The Great BS Machine

Pete Karman

By Pete KarmanThe business of public relations, an American invention, is about a century old. One of its earliest manifestations came when John D. Rockefeller hired Ivy Lee, one of the first flacks, to clean up his reputation after the notorious 1914 massacre at his coal mine in Ludlow, Colorado. Miners there went on strike. Rockefeller goons and troops burned them out of their encampment, killing women and children. Old man Rockefeller was already in bad sess because of his pitiless business practices. Roasting little kids made him the nation’s boogeyman. Ivy Lee changed that. Soon the papers and newsreels were filled with images of the sere, crow-beaked old John D. handing out shiny dimes to photogenic urchins.About the same time newspaper owners were discovering that something called “objectivity” might make them richer. All through American history, blats and broadsheets had been the clarions of parties, pols and special pleaders. You bought the paper that reflected your opinions and dumped on others. With the rise of giant consumer industries, a need for mass advertising arose. The solution was mass publication newspapers that rose above favoritism by having their stories written by “professional” news people rather than partisan hacks. Naturally, these newspapers were never quite so “objective” as to bite the hands that fed them by getting tough on the sins of big business since they had become big businesses themselves.Thus the great American bullshit business was born. Ever since, the national take on reality has been produced, edited, Photoshopped and cosmetized. Raw information is treated like uncooked chicken gizzards: something that will make you sick if you even touch it. The honchos at NPR, CNN and such regularly warn us that we need them as “responsible gatekeepers” to make the news digestible. So complete was the government-corporate control of information, that it had become all but sacrilege to challenge it. The greatest sin, as Gore Vidal liked to say, was giving up the game. By which he meant revealing the truth to those who weren't supposed to know it.I used the past tense because the net has changed all that--at least technically. Sitting at a laptop on my back porch on an island (Martha's Vineyard) in the Atlantic I can potentially reach as many people with my take on the news as any media conglomerate. By the same token, I learn things about the world every day from the net that that no money media editor would dare to publish, lest it rile some pol or plutocrat. So, thanks to the net, our gatekeepers have lost the lock and hinges to the gate, allowing naked reality to wander into the backyard and disport itself before our amazed eyes. The latest and most notorious intruders consist of the Afghan war reports revealed at wikileaks.org/wiki/Afghan_War_Diary,_2004-2010. Not to brag, but they confirm, underline and tie in pink ribbons the things I’ve been writing about the subject for the last couple of years.* Namely, that the culture and politics of that part of the world are beyond the ken, let alone the manipulation of our empire, and that therefore our designs on it are as doomed as Elphinstone's regiments of foot at the Khyber Pass in 1842.I have enormous admiration for Specialist Bradley Manning and the crew at WikiLeaks who gave us reality instead of rhetoric on Afghanistan. I hope it will match the impact of the release of the Pentagon Papers that exposed the fraud of Vietnam. But it may be too late. I fear the great American bullshit machine has accustomed us to pointless wars, corruptly, criminally and incompetently fought. Proof of the same may merely produce more useless indifference rather than useful ire.This post originally appeared at The Karman Turn.

Pete Karman began working in journalism in 1957 at the awful New York Daily Mirror, where he wrote the first review of Bob Dylan for a New York paper. He lost that job after illegally traveling to Cuba (the rag failed shortly after he got the boot). Karman has reported and edited for various trade and trade union blats and worked as a copywriter. He was happy being a flack for Air France, but not as happy as being an on-and-off In These Times editor and contributor since 1977.
In These Times August 2022 Cover
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