How the News Media, and the Public, Contribute to Perpetual War

Distinguished Morton L. Margolin Lecture

University of Denver, May 1, 2019

There are basically three rules of speaking: Know your audience, entertain, and for me, don’t curse too much.

I once spoke at a Rotary Club luncheon in central Vermont, and while I observed the members conduct their business, they practiced a ritual of giving a dollar to the Sergeant at Arms every time that they either wanted to share something … or every time they said … well … some curse word like darn.

I knew I was in trouble. So after I was introduced and got ready to speak, I handed a $20 bill to my host. I figured that would just about cover it.

And then I cursed like a sailor. The farmers loved it.

There was another time I was speaking at one of the War Colleges … and I was dropping f-bombs like crazy. Some part of me thought that I was just fitting in, cursing away like any military officer would … But then afterwards the General in charge admonished me. He said perhaps I should clean up my language.

That incident stuck with me because I’ve had a few similar run-ins with military officers of this type.

Do I really just have a potty-mouth … Or does this … shall we say, stylistic control of speech …  have bigger meaning?  I’m all for respectful language, the kind that recognizes race and gender … but this is about something else …. Not just about how we speak, but also about what we have to say.

I have a long history with the military and this national security establishment … and I’m thinking that maybe this very small segment of our society … were signaling to me that I was somehow lacking in character … that maybe I was a little too vulgar and a little too disorderly of a citizen.

I know the counter argument: that my “message” – whatever it is – is more strongly received if I don’t curse and moderate my language.  I know the golden rule … that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And yet I didn’t want to conform in speaking to that military audience, never have. And part of why I’m here in Denver is because I said get you know what to NBC News. Oh I did it nicely and I didn’t curse, but I spoke up. I didn’t seek the center. I didn’t keep my mouth shut.

That brings me back to the news media, and even to national security.  The message I took away then from that General … the one that I’ve heard many times … is that I was vulgar … and a little too loud … and a little too demanding … that somehow in speaking up, in speaking out, that I was jeopardizing my membership in some club.

And that got me thinking … that maybe not just political loudmouths like me are shut out … that others too would be shut out if the opportunity arose … that there are those who are subtlety shut out … Here I mean the Bernie Sanders of the world … and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez … that they were and would be shut out.  That they weren’t acceptable.

Weren’t acceptable … it means not mainstream enough … and maybe even not true blue American enough … that maybe we could all be marginalized by this self-appointed conduct police … that maybe being “socialist” or brown-skinned or being an activist or an advocate … that these were stamps of disapproval.

There are pledges of allegiance … not the pledge of allegiance … but ways we are expected to … forced to … behave. We can criticize the wars but we can’t criticize the troops. That’s a big one. We have to accept the proposition that we have to give up some liberties for security.  Or this one: That if we’re quote not guilty then we don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to government surveillance.  Wink wink. … That only they need to worry, the connotation of course being that we don’t want to be they … whoever they are … but also that they are lurking within our midst.

I’ve watched this national security clergy evolve … this conduct police … they are the custodians of an enduring country … that they are the referees of what is acceptable … that it is up to them to decide what is politically correct, not the politically correct of the campus of equal rights but more a definition that is stuck in the 1950’s, a white America definition, a Cold War definition, a post 9/11 definition that says that anyone who doesn’t behave in a certain way … that they are disrupting America … and thus are a threat.

And there’s one more thing: these guardians of the national security … they believe, with their oaths and their professional creeds and their ways of bland bureaucracy and centrism that they own the ideals … the values. … that polite society is supposed to follow their lead …

I know it might grate on some that I mention Donald Trump and AOC in the same breadth … but I believe that this national security establishment … see them in exactly the same way.

For the past two-plus years, I’ve been watching a weird dynamic emerge, not just in the news media, but also in society. Donald Trump is so scary that even some in Congress want to pass legislation that would prevent the president of the United States from pushing the nuclear button without their approval. It’s an insane and unworkable idea. But these are also insane times.

The search for constraints on Donald Trump’s power has also led many …. to look to the FBI or to the so-called “deep state” to save the country from this man. Liberals who otherwise hate and fear the CIA and FBI … they waited for Robert Mueller to save them.

