In an important article in Foreign Affairs cited yesterday in this column, Charles King mentions a particular initiative of media manipulation that an increasingly panicked President Lyndon Johnson undertook to defuse criticism of the war he had engaged in Vietnam. King describes a game of political chess that took place between William Fulbright, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1959 to 1974, intent on exposing the bad faith of the government, and Johnson, who was desperately seeking to manufacture consent for his war.
Fulbright, Vietnam and the Problem of Purity in US Politics
The chessboard was the media and specifically, television. “If there was a moment when the White House began to lose middle America,” King writes, “the Fulbright hearings marked it. From the outset, Johnson was so worried about their impact that he pressed one television network to air I Love Lucy reruns instead of live coverage.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Live coverage has always been a risky endeavor for the media, except in sports, where people understand the rules of engagement. Live coverage of a popular sporting event happens to be the most profitable form of entertainment. “Broadcasters pay heavily for sport because it is the best live, unscripted drama they can get,” according to one media commentator.
War in some ways resembles sports because it pits two very serious adversaries against each other. US television networks in the 1960s sensed that live coverage of an emerging war could be profitable. But, in contrast with a sporting event, it entailed four serious problems beyond the physical risk to journalists themselves.
First, broadcasting unadulterated violence might violate the reigning standards of “decency.” But that could be solved with good editing.
A second drawback lay in the fact that programming and planning became far more complex to manage since there was no official pre-announced schedule.
The third was even thornier. It concerned the question of truthful reporting. Being too honest about what is happening on the ground risked alienating indispensable sources inside a government that desperately wants people to applaud “our side” and perceive the noble and even glorious side of combat.
That consideration of honesty defines the fourth problem related to live coverage: Viewers keep expecting more reality at the very moment when the people promoting war decide they should see less of it. That leaves two options for news services: either scale back their reporting or begin misrepresenting or airbrushing the truth. But in the consumer society, the problem with scaling back (for example, offering sitcom reruns instead of Senate hearings) is that consumers always want more. In the end, misrepresentation — fake news — becomes the only viable solution. The key to manufacturing consent, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman made clear in their book with that title, is giving consumers not only what they want to hear, but what you (the media and the government) want them to want to hear.
The Vietnam War brought home to both the government and the media the difficulty of managing live reality. The Nixon administration that followed both intensified the war and worked on molding the public’s mindset rather than either debating critics or seeking to hide from public scrutiny. Richard Nixon introduced the notion of “the silent majority” to neutralize the voices of protest and shame the refractory media by accusing them of failing to respond to the will of the people, “real Americans.” Nixon’s war on the media eventually backfired with the Watergate scandal, leading to his resignation in 1974. But it effectively drew attention away from his policies and onto his person, something Johnson was never able to do.
From that point on, and thanks in part to the Watergate scandal itself, the media acquired the habit of focusing on the personality of presidents and neglecting critical discussion of their policies. Suddenly, there was plenty of live coverage of the Watergate affair itself and less and less of Vietnam, Indonesia and Chile, where the kind of foreign policy Fulbright denounced was being carried out with greater and greater impunity.
Perhaps CBS and other audio-visual media had learned that live broadcasting of the reality produced by a president’s policies was too problematic to manage safely. In contrast, live broadcasting the dramas of the president himself excited their audiences. The public lapped up the scandals the media featured about Richard Nixon, the crook, Bill Clinton, the seducer, and George W. Bush, the bumbler and gaffer who, while launching disastrous wars, so charmingly failed even to put a coherent sentence together. Ronald Reagan, the incarnation of the wisdom attributed to Nixon’s silent majority, stood as an icon of Hollywood hyperreality, where scripted fiction distracted attention from the spontaneous and often duplicitous truth hiding behind it. Barack Obama, as the first black president, was protected by his own iconic status while, at the same time, silently polarizing the fears of the silent white majority. For them, his very presence in the White House was a scandal.
As a living and breathing fountain of permanent scandal, Donald Trump was the godsend enabling all news outlets — for and against him — to thrive during a golden age of media. For four years, the kind of rational, critical discourse aiming at achieving some perspective on reality that Fulbright was known to promote disappeared from the airwave. The very idea of letting it be heard became anathema to media producers. This was as true of Fox (Republican, conservative) as of MSNBC (Democrat, liberal). The media relished every speech and tweet that emerged from Donald Trump’s creative impulses.
One problem with the American war in Vietnam was that, despite its superficial resemblance to a contest between “our team” and “their team,” it fundamentally failed to conform to the binary model. Americans never quite understood why the South Vietnamese government should be called our team. Lyndon Johnson’s massive deployment of troops was designed partly to convince Americans that it was a war not between two Vietnamese rival organizations with a claim to governing, but between American democracy and an illegitimate enemy that had no clear defining characteristics other than an apparent belief in Marxist theory. Those who delved into the people’s history understood that the North Vietnamese were nationalists whose goal was to finally break free of French colonial rule.
The next serious problem with the conflict was the fact that once an American war starts, unless it is quickly won, it will go on forever. No excuse ever exists for stopping it. When, in his Senate hearings, William Fulbright called to the witness stand George Kennan — a highly respected presidential foreign policy adviser, considered by many to have written the ground rules of the Cold War — Johnson reacted. Knowing that Kennan judged the intervention in Vietnam to be a mistake, Johnson put pressure on CBS to replace its programmed live coverage of the hearings by stale reruns of popular sitcoms. This immediately provoked the resignation of Fred Friendly, the head of CBS’ news division.
Friendly’s reaction tells us something about how the standards for truth that once existed even in corporate news media have evolved over time. Those who take the job now are only too aware of what’s expected of them. Like an Amazon or Uber driver, they obligingly deliver. They would never consider resigning simply because of orders from the White House. In any case, presidents no longer bother to put pressure on news editors to kill a story or live coverage. They prefer to send their message straight to the corporate executives who hire the news editors.
Fulbright lived in a world that hadn’t yet fully realized that news could be entertainment and that politics and corporate interest could be seamlessly merged into a politico-media complex. In the 1960s, the idea persisted that political decisions could and should derive from rational analysis of historical context. But as President Dwight Eisenhower warned at the beginning of the decade, the military-industrial complex now occupied the government’s existential core. Its decision-making was based on cynical, irrational, profit-driven and power-hungry reasoning. William Fulbright, Walter Cronkite and Fred Friendly confronted that emerging world. They themselves belonged to a universe that no longer exists today.