Tom Palaima: On Cable News, "Truth" Sometimes Resembles "1984"

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Palaima teaches classics at the University of Texas at Austin. He may be reached at]

In George Orwell's "1984," the central character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting news items from the past so they support what the all-controlling inner Party asserts as present and past reality. The slogan that sums up this process is, "He who controls the past controls the future." Past government reports, economic plans and projections, official accounts of battles fought in remote places against whoever is the enemy, all are made to align with what the Party is doing now.

If the people would be disappointed that chocolate rations are being cut, the Party tells them that they are being increased and changes historical records so that rations from past months have lower quantities than the current rations. If apartment buildings are dilapidated, plumbing clogged, food inedible, clothing poorly made and unaffordable, the Party claims that the standard of living has improved and predicts even brighter days ahead.

The Party controls the citizens of Oceania with fear of enemies abroad and at home. It keeps people focused on perpetual war in far off lands. Every dead soldier is a hero, so questioning the reasons for war is a crime.

It is hard not to feel we are living in an Orwellian age.

In "1984," Smith briefly held in his hands hard evidence that the Party had lied about the activities of three political figures who had been accused, tried and convicted of treason. A news clipping accidentally came across his desk proving that the three traitors were at a conference in New York City on the very day they were convicted of being in Eurasia betraying Oceania.

Smith, frightened by what would happen to him if he makes known that he has, or has even seen, this hard evidence contradicting the Party's version of reality, sends it down the ironically named memory hole, where it is instantly burned.

Hard historical evidence like documents housed in the LBJ Library or the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas makes true history possible, but it does not guarantee it. The art of history has been so marginalized that it is not making a dent in ongoing political discussions.

In the manufactured controversy concerning President Barack Obama's citizenship and eligibility to be president, images shown on one news network of birth announcements in old Hawaiian newspapers are never seen by people who never watch that network.

Worse, last month on CNN, a guest anchor on "Lou Dobbs Tonight" reported that, the Republican governor of Hawaii, and those very clippings established that Obama was born in Hawaii. Three days later, Lou Dobbs asserted on the same program, his own, that the questions had not been dealt with.

Worst of all, the ensuing coverage was all about the potential embarrassment to Dobbs, not about the harm done to our political process when such falsehoods are perpetuated.

Winston Smith realized that as time went by, the past would be rewritten so often that what once constituted hard evidence might no longer contradict the current version of history.

We have reached the point where truth in history is determined by whoever can buy a news network and get partisans to shout loud and long.

Hold onto your birth certificate, just in case.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/4/2009

The 6:00 p.m. Fox News is hosted currently by Bret Baer. Yes, Brit Hume has unfortunately retired. However, we are now getting the inimitable Charles Krauthammer more often than we did before--nearly every day--and his drole commentaries are often a tour de force.

Maarja Krusten - 8/31/2009

Many thanks for the good and thoughtful reply! Who anchors the 6pm EDT news broadcast? Is that the show that Brit Hume used to do before he retired (I already liked Hume back when he worked for ABC)? Back when I looked at Fox more frequently, I also enjoyed anchor Shep Smith, whose show used to come on at 7 EDT.

What I miss these days is someone such as William F. Buckley with his show, Firing Line. I really used to enjoy watching Firing Line while I was in high school and college and later as a young adult. It helped keep me going during some dispiriting times during the mid and late 1970s. Buckely was so smart, knowledgeable, intellectually gifted, and erudite. That man had a way with words! And he was witty, in an elegant, not a bludgeoning or mean-spirited, way. I remember laughing with enjoyment when I read WFB's account of his 1965 run for Mayor of New York City (the book was called Unmaking of a Mayor. which in itself ws a funny play on all the Making of a President books). A humor filled account of an unlikely run for public office on the Conservative party ticket. Buckley actually won over 13% of the vote in the 1965 contest. Asked what he would do if he won, he famously replied, "Demand a recount."

Thanks again for the good response.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/31/2009


Yes. I don't watch FOX around the clock, which is probably what you are referring to. You should just watch at 6:00 p.m. every week day, for one hour. That's what I do. I don't care for the FOX personalities (and drumroll techniques), other than those on the 6:00 p.m. show. The Hannitys, Becks, and O'Reillys are geared for an audience which is enormous, and happpily is growing fast, but likes to be hit over the head and is not as elevated as you and me. The growing ratings for all these FOX shows, however, and the declining ratings for the old networks, tell me FOX is quenching a thirst for conservative programs which had been out there and unsated for a long time. CBS has been highly leftwing from its beginnings, and NBC has been leftwing roughly since Sarnoff died. ABC has been leftwing for many years, through the early period with Howard K. Smith, and then Frank Reynolds, Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings, etc. (Smith saw the light at some point and turned conservative, which may have caused him to be cashiered).

