By David Swanson
Larry Beinhart, author of “Wag the Dog” and “The Librarian,” has done us a remarkable service with the publication of a new small nonfiction book titled “Fog Facts.” He has given language to a new and critically important concept, that of the fact that is neither secret nor known. By “fog facts,” Beinhart means to indicate pieces of information that have been published on back pages of business sections of newspapers or picked up by a columnist or two, information that has perhaps been circulated on the internet by those with a passionate interest in the issue and enough free time, information that is accepted as known and established by reporters, editors, producers, and pundits, but which the vast majority of the public has never heard about and would find incredibly important and shocking.
The subtitle that Beinhart gives his website, www.fogfacts.com, is “Known Facts That Have Been Lost in the Fog,” and by the fog he means to indicate, as described in his book, the onslaught of abundant facts and information about unimportant stories: Monica Lewinski and O.J. Simpson are two examples Beinhart gives. But Beinhart suggests at least one other force that helps keep some fog facts in the fog: people’s reluctance to believe a really big lie. This, Beinhart writes, is “why it was easy to believe that Bill Clinton lied about having sex with that woman and hard to believe that Bush and his entire cabinet were telling bald faced lies about Saddam’s connection to Al Qaeda and his weapons of mass destruction.”
In fact, one of the fog facts Beinhart discusses is the Downing Street Minutes. This document is provided as the chief example of a fog fact on the book’s dust jacket, and is mentioned twice in the book, although it became known (albeit foggily) when the book was almost ready to be printed. On the antepenultimate page of the book, Beinhart writes:
“One of the most disturbing trends in the years since 9/11 is that there no longer seem to be any consequences for political lying. The secret Downing Street memo, secret and strictly personal, revealed – at the very least – that the head of British intelligence had been informed by his Washington counterparts that the White House was cooking the books on the information that they use [sic] to create a war in Iraq. It was not considered news by the establishment media in the U.S. Byron Calame, the incoming public editor at the New York Times, asked Phil Taubman, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, why. Taubman emailed him back that ‘Given what has been reported about war planning in Washington, the revelations about the Downing Street memo did not seem like a bolt from the blue.’ In other words, everyone in Washington and in the news business already knew that the administration had lied repeatedly. What the people inside the media don’t understand is that they had not told us that the administration had knowingly cooked the books.”
Of course, many in the media understand that all too well, and their “It’s old news” argument for ignoring the Downing Street Minutes has always been disingenuous. Others, lower in the media hierarchy, working for small town outlets, have been as oblivious as the public to these fog facts.
The fog facts discussed in the book are numerous and range across a variety of topics. Some of them may surprise even the politically astute internet addict. And the critique of the media here is aggressive. (Somehow it seems unlikely that the media will shower this book with the sort of praise it’s given to others by Beinhart.)
But the book is not an organized treatise on the theme of fog facts and how they work. It is more a collection of essays that try to illuminate many particular fog facts. Most of these essays, while lively, are quite rushed. And at points, Beinhart seems to stray from his own concept of fog facts, or to not carry it as far as I would.
On page 46, Beinhart quotes three conservative Democrats in late 2002 and early 2003 supporting Bush’s lies about WMDs and then states: “There was no opposition. Nobody ever said: Let’s find out if he has such weapons.”
Beinhart, in this section, seems unaware that the Democrats he quotes are the same ones that the media he is critiquing always chooses to quote. Two of the three he quotes voted for the war, but the majority of Democrats in Congress did not, and many raised their voices against it, but were never heard through the media. In many cases, their opposition hardly rose to the level of fog fact, if we define fog facts as having achieved a buried, back-page mention in the corporate media. But this opposition, however foggy, was a fact. The period Beinhart is writing about is a year after Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s Prayer for America.
Beinhart does the same thing on pages 69 and 73, accusing “the Democrats” rather than “the Democrats who are allowed in the media” of refusing to challenge Bush’s lies about his tax cuts or to take credit for Clinton’s superior economic record. On page 74, Beinhart claims that “not even the Internet lefties” reported on Bush’s early declarations of intent to dismantle health coverage, pension plans, and worker training. Labor union publications certainly did. Again, I do not think Beinhart is extending his invaluable concept of fog facts far enough.
There are other instances where I think Beinhart goes too easy on the corporate media. On page 50 he writes that a story never made it into the media because it only had one source. But stories with one source make it into the media all the time. This was a story that would be very damaging to an individual who himself serves as the sole source of stories quite often: George Bush.
Toward the close of the book, Beinhart offers the media something of an excuse, and blames the left’s failure to develop massively funded think tanks and media outlets for the right’s dominance of the media. This, again, strikes me as a failure to place the full weight of criticism where it belongs: on the backs of those who publish dishonest, misleading, and – above all – incomplete news.
One reason Beinhart may not go far enough is that he maintains a faith in the possibility of media “objectivity.” His argument is as follows:
“It is possible to offer perspective and to put things in context, while still being objective and without necessarily putting a partisan spin on the information.
“For instance, the administration said it was going base [sic] the occupation of Iraq on the successful occupations of Germany and Japan. They were going into Iraq with about 150,000 men and women and talking about getting out quickly. A quick net search would have discovered that the occupations of Germany and Japan were far more massive.”
But even using the word “occupation” when the war was launched was widely viewed as a radical statement. Suggesting that many more troops would be required for a successful occupation could cost you your job – just ask General Shinseki. And debating what would be required for a “successful occupation,” as if such a thing were morally possible, placed one squarely within a frame of thinking that had already eliminated international law.
Let’s say a media outlet did report on some of the failures of the Germany-Japan analogy. What if they reported that the occupation of Germany followed Germany’s launching of an aggressive war, whereas the occupation of Iraq would follow an aggressive war by the U.S. against Iraq? Would such a media outlet still be “objective”? If not, then “objectivity” is just a suit and tie for imperialism.
More about “objectivity”: