America and Libya

Edward Said

In the extracts from David Stockman’s memoirs published on Monday 14 April by Newsweek, Reagan’s former Budget Director spoke of the mediocrities, charlatans and power-hungry politicos who cluster around the disturbingly vague and incompetent Great Communicator. For them, Stockman said, ‘reality-time’ was the seven o’clock evening news on television. How did we look and sound? they ask themselves, as if public policy were some sort of show designed to entertain and please ‘the American people’ once a day, five nights a week. On 14 April reality-time began on each of the three networks with the same first indications of an American strike against Libya.

In New York, I watch Peter Jennings on ABC largely as a matter of habit, although the other anchormen seem to produce roughly the same results. Jennings opened by announcing that something was happening in Tripoli; then he passed things over to two correspondents there who, from their hotel window, reported artillery and bomb blasts that shook the building. Jennings came back on to announce a briefing by Larry Speakes, the White House press spokesman; back to Tripoli for the end of the raid (it was now 7:10 or so), a couple of commercials, and then down to Speakes in Washington. He read a prepared statement with his customary virtuosity, stumbling over nearly every syllable and yet inflecting his sentences with what in this B-grade-Hollywood Administration passes for righteous seriousness.

Except for two details, it is difficult to imagine how this well-packaged 30 minutes of national television differs from the way a state broadcasting system would handle an attack on a weak country somewhere ‘out there’. One point is that the programme was done three times simultaneously instead of once: the unanimity of the networks was perfect. Another is that the show-business co-ordination of getting the raid onto the evening news, with appropriate preparation, commentary and summary, keeping it there for 30 minutes including commercials, was an example of how private enterprise and government can work together with remarkable, apparently unrehearsed agility. It was spontaneous, it was well-synchronised, it was, as they say, 100 per cent effective, and for days afterwards the networks ran advertisements in the papers claiming eminence and victory for their ‘version’ of the same theatrical event. At 7:01 on 14 April NBC was first, said one ad.

I have never seen anything like it, this display of capsule theatricality, manipulation, violence and unadulterated patriotism, and it still goes on. Whole supplements have appeared in each of the major dailies, printing millions of words, all of them repeating more or less the same details, the same jargon about surgical strikes, collateral damage, terrorist planning and command centres. Every national and local news-and-discussion show has scheduled literally hundreds of hours of analysis: the President, Secretaries Shultz and Weinberger, General Vernon Walters, various ‘experts’ – on terrorism, counter-terrorism, the Middle East, Europe, the universe – have appeared along with a tiny handful representing ‘the other side’, interspersed with the same Libyan scenes, the same European demonstrations, the same stirring file pictures of American bombers and battleships, the same senators, Pentagon and State Department spokesmen, the same man-in-the-street interviews extolling ‘our’ side with the same, exactly the same, enthusiasm. We had to do it, ran the standard printable message, or, said the New York Times, we were ‘seeing justice done’. Kicking Libyan (i.e. nigger) ass, and feeling good about it, was the unspoken message.

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