Does America Really Not Want to Know?


April 28, 1991|By SYDNEY H. SCHANBERG

In the old days, certain readers not enamored of my opinions would write letters suggesting I take a trip to Moscow and stay there. Now of course, with the onset of glasnost, those "go-back-to-Russia" letters have become obsolete. So incensed readers have adopted a new tactic -- they invite me to either fall in front of a bus or shut up.

"Look, you scum," one subtle writer said, "We elected the president and the Congress, and we're happy with them -- they know what they're doing. So why don't you damned well shut your trap?"

I have two reactions to such mail. One is I smile sadly at the ever-baffling realization that I am not universally loved. The other is I'm struck by the sense that more and more people don't want to know. They especially don't want to know that some of their emperors are unclothed.

We in the press are given in idealistic moments to talk about the public's right to know. But what if they don't want to know? What happens then to the democratic society that we have always described as drawing its strength from open discussion, vigorous debate and a free flow of ideas?

My thoughts about the closed-mind trend in my recent mail are early, speculative, not a fully formed thesis, but I'm going to put them before you anyway. Maybe you'll want to drive a bus over me. But maybe you'll find some use in the meanderings.

Sixteen years ago -- yes, it's that long -- we had the fall of a presidency (Watergate) and our defeat in Vietnam. Hard-line conservative Republicans, among others, were so distressed at what they perceived as grave wounds to the republic that they grew very angry, and in their anger they chose a scapegoat. They blamed the press.

Yes, the press had described and revealed the failed policy in Vietnam and the failures of President Richard Nixon. But the press had not created these taints and weaknesses. They had merely told the public about them.

The scapegoaters attacked. They drew strength from Ronald Reagan's election. The press grew nervous, then scared. They were accused of not being good Americans. The early smell of disloyalty hunts wafted through the air. The press, as a community, hunkered down. Vigorous reporting suffered, became lame.

It was unspoken, but the message got out: There will be no reporting that could lead to more impeachment proceedings, no matter what a president has done, no matter what happened in the Iran-contra scandal, and before that, no matter what Mr. Reagan and George Bush did as candidates to keep the hostages from being released by Iran until after Jimmy Carter was defeated, etc., etc.

As the press went into hiding, another communications phenomenon was emerging. The world was becoming electronically wired, with sophisticated ground equipment and space satellites, to the point where images and information could pass instantaneously around the globe.

What this meant to the conservatives in Washington, as they worked to expand their power and punish the press, was that they had to develop new ways to control information and turn the technology explosion to their advantage.

Meanwhile, the new technology brought a multiplication of channels to everyone's television set. Americans were being bombarded, day in, day out, sometimes 24 hours a day, with 30-odd blaring stations. Sometimes, it seems, whatever button you punch on your channel changer, you get a program with the crisis-du-jour. It is a TV movie on drugs, or Oprah on AIDS or a cable discussion about global warming, homelessness, crime, unemployment, famine in the Sahara and so on.

The public's mental circuits were becoming overloaded with problems. Many people were beginning to feel helpless. The subtext of some of my mail, for example, is: "My personal life is difficult enough to cope with, I don't want to hear about these giant world problems that I can't solve."

Putting all these phenomena together, the White House and its image doctors concocted a plan. It went like this: We need to recover from the ignominy of Vietnam. We need a "good" war, one where victory is not only certain but swift and massive -- and therefore a piece of news so happy that it is pride-restoring to the American psyche. At the same time, given the communications explosion, we need to control very tightly all images and information so that the press can never again challenge our version of events.

To that end, they ran a couple of "weekend wars" -- Grenada and Panama -- rehearsals, so to speak, in which the press was kept out, interned away from the fighting. Then the "perfect" war presented itself -- the war to put down a medium-sized but real tyrant, Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

The government pretended to let the press into the war zone, but in practice it kept reporters far from the forward areas. The resulting images were clean and rosy, the information stage-managed. The press caved in. The public cheered -- at last some good news for our weary, besieged minds.

Of course now the war is over and the U.S. forces are leaving, so the White House can't control the images any longer. The images are of chaos, hunger and death -- the result and residue of the good-news war.

And some Americans now tell me: Shut up, we don't want to hear about it.

Sydney Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday, from which this is reprinted.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.