News and Features
A Reply to 'Pacifica Myths and Realities'
May 23, 2001
This magazine has been inundated of late with missives from irate Naderites demanding that the editors immediately exile me to The New Republic, the DLC or worse. My last column on Nader, which merely pointed out that he and his campaign should be held morally responsible for the awful acts of the Bush Administration--since without Nader's candidacy there would be no Bush Administration--inspired 122 such responses, a high percentage of which were personally abusive. Yet when the man himself appeared in these pages to denounce the President whose election he abetted, only twenty-seven readers were so moved. These numbers point to a perennial problem for liberals: Such zeal and enthusiasm that exists for politics at all anymore appears to rest exclusively with the extremes of left and right. Too bad that instead of learning from the far right's march to power through a grassroots takeover of the Republican Party, the Naderite left seems intent on destroying the fragile gains of seven decades of social progress.
True, it's not easy to support a party with standard-bearers like Clinton and Gore, temperamentally conservative career politicians whose lifetimes of compromise have made them untrustworthy except as weathervanes telling the direction of the political winds. Many (though not all) Democrats are no different. Yet virtually every day the Bush Administration reminds the non-Naderites among us that the only alternative is far worse. And so long as leftists are too weak to create a movement to rival the Republican right, the fight against Bush, DeLay & Co. will require whatever imperfect weapons we have at our disposal. The problem is how to excite people about such unexciting prospects.
Fortunately, the landscape is not entirely barren. Beyond the useful-but-wonkish American Prospect and the well-written but frequently neocon New Republic, the niche economics of Net publishing has spawned a number of sites that manage to combine sensible politics with humor and enthusiasm. Most are tiny operations run on love and charity, largely dependent on their communities of readers for information and support. As such, they have remained pretty much invisible to the mainstream media. Here are a few of my favorites.
§ Despite its criticism of this magazine and some of its columnists--an argument I think I'll stay out of--www.mediawhoresonline.com has a wonderful joie de vivre and some great punchlines. They view the mainstream media as being the captive of the right wing, whether for reasons of ideology or, as the site would put it, "whorishness." Most of the site's material and commentary is designed to insure that the media's "credibility in the public mind be brought in line with its genuine lack of credibility." To do this, they're willing to "mimic the tactics of the wingnuts," referring to all with whom they disagree as "whores" or occasionally "fascists" and refusing, on principle, to criticize any writer whose work they deem to be that of a "non-whore." Hypocritical, you say? "We don't believe it is hypocrisy at all to follow their standard, but fairness," responds Jennifer Kelly, the site's guiding spirit. "And what's more, it's really easy and doesn't require anything in the way of conscience or diligence." I don't follow this philosophy myself, but take my word for it: These people are as funny as they are fearless. Unfortunately, they are a bit unfair to actual whores...
§ www.bartcop.com began as a critique of Rush run by a fellow who wishes to remain anonymous but describes himself as "your average Okie liberal with too much time on my hands." It's developed into a very smart, funny critique of the right and is financed to the tune of $600 a month by Marc Perkel of San Francisco, who simply liked it and offered to pay the freight.
§ www.buzzflash.com, run by Mark Karlin, provides a liberal antidote to Matt Drudge, offering a bit less in the obnoxious self-promotion department and a bit more in the way of accuracy. Turn to it for up-to-the-second reports on, and links to, the Bush Administration's outrage du jour, frequently with smile-inducing headlines ("Yes We Have to Post It Twice: Doobie Brothers Guitarist Is Helping Design Bush's Missile Defense Shield").
§ Despite its unpromising name, www.democrats.com has no relationship to the somnolent party it seeks to revive. Its sponsors tell me, "We think the progressive Democratic message is the winning message, but the party needs to live up to its message by fighting for its principles." Bob Fertik, Dave Lytel and some 200 local chapters do this by highlighting news of interest to progressives, connecting a community of progressive Democrats, publicizing demonstrations to "Irk the Smirk," as Mediawhoresonline puts it, to protest the "stolen election of 2000." They try to fill "an enormous void left by the Democratic Party, which keeps Democratic activists at arm's length."
