November 10, 2005
Larry Beinhart Explores 'Fog Facts' - the Vital Facts That Just Get Lost in the Spin
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Whether he's writing best-selling fiction or insightful essays, few writers dissect media frenzy, illusion and propaganda better than Larry Beinhart, the author of Wag the Dog and last year's acclaimed novel, The Librarian.
Beinhart's new book, Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin (a BuzzFlash premium), is a book about important facts and news stories that nobody seems able to focus on because of the lack of sensation or emphasis given to them by the media. Beinhart lists case after case of important news stories that journalists and political junkies seem to know about, while "mysteriously" the rest of the world seems kept in the dark.
Larry Beinhart's op-eds have appeared in The Baltimore Sun, Newsday and The Miami Herald. He was also the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University. He now lives in Woodstock, New York.
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BuzzFlash: In your new book, Fog Facts, you state that essentially important facts -- concerning the September 11th attacks, the Iraq war and occupation, for instance -- can be found in newspapers, in print, on the Internet, if you devote some modest level of research. Although the facts are out accessible, they are buried in a sea of other information. Therefore, they get distorted; they lose their context; they’re ignored altogether. This is interesting. Explain in a little more detail this phenomenon which you call "fog facts." And what would you are say are a couple egregious examples?
Larry Beinhart: "Fog facts" are facts that have been published or are easily knowable, and yet have disappeared into the mist of undifferentiated bits of information. Facts do not exist in isolation. They exist in relationship to other things and in context, and they’re part of a picture. I’m not talking about "Ripley’s Believe it Or Not," you know, gosh, gee-whiz trivia here. I’m talking about things that matter. Now if you leave certain things out of the picture, you have a different picture. If I bring them back into the picture, what happens? Especially in these last five or six years, their picture has to radically change.
Probably the most dramatic and most important example is the story that says nobody could have imagined the events of 9/11. Okay -- that’s the picture. And in fact, it’s a very easy picture to buy. On 9/11, when it happened, my own personal reaction was holy s**t -- nobody could have imagined this! But that’s not actually right. The truth is that it was imagined. Less than a year earlier, the Pentagon had staged a mass casualty drill, using the scenario of a hijacked airline being flown into the Pentagon. Six months earlier, there had been a made-for-TV movie on Fox Network, of all places, called "The Lone Gunman," in which terrorists attempted to fly an airplane through the World Trade Center. In 1994, Al Qaeda had hijacked an Air France plane and attempted to fly it into the Eiffel Tower. On July 22, 2001, there were threats that Al Qaeda might attempt an air attack on a G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy. The Italians closed the airspace. They kept fighters in the air throughout the conference with anti-aircraft guns. Now, George Bush was there, and he had to sleep on an aircraft carrier as a security measure -- so he should have known about that.
BuzzFlash: Is it fair to say that the difference today is there’s an assumption first, and the facts have to fall in line with the assumptions?
Larry Beinhart: I don’t really think that that’s the issue. Let’s take a look at the moment of 9/11 and what happened afterward. The big statement was that nobody could have imagined this. And this was a very important statement for the Administration to make. It was important on a lot of levels - first defensively -- because if they could have imagined it, they should have imagined it. And if they should have imagined it, they should have taken steps to stop it. And they didn’t. This was true of not just the the political Administration -- but the institutional Administration -- the FBI, the CIA, the Federal Aviation Administration -- everybody. So they’re all eager for these facts to remain in the fog.
On the other hand, there was nobody particularly eager to bring these facts forward. There was nobody there to say, hey, I am a competing interest that wants these facts known. We conceive of the media as if it were an air filter -- that it’s taking in the air, filtering out the garbage -- and then delivering our basic needs to us. That’s not true. Most of what comes through any media outlet was born on some level as a press release.
The example I use for it -- because I live in a small town - is Little League teams. A Little League schedule gets into the local newspapers, but it doesn’t happen because the newspaper goes out and looks for it. It gets in because one of the coaches sends in the list. And this happens on the national level. Something is news simply because the President makes an announcement, or the spokesman of the CIA makes an announcement. It is, in essence, required to be covered.
But who was there to make an announcement about these other things? It isn’t trivial - 9/11 could have been imagined. And the other truth is that there was enough information not only to imagine it, but to have stopped these guys. All we had to do was pay more attention. The next step, after 9/11, would have been to say we may have to pay more attention to terrorist stuff and stop them next time. And we have to go get the guys who did this.
