Media Fail

This is an important story, that the news media tried to just sort of … slip past, without dwelling on it. But it’s an important indicator of how and why our political media has become such a mess. Of course I believe it has always been a mess – for example, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded a newspaper [wik] as a self-propaganda arm against the federalists, and it has just gone downhill from there.

I am referring, of course, to two recent media events:

  1. The disclosure by Katie Couric that she chose to omit some character-revealing comments from an interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
  2. The death of Colin Powell.

One could, I suppose, add the death of John McCain to that list, but it no longer qualifies as “recent” and Powell is a good enough case to look at. Let’s start with the Couric story, though. [the hill] In an interview, Ginsburg said some things that, if they were said by Tucker Carlson, would be derided as ultra-nationalist or (because they carried an implicit criticism of Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter) racist. So, Couric just – left those comments out of the transcript of the interview. It’s no big deal, right? Well, actually it is a big deal because – at the time – Ruth Bader Ginsburg was being puffed up into a sort of liberal icon, and that was a pretty un-liberal thing for her to say. Gotta keep the public behind/believing in their false gods. Remember, this was right before the supreme court became a dominated by extreme conservatives instead of merely hidden conservatives with an overtly conservative legislative agenda. Anyhow, it’s just another particularly glaring example of how we shouldn’t believe the supposedly “liberal” press any more than we should believe FOX News.

I am categorically not saying “all of the media is as bad as FOX News” or anything close to that, but rather that they all lie by omission. The US political system has always depended on celebrity cults, fueled by its media – we are not ever to be allowed to get an idea of the true people behind the public facades. In some cases we are shocked to discover that the public personas of our leaders are profoundly at odds with their private selves, in which case it is a “scandal”; personally I find the whole idea of political scandals to be ridiculous: we should expect very little but scandalous behavior from any bunch of oligarchic rulers, or hereditary aristocrats. I mean, seriously, what kind of idiots do we have to be to be shocked by the backstage behavior of the british royals? The whole point of being a king is to be able to take advantage of your power to defraud and abuse the people, what else should we expect? We should expect no better from a supreme court justice or a congressperson. Sure, there are a few who seem to take public service seriously, but advanced-level cynicism to have doubts about them, too. American politics is full of people who started out as idealists (or who pretended well, anyhow) and turned out to be run of the mill corrupt jerks after a while, and their career ends when they are discovered to be stealing from the cash register. Or, if they are republicans like Matt Gaetz or Strom Thurmond, they’re sort of put on hold for a while, during which everyone waits to see if the stench blows away.

It never blows away, it’s just overpowered by new stench.

On to Colin Powell. If there was a more overrated secretary of state in US history, it would have to be all of the others. It’s not unreasonable, in fact, to ask why the US bothers to have a secretary of state and what a secretary of state does other than act as a sort of liaison between the executive and the combined intelligence services. Before Powell was secretary of state, he had an undistinguished career as a war criminal, helping to paper over the My Lai massacre [nation] and then he achieved notability for cooking up “The Powell Doctrine” which was, in a nutshell, “don’t fight a war you are not able to win.” Napoleon Bonaparte would not even bother rolling his eyes at that one, but it was highly revelatory stuff to the US’ leaders at the time, who ignored that obviously good advice, anyway. Powell’s notable great moments in the sun were where he chose not to run for president and when he helped sell the illegal war against Iraq with his ridiculous presentation about weapons of mass destruction. Here is where I really have some hate to share for Powell: his concern, after that shit-show, was that it had ruined his reputation. Cry me a river, Powell.

Remember, Powell was a Vietnam veteran who had been involved in the cover-up and whitewash of the My Lai massacre – he had no excuse at all, ever, to not be highly skeptical of anything the CIA told anyone. Yet he claims that he sat there in the UN and eventually was shocked to discover that the CIA (who sent their top brass, George Tenet, to sit over his shoulder and make sure he didn’t say anything out of bounds and to reinforce the lies) was lying. If Powell’s Vietnam career had been as a private first class, maybe – just maybe – we could believe that he was surprised to learn that the intelligence guys lie to everyone, but Powell was a ranking officer (major). His defense is “I was dumb.” That, I suspect, is why he didn’t run for president – republicans (being incredibly stupid about these things) did not realize how horrible his Vietnam record was, and how it would be reviewed in tremendous detail during a presidential campaign. John Kerry’s “swift boating” would have been nothing compared to the reality of Powell’s apparent inability to recall command decisions he made, and wrote down on paper.