§ www.americanpolitics.com is a terrific place for links, satires and cartoons. It's also a great place to find incriminating quotes by the bad guys. Oh, and check out the shapely "email@example.com" before someone makes them take her down. Similarly comprehensive, www.onlinejournal.com contains original reporting from a sensibly leftish perspective.
§ www.bear-left.com offers first-rate in-depth analysis of whatever topic strikes the fancy of its authors, Paul Corrigan and Tim Francis-Wright, including an insanely detailed recent analysis of Skull and Bones's tax filings. See also its fantastic links page at www.bear-left.com/links.html.
§ www.mediatransparency.org does not really belong on this list, since it's more of an intellectual and political resource for journalists and scholars doing research on the connections between right-wing foundations and public policy. But it does deserve recognition for its public service and the widest possible audience for the tireless research on this neglected topic undertaken by its founder, Rob Levine.
§ And if you need cheering up, try www.bushorchimp.com, but remember it's a joke. The left got rolled for years by Ronald Reagan's dumb act, and I fear "W" is no dummy either--appearances, quite obviously, to the contrary.
Jay T. Harris resigned March 19 as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, saying he was unwilling to make staff cuts necessary to meet the profit goals of Knight Ridder, the paper's parent company, in the current weakening economy. (Newspaper analyst John Morton estimates that the Mercury News earned a profit of better than 30 percent of sales last year.) On April 26, Dow Jones quoted Knight Ridder executives as saying they had been told they would receive bonuses for cutting staff--as much as twice their salaries, according to one official. Knight Ridder said the story is untrue. Shortly after resigning, Harris explained his action in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
It was the conviction that newspapers are a public trust that brought me to Knight Ridder in 1985. I understood then and understand even better today that a good newspaper and a good business go hand in hand. Indeed, without a good business it would be impossible for a newspaper to do good journalism over the long haul. But at some point one comes to ask, What is meant by a good business? What is good enough in terms of profitability and sustained year-to-year profit improvement? And how do you balance maintaining a strong business with your responsibilities as the steward of a public trust?
Most businesses can reduce expenses more or less proportionately with demand and revenue without doing irreparable damage to their core capabilities, their market position or their mission. But news and readers' interests do not contract with declining advertising. Nor does our responsibility to the public get smaller as revenue declines or newsprint becomes more expensive.
In the same way that hospitals are important to the health of individuals and communities, good newspapers are important to the health of our communities, our nation and our democracy. My argument today is that a freedom, a resource, so essential to our national democracy that it is protected in our Constitution, should not be managed primarily according to the demands of the market or the dictates of a handful of large shareholders.
Quality is not a matter of public versus private ownership--the issues are the same in both. There are publicly held newspapers where quality does not vary noticeably in good times or bad. There are others, and I would include Knight Ridder in this number, that publish very good newspapers, but the tension between quality and responsibility on the one hand and financial expectations on the other is constant, and the balance is tenuously maintained.
I thought the tension and its sources were captured clearly and succinctly in a recent segment on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer during which correspondent Terrence Smith asked Lauren Rich Fine, a Merrill Lynch media analyst, "What profit margin does Wall Street expect from a newspaper, a publicly held newspaper company? If they average in the 20s, is that enough? What does it have to be?" To which Fine responded: "Well, it's never enough, of course. This is Wall Street we're talking about."
That is an honest and unabashed statement of what some of us see as the tyranny of the current situation. It matters not whether the source of that tyranny is the demand of analysts and major shareholders, the reaction of corporate executives to those demands or merely the demand of owners of privately held newspapers for an unreasonably high return.
The trend threatening newspapers' historic public service mission is clear--if we're willing to see it. And it can be challenged and reversed--if we're willing to speak out. Of course, many are unable, or unwilling, to see or speak the truth of the situation. One reason is that the high salaries many of our leaders receive, in newsrooms and business offices as well as corporate headquarters, have turned into golden handcuffs. And those handcuffs have morphed into blindfolds and gags as well.