And they hang on every word that a bunch of retired generals and CIA officials turned pundits have to say about Donald Trump.  On TV and in social media.

Who are these commentators that fill the airwaves?. … These are people who have brought us 18 years of war – perpetual war – these are failed practitioners. These are the same people who missed 9/11 before it happened, who concocted WMD falsehoods in Iraq, who missed the Arab Spring and ISIS … who condoned torture …. Or who carried out a drone campaign that was little more than aerial assassination.  They can’t say that the world is more secure today … and yet they have a virtual monopoly and are to be listened to? Because they don’t curse? Because they are judicious?  And centrist? Because they are the custodians of national security?  Of something bigger and more important than the people?

These former Obama, Bush and Clinton officials are practically all we hear from in the mainstream.  And that’s a huge and growing problem. Not just because there isn’t another voice … particularly when it comes to national security there is no other voice. And I know that a lot of this is just auto-pilot and these people are just supposed to fill the airwaves and entertain. But they are also arbiters of proper behavior, guarding against a Sanders or an AOC, excluding anyone who doesn’t comport with the mainstream and their ways of Washington.

I don’t think that there is a conspiracy afoot. Trump sells. He’s the story. He’s cracked the social media code and he’s the story. And it’s inexpensive to put on the Trump story, night after night, in the same way, with the same people. And that means … no real long-term investigations, hardly the expense of any travel … they can just sit in a studio and yell all day and all night … there’s no incentive to get off the Trump story … no incentive to hear any fresh voices … to do other stories.

I’m being unfair here to television … but I’m intentionally making a point. The mainstream is shrinking. The debate is limited.  The state of perpetual was not even a subject of basic coverage in the news.

It’s so hard to generalize about what America thinks … But most think that he needs to be stopped … and a part of that is that some center … some moderate middle ground … some vanilla … needs to be restored … the reasonable center, the conventional wisdom center, the non-confrontational center … the non-cursing center … and I hesitate even to say … the white center. But still center is the key word.

That gets me back to those military officers … to the national security establishment … and how they treat the elected president … Let me get back to them and the national security establishment because I’m asserting that’s how they would treat a socialist … a leftist … or a peacenik … if anyone of that type could even be elected to national public office.

The good news is that Donald Trump as president is not really in charge of anything. At the most extreme end, even if he wanted to push the nuclear button, he’d not only have to find it and figure out how it works, but I’m absolutely sure – absolutely sure – that he is also surrounded by those very military officers and others in the bureaucracy who possess this morally superior view of both decorum and  procedure. In other words, the powers that be have their own survival plan, and it is to protect the country as much from Donald Trump as it would be and from an AOC.

I’m absolutely sure that most in government … in Washington … disdain what Donald Trump is, how he has behaved. And though they work every day to thwart him … to passive aggressively slow roll him … to even ignore him until he forgets or moves on … we shouldn’t be happy or complacent that these guardians exist.

They don’t decide how we vote, though by setting the parameters of the debate they do limit the choices. And now that there’s been a black man as President and then this off-center buffoon, the powers that be … maybe they can’t see it themselves … deeply want to return. I’ll get back to that.

The core idea of liberty is the precept that a free society is one of laws and not of men … that the rule of law stands above the whim or beliefs of some empowered group. In our society, this precept is undermined by this governance by the national security nannies … whether they be permanent Washington or the so-called deep state …

To them, it doesn’t really matter if Donald Trump is president or Barack Obama is president.

They can be outwardly cordial to both, but these special emergency managers still control because they are empowered to control … Obama wasn’t able to make progress in actually ending perpetual war … in actually advancing nuclear disarmament … or transparency … because he either brought into the center for acceptance … because it was too hard to take on the national security establishment and get what else he wanted to get done … or because they had by 2009 acquired so much power that they were invulnerable to change…

I wrote about the actual rule of special emergency managers in a book … American Coup … about how the national-security apparatus, empowered by what I called “the XYZs of the extraordinary” had grown out of 9/11 and the state of perpetual war.

