"THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA HAS GONE MAD," announced a headline in The Times of London on January 15. This was at first glance worrisome, but at second less so, because the article turned out to be not a news report but an opinion column. It was the opinion, specifically, of John le Carré that "America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War."
Le Carré said that "the freedoms that have made America the envy of the world are being systematically eroded," the principal evidence being that, as concerns war with Iraq, "the combination of compliant US media and vested corporate interests is once more ensuring that a debate that should be ringing out in every town square is confined to the loftier columns of the East Coast press."
Ah, that madness: we aren't talking enough. As events moved closer to war with Iraq in December and January, the complaint grew among people (mostly of the left) who are strongly opposed to such a war that what had gone wrong was much due to a lack of informed debate, and that this, in turn, was much due to the refusal of a corrupt White-House-and-Wall-Street-mastered media to allow such debate.
I know that this complaint of a stifled debate and a Bush-lackeyish media is not Le Carré's alone, because I come across it frequently, from the stifled, in the opinion pages of major American and British papers such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, the Guardian, and The Independent; on the programs of National Public Radio and its 680 member stations; on such Web sites of the left as openDemocracy.net, TomPaine.com, truthout.org, Talking Points Memo, American Politics Journal, Media Whores Online ("the site that set out to bring the media to their knees, but found they were already there"), and FAIR; in the print and online columns of Molly Ivins, The Village Voice's Nat Hentoff, The New York Observer's Joe Conason, and The Nation's Alexander Cockburn, David Corn, and Eric Alterman; in The American Prospect and The Washington Monthly; and so on.
I may also contemplate the debate-smothering bias of the major media from various points of view on the right, and these, too, are to be found in the opinion pages of major American and British papers; in the daily radio and television chatter on the Fox News Channel, The Rush Limbaugh Show, The O'Reilly Factor, and The Sean Hannity Show; on the Web sites of Andrew Sullivan ("unfit to print"), Mickey Kaus, John Ellis, Mark Steyn ("the one-man global content provider"), the Media Research Center, Ann Coulter, and the Jewish World Review; in National Review and on its Web site, from columnists such as Victor Davis Hanson, Larry Kudlow, and Rich Lowry; in The Weekly Standard and on its Web site, from columnists such as Fred Barnes and William Kristol; in The Washington Times and The New York Post; and so on.
Broadening my search for any honest debate not confined to "the loftier columns of the East Coast press", I may turn to such Web sites as the Drudge Report (which alone will link me to more than 225 news and opinion sites worldwide), Slate, Salon, and InstaPundit (which alone will link me to thirty-five "big journalism" sites ranging ideologically from Fox News to Andrew Sullivan to the libertarian Virginia Postrel to Joshua Micah Marshall; and to more than 200 "pure bloggers," including Armed Liberal, Big Arm Woman, BitchPundit, Cato the Youngest, Cold Fury, CounterRevolutionary, Nikita Demosthenes, The Fat Guy, Flit, FuturePundit, Gut Rumbles, Horsefeathers, The Inde-pundit, Pundit Watch, Rantburg, RealClear Politics, Right Wing News, War Liberal, and Dr. Weevil). Or I might check in with PejmanPundit, The American Times, Michael Barone, Media Life, Romenesko's MediaNews, Microcontent News, ABCNews's The Note, Political Wire, Slashdot, NewsMax ("America's News Page"), Rich Galen, the Volokh Conspiracy, James Lileks, GeekPress, Max Power, Man Without Qualities, The Corner, Eve Tushnet ("conservatism reborn in twisted sisterhood"), or JunkYard Blog ("born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad").
It is hard to say precisely when the eerie, debate-free silence first fell across an America stilled by a compliant US media and vested corporate interests. It may have been in the days immediately following the delivery to the United Nations on December 7 of what the government of Saddam Hussein said was a "currently accurate, full and complete" accounting of Iraq's chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs. This—in itself a major wordage event, with the report at 11,807 pages—was greeted with the usual unnatural lack of public comment.
According to Nexis, the "English language, full-text news sources" that are generally available to American consumers carried only 829 stories or items concerning weapons, President Bush, Iraq, and the United States on December 8, 9, and 10. This was followed by only 888 stories from December 11 to 13, only 570 from December 14 to 16, only 862 from December 17 to 19, only 542 from December 20 to 21, and so on, continuing right through press time for this column, with only 723 Nexis hits for January 13 to 15.
The silence was deafening. After getting caught in October for having cheated on the 1994 Agreed Framework supposedly ending its nuclear-bomb program, North Korea nullified the agreement and subsequently threatened a full resumption of its program, expelled international atomic inspectors, and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This was not only an exceedingly dangerous development but also an exceedingly ill-timed one for the Bush Administration, which was caught flat-footed in the midst of dealing with an entirely different crisis involving an entirely different pariah state. But, again, the compliant media obediently kept the lid on: Nexis records no more than 6,245 hits from December 13 to January 15.
And silence covered the land. When Trent Lott, a very darling of the corporate vests, offered his wretched opinion that America would have been a better nation if the Dixiecrats of 1948 had succeeded in electing Strom Thurmond President ... not a single, solitary, pathetic running dog of the compliant media stirred to print or utter a word, except for the 2,886 mentions that Nexis records from December 6 to January 15.
Actually, there was one little bit of relative silence. At about the same time that Senator Lott gaffed himself, so did his Democratic colleague, Senator Patty Murray, of Washington. Senator Murray, speaking to a high school class, said this: "Osama bin Laden has been very, very effective being—we've got to ask, why is this man so popular around the world? ... He's been out in these countries for decades, building roads, building schools, building infrastructure, building day-care facilities, ... and the people are extremely grateful. It made their lives better. We have not done that. We haven't been out in many of these countries helping them build infrastructure. How would they look at us today if we had been there helping them with some of that rather than just being the people who are going to bomb in Iraq and go to Afghanistan?"
These remarkable remarks were indeed largely ignored: Nexis shows a total of only 162 hits from December 20 to January 15. In the Le Carré argument this is presumably a bad thing. On the other hand, this could be a case in which silence was golden, since nobody would be doing Senator Murray a favor by drawing attention to her words. Senator Murray herself seems to be strongly in the silence=golden camp. Complaining later of what coverage there was, Murray said it went without saying that Osama bin Laden was "evil," and that critiquing her remarks was, well, un-American: "Having a challenging and thoughtful discussion about America's future reflects the best values of a free democracy; to sensationalize and distort in an attempt to divide does not." Debate ringing out in every town square, yes; but not that divisive kind of debate.