But this muffle of good fortune has not produced absolute silence. Today, we hear a growing chorus of brave souls, inside and outside the industry, protesting vigorously--and an audible grumbling of discontent from within the ranks of journalists and readers alike.
So where do we go from here? I am hopeful and optimistic about the future of American newspapers--both as a business and as key contributors to the vitality of our democracy. I neither believe nor will I accept that the current trend can't be changed, that the proper balance can't be restored, that the unwise is somehow unavoidable or that a course that is inconsistent with our principles and values must be followed. I believe that if we are willing to speak the truth, willing to talk together and work together to determine what the proper balance is and how it can be restored, we can achieve that end. Here are a few thoughts on how this might be done:
§ The discussion needs to include all the stakeholders, not just publishers, editors, large shareholders and institutional investors. Journalists and employees from the business side need to be at the table as well. So do readers, scholars and a diverse group of community representatives.
§ One goal of the effort should be to develop a working definition of what being a good and faithful steward of the public trust requires of newspaper managers and newspaper owners.
§ The moral, social and business dimensions of the issue should be fully explored and given equal priority.
§ The discussion should build the case for a steady and reliable investment, insofar as prudent business allows, in news, circulation, research and promotion.
§ The case needs to be made that editors must seek equal access to the publisher's chair. Journalists cannot leave the helm to those who do not have a deep commitment to a newspaper's responsibilities to its readers and its community.
§ And finally, a way must be found to give the public a sense of "ownership" in its community's newspaper. It should hold the paper--its managers and owners--to reasonably high standards and accept nothing less.
I scanned all the cheap effusions that followed the Bob Kerrey disclosures, looking for just one mention of just one name. Ron Ridenhour. Ron was the GI who got wind of the My Lai massacre, followed up on what he'd heard, complained to the higher-ups and, when that didn't work, blew the whistle to the press (which took about a year to print anything). He was a friend of mine and by any known test an American hero. Except that there is a strong tendency in all cultures and all societies to hate people like Ron. By his simple and principled action, he destroyed all the excuses of those who say that war is hell and "whaddayagonnado." He was from Texas whiteboy stock and an uneducated draftee; call him a grunt--he wouldn't have minded. His example demolishes both those who say that only combat-hardened men can judge other veterans, and those who shiftily maintain that those who weren't actually there have no business making judgments. Ron wasn't at My Lai, but he'd seen quite enough to know that the rumors of what had happened were probably true, and he felt obliged to check them out, and to risk his own skin to do so.
Things evidently happened rather fast in the village of Thanh Phong on February 24, 1969. Calley's platoon in March 1968 had taken much of a day in which to really work on the villagers of My Lai. Nonetheless, even given more leisure, Bob Kerrey would not I think have raped any of the women, cut off any ears, disemboweled any babies or tortured any of the prisoners. He never went around referring to the Vietnamese as "gooks" or "slopes" or "slants." Whenever the subject of war came up in Washington during his tenure as a senator, he was a sane and lucid voice. And I should add that I know him somewhat and that, since I'm a lowly adjunct prof at the New School, he is actually my president.
By the end of his week before the cameras, however, I began to wish that he wasn't. If you have had more than three decades to reflect, and some weeks of advance notice on top of that, you don't have to rise to the Ron Ridenhour standard. But you must not disgrace it. It is, I suppose, arguable that both Gerhard Klann (a man in possession of a somehow unfortunate name) and the Vietnamese witnesses are all under a misapprehension. But neither the New York Times Magazine nor 60 Minutes II gave them any chance to compare notes or concert their story. And then Kerrey, confronted by the contradictions of his own account, said the following: "The Vietnam government likes to routinely say how terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that effort." This was a sad improvisation of paltry lies, adding up to a lie on the Spiro Agnew scale. (As this was going to press, Kerrey told me that he's written to the Times to withdraw at least the "collaborating" part.)
