The Discreet Charm of the Straight Spin

Norman Solomon’s Column

If my memory is correct, it was a Jerry Lewis movie. More than 40 years later, I still remember the scenes of a grown man so gullible that he believed his television. What a laugh riot! The guy dashed out to shop every time a commercial told him exactly what to buy. Then he’d sit in front of the TV set, dyeing his hair and smoking cigars, awaiting further instructions.

It was quite funny — to a 10-year-old, anyway. Even back then, it seemed incontrovertibly absurd to think that someone would be so credulous about televised messages.

Today, print journalists may roll their eyes at the mention of television. Those of us who write for newspapers are (ahem) rather more sophisticated and nuanced. But even someone who sticks to reading the news has probably gotten the authoritative word that Sept. 11 changed “everything.”

And so, it was unremarkable when, on the last Sunday of 2001, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch flatly stated in an editorial: “The unspeakable, the unthinkable, the inconceivable horror of that day changed everything.” Meanwhile, a couple of thousand miles away, Northern California’s largest newspaper was even more over the top as the San Francisco Chronicle’s front page proclaimed: “Attack on the U.S. changed everyone and everything everywhere.”

When highly regarded news outlets are serving up wild hyperbole in the guise of sober analysis, you gotta figure that some screws in the nation’s media machinery are seriously loose.

On the trail of jingo-narcissism, it’s difficult to stay within shouting distance of television. In early fall, Pentagon reporters sought — and got — more frequent news conferences. “Let’s hear it for the essential daily briefing, however hollow and empty it might be,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in the middle of October. “We’ll do it.”

Since then, Rumsfeld has regularly helped with the propaganda chores. Airing live on such cable networks as MSNBC, CNN and Fox, his performances have won profuse media accolades. A news report by CNN called him “a virtual rock star.” A Wall Street Journal essay — by TV critic Claudia Rosett, a member of the newspaper’s editorial board — described Rumsfeld as “a gent who in our country’s hour of need has turned out to be one (of) the classiest acts on camera.”

Published on the last day of the year, Rosett’s article was a fitting climax to a media season of slathering over the well-heeled boots of the man in charge of the Pentagon. During recent weeks, she noted approvingly, “in print and on the air, we’ve been hearing about Don Rumsfeld, sex symbol, the new hunk of home-front airtime.”

Deep into the mass-media groove, the Wall Street Journal piece declared: “The basic source of Mr. Rumsfeld’s charm is that he talks straight. He doesn’t expend his energy on spin…” Now there’s an example of some prodigious spinning. Actually, Rumsfeld — who excels at sticking to the lines of the day — is a fine practitioner of spin in the minimalist style, with deception accomplished mostly by what’s left unsaid.

For some, Rumsfeld’s dissembling style is a source of continual delight. “These briefings, beamed out live, have become, to my mind, the best new show on television,” Rosett wrote. “It’s a rare one that doesn’t contain, at some point, some variation on his wry trademark reply when asked to discuss matters he’d rather not go into: ‘I could, but I won’t.'”

One of the subjects that Rumsfeld would rather not go into is civilian deaths in Afghanistan.

Several weeks ago, University of New Hampshire professor Marc Herold released a report calculating that 3,767 Afghan civilians had been killed by the bombing between Oct. 7 and Dec. 10. The report was ignored by major U.S. media.

In Britain, the report received a bit more attention. “The price in blood that has already been paid for America’s war against terror is only now starting to become clear,” an editor at the London-based Guardian wrote on Dec. 20. Seumas Milne explained that Herold’s research was “based on corroborated reports from aid agencies, the UN, eyewitnesses, TV stations, newspapers and news agencies around the world.”

Milne added: “Of course, Herold’s total is only an estimate. But what is impressive about his work is not only the meticulous cross-checking, but the conservative assumptions he applies to each reported incident. The figure does not include those who died later of bomb injuries; nor those killed in the past 10 days (Dec. 10-20); nor those who have died from cold and hunger because of the interruption of aid supplies or because they were forced to become refugees by the bombardment.”

As wars go, we are supposed to understand, this has been a noble one. Great men like Donald Rumsfeld have told us so. However, from a more informed and less credulous vantage point, buying such claims might seem absurd. But not funny like a Jerry Lewis movie.

Norman Solomon’s latest book is “The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.” His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.

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