherie Booth around the world first class, was known. His devotion to an extreme neoliberal Thatcherite economics was known...” (John Pilger, Blair’s bloody hands,’ March 4, 2005; http://www.antiwar.com/orig/pilger.php?articleid=5063)
Over the past two weeks - one decade and three wars later - the same media have been insisting, as one, that US president-elect Barrack Obama is another “new dawn”. A Guardian leader observed:
“They did it. They really did it. So often crudely caricatured by others, the American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world...
“Today is for celebration, for happiness and for reflected human glory. Savour those words: President Barack Obama, America's hope and, in no small way, ours too.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/06/barackobama-uselections2008)
In the Guardian’s news section, Oliver Burkeman described the victory as “historic, epochal, path breaking”. But there was more:
“Just being alive at a time when it's so evident that history is being made was elating and exhausting.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/05/uselections2008-barackobama)
In 2003, the Guardian’s foreign editor, Ed Pilkington, told us:
“We are not in the business of editorialising our news reports." (Email, November 15, 2003)
Someone forgot to tell Burkeman, indeed the entire Guardian news team. At times like these, the media’s claims to balanced coverage seem to belong to a different universe. Over the last two weeks, the public has been subjected to a one-way delusional deluge by the media. The propaganda is such that comments made by independent US presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, appear simply shocking:
“What we’re seeing is the highest level of resignation and apathy and powerlessness I’ve ever seen. We’re not talking about hoopla. We’re not talking about ‘hope’. We’re not talking about rhetoric. We’re not talking about ‘rock star Obama’. We’re talking about the question that is asked everywhere I go: ‘What is left for the American people to decide other than their own personal lives under more restrictive circumstances year after year?’ And the answer is: almost nothing.” (Interview, RealNews.com, November 4; http://therealnews.com/t/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=2717)
Nader says of Obama: “This is show business what you’re seeing.” The crucial point: “Obama doesn’t like to take on power.” (Ibid)
But our media, passionately committed to ‘balance’ though they claim to be, are not interested. Their view (or so they claim): Obama’s victory is a wonderful, transformational moment for the world.
The message is enhanced by precisely the abandonment of any pretence of impartiality. This might be termed the ‘Get Real!’ stratagem of propaganda swamping. The suggestion is that the truth is so obvious, so marvellous, that it is churlish to be concerned with balance. When the whole media system is screaming at us to be overjoyed, something is wrong - life is just not that straightforward.
The same version of events has been repeated right across the media. The Times’s leading warmonger under Bush-Blair-Brown, Gerard Baker, commented: “there haven't been many days preceded by more energy and freighted with much greater historic significance than this one”. (Baker, ‘Amid the silence, citizens will make history with their sacred rite,’ The Times, November 4, 2008)
The BBC’s Justin Webb wrote:
"On every level America will be changed by this result - its impact will be so profound that the nation will never be the same." (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/justinwebb/)
David Usborne gushed for the non-editorialising news pages of the Independent:
“As tears wetted a thousand cheeks in the Chicago crowd, it was clear that the significance of Mr Obama’s victory may take some while to sink in.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/barack-obama-wins-his-place-in-history-992750.html)
How to communicate the impact?
“Call it the demise of cynicism or the end of apathy. The country that pretends to be the standard-bearer of the democracy and presumes, indeed, to export it to the other countries around the world was living up to its own standards.”
Jon Snow of Channel 4 News did not disappoint:
“Hello history (to use the word of the times). What a staggering and indescribable moment this is. Barack Obama’s graceful acceptance of what had seemed both inevitable and impossible is up there equalling any political event since the downing of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela.” (Snowmail, November 5, 2008)
And the basis for this staggeringly important moment?
“Even after so many months of speech-making it’s still not clear what are the concrete changes that may now ensue and in particular, there are some big foreign policy areas where Obama is not promising a hugely different tack from Bush...” (Ibid)
As we will see below, the amazing fact is that this eruption of media hype is based on essentially nothing. Obama has had little to say about what he will do, and what he has said has been depressing for anyone hoping for genuine change. Matthew Parris summed it up in the Times:
“Here we have a handsome, dashing and intelligent man, a man with generous instincts and a silver tongue; but a man with no distinctive plan for government that he has seen fit to share with us; a daring opportunist; somebody we may one day judge as a sort of Tony Blair with brains. And here we go again, all over again, hook, line and sinker.” (Matthew Parris, ’Calm down! He's not President of the World,’ The Times, November 8, 2008)
The former Europe minister and arch-Blairite, Denis MacShane, also unwittingly supplied a note of caution:
"I shut my eyes when I listen to this guy [Obama] and it could be Tony. He is doing the same thing that we did in 1997." (Tom Baldwin, ‘Blair team look in mirror of history,’ The Times, November 8, 2008)
Obama And Iraq
As discussed above, the media’s propaganda swamping on Obama - of which we have sampled only a fraction - is based on almost nothing at all. Tariq Ali commented on Democracy Now:
“As for what the policies are going to be, the situation is pretty depressing. I mean, Obama, during his campaign, didn’t promise very much, basically talked in clichés and synthetic slogans like ‘change we can believe in.’ No one knows what that change is. In foreign policy terms, during the debates, what he said was basically a continuation of the Bush-Cheney policies. And in relation to Afghanistan, what he said was worse than McCain...” (http://www.democracynow.org/2008/11/6/president_elect_obama_and_the_future)
Andrew Rawnsley wrote in the Observer:
“Iraq and Afghanistan are the sharp end of the partnership between Britain and the United States. Senior members of the British government quite candidly confess: ‘We don’t have a particularly clear view about what they want to do.’“ (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/09/obama-administration-brown-cameron-sarkozy)
And yet, in the face of Obama’s silence, and flat rejection of progressive policies, the media has sought to portray him as an all-new “dawn”. Thus, Jonathan Freedland wrote in his open letter to Obama:
“You have promised to... end the war in Iraq.” (Freedland, ‘A few thoughts on how to handle the world's most potent political weapon,’ The Guardian, November 5, 2008)
In the same newspaper, Julian Borger described Obama‘s goals: “US troops will be pulled out of Iraq in the next 16 months...” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/05/uselections2008-barackobama6)
A Times leader asked: “How quickly can the United States military withdraw from Iraq?” (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/leading_article/article5084156.ece)
We doubt any journalist on the Times actually believes Obama is intending to withdraw US troops from Iraq (in the intended meaning of the term).
In the Guardian, Jonathan Steele supplied a more realistic appraisal:
“... his position contains massive inconsistencies... he has not repudiated the war on terror. Rather, he insists that by focusing excessively on Iraq, the Bush administration ‘took its eye off the ball‘. The real target must be Afghanistan and if Osama bin Laden is spotted in Pakistan, bombing must be used there too.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/06/barack-obama-war-on-terror)
Steele commented on the number of troops Obama is planning to keep in Iraq:
“Officials on his team say it could number as many as 50,000 troops. Even if much of this force remains on bases and is barely visible to Iraqi civilians (much as the 4,500 British at Basra airfield are), it cannot avoid symbolising the fact that the occupation continues.” (Ibid)
Obama - Hawk
John Pilger - who was right about Blair in 1997 and who is surely right about Obama now - also rejects the mainstream consensus:
“Like all serious presidential candidates, past and present, Obama is a hawk and an expansionist. He comes from an unbroken Democratic tradition, as the war-making of presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton demonstrates.” (http://www.johnpilger.com/page.asp?partid=492)
Obama, after all, has supported Colombia’s “right to strike terrorists who seek safe-havens across its borders.” (http://www.newstatesman.com/media/2008/06/pilger-obama-truly-bush) He has promised to continue America’s fierce economic strangulation of Cuba. He has promised to support an “undivided Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital.
