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Chris Hedges
Truthdig / Truthdig Op-Ed
Published: Tuesday 26 March 2013
Donahue noted that only a very small percentage of Americans have a close relative who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and an even smaller number make the personal sacrifice of a Tomas Young.

The Day that TV News Died

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I am not sure exactly when the death of television news took place. The descent was gradual—a slide into the tawdry, the trivial and the inane, into the charade on cable news channels such as Fox and MSNBC in which hosts hold up corporate political puppets to laud or ridicule, and treat celebrity foibles as legitimate news. But if I had to pick a date when commercial television decided amassing corporate money and providing entertainment were its central mission, when it consciously chose to become a carnival act, it would probably be Feb. 25, 2003, when MSNBC took Phil Donahue off the air because of his opposition to the calls for war in Iraq.

Donahue and Bill Moyers, the last honest men on national television, were the only two major TV news personalities who presented the viewpoints of those of us who challenged the rush to war in Iraq. General Electric and Microsoft—MSNBC’s founders and defense contractors that went on to make tremendous profits from the war—were not about to tolerate a dissenting voice. Donahue was fired, and at PBS Moyers was subjected to tremendous pressure. An internal MSNBC memo leaked to the press stated that Donahue was hurting the image of the network. He would be a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,” the memo read. Donahue never returned to the airwaves.

The celebrity trolls who currently reign on commercial television, who bill themselves as liberal or conservative, read from the same corporate script. They spin the same court gossip. They ignore what the corporate state wants ignored. They champion what the corporate state wants championed. They do not challenge or acknowledge the structures of corporate power. Their role is to funnel viewer energy back into our dead political system—to make us believe that Democrats or Republicans are not corporate pawns. The cable shows, whose hyperbolic hosts work to make us afraid of self-identified liberals or self-identified conservatives, are part of a rigged political system, one in which it is impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, General Electric or ExxonMobil. These corporations, in return for the fear-based propaganda, pay the lavish salaries of celebrity news people, usually in the millions of dollars. They make their shows profitable. And when there is war these news personalities assume their “patriotic” roles as cheerleaders, as Chris Matthews—who makes an estimated $5 million a year—did, along with the other MSNBC and Fox hosts.

It does not matter that these celebrities and their guests, usually retired generals or government officials, got the war terribly wrong. Just as it does not matter that Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman were wrong on the wonders of unfettered corporate capitalism and globalization. What mattered then and what matters now is likability—known in television and advertising as the Q score—not honesty and truth. Television news celebrities are in the business of sales, not journalism. They peddle the ideology of the corporate state. And too many of us are buying.

The lie of omission is still a lie. It is what these news celebrities do not mention that exposes their complicity with corporate power. They do not speak about Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, a provision that allows the government to use the military to hold U.S. citizens and strip them of due process. They do not decry the trashing of our most basic civil liberties, allowing acts such as warrantless wiretapping and executive orders for the assassination of U.S. citizens. They do not devote significant time to climate scientists to explain the crisis that is enveloping our planet. They do not confront the reckless assault of the fossil fuel industry on the ecosystem. They very rarely produce long-form documentaries or news reports on our urban and rural poor, who have been rendered invisible, or on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or on corporate corruption on Wall Street. That is not why they are paid. They are paid to stymie meaningful debate. They are paid to discredit or ignore the nation’s most astute critics of corporatism, among them Cornel West, Medea Benjamin, Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky. They are paid to chatter mindlessly, hour after hour, filling our heads with the theater of the absurd. They play clips of their television rivals ridiculing them and ridicule their rivals in return. Television news looks as if it was lifted from Rudyard Kipling’s portrait of the Bandar-log monkeys in “The Jungle Book.” The Bandar-log, considered insane by the other animals in the jungle because of their complete self-absorption, lack of discipline and outsized vanity, chant in unison: “We are great. We are free. We are wonderful. We are the most wonderful people in all the jungle! We all say so, and so it must be true.”

When I reached him by phone recently in New York, Donahue said of the pressure the network put on him near the end, “It evolved into an absurdity.” He continued: “We were told we had to have two conservatives for every liberal on the show. I was considered a liberal. I could have Richard Perle on alone but not Dennis Kucinich. You felt the tremendous fear corporate media had for being on an unpopular side during the ramp-up for a war. And let’s not forget that General Electric’s biggest customer at the time was Donald Rumsfeld [then the secretary of defense]. Elite media features elite power. No other voices are heard.”

Donahue spent four years after leaving MSNBC making the movie documentary “Body of War” with fellow director/producer Ellen Spiro, about the paralyzed Iraq War veteran Tomas Young. The film, which Donahue funded himself, began when he accompanied Nader to visit Young in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“Here is this kid lying there whacked on morphine,” Donahue said. “His mother, as we are standing by the bed looking down, explained his injuries. ‘He is a T-4. The bullet came through the collarbone and exited between the shoulder blades. He is paralyzed from the nipples down.’ He was emaciated. His cheekbones were sticking out. He was as white as the sheets he was lying on. He was 24 years old. … I thought, ‘People should see this. This is awful.’ ”

Donahue noted that only a very small percentage of Americans have a close relative who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and an even smaller number make the personal sacrifice of a Tomas Young. “Nobody sees the pain,” he said. “The war is sanitized.”

“I said, ‘Tomas, I want to make a movie that shows the pain, I want to make a movie that shows up close what war really means, but I can’t do it without your permission,’ ” Donahue remembered. “Tomas said, ‘I do too.’ ”

But once again Donahue ran into the corporate monolith: Commercial distributors proved reluctant to pick up the film. Donahue was told that the film, although it had received great critical acclaim, was too depressing and not uplifting. Distributors asked him who would go to see a film about someone in a wheelchair. Donahue managed to get openings in Chicago, Seattle, Palm Springs, New York, Washington and Boston, but the runs were painfully brief.

“I didn’t have the money to run full-page ads,” he said. “Hollywood often spends more on promotion than it does on the movie. And so we died. What happens now is that peace groups are showing it. We opened the Veterans for Peace convention in Miami. Failure is not unfamiliar to me. And yet, I am stunned at how many Americans stand mute.”



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ABOUT Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges is a weekly Truthdig columnist and a fellow at The Nation Institute. His newest book is “The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.”

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29 comments on "The Day that TV News Died"

darkmark

March 27, 2013 6:09pm

the Aliens came from a far distant world. in a large yellow ship that blinked as it twirled. it rounded the moon and entered our sky. we knew they had come but we don't know why. bright the next morning with noisy commotion, the ship slowly moved out over the ocean. it lowered a tube and drained the whole sea. for transport back home to their galaxy. the tube then sucked up the clouds and the air. causing no small amount of earthling dispair. with nothing to breathe, we started to die. "help us! please stop!" was the public outcry. a hatch opened up and the aliens said, "we're sorry to learn that you soon will be de_ad. but though you may find this slightly macabre, we prefer your extinction to the loss of our job."

and calvin turns to hobbes and says, "that's my science fiction story. think its to far-fetched?" Hobbes replies, "not enough really."

Montmontre

March 27, 2013 9:54am

Thank Your so much Chris Hedges. It is good to hear and see there are brave people out there who are clear-sighted and have the guts to say what their eyes and mind put together, instead of regurgitating our Corporate -Military Ruler's Media of The Lost. Sometimes one can feel alone when they too question the daily barrage of browser news about "Baby Bumps" and the latest Apology News when we can't make a world fit for babies and thinking minds, nor safe enough to live in this shadow of The Bomb.

anono

March 27, 2013 7:52am

Hitler may have lost the war, but obviously the National Socialist machine won the battle.

