Robert Fisk: America slowly confronts the truth

The old media dog sniffed the air, found power was moving away from the White House, and began to drool

The Independent

Published: 03 December 2005

Watching the pathetic, old, lie-on-its-back frightened labrador of the American media changing overnight into a vicious rottweiler is one of the enduring pleasures of society in the United States. I have been experiencing this phenomenon over the past two weeks, as both victim and beneficiary.

In New York and Los Angeles, my condemnation of the American presidency and Israel's continued settlement-building in the West Bank was originally treated with the disdain all great papers reserve for those who dare to question proud and democratic projects of state. In The New York Times, that ancient luminary Ethan Bonner managed to chide me for attacking American journalists who - he furiously quoted my own words - "report in so craven a fashion from the Middle East - so fearful of Israeli criticism that they turn Israeli murder into 'targeted attacks' and illegal settlements into 'Jewish neighbourhoods'."

It was remarkable that Bonner should be so out of touch with his readers that he did not know that "craven" is the very word so many Americans apply to their grovelling newspapers (and quite probably one reason why newspaper circulations are falling so disastrously).

But the moment that a respected Democratic congressman and Vietnam war veteran in Washington dared to suggest that the war in Iraq was lost, that US troops should be brought home now - and when the Republican response was so brutal it had to be disowned - the old media dog sniffed the air, realised that power was moving away from the White House, and began to drool.

On live television in San Francisco, I could continue my critique of America's folly in Iraq uninterrupted. Ex-Mayor Willie Brown - who allowed me to have my picture taken in his brand new pale blue Stetson - exuded warmth towards this pesky Brit (though he claimed on air that I was an American) who tore into his country's policies in the Middle East. It was enough to make you feel the teeniest bit sorry - though only for a millisecond, mark you - for the guy in the White House.

All this wasn't caused by that familiar transition from Newark to Los Angeles International, where the terror of al-Qa'ida attacks is replaced by fear of the ozone layer. On the east coast, too, the editorials thundered away at the Bush administration. Seymour Hersh, that blessing to American journalism who broke the Abu Ghraib torture story, produced another black rabbit out of his Iraqi hat with revelations that US commanders in Iraq believe the insurgency is now out of control.

When those same Iraqi gunmen this week again took control of the entire city of Ramadi (already "liberated" four times by US troops since 2003), the story shared equal billing on prime time television with Bush's latest and infinitely wearying insistence that Iraqi forces - who in reality are so infiltrated by insurgents that they are a knife in America's back - will soon be able to take over security duties from the occupation forces.

Even in Hollywood - and here production schedules prove that the rot must have set in more than a year ago - hitherto taboo subjects are being dredged to the surface of the political mire. Jarhead, produced by Universal Pictures, depicts a brutal, traumatised Marine unit during the 1991 Gulf War.

George Clooney's production of Good Night, and Good Luck, a devastating black-and-white account of Second World War correspondent Ed Murrow's heroic battle with Senator McCarthy in the 1950s - its theme is the management and crushing of all dissent - has already paid for its production costs twice over. Murrow is played by an actor but McCarthy appears only in real archive footage. Incredibly, a test audience in New York complained that the man "playing" McCarthy was "overacting". Will we say this about Messrs Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld in years to come? I suspect so.

And then there's Syriana, Clooney's epic of the oil trade which combines suicide bombers, maverick CIA agents (one of them played by Clooney himself), feuding Middle East Arab potentates - one of whom wants real democracy and wealth for his people and control of his own country's resources - along with a slew of disreputable businessmen and east coast lawyers. The CIA eventually assassinates the Arab prince who wants to take control of his own country's oil (so much for democracy) - this is accomplished with a pilotless aerial bomb guided by men in a room in Virginia - while a Pakistani fired from his job in the oil fields because an American conglomerate has downsized for its shareholders' profits destroys one of the company's tankers in a suicide attack.

"People seem less afraid now," Clooney told an interviewer in Entertainment magazine. "Lots of people are starting to ask questions. It's becoming hard to avoid the questions." Of course, these questions are being asked because of America's more than 2,000 fatalities in Iraq rather than out of compassion for Iraq's tens of thousands of fatalities. They are being pondered because the whole illegal invasion of Iraq is ending in calamity rather than success.

Yet still they avoid the "Israel" question. The Arab princes in Syriana - who in real life would be obsessed with the occupation of the West Bank - do not murmur a word about Israel. The Arab al-Qa'ida operative who persuades the young Pakistani to attack an oil tanker makes no reference to Israel - as every one of bin Laden's acolytes assuredly would. It was instructive that Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 did not mention Israel once.

So one key issue of the Middle East remains to be confronted. Amy Goodman, whom I used to enrage by claiming that her leftist Democracy Now programme - broadcast from a former Brooklyn fire station - had only three listeners (one of whom was Amy Goodman), is bravely raising this unmentionable subject. Partly as a result, her "alternative" radio and television station - how I hate that prissy word "alternative" - is slowly moving into the mainstream.

Americans are ready to discuss the United States' relationship with Israel. And America's injustices towards the Arabs. As usual, ordinary Americans are way out in front of their largely tamed press and television reporters. Now we have to wait and see if the media boys and girls will catch up with their own people.