When the medium is the message

Posted: Oct 05, 2006 12:01 AM
When the medium is the message

Mr. Wallace, my opinion is not all that important. I went to a little Jesuit school in Buffalo called Canisius, and the priests taught us never to lie, but if you had to lie, never lie about facts. -- Michael Scheuer, former CIA agent

Michael Scheuer was chief of the bin Laden Unit at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999, charged with finding the mastermind who would one day plot and direct 9/11. He's a harsh critic of the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq, and he is unequivocal and unrelenting in his dispute of Bill Clinton's assertion that he never had opportunities to kill Osama bin Laden.

"Mr. Richard Clarke, Mr. Sandy Berger, President Clinton are lying about the opportunities they had to kill [him]," he told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. "That's the plain truth, the exact truth."

He didn't stop there. He put the issue in the moral context of lying. In Washington, where cynicism abounds and both parties accuse the other of lying about the facts of the war in Iraq and of the larger war against terror, it's refreshing to be reminded that leaders shouldn't lie. Lying corrupts the democratic system, and free speech depends on our ability to separate lies from truth. That is increasingly hard to do in our multimedia culture.

How we receive facts determines how we understand them. That's what Marshall McLuhan meant when he famously said "the medium is the message." Television is the "cool medium" because it provides less information than newspapers but appeals to our senses through the swift progression of images. Newspapers and radio make up the "hot medium" because they demand less attention from the senses and more from the reasoning part of the brain.

All this was (and is) fairly esoteric, if not fanciful, and no one knows what Mr. McLuhan would say now about words that pop and crackle on the Internet. Television news is so hyped by aggressive music between segments that you get the feeling the producers are afraid viewers will fall asleep but for the thumping beats. (They might be right.)

Often television news feels like a three-ring circus as information unrelated to what's actually being talked about dances before our eyes. During serious interviews on Fox News, the four pundits who will interpret what is said when the interview is over pop up like cutout puppets in the corner of the screen as though they're exiles from a show for children.

This visual process in fact works best for children, who are accustomed to Sesame Street, where singing and dancing letters and numbers make learning fun. But it's getting harder for adults to separate entertainment from information, the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the lie.

That recent interview when Bill Clinton lost his temper with Chris Wallace grew out of the former president's irritation with a "docudrama" that didn't distinguish fact from fiction. But that's the nature of docudrama. (You could ask Oliver Stone.) The Fox interview probably drew more media attention than any interview the president has given since he left office, and we still aren't sure whether he was telling the truth. We never are; this was the same Bill Clinton, after all, who shook his finger at us when he lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. His supporters, ever eager to enable him, argued that lying about sex isn't the same as lying about government. But the wall between the personal and the public is particularly porous. (You could ask Mark Foley.) A wise man once observed how easy it is to tell a lie, how hard to tell only one.

Mr. Scheuer scolded Bill Clinton for saying he lacked the authority to authorize the decision to kill bin Laden. "It's not for a simple, dumb bureaucrat like me; that's not my decision. It's his."

It's hard not to believe someone who calls himself a "dumb bureaucrat," but David Benjamin, former member of Clinton's National Security Council, blames the lack of confirmed intelligence as the reason the Clinton administration failed to get bin Laden. The point is not whether Bill Clinton lied, but how disarming Michael Scheuer can be in forcing our attention to a moral issue crucial to the trust of the people. The higher the stakes, the lower a man can stoop to protect himself. When the facts determine a presidential legacy, the conduct of a war or a midterm election, the stakes are very high.

Otto von Bismarck knew what he was talking about. "People never lie so much" he said, "as after a hunt, during a war or before an election." You don't have to be "a dumb bureaucrat" to understand that.