In August, Obama said he would be willing to attack inside Pakistan with or without approval from the Pakistani government:
“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.” (http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSN0132206420070801)
He has also said: “We will kill Bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida.” (http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,22606,24464976-912,00.html)
ZNet’s Michael Albert commented last week:
“My guess is, sadly, that within one week, literally one week, Obama's staff and cabinet choices will make decisively evident that without mass activism forcing new outcomes, change will stop at the surface. I fervently hope I am wrong.” (Albert, ‘Obama Mania?’, ZNet, November 7, 2008)
Albert appears to have been vindicated. Vice-president-elect, Joe Biden, is a pro-war Zionist. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, helped push through NAFTA and favoured the war on Iraq. Alexander Cockburn writes of him:
“He’s a former Israeli citizen, who volunteered to serve in Israel in 1991 and who made brisk millions in Wall Street. He is a super-Likudnik hawk, whose father was in the fascist Irgun in the late Forties, responsible for cold-blooded massacres of Palestinians.” (www.counterpunch.org/cockburn11072008.html)
In a co-authored book, Emanuel wrote:
"We need to fortify the military's ‘thin green line’ around the world by adding to the U.S. Special Forces and the Marines, and by expanding the U.S. army by 100,000 more troops.” (Ibid)
Nader comments on Obama:
“What he’s basically doing so far is giving the Clinton crowd a second chance. Rahm Emanuel? He’s the worst of Clinton. Spokesman for Wall Street, Israel, globalization.” (Ibid)
Conclusion - Relaunching The Brand
We are to believe that the US political system that Ralph Nader accurately describes as “a two-party dictatorship in thraldom to giant corporations,” has produced a staggeringly different, progressive individual. And yet Nader has described how he was himself locked out of the election. He was not allowed to participate in the televised debates and lack of media coverage consigned his campaign to oblivion. He wrote to Obama:
“Far more than Senator McCain, you have received enormous, unprecedented contributions from corporate interests, Wall Street interests and, most interestingly, big corporate law firm attorneys... Why, apart from your unconditional vote for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, are these large corporate interests investing so much in Senator Obama? Could it be that in your state Senate record, your U.S. Senate record and your presidential campaign record (favoring nuclear power, coal plants, offshore oil drilling, corporate subsidies including the 1872 Mining Act and avoiding any comprehensive program to crack down on the corporate crime wave and the bloated, wasteful military budget, for example) you have shown that you are their man?” (http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=10809)
It is no accident that the entire media system is so fervently announcing “historic” change. The American and British political brands have been badly battered and bloodied by utter disaster in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the fiscal chaos of the “credit crunch”. The insanity of greed-driven militarism enforcing catastrophic ‘solutions’ has become all too obvious, as has the provision of socialism for the rich and capitalism for the rest of us.
And so the American political brand must be rebirthed, resold, relaunched as a fresh start under new management.
We are being put through a crash-course in “Learning to love America again,” as the Telegraph put it. (Iain Martin, ‘The election of Barack Obama,’ Daily Telegraph, November 6, 2008)
A leader in the Times on November 5 could hardly have stated the message more clearly:
“The American nation will replenish the confidence that it has lately lost. In the eyes of the world, the slate will be clean and the pretext, always spurious, for anti-Americanism has been removed.” (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/leading_article/article5084156.ece)
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to the BBC’s Justin Webb
Helen Boaden, director of BBC News
Julian Borger at the Guardian
Siobhain Butterworth, readers’ editor of the Guardian
Jon Snow at Channel 4 News
Please send a copy of your emails to us
This media alert will shortly be archived here:
The Media Lens book 'Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media' by David Edwards and David Cromwell (Pluto Books, London) was published in 2006. For details, including reviews, interviews and extracts, please click here:
Please consider donating to Media Lens: http://www.medialens.org/donate
Please visit the Media Lens website: http://www.medialens.org
We have a lively and informative message board: