Robert MacNeil and the Mainstream Media

Back in the 1980’s some of us were driven to political activity.  We were children of the ‘˜60’s, had marched against the war in Vietnam, cheered deliriously at the removal of Richard Nixon, and sunk into a deep depression through Ford and Carter.  Once you learn that there is serious evil in the world, and that it can reside in the hearts of your very own elected leaders, you are scarred forever.

As someone who studied My Lai closely enough to know that it was light years from an isolated incident, that it was the execution of policy at the same time it was the execution of unarmed civilians, I am required to admit that I have, and had, a tendency to an openness of mind with regard to the darker allegations made against the US Government that probably distinguishes me from the average newspaper reader.  I make the claim, however, that my conclusions are, in a very lawyerly manner, derived from the available evidence.  For example, I did not know that 9/11 was an inside job, nor even suspect it, until, 3 ½ years later, a bright colleague showed me the evidence.  I am not writing about that disaster at the moment, but rather about one of its progenitors and the grand enabling force, the mainstream media.

Well before the Iran-Contra scandal broke in November of 1986, as my 2 week old son was scaring the life out of his mother and me, having come down with a fever and been hospitalized for four or five days, I knew that Oliver North was running a terrorist organization known as the Contras out of the White House.  Two years before I had listened to an interview on KPFA, a left wing radio station, and the interviewee was a sociology Ph.D student who had survived either the Rio Sumpul massacre in El Salvador.  Hundreds of villagers were machinegunned from helicopters as they were running away from their homes.  He was one of the fortunate survivors who actually testified about it before Congress.  Though I was a fairly regular reader of the New York Times, I had seen nothing about the massacre in the paper.

There, at that instant, was the reinvigoration of a lapsed political consciousness whose pulse is still visible on the side of the neck.  Some time later I went to a lecture by John Stockwell, the former CIA agent who did the equivalent of Oliver North’s job in Angola under William Colby and Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger.  He told us all who Oliver North was and what he was doing running terrorists into Nicaragua from Honduras, burning up farm collectives and health clinics that didn’t exist when Somoza was having his political opponents killed and dumped into the lake below his stronghold in Managua.

Every day during those years involved a tirade on my part, silent or otherwise, about the fact that the mainstream was mangling the story of Central America, mangling it, botching it, distorting it, propagandizing it.  There was an enormous disinformation campaign being run by the US Government, that everyone who cares, knows about now, but that only the Left was able to understand as it was happening.  I traveled to Nicaragua to see for myself, and the nature of the depravity of US foreign policy was made manifest with every person I talked to, every newspaper I read, every farflung village that I visited.

As Attorney General Ed Meese disclosed to us, there in our tiny child’s hospital room, that Iran-Contra had been discovered, a sick, sad, pathetic part of me harbored hope that a glorious end would come as it had to Nixon, that that day’s Robert Parry would accomplish what Woodward and Bernstein had a decade before.  The anger burned hot in the succeeding years as Oliver North trod over Iran-Contra Committee Counsel John Neal, telling fabulous lies with impunity; as George Bush’s chief of staff massaged a notation on a briefing paper in his own hand that said ‘œcontra resupply’ into ‘œcopter resupply,’ all with a straight face, all with bold mendacity to the befuddled silence of the mainstream media.

I knew it all, as every honest historian has chronicled since, that Ronald Reagan tore up the Constitution and laughed about the visiting hours in prison, but the mainstream media had not the semblance of spine it would have taken to demand action from that other spineless entity, the Democratic Party, who controlled both houses of Congress.  I knew it all, and so did they, all of them, but our democracy doesn’t operate the way those like me think it should.

I got in my car and left the family behind and went to the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco where, in the basement, I had endured and conquered the bar exam.  I went to see Robert MacNeil, then still the co-host of PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour.  I think it was in the early 90’s.  I had already achieved a certain acclaim within my family by predicting the Sandinista loss at the polls under the savage pressure of US Government violent and non-violent interference in the internal affairs of that poor destroyed country.  I don’t get over things; I carry grudges; I demand answers.  Robert MacNeil, nice and polite beyond the meaning of those words, was desperately unequal to the forces of disinformation that enabled the destruction of that nation.  Far smarter than I could ever claim to be, far better informed than I have ever cared to be, Robert MacNeil had opportunity after opportunity to wretch at the garbage that the government representatives would disgorge to his politely smiling face night after night, but he didn’t.  I knew it was garbage; I had good reason to know it was garbage; and if he didn’t, it was a monumental act of willful ignorance.

So that is what was on my mind when it came time for the question and answer session, and I may well have been the first to raise a hand.  I asked, in so many words, how he could have blown the story, and wasn’t it wrong to exclude the Left from his show.  He maintained that the goods were never gotten against Reagan and Bush despite all of the media’s best efforts, but then he denied that the left was excluded from his show.  I asked when was the last time Chomsky appeared as a guest, and, to uproarious laughter by those seated all around me, he replied, ‘œyesterday.’

Decency is the most wonderful of human traits.  It can cover over layers and layers of ineptitude and cowardice.  Robert MacNeil is a decent man.  He quieted that San Francisco crowd with the wave of a hand, and the noble admission that that had been a cheap shot; that Chomsky had not been a guest in any of the ten previous years.  It should be noted that it was Noam Chomsky whose scholarship concerning Central America was the most insightful in every one of those ten MacNeil-Lehrer-silent years.  Now I approach the kernel toward which this piece has been traveling.

When the audience had quieted at his behest, he began the most revealing and damning of confessions, though I doubt that he saw it that way.  The fact, he said, is that there is no Left in this country.

A wonderful law professor of mine, Max Eisenberg, once made reference to the phenomenon known in French as ‘œesprit d’escalier.’  After an argument, as you are walking down the staircase, the clinching, winning thought comes belatedly to your mind only after the door is shut and further opportunity for battle does not exist.  It could hardly be applied to what took place in the Masonic Auditorium, but some time after the end of the evening, I thought to myself, true as it is, small in number though we of the Left obviously are, what difference does that make?  What does the existence or non-existence of a constituency for a set of ideas have to do with what is true?  If the job of a journalist is to find and publish the truth, should he or she be interested in whether or not the truth, as it exists, is going to be met with discomfort or applause?

Further, if we are to assume, as the last 100 years have so ably demonstrated, that bad deeds are occasionally performed by constituents of the Right and Center, who has the interest in finding out about them, and is steeled with the vision to continue the hunt in a way those with different beliefs are not, than the Left?  Along with a general reconfiguration of the media in this country which would disallow ownership of a media outlet by anything other than a media company, it should be the policy of every news organization to employ journalists of all political bents so that no news organization could profess a lack of interest in the pursuit of a certain story, on the part of its staff, or on the part of its readership..

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