Nobody troubled to report an even worse moment at Kerrey's press conference, which occurred when the invaluable Amy Goodman asked him about the command responsibility for war crimes borne by the Nixon-Kissinger architects of the aggression. (He was, after all, under orders in a "free-fire zone" to treat all civilians as potential cadavers and all cadavers as part of the enemy "body count"; he did accept a citation for carrying out this standing policy.) I can appreciate that Kerrey might not have wanted to seem to shift responsibility; the Ridenhour standard makes it plain that you can't be ordered to commit crimes against humanity. However, such a standard must not be twisted for the purposes of moral relativism. Kerrey answered Goodman's inescapable question by focusing entirely on his own need to "get well." He thus excused himself--and his political "superiors."
The date of the "firefight" is almost unbearable to contemplate. February 24, 1969, is about a month after Nixon took the oath of office. It's about two months after he asked Henry Kissinger to be his National Security Adviser. It's about three months after the South Vietnamese military junta withdrew precipitately from the Paris peace negotiations. And it's about four months after the Nixon campaign made a covert approach to that same junta in order to incite it to do so, and to take out an illegal and treasonous mortgage on another four years of war, as well as to subvert an American election. (For still more evidence of this historic crime, see most recently Robert Mann's A Grand Delusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam, published by Basic Books.) One must of course sympathize with Kerrey's pain. Only a few weeks after Thanh Phong, Kerrey lost a healthy limb to Nixon's sick design. But even the most tentative judgment requires that we give moral priority to the more than 20,000 US servicemen who died after the sabotage of the Paris talks, and to the uncountable number of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who were immolated as a result of the same despicable policy.
We should also abandon easy nonjudgmental relativism and give moral priority to men like Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn and Glenn Andreotta. These three were flying over My Lai in their helicopter on March 16, 1968, and saw Charlie Company butchering the inhabitants with no "enemy" in sight. Thompson not only grounded his chopper between the remaining civilians and his fellow Americans, he drew his weapon and told the murderers to back off. This was no impulsive gesture; he took some civilians away with him and then returned. Andreotta (who was killed three weeks later) found a small child in one of the corpse-choked ditches and managed to save him. Exactly thirty years after the atrocity, Thompson, Colburn and--posthumously--Andreotta were awarded the Soldier's Medal in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's the highest award you can get for an action that doesn't involve engaging "the enemy." There was no mention of their awkward bravery in the recent coverage, either, though as far as was possible, these three men lived up to one of our current dopey mantras, which is to "leave no child behind."
If Kerrey wishes he could say the same, rather than have left a pile of children behind him, then he has missed several opportunities to do so. His official statement was entirely about himself. It did not in fact come clean about what happened. And it did not contain one word of contrition for the action, or of sympathy for the victims. It was also internally inconsistent in other ways. The war, he said, hadn't become unpopular until 1969. Whatever this was supposed to mean, it didn't explain his accepting a Medal of Honor from Richard Nixon on May 14, 1970, in a ceremony that he now claims he knew was a tawdry and stagy bid for public opinion, and in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Cambodia and the killings of lawful protesters at Kent State and Jackson State.
Talking of universities, I was ashamed and disgusted to read the statement put out by the authorities at the New School. Here it is in full: "The Board of Trustees of New School University gives its unqualified support to Bob Kerrey. It is hard for most of us to imagine the horrors of war. War is hell. Traumatic events take place and their terrible effects may last a lifetime. We should all recognize the agony that Bob has gone through and must continue to deal with. We should also recognize that Bob's heroism and integrity have been demonstrated on many occasions. The Board of Trustees stands solidly behind him."
I try to teach English to humorous and intelligent graduates at this place. I could and will use this pathetic text--signed by John Tishman and Philip Scaturro, respectively chairman of the board and chancellor--as a case study in subliterate euphemism. ("What about Bob?" Leave no cliché behind!) But it is worse than it looks. Notice the insistence that only Kerrey's feelings count. And notice the insinuation that wartime actions are above moral distinction or discrimination. The New School, founded by some antimilitarist defectors from the then-conformist Columbia University at the end of the First World War, became the host campus for dozens of anti-Nazi refugee scholars in the succeeding decades. It gave podiums to Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt, in lecture rooms where the nature of political evil was thoroughly discussed. It still runs democracy programs from Kosovo to South Africa. Its student body is multinational and always has been. A word or two about the slaughtered Vietnamese might not have been out of place. But this graceless little handout didn't even refer to them. Unrepudiated, the statement is a direct insult to everybody at the school and a surreptitious invitation to a creepy kind of secondhand complicity in murder.
