Posted by: N.S. Palmer | July 24, 2010

The News Media Furnish the War

By N.S. Palmer

“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war,” wrote newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst to his reporter in Cuba in 1898.

Hearst was using his news media empire to promote a war against Spain so that the United States could seize the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. And just as with the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, a false-flag attack (the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine) was used to create a casus belli.

The rulers of countries have traditionally used news media to promote wars. Under the Bush-Cheney regime, The New York Times and cable news shows constantly promoted false stories about “threats” by Iraq against the United States, just as they currently hype false stories about the supposed threat posed by Iran.

The goal was and is to provide a pretext for aggression against those countries. It doesn’t do any good for the American people, for the soldiers on both sides who are wounded or killed, or for the non-combatants in those countries who are slaughtered. But it lets slimy politicians pose as heroes: “war prezadents,” as Dubya Bush put it. It does lots of good for weapons manufacturers and other war profiteers. And it does lots of good for the government officials and their friends who loot the conquered countries, and into whose pockets that loot disappears.

Two recent events prompted those thoughts.

First, I was sitting in a coffee shop drinking coffee and doing some work. As usual in such places, there were several television screens tuned to “news” shows. One of the screens is always tuned to Fox News, where the hosts typically agitate for war, push ever more tax cuts for the rich, and debate about whether President Obama hates all Americans or just white people.

Another screen was tuned to the Headline News Network (HLN), which seems like a news version of the Lifetime cable TV channel: if I recall Lifetime’s slogan, “television for women, and men are no damn good.”

Cable TV News Is Not Serious

TV hostess Jane Velez-Mitchell (left) interviews comedienne Lily Tomlin.

One of the talk-show hostesses, Jane Velez-Mitchell, looks like a cartoon caricature of an overly made-up and coiffed celebrity. Her perpetually pursed lips make her look like she just swallowed a bug and is trying to cough it up.

If you go to the CNN Web site, you can find out more than you ever wanted to know about Ms. Velez-Mitchell, including her “lifelong battle with alcoholism” and the fact that she recently came out as a lesbian (mazel tov). And in fairness, I found out why her lips look so weird: she was born in 1955, which makes her 54 years old, and she’s undoubtedly “had a little work done.” She does look pretty good for 54: I wouldn’t have guessed she was that old. Her shows typically deal with celebrities, nasty divorce cases, custody disputes, and lurid insinuations that someone might or might not have kidnapped a child / murdered a cheerleader / and so forth.

Nancy Grace

The other notable hostess is Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor with a trademark sneer who seems like a pretty nasty piece of work. After being cited several times for ethical misconduct as a prosecutor, Grace became a TV commentator. Her shows cover pretty much the same ground as Ms. Velez-Mitchell’s, albeit with a meaner edge.

The first time I ever heard of Ms. Grace was in 2006, when she used her show to browbeat a mother whose two-year-old child had disappeared. The day after Grace insinuated on her TV show that the mother was involved in the disappearance, the mother committed suicide. Grace also hyped a prosecutor’s false accusations that Duke University lacrosse players had raped a black stripper. Later, the accused players were exonerated and the prosecutor who brought the charges was disbarred for misconduct. But Ms. Grace walked away clean, her trademark sneer intact.

Cable TV News Hypes a “Threat” from North Korea

What brought all this to mind was the headline that the HLN channel flashed this morning along the bottom of the TV screen: “North Korea threatens U.S., South Korea with nuclear deterrence.”

What?! North Korea is threatening us? Why, those cheeky little yellow bas**rds! We’d better attack them right away so they don’t threaten us anymore.

Take a breath, people. North Korea is “threatening us with deterrence.” In other words, if we attack them, they’ll counter-attack. The nerve of those foreign devils!

Of course, we could just not attack them, but what would be the fun (and profit) in that?

The Moral Equivalent of War

“Pragmatism and Other Essays” by William James.

The second thing that led me to these musings was an essay I read last night by William James (1842 – 1910) and titled “The Moral Equivalent of War.” James, an American philosopher / psychologist who taught at Harvard and was “the father of American psychology,” is too little known these days. His essays “Human Immortality” and “The Will to Believe” are classic statements of a rational basis for Judeo-Christian religious faith.

In “The Moral Equivalent of War,” James surveys the psychology that leads to war:

We inherit the warlike type … Dead men tell no tales, and if there were any tribes of other type than this, they have left no survivors. Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us. The popular imagination fairly fattens on the thought of wars.

But, James notes, we have a problem. Civilization has made us increasingly aware of the conflict between our actions and the moral principles we profess:

At the present day, civilized opinion is a curious mental mixture. The military instincts and ideals are as strong as ever, but we are confronted by reflective criticisms which sorely curb their ancient freedom. Innumerable writers are showing up the bestial side of military service.

And then he gets to the point most relevant today:

Pure loot and mastery seem no longer morally avowable motives, and pretexts must be found for attributing them solely to the enemy.

You see? It’s not that our rulers wanted to conquer and loot Afghanistan and Iraq. They attacked us! Well, they didn’t attack us, but they wanted to. Or planned to. Or might have at some point in the future. So we had to attack them first.

It recalls a comment made by another American writer, Mark Twain, in Letters from the Earth:

So what do you think of the human mind? I mean, in case you believe that there is a human mind.

I believe that there is a human mind, but some days, I wonder about it a bit.

Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.

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