What I mean by “XYZs” is the framework that stands in opposition to the “ABCs”, the government of laws … the one that we too often take for granted.

The national security establishment … this bureaucracy and class of special emergency managers … are able to control policy on a national scale because they perpetrate and then benefit from a continuing state of emergencies. Their power is contingent on extraordinary security circumstances, and those circumstances never end … They have become self-sustaining, a shadow legal system, one that I wrote was commensurate to a bloodless coup.

A perpetual state of emergency, of threat, and of panic is the necessary precondition for this American coup to persist. We have that in perpetual war and in the constant specter that we are fed … that some thin line of their security efforts barely separates us from another 9/11. But we also have it now … in addition … in the threat of cyber everything … from election hacking to our own personal identity theft … Or substitute climate change … Any ubiquitous threat with no actual solution, one that effects everyone’s life, but one that also has an apocalyptic element to it … it is how we describe a world that is so terrifying and out of our control that we ultimately need to turn it over to technocrats.

This is not one political party. These are apparent experts … technocrats who populate federal bureaucracies … they supposedly know better than the rest of us. Resident within this knowing better … and protecting the country … is … I believe … a basic contempt for the citizens. This elite sees ordinary Americans as an “other” … to be watched and suppressed.

Donald Trump is also part of this other … he’s an awful president and awful human being as well.

But.  I’m most interested in ultimately how he is employed to disempower the public … not just how the elite dismisses and vilifies his supporters … but how his coarseness is broadcast into our society, conferring more power on this center … and ultimately necessitating a return to some golden era of civility and bipartisanship and centrism. The national security establishment is there … even on TV … whether you realize it or not. And when there’s a Charlottesville or another attack on a church, temple or mosque … these events become law enforcement and then homeland security and then national security problems … We want them to do something about the hate … about the violence.

Today it’s doing something about white nationalism … right wing violence … We want them to do something and that becomes the license for the federal government to snoop and interfere.

But tomorrow? The flip side of this same behavior is Black Lives Matter being under the federal microscope, or, as I said earlier, for Bernie Sanders and the AOC’s of the world to be suspected, marginalized, to be labeled off-center and thus dismissed. They will say … and dinosaur television watchers will say … that we need to return to some simpler time … to a time when three television networks and a handful of newspapers didn’t just report and control the news but they filtered the news … they filtered what the public needed to know, what we needed to buy, what we are allowed to see …

In journalism, that even includes a systematic effort on the part of the national security establishment to turn Julian Assange into a common criminal … to deny him the protections of freedom of speech.

This effort began before Wikileaks became a witting or unwitting agent in the Russian efforts to interfere in American politics. And it will have lasting effect beyond Assange – whatever you think about him.

They want to decide what the public can know … but they also want to have control over who talks.

Again there is so much more to say about Assange but I want to focus on what ties Bernie Sanders, AOC, Donald Trump and Julian Assange together.

In January, I left NBC News saying that the planet and the state of journalism were in a tandem crisis. For more than a year I’d declined to report on the Trump circus, trying to do news stories that I thought were more consequential … about the day-to-day war making of the United States … about the secrets and the powers of our government.

I took a potshot at the national security establishment and our military leaders when I left because I thought it was high time that we held them accountable … accountable for the fact that there was not one country in the Middle East that could say it was safer in 2019 than it was 18 years ago. In fact, I said, the world overall becomes ever more polarized and dangerous. And no one seems responsible, particularly not those responsible for the world. I said and believe that there is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict since 9/11. And I asked, why, if they’ve done so little of consequence, that we so embrace them, even look up to them and lionize them?

I said I was especially disheartened to watch the news media somehow become a defender of this Washington establishment … and of this fraudulent system of insecurity. To me, the mainstream new media has become the proxy of boring moderation and conventional wisdom … agent if you will of that national security order … It has become the defender of our poor little government against Donald Trump. It has become cheerleader for every threat imaginable. It seems more in love with procedure and protocol than it is with accountability and results.

