Into the Media Memory Hole
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Where is Osama bin Laden? In fact, the question should be, "Who is bin Laden?" Go on, scratch your head and see if anything comes out other than dandruff. Remember? He was the guy with the beard and the turban who was plastered across every mainstream media TV screen and newspaper front page for months.
The more perceptive among you may remember that he was the excuse for the less precisely xenophobic to have a bash at innocent Sikhs, and also a more creditable excuse for the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Later, he also became a large part of the excuse for the attack on Iraq. Night after night TV news screens emblazoned with the words "War on Terror" paired photographs of bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, often with pictures of a blazing World Trade Center until over 70 percent of the American electorate thought that Saddam and Iraq were directly involved with our former Saudi chum in the September 11 attack.
Those in the media with really long memories may call to mind a heroic freedom fighter against godless communist aggression in Afghanistan, but that was a long time ago, in another country, and besides, the USSR is dead.
So any vestigial memories the media have of that bin Laden are filed inaccessibly in their deepest memory hole, along with those of Saddam, our champion in the fight against Iran's ayatollahs and Islamic fundamentalism.
Certainly, nothing on the television is likely to tease any such reminiscences from the depths, although occasionally there are exceptions.
If I may quote myself, (a highly reliable and named source, after all,) during one CNN talk show this April on which I was a guest, conservative pundit John Gizzi compared U.S. President George W Bush to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I could not resist, and replied, "This is precisely an analogy which has occurred to me. We're at a stage where, if, after Pearl Harbor and Hitler's declaration of war on America, we had left Hitler up in the mountains in Bavaria untouched while the bulk of our armed forces were down in Argentina, kicking butt on Peron because the president didn't like him. That's where we are. Where is bin Laden? Why is Afghanistan unraveling? That's where the 'war on terror' was. That's the guy that caused 9-11. Why do we have 150,000 American men and women risking their lives in Iraq where they're clearly not totally welcome, when it has nothing to do with the war on terror?"
Luckily, this was on CNN, where someone to the left of Augusto Pinochet can still speak without being barracked or cut short.
On most of what passes for discussion programs that I have been on, it has been about as fair and balanced as a Roman bout between the Christians and the lions. The host introduces the subject with a tendentious diatribe that would not survive a minute with a fact-checker.
For example, only two weeks ago while I was on Joe Scarborough's show he attacked the idea that the U.S. had ever supported Saddam as profoundly unpatriotic.
It is of course indisputably true that Bush senior supported Baghdad in the war on Iran in the 1980s, but as Pontius Pilate said as he launched a whole new brand of big cat food on a waiting Roman Empire, "What is truth?"
The host, or ringmaster, then introduces the "Christian", and joins the one or two conservative lions for a joint attack. Almost invariably, the final shot comes from the conservative pundit, which is then applauded and amplified by the host.
There are a whole host of right-wing foundations who provide a salary for innumerable pundits ready at the drop of a Rolodex to display their ignorance on our screens. The shows, despite the appearance of being fearless and live are usually taped – and the host controls the mikes.
So it is hardly surprising that there is indeed a proven correlation between how knowledgeable an American is about foreign affairs, and how much television they watch. Sadly, it is an inverse correlation. Such is the power of the small screen: It actually seems to absorb information from viewers, so they become less informed the more they watch.
It is bad enough to those exposed to the words on Fox TV. However, we tend to underestimate the subliminal effect of those images.
Often people come to me and tell me that they have seen me on television.
I ask "Oh, what program? What was I talking about?" And more often than not, they will develop a puzzled frown, and say, "I was only watching, I wasn't listening."
Images are very important, of course. So the twin images of bin Laden and Saddam were very effective, and all those shots of Bush addressing troops and being addressed as the commander-in-chief make the unwary think of him as a war leader, with extensive military service in the "war against terror".
The most iconic image of course is the commander-in-chief as intrepid naval aviator, bathed in the evening glow of the sun, strutting across the deck of the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in his full naval jump suit with its swelling codpiece accentuated by the cross straps of his escape harness.
Oddly, even some very strong Democrats confessed surprise to discover that this took place off California and not in the Gulf of the war theater.
That image lingers while only sour political commentators remember the banner "Mission Accomplished" or the White House message, some 800 dead GIs ago, that major hostilities were over.
On a more mundane note, we have dissected the George Bush naval aviator collector's doll that went on sale immediately – and it is padded, whether to enhance the size or a replica of incontinence pants, we do not know.
Of course, the president's military record itself is highly questionable, or at least it is whenever we can find the records. As for his strategic prowess, please refer to the above. If he is fighting the "war on terror," where is Osama bin Laden?
Will there be a new October surprise, the reverse of the kind that released the American hostages in Iran on the day of Ronald Reagan's reelection? Will bin Laden suddenly be captured, days before Nov. 2? Will millions of tele-screens suddenly remind millions of voters about the guy with the beard and the turban who has effectively been a non-person for 18 months?
Hey, this is the 20th anniversary of 1984, and Little Brother Bush has told some serious whoppers so far. Why should the run-up to an election be any different?
Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past.