BROGS

March 27, 2013 7:44am

The 21st Century version of "Bread and Circuses"

mamabashums

March 27, 2013 7:21am

Hows about internet campaigns for political office that should have equal time per candidate and that is the only place you can go public. The news stations are the biggest whores in the game every election is a huge money cash cow so why should they change. If our democracy is at stake I think this solution may force the news by impoversment to acually do it right because the money wont be there from the supporters of laws and politicians to corrupt our country through tv ads no station should be beholding to any one person or entity.

jackwenayscott's picture
jackwenayscott
WA
March 26, 2013 6:27pm

Surprised? Surprised that the people who "sell their souls" at the very beginning of their career (it's a REQUIREMENT) would team up with corporate America to keep Americans "barefoot and pregnant"? I can hear my Ph.D. Mother watching right now from this desk, I never join in watching, but I can HEAR MSNBC refusing to show Solar Panels. Cigarettes and Solar Panels, banned. Why? In the convoluted world of Satanic Entertainment, there are a few twists and turns unsuspected even by the "tragically hip". "Sell their souls"? Yes, I found out in person, I was asked to sell, twice, once for a career in photography, once for inclusion in professional acting. Silly me, I finally began refusing and was included out. To many leftists Lucifer is a myth and selling the soul only indicates an ignorant belief in superstition. But, I think Lucifer is as real as you or me, a Galactic rebel put here to await the final judgement by the ruler of the Galaxy, Jehovah. How could we be so lucky? What Chris has noticed is that the whole system is devolving, and I can tell you why. Our Satanic leaders in L.A. are now in charge of a growingly demented and insane population, (which they themselves have caused) the whole system is self-defeating, based on dishonesty, illusion, and delusion, the SYSTEM (hello, class of '69!, the SYSTEM!) is coming down in enforced ignorance and insanity.

JSI

March 26, 2013 3:50pm

All very true, but for me the news, not only the televised version, but also the press went into their death spirals during the Vietnam war.

In the fifty years since that time, Doublethink and Doublespeak – known for their affinity to the soundbite // wordbite catechism of agitprop – have filled the bowl of our daily newsgruel.

This, mirrored by the forcible dumbing down of all forms of education to a point fathoms below the the flatline of the lowest common cognitive denominator, gave the neoliberal agenda the keys to the highways of war-at-will, multinational theft, wealth apartheid, global environmental destruction and the disenfranchisement of the 99 percent.

They had achieved precisely what they desired, a population incapable of stringing two independent thoughts together at any given moment and therefore utterly malleable to the shrieks and shouts of the moment’s media stream.

Therefore, it is with no surprise but with a feral watchfulness that I skirt this Bedlam of neurasthenia.

As Willie the Shake observed a few centuries ago:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

My only surprise, Mr. Hedges, is that this took you so long either to realize and/or put to words.

JSI

wildthang

March 26, 2013 3:33pm

We live as trumans in the truman show world spoon fed to us. The reality is more like the agent orange deformed babies still being born in Vietnam for whom the war will never end or the deleted uranium, mercury, lead, or white phosphorus babies now being increasingly born in Iraq that doctors have never seen in their lives or in any medical journals anywhere. They claim rates are higher than those in Hiroshima or Nagasaki after the bombing. We are a warfare state and a police state now.
No need for warrants means anyone can be a suspect for anything they want which without many terrorists to focus on means any normal suspicion that used to need a warrant. But now they can look and if they do not like anything they see such as your politics or religion or ethnicity or porn go on a total witchhunt without probable cause. When individuals or secret groups in the field have such power of punishment virtually by investigation and rumor that would be a police state.

Now when did it start... with HUAC or no with the Hearst USS Maine story, no wait the war of 1812 when most don't know New England opted out of the war, no with the Revolutionary war and Ben Franklins media monopoly! Liberty for war and chasing the loyalists out and expropriating their property... or was it the Indians who were scalping but no one knows who started it but body mutilation was not uncommon in European wars or the rumor on Marie Antoinette that cost her her head. Lies for wars throughout all time that everyone swallows hook, line, and sinker because they want to so badly to get out of repressed society life.

darkmark

March 26, 2013 3:18pm

i really think we'll be forever talking to ourselves. unless the real powers that be decide we can't. but i don't think they'll bother to stop us. we are such a small part of society. if we make to much noise they'll just stick some of us behind bars and let the rest of us go back to talking to each other.

brchandler

March 26, 2013 2:34pm

When in the 70's and beyond news became a monetary, ratings based system, the news was doomed. What is newsworthy is often neither sexy or popular. Ratings depend on sexy and popular.