I've no wish to hurt Kerrey's feelings unduly, but it ill becomes him to act as if he's facing a firing squad while he's being made the object of apparently limitless empathy. The truth of the matter is that I can't guess what these "many occasions" of "heroism and integrity" have been. (I'm assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that the New School authorities aren't counting the Thanh Phong massacre.) He was a fairly decent senator, as I've already said. But he showed then, as he shows now, a pronounced tendency to have things both ways. Like the Moynihans and the Gores, he was fond of privately denouncing Clinton as a crook and a liar and a thug, and then casting the ultimate vote in his favor. He told me in the week of the impeachment trial that he was determined to vote to convict Clinton for obstruction of justice, adding rather irrelevantly that it "wouldn't do him any harm" in his home state of Nebraska. And then, maybe when he remembered that he'd steered the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee through one of the greatest fundraising bonanzas in history, he thought better of it. "They all do it," of course, but then they needn't expect moist tributes for their bravery.
And yet--they don't all do it. Think again of Ridenhour, Thompson, Colburn, Andreotta--names that are barely known, names of men who would have been ashamed to leave a ditchful of women and children behind them, or to watch such a ditch being filled and say and do nothing. And think of what a great wall we'd have to build if we intended to inscribe all the Indochinese names. There's no possible repair or apology that could measure up to such a vast crime. But this must not mean a culture of stupid lenience and self-pity, in which the only wounds to be healed are those of the perpetrators, or of their obedient servants. How wonderful that at last we are forgiving the people of Vietnam for what we did to them.
There are war crimes and there is the crime of war, and it's ethically null to say that only veterans can pronounce on either. (There could be no human rights tribunals or Truth and Justice Commissions if this were so.) Kerrey was not caught in an ambush or suddenly placed in a hopeless situation. He led a stealthy, deliberate incursion into other people's homes, and the first act of those under his command was to slit the throats of an elderly couple and three children to keep them from making a sound. Kerrey now says that he didn't enter that particular "hooch" before, during or after--something of an oversight for the team leader, whose job it was to ascertain the nature of the opposition. He says it was a moonless night; the US Naval Observatory says there was a 60 percent disk until an hour after the squad had finished up....
This horror occurred in the context of two others: the Phoenix program and Operation Speedy Express. The first has been acknowledged even by its architects as a death-squad campaign, and the second was exposed at the time, by Kevin Buckley of Newsweek, as a mass slaughter of the civilians of the Mekong Delta. In other words, it's a bit late for armchair supporters of the war, or armchair excuse-makers, to discover indecipherable subjective mysteries where none in fact exist. Kerrey's after-action report on Thanh Phong, for which he received a Bronze Star citation, reads, in a vile code compounded of cruelty and falsification: "21 VC KIA (BC)." That stands for twenty-one Vietcong, killed in action according to body count. Did he accept that medal as part of coming to terms with how haunting it all was?
The humanoid who came up with the shady term "Vietnam syndrome" was of course Henry Kissinger, who had every reason to try to change the subject from his own hideous responsibility. But even now, the president of a humanist academy takes up that same pseudo-neutral tone of therapy-babble and quasi-confessional healing, instead of demanding the Truth and Justice Commission that might establish what we owe to the people he killed, as well as what we could and should do about the still unpunished and still untroubled people who directed him to slay them in their sleep.
The New York Times could benefit from having an in-house arbitrator.
A parody of Gone With the Wind has run into legal trouble: too revealing of the real nature of slavery?
The former FCC chairman says he's bitter about the effective dismantling of his low-power radio plan. Under his successor, such an idea won't even get raised.
