SOLOMON: Scandal Coverage Distracts as Big Lies Persist

It has been a huge media debate -- within narrow bounds.Ever since Monica Lewinsky suddenly became a household name, the news media have been filled with fierce arguments about sex, lies and politics. Much of the coverage has focused on truth and consequences: Is President Clinton lying about his relationship with the former White House intern? Should it matter?These are the kinds of questions that the media establishment loves. They can be debated endlessly, with appreciable entertainment value. And -- since any individual politician is expendable -- no really powerful interests are going to mind very much.There's plenty of emphasis on revealing whether or not particular men and women in Washington are telling the truth about their behavior. But only some truth seems to be important. When it comes to policies that have been matters of life and death, the standard media deceptions continue -- raising few eyebrows along the way.A week after it beat the competition by splashing the Lewinsky story on its front page, The Washington Post published an editorial urging the U.S. government to release information about dealings with a murderous death squad in Honduras during the 1980s: "The emerging outlines of this affair indicate that the United States, in working with the Honduran military to support anti-Communist forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua, set up a special 'Battalion 3-16' to 'monitor and destroy ... subversives' in Honduras."That was straightforward enough. But the Post went on to place its concerns in a remarkable context. "The United States went to the Central American wars to protect and build local democracies," the newspaper declared. "That project did not stop when the wars were over."The statement is a lie. In the 1980s, the United States went to the Central American wars to protect enemies of democracy who were aligned with landed aristocracies and other economic elites. "That" project did not stop when the wars were over.If journalism is the first draft of history, we might expect later drafts to improve. Not so. The revisions do little to enhance accuracy. In fact, the adherence to official lies may become more fixed over time.The assumption in mainstream American media is that Washington's foreign policies are benign in intent, if not always in effect. Somehow, whatever the criticisms, U.S. government policy-makers are routinely depicted as well-meaning.Often, the lies our media tell us are smooth as silence, with key facts downplayed or omitted entirely. No one need be the wiser.So it was in a recent New York Times editorial essay. "A quarter-century after the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende," the Jan. 20 article noted, "Gen. Augusto Pinochet is still poisoning Chile's public life." The piece went on to recount that Pinochet's regime "killed or tortured thousands of people" after he and other military officers toppled the democratically elected Chilean government.But the essay, by Times writer Tina Rosenberg, was a story with much of the actual plot missing. In the real world, the U.S. government played a pivotal role -- actively backing the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet and his bloody henchmen to power.In the world according to The New York Times, however, the U.S. government was a bit player, scarcely worth mentioning. The essay's only reference to the United States was fleeting and oblique: "Under Mr. Allende, Chileans never knew if school was open or if they could buy bread. The chaos, intensified by the Nixon administration's efforts to undermine Mr. Allende, was profoundly disturbing to most of Chile."Does it matter how the past is portrayed by news outlets? Yes. The illusions that surround us are like thick fog: blurring what has already occurred, what is happening now and what is on the horizon.George Orwell's timeworn adage from his novel "1984" bears repeating: "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."Transfixing the nation with the Lewinsky saga, the news media have not in the least threatened the big-money corporate interests that dominate Washington -- and will continue to do so, whatever the fate of the Clinton presidency.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."

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