So we have to listen to another political whitewashing of a washed-up imperial warrior. It’s John McCain all over again (McCain’s notable fame was for getting shot down in the middle of committing war crimes in Vietnam, for which he experienced less-than terrific hospitality from the understandably pissed off Vietnamese) McCain was promoted as some kind of maverick truth-teller for telling congress that, um, torture sucks – but he still couldn’t be arsed to maverick about it except by muttering some faint complaints. McCain can’t be blamed for inflicting his daughter upon us; the media has to carry that one, but she’s a walking, babbling, case in point for the dangers of political dynasties.

All in all, another disgusting week in America.

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PS – can I get an extra helping of “fuck you” to the media who think that Donald Trump’s opinion of Colin Powell is news-worthy? Mine certainly isn’t but it’s spicier than Trump’s and arguably better written.

I met Colin Powell, once, quite by accident. We shared an elevator together at the Marriot Towers in NYC one day. I also photographed Bill Clinton hitting on people in the lobby for money. Even in the hotel lobby, slapping babies and kissing backs, Clinton was wearing pancake make-up. Powell was recovering from leg surgery and was wheeling himself around on one of those leg surgery scooter thingies. Our eyes met and we both nodded “hi” and ignored eachother. I hate the way we’re all expected to get excited about being in the presence of celebrities.


  1. says

    I went and just read the Nation article you referenced. I see nothing in it that says that Powell had anything to do with covering up My Lai. Some Lt. Col. came to Powell to read some (year-)old records; the old records said nothing or very little about civilians being killed. But then later in his book Powell misremembered and thought that it did say something. Here’s the paragraph of interest:

    Powell did not find in the journals any evidence suggesting something terribly amiss had happened in My Lai. No suspicious numbers of enemy killed, such as the 128 figure he recounts in his memoirs. The official records merely reflected what Powell had referred to as “a hot combat assault” during the IG interview. Seven weeks later, the MACV IG recommended that the case be closed, but a Pentagon IG investigation was already under way, and the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division was soon pursuing an inquiry.

  2. bodach says

    I have some liberal friends who mourned his loss as a friend of liberals (I guess).
    It wasn’t worth the effort to go over his history with them.

  3. consciousness razor says

    Or from a different perspective, “media success.” Tomato, tomahto.

    See also: Andrew Cuomo. (At least that one spiraled out of control eventually.)
    More: Merrick Garland
    And this one almost goes without saying: Rahm Emmanuel. (Joe Biden does too of course.)
    And that reminds me: Neera Tanden.
    Lots of people like that, really.

    Two more words, not a person this time, but a big one: lab leak. (I guess I could’ve gone with “Fauci” but that’s a little too vague.) It’s maddening how this is treated like a total non-issue. Just leave aside the question of how the pandemic started…. It’s still like people are asking for either lab leak redux or a lab leak mulligan, neither of which is desirable. Whenever it happens, just don’t let them say “whoops” and pass it off as an unfortunate accident that nobody saw coming, unless you’re ready to do the same for the Catholic church and how it deals with pedophile priests.

  4. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#3:
    I dunno what tangent The Nation may have gone on, but the evidence on Powell and the initial My Lai coverup exists and overwhelms.

    Yeah, the Nation article was probably not the best link I could have provided. Thanks for the updates.

    When I read about My Lai there was some mention of a “major” who was informed about the events, but the major was not named. Presumably because that major went on to be a big shot.

  5. says

    From [consortium news]:

    But a test soon confronted Maj. Powell. A letter had been written by a young specialist fourth class named Tom Glen, who had served in an American mortar platoon and was nearing the end of his Army tour. In a letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, Glen accused the Americal division of routine brutality against civilians. Glen’s letter was forwarded to the American headquarters at Chu Lai where it landed on Maj. Powell’s desk.

    Glen’s letter contended that many Vietnamese were fleeing from Americans who “for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves.” Gratuitous cruelty was also being inflicted on Viet Cong suspects, Glen reported.

    The letter’s troubling allegations were not well received at American headquarters. Maj. Powell undertook the assignment to review Glen’s letter, but did so without questioning Glen or assigning anyone else to talk with him. Powell simply accepted a claim from Glen’s superior officer that Glen was not close enough to the front lines to know what he was writing about, an assertion Glen denies.

    After that cursory investigation, Powell drafted a response on Dec. 13, 1968. He admitted to no pattern of wrongdoing. Powell claimed that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully. The American troops also had gone through an hour-long course on how to treat prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Powell noted.

    “There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs,” Powell wrote in 1968. But “this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division.” Indeed, Powell’s memo faulted Glen for not complaining earlier and for failing to be more specific in his letter.

    Powell reported back exactly what his superiors wanted to hear. “In direct refutation of this [Glen’s] portrayal,” Powell concluded, “is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

    Anyone who had any time in Vietnam, who knew about “search and destroy” missions, who had been there and done that knew that the relations between the American soldiers and the Vietnamese people were that of predator to prey.

