The Moral Autism of the Brian Williams Affair

TeleSur English, February 21, 2015. Through much of 2002 and into the spring of 2003, the United States corporate media helped the George W. Bush administration and the bipartisan Washington war lobby sell fateful lies to the United States citizenry. It helped the White House and Pentagon advance the criminally mendacious claims that the government of Iraq was linked to al Qaeda and the Sept. 11, 2001 jetliner attacks, that Iraq possessed great stashes of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs), and (after no such weapons were discovered) that the U.S. invaded Iraq to bring freedom and democracy to that nation.

In his role as a top reporter for NBC News in 2002 and 2003, the recently suspended NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams played along with the dominant U.S. media mission of convincing Americans to accept Washington’s duplicitous rationales for the outrageously criminal and shamelessly imperial occupation of Iraq, which led to the deaths of more than 1 million Iraqis (mainly civilians by far) along with four and a half thousand U.S. military personnel.

Like nearly all U.S. “mainstream” news reporters and commentators at the time, Williams never subjected the U.S. government’s blatantly bogus arguments for illegal war to remotely serious critical scrutiny. He simply relayed those arguments, functioning, along with the rest of his media brethren, as little more than a propagandistic agent of the U.S. military-industrial complex – as a government loudspeaker.

Beyond his advance public relations work for the invasion, Williams also worked to sanitize and whitewash the assault after it occurred. On April 2, 2003, he absurdly suggested to viewers that the invasion of Iraq was “the cleanest war in all of military history.” On March 18, 2005, he claimed that in Iraq, “the civilian toll is thought to range from 17,000 to nearly 20,000 dead and beyond” – this when the most rigorous estimate at the time found that 100,000 civilians had already died. On March 8, 2005,  Williams said that Bush’s invasion had provided “an example of presidential leadership that will be taught in American schools for generations to come.” Even more preposterously, Williams claimed that “even the harshest critics of President Bush … admit maybe he’s right about freedom’s march around the globe.” (See Jim Naureckas, “Some Other Tall Tales Brian Williams Might Want to Apologize For,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Feb. 5, 2015).

Surely then, we should be gratified to learn that Williams has been forced out of his US$10 million-a-year job without pay for at least six months (it seems ever more likely he will in fact never return) because of false statements he made in connection with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, yes? Not exactly. While there’s a certain dark justice and karmic blowback to appreciate in William’s recent misfortune, perhaps, it is distressing and instructive to reflect on why Williams has been humiliated and disciplined. It has nothing to do with how he helped Washington sell deeply fraudulent disinformation to launch and sustain a criminal, imperialist, racist, and mass-murderous war. That is totally irrelevant.

Williams’ sin is that he falsely claimed to have ridden in a U.S. military helicopter that was forced down by an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade during the opening days of the invasion. The illegal and destructive nature of the occupation – enabled and whitewashed by Williams and numerous other U.S. media personnel – is of no interest whatsoever. It’s all about how Williams dishonored valiant U.S. troops by claiming to have met some of the same dangers that the “American heroes” confronted.

The Brian Williams-NBC affair reminds me a bit in this regard of the current hit U.S. movie “American Sniper.” The film’s audiences are supposed to marvel at the noble feats, sacrifice, and American heroism” of Chris Kyle – a Navy SEALS sniper who killed 160 Iraqis over four tours of occupation “duty” – with no thought given to the fact that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was one of the most egregiously criminal acts in the long and bloody history of American and global Empire.

The same moral autism and vacuum stains the Williams fiasco. In a decent society, a reporter’s roguish and unseemly false boasting about facing combat hazards in a vast criminal enterprise like the invasion of Iraq would be nothing compared to the far greater crime of transmitting propaganda to advance and justify that immoral and blood-soaked venture. But, of course, Williams was just one among a large number of media operatives who committed this crime under the orders of higher imperial authorities.

Speaking of those authorities, the dominant U.S. media has played a standard, power-serving role both in the Williams-NBC fiasco and in the “debate” that has emerged over “American Sniper.” It is focusing our historical attention on American subordinates – one a working class hero with a rifle (Kyle) and one a wealthy buffoon with a news camera (Williams) – while the mostly truly culpable masters of U.S. war and Empire, the real decision-makers and profiteers, continue to escape serious public scrutiny.

In his official statement on Williams’ suspension, NBC President and CEO Steve Burke said that “By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust the millions of Americans place in NBC News.” That’s a rich statement coming from the head of a giant and powerful media network that provided propagandistic public relations work (under the guise of objective “journalism” and “reporting”) for an arch-criminal war of deadly imperial occupation and mass murder in 2002 and 2003. How did NBC’s pivotal role – shared, to be sure, with all but a few leading U.S. news outlets – in selling the false pretexts for “Operation Iraqi Freedom” repay “the trust” that “millions of Americans” supposedly placed in NBC News?

Don’t expect that monumental institutional crime to elicit any mea culpas from Burke or his fellow top media honchos. They can hardly be expected to acknowledge such transgressions when history beckons for U.S. “mainstream” media operatives who are serious about keeping their careers afloat to enlist as dutiful propagandists for the American Empire’s endless aggressions – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Africa, East Asia, Venezuela, Colombia, Ukraine (the most potentially disastrous site of all), and, well, everywhere, to be perfectly honest, including the “homeland” itself.

Paul Street is the author of numerous books including Empire and Inequality: American and the World Since 9/11 (2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power(2010); and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (2014).

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By | 2015-03-02T20:57:11+00:00 March 2nd, 2015|Articles|