BozoAdult

March 26, 2013 1:40pm

Right on, Chris! Every word is true.

Paul Rousseau

March 26, 2013 1:21pm

While MSNBC was wrong in 2003, I think it did redeem itself with the recent "Hubris" documentary that exposes the Iraq War lies.

BozoAdult

March 26, 2013 1:39pm

To a small extent. When they address the lies leading up to 911 and the bank fraud I'll get on board.

CASnyder

March 26, 2013 1:12pm

I have never appreciated Donahue's work more than now that he no longer has to kiss corporate media's a55, but can research and produce and distribute stories that he deems important for the USA to hear, such as Body of War. It reminds me of all the good that Pres. Jimmy Carter was able to do with Habitat for Humanity and his globabl efforts for election observation to promote fair elections after he was out of office. I am hoping Kucinich will also make those who gerrymandered him out of office rue the day they took that course.

Romare

March 26, 2013 12:18pm

I would agree in general but make an exception for Chris Hayes. I don't know whether things will change now that he's going to primetime, but his weekend morning show has not fit the dynamic you describe.

As for the Day TV Died, I think it was either the day they did away with the Fairness Doctrine or the day they decided news had to be a profit center like entertainment.

Jacquelyn Joan

April 05, 2013 6:49pm

I agree with this: "I would agree in general but make an exception for Chris Hayes. " and would add Melissa Harris Perry.
Hayes' primetime show has been good the first week too, but I did prefer the weekend 2 hour format.

marlene talbott...

March 26, 2013 11:59am

I agree that Donahue and Moyers have the kind of integrity that is unappreciated not only on the corporate level but on the level of viewers who prefer to be entertained rather than to learn something that their lives may depend on. I used to watch MSNBC faithfully all evening, but grew to despise the manner in which Chris Mathews shamelessly turned his show into Jerry Springer's gab fest with Mathews doing most of the talking, speaking over some of the guests on the show who might know something. I supposed he has been successful by doing just that, even though you can't learn anything from him. I do like Rachel Maddow and L. O'donnell because they have some passion without losing their wits at the same time. But now, Ed Schultz has gone the way of others whose way of delivery is telling truth to power. Who else but Schultz has consistently called out politicians, legislators, even the president of his own party (although praising him, also) drawing attention to the concerns of the mass majority of Americans who want jobs, and trying to teach us about the economy and what it needs to sustain Americans and give us a chance to grow. I grew up during the first Great Depression and it's aftermath. I've been through this all before, and I know Schultz speaks the truth. He stands for the need for jobs and worker's rights when everybody else is being silent. So, as Donahue, Schultz is relegated to a place where broadcasters go to die, along with the infinite weekend of prison/criminal stories. It's a shame. I don't really watch MSNBC in the evening anyhmore, since Schultz was kicked out, unless I catch a late night repeat of Maddow or O'Donnell. What is Chris Mathews still doing there???

Romare

March 26, 2013 12:35pm

Marlene, if you haven't been watching Up With Chris Hayes, you should have been. It's the best show on TV. Now they're moving Chris to take over Ed's spot in the lineup, but the show will still remain on weekend mornings with a new host. Hopefully it will be as good as it has been with Chris on it.

BozoAdult

March 26, 2013 1:30pm

Chris won't utter an unapproved word or he will join Olbermann, Cenk, Maher and Donahue.