  6. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#3:

    Yeah, thanks for better articles/links. I followed the original Nation one to learn more, and then didn’t learn more. And thanks to Marcus for clarifying.

    The feeling I get after reading the additional links is that Powell was exactly not the kind of person portrayed by Denzel Washington in “Courage Under Fire” in his investigation.

  7. says

    The feeling I get after reading the additional links is that Powell was exactly not the kind of person portrayed by Denzel Washington in “Courage Under Fire” in his investigation.

    I remember some article I read about him painted him as a “perfect military bureaucrat.” Someone who goes along with the orders, doesn’t make a fuss (except by saying obvious things like: “if you’re going to start a war, try to win it.”) etc. He wasn’t even as maverick-y as John McCain who was only a maverick in the diseased minds of the Washington elite.

  8. naturalcynic says

    And John McCain was certainly mavericky as a pilot. Like the time that he ran into power lines in Spain and ruined his plane. I seem to remember that he ruined 5 planes, any of whould have which would have DQed from further flights if he would have been anyone else. This includes the last one in Vietnam where he ignored his chance to avoid the SAM that shot him down by trying to finish his bomb run instead of aborting his mission.

  9. says

    Also, it wasn’t his fault but he got his skyhawk hit by a missile on the deck of the USS Forrestal – the missile was (?) apparently a hell of an accidental discharge from a Phantom II (pilot unknown) who presumably did not get awarded a “kill” for that. 130 people died in the fire.


  10. outis says

    Yes, poor Powell with his self-ruined reputation.
    If you are interested to see how that disaster looked like from outside, there’s an excellent French comic series titled “Quai d’Orsay”, whose second volume shows the astonished French and European pols dealing with the DoD tantrum.
    According Wikipedia the all-knowing, it was translated in English as “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy”. Scrumptious read.

  11. jrkrideau says

    My best memory of Powell is of a presentation to the UN though I think it was the Security Council not the General Assembly.

    Both Mohammed Al Baridai and Hans Blix accused him of lying.

  12. aquietvoice says

    Ahem, slightly off-topic but an important consideration since we are talking about holding people up as something they are not:

    ” ‘ The Powell Doctrine’ which was, in a nutshell,’ don’t fight a war you are not able to win’. Napoleon Bonaparte would not even bother rolling his eyes at that one”

    Napoleon’s tactical and logistical prowess could concentrate an almost un-opposable striking force…. but he wasn’t actually any good at the level of choosing who to fight, how, and when; the Spanish Ulcer and holding Moscow being the prime examples. For anyone unfamiliar, here’s a pretty good summary of Napoleon making his own version of the American-Vietnam war in Spain:

    Linking this with the main post, I’m slowly coming to believe that the inability of people to follow the advice of “don’t fight a war you are not able to win” is an inevitable consequence of the need to “massage” information to make it fit the internal narratives, and that need is itself an inevitable consequence of the use of information and ideas to control people.

    In short, giving up on wanting to control people and not fighting wars you cannot win should come hand-in-hand – sounds obvious when I put it like that, ah well. What do you think?

  13. says

    Napoleon’s tactical and logistical prowess could concentrate an almost un-opposable striking force…. but he wasn’t actually any good at the level of choosing who to fight, how, and when; the Spanish Ulcer and holding Moscow being the prime examples.

    True. There’s an old book from the 70s I read in high school – Charles Fair’s From The Jaws of Victory [wc] that includes a brutal assessment of Bonaparte’s strategic sense. My guess is that he was suffering from some amazing PTSD and was probably close to a batshit insane gambling addict by the time he finally screwed the pooch so badly they isolated him.

    In short, giving up on wanting to control people and not fighting wars you cannot win should come hand-in-hand – sounds obvious when I put it like that, ah well. What do you think?

    I agree. I think I’d rephrase your observation something in terms of “don’t believe your own bullshit” – the US does a lot of chest-thumping and doesn’t seem to do much reflecting on whether it’s pursuing viable strategies. Why? I mean, look at the Iraq invasion – it appears that Frum and Pearle’s asshat theory, which was basically an inversion of the old “Domino Theory” except applied to middle eastern democracy – that’s what the Bush clowns were going on. They somehow read that, and instead of throwing it against a wall, said, “that sounds about right!” Basically, it was preaching to the choir, and the choir was sublimely stupid and incredibly ruthless.

    We can say what we will about Napoleon (and we should) but at least he didn’t need a whole committee of fuckups to tell him how to fuck things up. He didn’t need a John Bolton – he was a one-man fucking rock band of fuckups. To be honest, I mostly give him props for Austerlitz, which was sublime military genius that would have made Alexander The Great weep (actually, it was kind of Gaugamela2.0) – Napoleon’s status as one of the greats was cemented that morning. And maybe it was downhill from there. [Spoiler, I think Fair said similar things, but better.]

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