On Sunday night, November 20, we paused along with millions of others in the US to watch ABC’s television drama of nuclear devastation. “The Day After” abstracted its fictional crisis from current headlines by having its US-Soviet confrontation occur over Berlin rather than Lebanon or Nicaragua. On the other hand, it faithfully portrayed ordinary people’s frustrating and fruitless dependence on television itself to understand and know what was supposedly happening to trigger such a deadly duel. In its own way the day before was as harrowing as the day after. One of the most chilling moments of verisimilitude after the “nuclear exchange” was the broadcast address of the “president.” The voice was an actor’s, but the script was right off of Ronald Reagan’s teleprompter: announcement of a ceasefire between the US and the Soviet Union; assurance that the Soviets have sustained equivalent damage and that “America has not surrendered”; thanks for “your patience and sacrifice.” “Is that all he’s got to say?” one angry survivor shouts. “What do you expect him to say?” another responds.
We suspect that many people found Washington’s actual response to the film even more frightening than any scriptwriter’s improvisation. Secretary of State George Shultz, interviewed immediately after the film as a mark of Hollywood’s deference to Washington, looked and sounded as if he had just stepped off the “Day After” set. With groggy speech and ashen demeanor, he mumbled unconvincingly about how the Reagan administration had always considered nuclear war “unacceptable.” As for Henry Kissinger, we have never seen him more at a loss for words than during the panel discussion that followed. “I have been dealing with this problem for more than 30 years,” he muttered in undisguised contempt for the entire exercise of public debate. Such “simple-minded” presentations as the film, he charged, would only lead to “psychological disarmament.”
Major media like ABC represent important components of the US political establishment, and this event reflected, however dimly, the division within the establishment over this particular question. It contrasts with the media’s customary reliance on the government’s perspective (“official sources”) in reporting foreign events and international crises. UCLA media analyst Dan Hallin recently characterized foreign coverage this way: “Like the images of Plato’s cave, it was, most of the time, shadows of shadows: a representation not of what transpired in the world, but of what Washington said about it.” (“The Media Goes to War,” NACLA Report on the Americas, July-August 1983.) The limited spontaneity of the “Day After” debate is particularly striking in comparison with the carefully contrived use of the television medium by the Reagan administration to manipulate public opinion regarding the US invasion of Grenada and military intervention in Lebanon—a mark of Washington’s deference to Hollywood. There are two knobs to this video game: censorship and disinformation. Virtually nothing of substance that President Reagan said about Grenada or Lebanon in his television address of October 27 was true. Many of the disparities between observable fact and administration fiction were discretely recorded by the media themselves. Yet Reagan’s version is the operative one—as critic Jerry Mander might call it, a “colonization of experience” of which only television is capable. Most of the media, like most of the Congress, feel no imperative to confront even the most barefaced lies of the president. One former member of several Democratic and Republican cabinets chose a most benign explanation for this complicity: “No one expects Reagan to know the facts, so no one picks on him when he doesn’t.”
Obviously there is something more involved here than a mere absence of factual knowledge. At one level, there is an unwillingness to acknowledge the extent of political disarray within the establishment’s own ranks, including the media themselves, and a shared need to preserve symbols of political authority. At another level, there is a residual reverence for “experts” such as Kissinger, whose continued hand in shaping policy is dutifully obscured while his public interventions, no matter how outrageous, are met with solemn nods. A case in point occurred in the aftermath of the bomb attack on the US Marines in Beirut. Kissinger promptly had access to airwaves and op-ed pages to urge that the US collaborate more directly with Israel, politically and militarily, to improve “the balance of forces” in Lebanon. No one bothered to ask Kissinger what had happened to the overwhelmingly favorable balance of forces that existed in Lebanon just months earlier, thanks to the collaboration of 1982. No one disputed his implicit contention that military action could completely refashion political reality. Neither was it widely noted that a close aide to Kissinger, Peter Rodman, was already pushing this line within the administration. Rodman, now with the State Department’s Policy Planning Council, has been urging the administration to work with the Israeli government to overcome widespread domestic opposition in Israel to further military involvement in Lebanon. For Palestinians andi Lebanese, there is no day after.