Post-Reality: a Case Study

There has been an enormous and deserved furor in the blogosphere (again – hate that word, but it is what it is) these past few days about “The Path to 9/11,” an ABC-produced mini-series that may or may not air this Sunday and Monday, wherein outrageous fabrications are represented as though they were events which actually occurred. Better and more thorough coverage of these misrepresentations and some of their truly terrifying implications (which I may discuss more, later) can be found here, here and here.

Of all the commentary, Bob Somerby’s non-minced words of this past Wednesday are perhaps the most instructive for my purposes:

“…what can you say about ABC? Plainly, this upcoming show is a form of Stosselism, in which the network provides an alternate menu for its dumbest pseudo-con viewers. This used to be called a “broadcast” network. Now, they narrow-cast to the intellectually challenged—and make a sick joke of our public discourse. Sorry, but the American system—indeed, the western experiment—simply can’t function this way.”

As is often the case, I might have chosen slightly different words than Somerby’s incomparable phrasing. “Dumb” isn’t quite right, as many intelligent people believe the perfectly false claims of “The Path to 9/11” and even more outrageous fictions about our recent history and current politics. But on the larger points, Somerby is dead right.

In this case, and increasingly so across all areas of content, ABC (like all of its broadcast competitors) is designing its content not to appeal to a single mass audience but to one of the four or five Americas [I would actually contend that in addition to the four or five, there are probably 20 or 30 large sub-Americas – but more on that later].

The good old days were never as good as we’d like to believe – remember, advertising used to be read by the anchors on the evening news (radio and TV). And though there was an idea that broadcast television really was broadcasting, even that wasn’t quite right: it was disseminating a consensus reality, but that consensus was one by, for and about middle-aged, straight, white, Christian men. That was America, and suffice to say that that consensus is no longer operative.

Instead, there are now many competing narratives, and “The Path to 9/11” embodies a particular narrative of American history and identity that strongly emphasizes nearly every bad outcome in the country’s history as being a “stab in the back” from internal political enemies. Invariably, those enemies end up being members of the political left. The “betrayal of Yalta” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Who “lost China”? Harry S Truman – and Korea, too. And Cuba? Amazingly, John F. Kennedy gets the blame here. And on and on – Lyndon Johnson “lost Viet Nam”; Jimmy Carter gave away American hemispheric dominance with the Panama Canal, and somehow comes in for blame in the ascendance of the Iranian Revolution; and, finally, Bill Clinton is to blame for 9/11, an act perpetrated nearly a year after George W. Bush’s ascendancy, and for which his national security team specifically warned Bush’s incoming officials.

It almost goes without saying that this particular group-identity – broadly, contemporaray American conservatives (not entirely, but most who ascribe to this notion are contained therein) – affix the blame never on themselves but on their politically-mistaken countrymen while at the same time taking on-board the full credits of martyrdom for the events.

Again, I want to emphasize how right Somerby is: the American and Western democratic systems cannot function like this, for two chief reasons:

  1. These particular interpretations of history are provably false, and
  2. Inherent in the idea of democracy is collective responsibility for the acts of a government. You might not have voted for a particular administration or legislature, but by your sanctioning of the process, you have agreed to abide by the results of the contest – and thus, by the outcomes of its policies.

ABC, by tailoring their programming on this incredibly important event of recent history to suit the view of one and only one group of cultural and political identity, cheapens not only the value of truth in broadcasting and a responsible public dialogue – these are, after all, our airwaves – but undermines a core tenet of our democratic system. The media is at its core a means of communicating information – be that information news, entertainment, or whatever else – and the media hold an important place in our political system. Freedom of the press, after all, was enshrined as our most important right, and no press fixated on appeals to narrow groups of interest and identity – regardless of considerations of truth or accuracy – can rightly be regarded as free.

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