Perhaps I underestimate the joy of being given a silly nickname by the Leader of the Free World, but I'm having a hard time understanding why media big feet are so taken by the nation's new Charmer in Chief. Leave aside the extreme right-wing agenda he's pursuing when by any fair measure of voting he lost the election. Forget that he began his term by breaking his key campaign promises. And ignore his frequent and unapologetic lies about his commitment to bipartisan governance. What about the fact that, perhaps more than any President since Nixon, Bush holds the media and its denizens in utter contempt?
Take for example Bush's decision to appoint Otto Reich to head the Latin American office in the State Department. As Peter Kornbluh discusses elsewhere in this issue [see "Bush's Contra Buddies," page 6], Reich's job in the Reagan Administration was simply to lie to (and about) the media. He did it very well. According to Walter Raymond--the CIA propaganda specialist whom William Casey transferred to the National Security Council in order to circumvent the 1947 National Security Act, which restricted CIA involvement in domestic propaganda operations--the purpose of Reich's Office of Public Diplomacy was to "concentrate on gluing black hats on the sandinistas and white hats on the UNO [contras]." Staffed by senior CIA officials with backgrounds in covert operations, military intelligence and psychological warfare, the OPD offered privileges to favored journalists, placed ghostwritten articles over the signatures of contra leaders in leading opinion magazines and on Op-Ed pages, and publicized nasty stories about the Sandinistas, true or not. In its first year, it sent attacks on the Sandinistas to 1,600 college libraries, 520 political science faculties, 122 editorial writers, 107 religious organizations and countless reporters, right-wing lobbyists and members of Congress. It booked advocates for 1,570 lecture and talk-show engagements. In just one week of March 1985, the OPD officers bragged in a memo of having fooled the editors of the Wall Street Journal into publishing an Op-Ed about Nicaragua penned by an unknown professor, having guided an NBC news story on the contras and having written and edited Op-Ed articles to be signed by contra spokesmen, as well as having planted false stories in the media about a visiting Congressman's experiences in Nicaragua.
Among the OPD's lies were stories that portrayed the Sandinistas as virulent anti-Semites, that reported a Soviet shipment of MIG jets to Managua and that purported to reveal that US reporters in Nicaragua were receiving sexual favors--hetero- and homosexual--from Sandinista agents in exchange for pro-Communist reporting. That last lie, published in the July 29, 1985, New York magazine, came directly from Reich.
Perhaps OPD's most important effort was to convince Congress and the media of the contras' democratic bona fides. They did this by pretending that the men handpicked by North as front men were operationally in charge of contra political and military operations. In addition to signing the names of these men to fake Op-Ed articles, Reich and company coached them on how to lie whenever they were asked about being on the US government payroll, as well as about their aims for their US-funded armies. Together with top officials of the State Department, the CIA and the National Security Council, the OPD spent millions to paint civilians as the true leaders of the contras. The United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), founded in San José, Costa Rica, in June 1985, thanks in large part to the efforts of Oliver North, was designed to manufacture an acceptably "democratic" face for the contra leadership. According to a private 1985 memo by Robert Owen, North's liaison with the contras, the UNO was entirely "a creation of the USG[overnment] to garner support from Congress." Its leaders were "liars" and "greed and power motivated."
Reporting on Reich's appointment has been decidedly unsensational. The LA Times has ignored it. The New York Times and the Washington Post assigned to the story knowledgeable reporters who covered Central America, but the results reflected the strictures of journalistic objectivity as much as the outrageousness of Reich's activities. Raymond Bonner and Christopher Marquis wrote in the Times that "a government investigation concluded that Mr. Reich's office engaged in prohibited acts of domestic propaganda." (In a backhanded tribute to Bonner's brilliant Central American reporting of the 1980s, Reich called the Times editors with a vicious personal attack on the journalist hoping to get him taken off the story.) Karen DeYoung noted in the Post that the OPD "used what critics called legally questionable means to promote favorable publicity and political support for the U.S.-backed contras in Nicaragua in their war against the Cuba-backed Sandinista government." The Economist was even more generous, insisting that Reich "got marginally caught up in the Iran/contra scandal when his office was accused of engaging in covert propaganda activities to get Americans' support for the Nicaraguan contras." No major paper has yet addressed the issue in an editorial.
Most reports on the appointment have focused on it as payback to extremist Miami Cubans and brother Jeb for their instrumental role in helping Bush hijack Florida and hence the election. (Reich regularly likens Cuba to Auschwitz and to an antebellum slave plantation.) Perhaps it is. But Reich's appointment ought to be recognized as an intentional kick in the teeth to the media, as well as a testament to its lack of institutional memory.
When Kornbluh and Robert Parry first revealed the activities of the OPD in Foreign Policy magazine in 1988, Reich, according to a Boston Globe report, compared the fully accurate article to Hitler's "big lie" technique regarding the Final Solution. It's hard to imagine a more offensive manipulation of the murder of millions than using it to slander journalists and lie to the country about an illegal war--but hell, the Bush people are just getting started.
Attorney General John Ashcroft says he does not want Timothy McVeigh to "inject more poison into our culture"--a striking statement, given the method of McVeigh's execution. Accordingly, he intends to deny permission for television interviews during the Oklahoma City bomber's final weeks on federal death row. (The Oklahoma legislature had a similar purpose in mind when it passed a resolution condemning a new book about McVeigh--thus bringing it more publicity, as a dissenting legislator pointed out.) At the same time, Ashcroft has made a dramatic cultural intervention of his own, authorizing the closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's execution to perhaps 200 family members of his victims.
Both of Ashcroft's announcements show clearly how capital punishment is coarsening American institutions. Although most of the press coverage did not mention it, the Attorney General's diktat banning broadcast interviews applies not only to McVeigh but to all federal death-row inmates. However repellent the thought of a McVeigh TV interview, the ban is one more step in a repressive, systematic national clampdown on press coverage of prisons, which in some states, like Virginia, has led to a virtual blackout of inmate interviews. In the future, Ashcroft's interview ban could deny broadcast access to a federal inmate far different from McVeigh, someone with a legitimate claim of innocence or discrimination--a real likelihood given the nearly 100 death-row inmates in state prisons exonerated by new evidence and the large percentage of capital convictions overturned for grave constitutional error in the original trial.
The question of a public telecast of McVeigh's lethal injection is now moot with Ashcroft's closed-circuit plan, though the drumbeat for public executions continues--with some support among notable death-penalty abolitionists and civil libertarians like Sister Helen Prejean and Nat Hentoff. Televising executions, their argument goes, would either sicken the public or at least make Americans more accountable for what goes on in their name. We disagree. We see telecasts of executions as a fundamentally different matter from death-row interviews. Today's executions by lethal injection are exercises in the engineering of death, the institutionalizing of death, the bureaucratizing of death. Far from shocking America, viewing lethal injections through the distancing glow of a TV screen will further normalize state killing--as television ultimately normalizes the forms of violence it depicts.
Ashcroft did not invent closed-circuit telecasts of an execution--it has been tried at the state level--but it raises disturbing questions. For one thing, as several technological experts have pointed out, the phone-line transmission may not be immune to hacking or decryption--raising the prospect of a McVeigh snuff film in the near or distant future. More important, it makes this first federal execution, one moving forward even as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joins the call for a death-penalty moratorium, a spectacle of individual vengeance for McVeigh's victims--a dangerous turn toward privatizing justice.
Far from shifting the spotlight to the survivors of Oklahoma City, Ashcroft's decision heightens the perverse amplification of McVeigh's voice initiated by his death sentence. The press spent the early weeks of spring speculating about how large a crowd would watch McVeigh take the needle. Instead of fading into anonymity, McVeigh has kept himself on the front page until his final moments and turned the chronicle of his last months into a testament for the militia fringe, who will make him a martyr. This is justice neither for McVeigh's victims nor for the country--and that is the real poison seeping into our culture from the federal death chamber in Terre Haute.
On the importance of being a "public nuisance."
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