Then I dig out a copy of Time magazine from back in the 1950s, leaf through it, and decide ruefully that, as bad as it is today, the news media scene in America was once far, far worse.
The 50s were the Golden Age of the Truth, according to Henry Luce, an unabashed right wing propagandist ten-thousand times more shameless than Rupert Murdoch. Back then, Luce’s flagship weekly Time (he also owned two other major periodicals, Life and Fortune) dominated the news- magazine market, and it never hesitated to mix prejudice and heavy-handed propaganda with what purported to be “reporting.” In Time’s version of a style manual, “Reds” and “Commies” were considered legitimate political- science terms; Luce’s globe-roaming hacks had a whole lexicon of their own, a Newsspeak that twisted and tweaked reality to suit the Boss’s ideology. For instance, a secret police chief in the Third World who slaughtered union organizers, peasants, and priests was “tough, no-nonsense Colonel So-and-So,” while those opposing him might be sneeringly referred to as “shrill intellectuals,” “Kremlin apologists,” “misguided disciples of hard-line Marxism” or worse.
Time reporters were notorious for taking a single individual’s words and inflating them into the voice of a nation’s entire population; since polling and statistics were rarely used back then, it was an easy way to misinform readers about political opinions in foreign lands. There was an almost farcical preponderance of tourism industry workers among Time’s interview subjects: More often than not Time reporters quoted the words of cab drivers, hotel clerks, waiters, bartenders and such, as if the correspondents never strayed beyond the airports where they landed and the expensive hotels where they overnighted. And none of Time’s supposedly typical “man in the streets” types ever seemed to require a translator or interpreter – they all spoke in the same simple-minded pidgin English, whether they were Vietnamese, Congolese, El Salvadoran or Turkish. Many Time interviews sounded almost too good to be true, raising suspicions that the reporter either put words in his subject’s mouth or “improved” on what was really said. The pages of the magazine were populated by Third World natives who sounded like they had been hanging around Chamber of Commerce meetings in Waycross, Georgia or Rotary Club brunches in Greensboro, North Carolina: Thus, a plethora of passages on the order of “In the words of a cab driver in Guatemala City,” “Communist, he bad for business,” “United Fruit Company, he pay good money, make everybody rich. Next year maybe I buy nice new American taxi.”
The examples of Time fictioneering I have quoted are not 100 percent verbatim – they are distillations of countless actual quotes from typical Time articles of the time – but if you think I am exaggerating how deceitful, destructive and dreadfully misleading those lying sods of yore actually were, check out these word for word samples from a 1961 Time magazine “cultural profile” of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the other “Beat” writers: “They prefer to wear beards and blue jeans, avoid soap and water, live in dingy tenements…Most of them adore Negroes, junkies, jazzmen and Zen. The more extreme profess to smoke pot, eat peyote, sniff heroin, practice perversion.”
After making the baseless and quasi-surreal claim that the Beat writers worshiped “excrement,” the piece went on to describe Ginsberg’s epic Howl as “an interminable sewer of a poem that sucks in all the fraudulence, malignity and unmeaning [sic] slime of modern life…” Accompanying the essay was a photograph of Ginsberg, described by literary historian Deborah Baker as “clean-shaven in a suit and tie,” with the inexplicable caption, “Calculated Squalor” – clearly an example of “Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?”
Joseph Goebbels, eat your heart out.
Expand that poisonous narrow-mindedness to the world at large, and you have a good idea of the kind of “news” the American public fed on back then; no wonder the beginning of our nation’s inevitable slide into ruin was just around the corner.
The reason behind Henry Luce’s atavistic fervor was simple: Luce was an “Old China Hand,” born into a Presbyterian missionary family dedicated to turning the heathens into good Christians and Capitalist Imitation-Americans; he never forgave Harry Truman and the Democratic Party for “losing China” (as if we ever owned it!) to “the Reds.”
Ironically, this obsession eventually led to the demise of Time magazine as a bulwark of the rightwing political Establishment. When the United States became involved in the Vietnam conflict, Luce’s heirs on the magazine’s editorial staff insisted on adhering blindly to the old fantasies of America Triumphant and damnation to anything attempting to oppose it. When the war went bad and Time’s new generation of correspondents dutifully reported the fact, their superiors in New York censored their stories and attempted to browbeat them into portraying failure as success and impending defeat into certain victory. Truth eventually won out over fantasy – it was a different era, in which televised news made lying in print well-nigh impossible – and Time frozen ideology began inexorably thawing, melting away… Are we really that much better off today, with a post-literate public that can’t even find today’s wars on the map, our opinions a blurry mish-mash of blogs, tweets, twitters, half-assed prejudices, talk-radio blather and flimsy gone-and-forgotten-in-an-Augenblick pop news stories for half-wits on the telly?
Well, maybe… perhaps…