Regarding Bartlett, I totally disagree with his remarks about an alleged "conservative cocoon." Fox at 6:00 p.m. always includes the left's positions, and online I always read,, among others. And those two sites, alleged to be conservative because they contain conservative columns and op-eds, cannot help but carry a great deal of socialist slant, because they also contain many articles and columns from the AP and leftwing newspapers, and perhaps more of the latter than the former. Sites of collected opinion pieces on the left, by contrast, are usually (always?)without conservative leavening, which is part of what I was talking about earlier when pointing to omissions. So the brainwashers of the left need never worry that we conservatives are unexposed to their idiotic views. I often wish Lucianne and RealClearPolitics did not think it necessary to include so many of them.

Maarja Krusten - 8/30/2009

Some quotes about Fox, cable, talk radio and the Internet from Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan economic advisor, followed by a question for you, Mr. Hughes. It relates to lapsed viewers and whether Fox should seek to get them to tune in again.

Bartlett recently wrote that “The Fox News channel is a pure conservative/Republican network that does not pretend to be anything else. Personally, I have no problem with that. The problem is that the rest of the media is no longer liberal. It has moved to the center across the board. This has created an imbalance that requires a Fox-like network that is as liberal as Fox is conservative. MSNBC seems to be trying to fill this role, but very half-heartedly for reasons I am unclear about.

The rise of talk radio was the foundation. . . As time has gone by, these guys have gone from just representing their own opinions to representing the conservative movement to representing the Republican Party to thinking they actually speak for the American people as a whole. Power and vanity have led them to lose touch with reality.

The Internet completed the circle and provided for complete detachment of conservatives from the mainstream media. They could now get 100% of their news filtered through a conservative lens. They no longer had to confront any facts they deemed inconvenient or without a ready-made response that either refuted them or interpreted them in a way conservatives could rationalize. The result is that many conservatives live in a cocoon as well, completely insulated from any facts or opinions that are counter to their worldview. The left doesn't really have this. The reason I think gets back to liberal bias. Liberals have long been content with the mainstream media because it did largely reflect their values. It doesn't any more but liberals still treat the mainstream media as if it does.” [end quotes from Bartlett]

Question: What is the basis for and attraction for viewers of the undercurrent of fear on Fox, something I noticed even when Bush was President and his party controlled the legislature? It is so different from what I associate with Ronald Reagan (for whom I voted twice), who projected confidence in America and trust and liking for the citizenry (not just his own party). I watched Fox as well as CNN and the broadcast network news shows for many, many years, but stopped looking at Fox a couple of years into George W. Bush's term as President. Republicans controlled Washington, but every time I tuned in, it seemed as if there was a wide-eyed anchor or a commentator earnestly telling me about something to which it seemed I was supposed to react with anxiety about the fate of the nation or fear of my fellow citizens. It was a vibe I couldn’t relate to – it was much less attractive than the confidence and strength that Reagan had projected -- and I eventually stopped watching. I’m just not afraid of my fellow Americans and I’m not drawn to appeals made from a position of fear, grievance, or anxiety, all of which I associate with arguing from a position of weakness.

There have been some studies in which scientists studied the personality traits of liberals and conservatives. For what it is worth (and I take the findings with a grain of salt), one study found that “conservatives tend to be more rigid and closed-minded, less tolerant of ambiguity and less open to new experiences. Some of the traits associated with conservatives in that review were decidedly unflattering, including fear, aggression and tolerance of inequality.” From my personal observations, those qualities are too rigid to apply to all the conservatives I know. I certainly don’t find my conservatives friends to all be rigid and fearful. However, I’m intrigued by the finding that in tests, students who were self-identified conservatives reacted with greater fear to loud noises and perceived threats than did those who self-identified as liberals.