BuzzFlash: The mainstream media fails to tell the big story and give us the big picture. For example, just because a newspaper ran a story that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, it doesn’t let the newspaper off the hook. But they seem to take the view that, well, we’ve covered that. It’s old news. We ran it on page 17 three months ago. The mainstream media worries somehow that if they keep running stories, such as the lies about Iraq’s WMD program or the weapons, that they’ll be seen as having an agenda or an axe to grind. The result is that we get fog facts where a newspaper can say, look, we did cover the story. Yet most Americans are completely unaware of the big picture.
Larry Beinhart: American media is based on a principle called "objective journalism," which is opposed to a European tradition in which newspapers in particular were the organs of political parties. There was a communist newspaper, there was a royalist newspaper, there was the conservative bigwigs’ newspaper, there was the labor newspaper. And they all had an axe to grind. If you bought that particular paper, you were probably a member of that group, and you knew it.
But our tradition is called objective journalism. Now, primarily through the business of public relations, working primarily for corporations, for starters, professionals began to understand the weakness of objective journalism. The weakness of objective journalism is that, on principle and on what used to be sound moral principles, it does not make judgments. It says we’re not here to tell you who’s right, who’s wrong. We’re here to report the facts and, like Fox News said, “We report; you decide.” That’s the theoretical basis of objective journalism.
But if you are a PR person, and nowadays, if you are a politician, you understand the essential weakness of that. Basic reporting becomes one from column A and one from column B, and sometimes one from column C. It’s basically like ordering in a Chinese restaurant. You will call in an outside expert, but what if there is no column B? For example, at the time when we were going to go to war in Iraq, there was no column B. There was no official - no mainstream official of stature -- willing to stand up and say this is a con job. This is stupid. This is a mess. Don’t do it. Not only that -- it’s based on false assumptions, hidden facts, fog facts and lies.
There were a few people. There was a Scott Ritter, and Hans Blix. But Scott Ritter’s story got reported once, and Hans Blix’s story got reported once, and the newspapers had done their job.
Then the President made an announcement that he was still determined, because we didn’t want the next thing to be a mushroom cloud. The newspaper dutifully reported that, because it’s a Presidential statement. The next day, the Vice President made a similar statement. They reported that. Maybe some enterprising reporter called around and said: Anybody want to stand up against that? But there wasn’t anybody, so that got reported. And the next day, Condi Rice did it. And the next day, the President did it again. The day following that, Cheney did it again. They have learned to game the system. And the system, by and large, has not awakened to the fact that it’s being gamed.
The model for this goes back to when Reagan ran for President. The system got horribly yanked, and they learned it. They understood it, and they actually made a very big change. But I think at some point the media is going to start waking up and say, you know, we were gamed, and we have to learn how not to do this.
BuzzFlash: The mainstream media will have to, if they want to be relevant anymore.
Larry Beinhart: They tend, like any other business, to be behind the curve.
BuzzFlash: You said at one point in your book that fog facts perpetuate big lies. You said the biggest lie, or one of them, is that we are, in fact, fighting a war on terror. What is wrong about framing our national security as a war? How does it mislead the public?
Larry Beinhart: Let’s look at the fog facts war. Let’s take the facts and bring them back into the picture. Right now we have a picture painted by rhetoric, which is a guy saying we’re in a war on terror. We have Homeland Security. We have this; we have that. And my question is: Why haven’t you arrested Osama bin Laden? Why has not a single member of this conspiracy, which has to have been a fairly extensive conspiracy, been brought to trial, tried and convicted, and sent to prison?
The only person who was caught in the United States who is remotely involved with this was caught before the fact. Since 9/11, we haven’t caught a single one of these guys. We have gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the level of terrorism and terrorist events has not gone down.
So, you have to learn to look at what they do and ignore what they say. Whatever it is that they’re doing is not a war on terror, because they haven’t caught the terrorists and they haven’t cut down on the terrorists. But what they have done is they’ve managed to break the back of one of the absolute foundations of international law, which is the sovereignty of nations, and broken the back of one of the highest ideals of the 20th Century, established at Nuremberg -- that aggressive war is the mother of all war crimes.
They’ve broken the back of the notion -- again, an idealistic notion -- that if there is going to be war, it has to be, in essence, of the collective will of the civilized nations of the world. We have now waged an aggressive war against two countries, and we have proved that we can do it, and nobody will be able to stop us. We’ve gone back on that principle. Whatever anybody’s high moral ground for attacking -- it’s an aggressive war. And this is really hard to say. And it’s very fascinating that it’s hard to say. But if you could withdraw far enough and look at this objectively, and look at the way the laws of war crimes are written - you would have to say that the invasion of Iraq was, on the face of it, a war crime.