My view is that the news media has gotten sucked into the tweeting vortex, increasingly lost in an adrenaline rush of Trumpism … in love with the political horserace … reporting on every shift and change … no matter how consequential … in Trump’s behavior and the Mueller investigation and now report .. I the 2020 campaign. It’s become the latest car crash … the latest snow storm … a never-ending loop.

In many ways NBC and others in the mainstream media are just emulating the national security state. They are busy … and profitable. There are no wars won but the ball is kept in play.

Even without Trump, our biggest challenge as we move forward is that we have become exhausted by endless media and social media. And because of the news “cycle,” all of journalism suffers from a really bad case of not being able to ever take a breath.

I realized how out of step I was when I looked at Trump’s various bumbling intuitions and half-baked policy ideas: his desire to improve relations with Russia, to denuclearize North Korea, to get American military forces out of the Middle East, to question why we are fighting in Africa, even in his attacks on the intelligence community and the FBI.

Of course Donald Trump is an ignorant and incompetent impostor. And yet I’m alarmed at how quickly the powers that be mechanically argue the contrary of whatever he offers. We shouldn’t get out Syria? We shouldn’t go for the bold move of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula?  Even on Russia, though we should be concerned about the brittleness of our democracy that it is so vulnerable to manipulation, do we really earn for another Cold War?

Let me speak to the students in the audience, because whatever your political affiliations, and even whether you want to be journalists or not, I want you to know that I also think you can make a difference. I don’t mean the blah, blah, blah or you are the future and all hold hands. You can make a difference because we are stuck right now.

And things do change.  That’s seen in the work of Morton Margolin. When I looked him up, I saw that he also wrote about the military in Colorado. And in 1958 – sixty years ago – he wrote about the move of the Air Force Academy from Denver to Colorado Springs.

Margolin wrote an article in the Rocky Mountain News in April 1958. The headline “Love-Struck Cadets Don’t Relish Move.”

It seemed that, in the words of Margolin: “Many of the cadets are engaged to Denver girls, and both the boys and their fiancées would much rather stay in Denver.”

Apparently this was a matter serious enough that the local Congressman, saying that, and again I quote, “that the super-highway between Denver and the Academy should see considerably more traffic after the move is made.”

The Congressman in Colorado Springs said not to worry, again quote: “that the feminine enrollment at Colorado College … was sharply up for next fall.”

Then, an Air Force general is quoted as saying not to worry because: ‘All the eligible Denver girls will be married as soon as the first class graduates.”

Those words.  Feminine. Girls. Eligible.

Those words grate. Things have really changed.

And yet in that article is the same subtle offering that whatever was the definition of eligible in those days … that military officers were a prize. No gay here. No race. No inequality or matters of class. This was cute, centered, white wonderful America.

Well. No one wants to return to that golden age.  When they … the old farts … talk about the greatest generation … or even the great TV anchormen of that era … they are saying that your generation isn’t good enough, that you can’t compare, that you should strive to be like that. They don’t actively intend to constrain you but they find it inconceivable that anyone would want anything other than some concocted American ideal.

What the national security establishment fears most … what all of those who wear a uniform fear, from university police through generals and admirals … is disturbance, variability, even difference. These things are the enemies of those who want to stay at the center. And yet they are also the things that are the primary drivers of creativity … and of change. In my youth, I used to quip that if the Pentagon was for it, I was against it. It wasn’t a factual statement. It was a position, one that said I didn’t want to agree, I didn’t want to go along, I didn’t want to be like everyone else.

So … We are a long way away from resolving the rules of the road in this age of instant everything.

We’re not even able to resolve information overload in our own personal lives.

We aren’t on some straight line towards digital nirvana, where the Internet and all of this information democratizes or even improves our society.

There is smartphone and social media fatigue creeping across the land.

What the news will look like tomorrow is wide open.

I get a sense, largely because of Donald Trump and all of the extremism that he has encouraged and unearthed, that a giant hangover will come when he is gone. My guess is that nothing we currently see – nothing that is snappy or chatty – is going to solve the challenges we currently face. Oh the national security nannies will furiously try to reverse the flow back to good ole Main Street USA.

But you? Your role? You have wide open opportunity to design media that matters and to make real change.

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