The sample seemed too small to be conclusive but when I read about it, I remembered why I stopped watching Fox—I was puzzled and ultimately put off by a sense from its stories and commentary that I always had to be worked up and worried about something. There’s a sensationalist aspect to all the cable networks (I avoid watching shows such as Nancy Grace on CNN, as well). But Fox’s overall approach to news and commentary just left me cold. I still read conservative newspapers, such as The Washington Times, as well as centrist ones, such as The Washington Post. I’m a moderate by nature and an Independent, unaffiliated with any party. My world view is not driven by orthodoxy. If Fox wants to win lapsed viewers such as me back to at least occasionally looking in on it, what would you suggest it do?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/30/2009

I see no difference between the old networks CBS, NBC, PBS, and ABC, and the cable networks CNN and MSNBC. The line must be drawn between FOX and all the rest when talking about bias and brainwashing.

FOX News stands alone, really, as the best network to watch. FOX may de-emphasize leftwing events, but will never drop them from its coverage, unlike the routine habit of all the other networks in handling rightwing events.

I think what conseratives feel are "lies" on the liberal networks are mostly just accidents caused by the poor education of the liberal broadcasters, especially in the fields of history and economics.

Omissions are the biggest problem, and obviously these are engineered by a few evil people in charge at each network.

Fortunately, the public has caught on to the manipulation. As the networks become ever more raucous in distributing their bile, millions more have fled to Fox and Rush.

Maarja Krusten - 8/29/2009

You blame the press for George W. Bush’s poll numbers dropping. I think historians will look at that differently than you do. When historians examine his administration, they will look at decisions and events but also at tactical choices and at the administration's difficulties in selling the President’s vision. Some of the evidence is here on HNN.

Wehner and Gerson write in their recent article in Commentary that “anger, personal attack, and extreme language do nothing to expand the appeal of a party in trouble. Unfortunately, this point has been lost on some members of the Religious Right, whose scolding approach has created a significant backlash, especially among young people (including young Christians). It has also been lost on the party’s more abrasive populists, with their habit of pitting the heartland—aka the “real” America—against the denizens of the coasts. This not only vitiates their own claim to seriousness; it almost willfully alienates the very groups and regions that Republicans need to attract. There is no magic formula when it comes to dealing with such matters of tone, temperament, and the right use of language. They are admittedly delicate things to measure, but they are no less crucial for that.”

I learned a lot about a certain type of Republican from a comment that Dave Livingston made on HNN on September 21, 2003. Livingston wrote in 2003, at a time when GWB’s approval ratings still were high, “Our paper masde the point that if D.C. & all its parasites were wiped out in a single blow, so what? The states independently governed could simply call a Constitutional convention to re-establih the federal gov't. Not so?

Of course, the paper didn't say if D.C. were wiped out the result just as probably would be a birth of several nations in lieu of the U.S. of A., especially us Westerners not too fond of the urban near city-states on the two coasts.

Youse Bleed'n Heart Liberals belly-ache all you want, yours truly is glad we have a President with the gumption and determination to lead the defense of the U.S.” (See )

As an historian, I found Livingston to be an interesting representative of a certain type of U.S. voter and I tried to draw him out on HNN several times. While he fought in Vietnam, I had been one of the Americans who wore buttons supporting Nixon’s war effort. But as a fed, I was struck by Livingston’s comment about DC and its parasites. He seemed to regard himself as solidly patriotic, someone who loved his country, yet he shrugged at the potential death of some of his fellow citizens. I mentioned his September 21, 2003 posting on HNN several times while GWB was in office, and shared my recollections of 9/11, a day when, as many federal workers did, I remained at my post in Washington, working. Not a single Bush supporter ever responded to my citation of Livingston’s comment. The opportunities now have passed, Bush is out of office. But I realized in the middle of Bush’s two terms that if no one on his side on HNN could discuss Livingston’s comment with me, an Independent and a member of the persuadable middle, someone who sometimes votes Republican and sometimes Democratic, the party might struggle to reach beyond its base in the next general election. I wondered then, how many other opportunities for engagement, in the real world and the virtual world, were being squandered?

Of course, the people posting on HNN during Bush’s term by and large reflected the visceral, heartfelt views of ordinary citizens. It wasn’t their job to think about capturing or retaining support or party building or tactics or communications strategy. They simply opened a window to future historians on how they reacted to Iraq, 9/11, Katrina, and other issues, especially ones of social justice. However, some officials in Washington were thinking about that as Bush’s term drew to a close. Peter Baker reported in the Washington Post in 2007 that Gerson, a former aide to Bush, “grew to admire Bush for his convictions and sincerity, and whatever blame Gerson has for the administration's failings is focused elsewhere.” A year before Barack Obama won the Presidency by telling voters that he didn’t see a red America and a blue America but a United States of America, Gerson warned that "If Republicans adopt a mean, anti-government message, they're not going to be able to win."