BuzzFlash: One of the biggest lies is simply calling everything -- the violence, chaos, disorder in Iraq, as well as the insurgency -- a part of the war on terrorism. Because officialdom says it is so, in the world of the media, it becomes so.
Larry Beinhart: The way the media functions is one from column A and one from column B. And the peculiarity of the political system in the United States is that the Democrats have been branded as weak on security and soft on communism, and soft on war. And they’re desperately afraid of opposing any war because of this branding. When Republicans are pro-war, the Democrats are terrified of being anti-war. And at this level of announcing whether a war is right or wrong, the only voices with automatic stature are people in government and people in the military. If you’re a news reporter and you go out and you say: What do you think about this war? -- you go to the Republicans who say, yeah, yeah, we need it. We’re attacking terrorists. We’re going to make the world a better place because America will rule everything. And then you go to a Democrat and a Democrat will say, oh, if the President says war, I support it. What’s a poor reporter to do? Is he going to call you and me? I’m serious.
If George Bush said we’re going to war because we need to defend ourselves against the next nuclear attack, and Larry Beinhart, who wrote the book that became "Wag the Dog," says, nah, that’s bulls**t - will you ever see my criticism in The New York Times? Or, in fact, will you see BuzzFlash's take in The New York Times? Of course, on BuzzFlash.com you would air your opposition, but even you guys are not going to be given the same weight as a member of "officialdom."
BuzzFlash: It is a perpetual problem for progressives in terms of who has the credibility to be a critic of national security policy, or terrorism, or the war in Iraq.
Larry Beinhart: Right. As Dan Rather said before the war, when the President says we’re going to war, if "he wants me to line up, just tell me where I stand ..."
BuzzFlash: One of the fog facts that's perpetuated in people’s minds is the fallacy that torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib actually yields reliable intelligence and information to save American lives. Most Americans who hear that seem intuitively to think: Well, it's dark, but that kind of makes sense.
Larry Beinhart: The intuitive logic of it is very compelling. And we see it in dramatic television all the time. There was a quote somewhere -- and I wish I knew where it was -- that a lot of the guys who were beating up prisoners in Abu Ghraib were basing their conduct on Sipowicz from "NYPD Blue." We constantly see people bullying information out of other people so as to save the kidnap victim, to save the victim of the psychopathic serial killer, to save Los Angeles from the terrorist bomb. And it makes great drama. It makes intuitive sense -- that we should be able to beat the truth out of people.
The U.S. Army, in its manifest wisdom, and probably out of experience -- the Army manual on interrogation says torture doesn’t work. It leads to bad information. And, furthermore, we have the situation now, where we’re picking up people who we think vaguely, maybe, might be, could be terrorists, or associated with terrorists, or know a terrorist, or the cousins of a terrorist, especially the people we’re rounding up in Iraq off the street. There are these street roundups and they throw them in prison. In contrast, in World War II, we were capturing soldiers who were actual members of armies whose known intent was to attack our soldiers within the next five minutes, or the next day, and who could know the disposition of their troops, and their intentions. And yet the U.S. military, of the greatest generation, took the high ground and said that torture is wrong and we shouldn’t do it. And not only that. We prided ourselves on never doing it, and always saying that it is wrong.
BuzzFlash: It doesn’t seem like we base many decisions on facts anymore. Certainly the Bush Administration doesn’t. In a world of fog facts, do you believe calling or referring to our era as the Information Age is a misnomer?
Larry Beinhart: No. Again we still have vastly more information than we ever had. And vastly more people have access to it than we’ve ever had. But as with any new thing, you have to learn how to cope with it and handle it and manage it. It's the same with new drugs or new technologies. It took people awhile to learn how to drive cars with safety, how to drink without entire populations becoming alcoholics. So we are an information age, and we’ve recently had a group that’s come along and learned how to take advantage of that and use it. So the next step is for us to learn how to stop that from happening.
BuzzFlash: Larry, thank you so much for your time. It was good to talk to you.
Larry Beinhart: Thanks a lot.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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The Road out of Iraq (The Baltimore Sun, November 4, 2005)
Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin, A BuzzFlash Premium, by Larry Beinhart