Will Chris address the social security lies we hear on every station? Will he question why the Wall Street Fraudsters were allowed to get away scott- free?

greghilbert

March 26, 2013 11:15am

I greatly appreciate Hedge's attention to MSNBC's shilling for elite corporatist Obama. As Dems are to Repubs, MSNBC is to Fox, obverse faces of the same dupe-America propaganda machine harvesting the wealth and lives of the unwealthy non-elite.

Riconui

March 26, 2013 2:17pm

Kudos Greghilbert..... You've made the correct equivalency. There's nothing on MSNBC that transgresses the left right tunnel of American mainstream political thought. Schulz to me was about where I felt the "center" of the political spectrum should be, minus the set piece of the mythology based tea bag movement. With these guys and their wealthy benefactors willfully skewing the conversation so far to the right as to make Obama, arguably more conservative than nixon, (but certainly not the dick that nixon was) seem like HE'S the center.

I honestly do not feel well represented in my government, but I try to lend moral support to those legislators I find most closely get it right..... Barbara Lee from Oakland, Ca., George Miller when he's on, Kucinich before his departure. Bernie Sanders...... It's slim pickens.

kofi123

March 26, 2013 11:00am

I will never forget the 7-8 million people in 2003 worldwide who took to the streets before the war even started. I am glad to say I was amongts them. Then George Bush arrogantly said he don't pay any attention to focus groups.

The military, corporate media, and the politicians are a trio very much full of themselves. The Iraq war debacle have humbled the neocon fools, media whores, and political sellout like Clinton, Schumer, and others who voted for the war.

I have since gotten rid of my TV. Now these fools are trying to start a war with Iraq egged on by our surrogate Israel. The people aren't buying it though.

Unconditional1

March 26, 2013 12:29pm

KOFI123...I think you mean "Iran."

waf5w

March 26, 2013 10:54am

After the first gulf war, in 1991, I took the number representing how much money the war cost. Dividing that by Iraq's population gave ~$21,000. Why didn't we just buy the country? We could have paid off everyone there and had no war.

BozoAdult

March 27, 2013 2:16am

Incredible, MAF5W!

I guess if we had bought Iraq we couldn't have had all the tough childish cowboy Bush posing and war profiteering. And just think how much money Cheney would have lost.

Jeff Lewis

March 26, 2013 10:04am

Thanks for another excellent post, Chris. Very thought-provoking.

I agree that, if we had to assign a point in time to when real citizen activism (aka, participation in democratic process) died, it would be early 2003. And, of course, it was not just TV; it was print media, too.

Really, the only part of media that still serves to broadcast views that dissent constructively from the increasing PR master-plans is the internet. And, even that is being undermined by the status quo. How many times do we find good, thoughtful blogs being trolled by rabid wingnuts? Or, as the case-study on climate change shows, how often do points of truth become suffocated in an avalanche of noise?

Mike Humphrey

March 26, 2013 9:55am

In 1996 James Fallows wrote a book: "Breaking the News" How the Media Undermine American Democracy. A bulls-eye. He described how TV News was morphing at the time into Entertainment, citing programs like Ed McLauglin's, which featured shouting matches. 5-second sound-bites, attention-grabbing and superficial, increasingly rendered TV journalism shallow and superficial. TV Journalism was becoming increasingly power-mad, funneling too much money into the Super-star broadcasters they were fostering.

Unfortunately, politicians have happily joined the Media, sharpening their acting skills on-camera.

No wonder the American public has grown cynical.

Fallows wanted Journalism to wake-up, see the big-picture trend, and restore former integrity. That didn't happen.

DHFabian

March 26, 2013 9:20am

I had hopes for MSNBC. Then, I just became fascinated by their general strategy to essentially form the public opinion of those not on the corporatist right, doing so in a way (largely, pandering relentlessly to middle class consumers) to "divide and conquer" the masses. I think they did it very smartly, ensuring that this generation (unlike those of the 1900s, 1930s, 1960s) would not be able to push back.

MisterG

March 26, 2013 9:19am

Nicely written, Chris, although I think the turning point (if there was one) happened long before 2003.