“The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons” – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq, led by President G. W. Bush aided and abetted by Prime Minister Tony Blair, involved unprecedented US media coverage, especially cable news networks. To counter anti-war sentiments, a policy was established of “embedding” journalists with military units. Eventually, some 600 journalists found themselves in bed with the Pentagon.
Media coverage of the war soon became a source of controversy, as outlets with embedded journalists were accused of pro-war bias, reporters became casualties of both Iraqi and American gunfire, and claims of censorship and propaganda became widespread.
This history is now well known, but here is a quotation from an unnamed Bush administration official – allegedly one Karl Rove – published in The New York Times Magazine in October 2004 by Ron Suskind (senior national affairs writer for The Wall Street Journal from 1993 to 2000, where he won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing):
“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”
Sound familiar? More than a decade later, G. W. Bush has unashamedly done an about turn, blithely announcing that, “Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.” And criticising the Trump administration’s truth-economy-drive in an NBC Today programme, he said, “It’s kind of hard to tell others to have an independent, free press when we’re not willing to have one ourselves.”
As Timothy Garton Ash has pointed out, people need uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so they can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life. The media are vital to making democratic governance work in an effective, transparent, inclusive, and accountable way. In today’s world, the media are there to challenge the notion of “post-truth”.
According to Oxford Dictionaries, the term post-truth was first used in a 1992 essay by the late Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich in the Nation magazine. Writing about the Iran-Contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War, Tesich said that “We, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.”
Arguably, G. W. Bush and Tony Blair acted as the harbingers of post-truth politics, defined by Oxford Dictionaries as when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
G.W. has hit the nail on the head for once. Today, misinformation and disinformation are distorting the public’s ability to make sense of current realities, threatening democratic processes around the world. He should know.
But, as someone once said, there are lies, damned lies, and hypocrisy.