Baker wrote of Gerson in 2007 that “He recounts meetings in which Cheney's office tried to kill proposals to increase training of death-row defense lawyers, transition assistance for prisoners and aid for Hurricane Katrina victims.

‘The storm had also revealed a political and moral chasm in the Republican Party,’ he writes. ‘The president and I saw Katrina as an opportunity to open a debate on race and poverty. Anti-government Republicans saw Katrina as an opportunity to cut off medicine to old people. It confirmed the worst image of Republicans as the party of shriveled hearts.’"

As archival material becomes available over time, I suspect historians will find that Bush was a more complex figure than the cartoonish image painted in forums such as HNN both by his supporters and opponents while he was in office. The recent article in Time about his deliberations on the pardon issue suggests as much. (,8816,1912297,00.html ) So no, unlike you, I do not blame the press. However, I wonder at times, given a do-over, what might have been done differently, by him and his surrogates, to better communicate a sense of national unity, of liking for and and a Reaganesque sense of confidence in ones fellow Americans, assuming such was there -- even those of the other party -- and to tap into the qualities that Gerson describes.

Maarja Krusten - 8/29/2009

I disagree with Mr. Palaima (who is not a professor of history) that “We have reached the point where truth in history is determined by whoever can buy a news network and get partisans to shout loud and long.”

In a democratic society, Presidents of both parties draw a wide range of reactions from members of the public, always have, always will. Some supporters brook no public criticism of the occupant of the Oval Office or even veer into hagiography. Some opponents struggle so much with the thought that their side lost that they seek to explain it away by trying to de-legitimize or demonize the man who won. Regardless of party, there’s a large middle, where most people don’t take either stance, they’re neither blindly loyal nor unaccepting of legitimacy. That is not to say that their world views can’t affect how they interpret events, viewing some actions as dispositional and others as situational. Of course, there’s always Stephen Colbert and his funny riff on how “Facts may change but my opinions never do.”

But I also disagree with you that the press controlled political discourse, during the Vietnam war, or has done so in the period since. Presidents, who are as human as you or I or any HNN reader, win support from voters to achieve election, make decisions, react to events, craft policies, and try to gain from the public buy-in for those policies and support for their actions. It’s the same regardless of which political party they represent. As Ted Kennedy, Jr. said in his remarks at the funeral mass for his father today, the late Senator once told him “Remember, Republicans love their country just as much as we do.” Having once been a Republican (I’ve been an Independent for 20 years), I know there are Republicans who feel that way of Democrats, as well.

No party holds a magical key to absolute truths or infallibility of judgment. Because there are few absolutes, only differing philosophies and individual judgments applied to situations by human beings in the White House, the members of the public decide themselves whether they support or oppose a particular action or policy. There is no “right way” that crashes up against a wall erected by a monolithic, ideologically motivated media, unable to breach the barrier and “reach” the public. There are only choices made by leaders, which politicians on one side try to sell and ones on the other side try to discredit. Both get some “air time,” always have, always will. Historians assess and describe how all that worked out.

I supported Johnson’s and Nixon’s Vietnam policies while they were in office and customarily watched the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite. I also then read the long defunct newspaper, The Washington Star, and news magazines such as Time. Overall, I had no problems, then or in retrospect, with the reporting on the war on tv or in the press. I saw the views of administration spokesmen and dissenters both represented in the reports that I watched and read. I followed the news closely and remained firm in my views on Vietnam (I’ve re-thought some of them since then, however).

In the case of George W. Bush’s military service, I think biographers and historians will point to the fact that the issue of what he did in Alabama in 1972 arose during his Presidential campaigns but that such matters remained unresolved. There simply aren’t the records available to assess what happened, hence a finding of “no basis to judge.” While the question created some interest in political circles, with some operatives seeking to put a positive spin on the story and others a negative one, it had little resonance with the public at large. My own view is that Vietnam was a difficult time and that young men faced tough situations, which they handled in different ways. Bush’s choice represented a sort of middle way, understandable for a young man of privilege -- serving, but not seeing combat.

Rather-gate did attract some attention, as it illustrated what happens when a media outlet makes the mistake of going with a story based on seemingly juicy information that has not been fully vetted. Some observers point to ideological bias as a factor, others to poor processes and methodologies. (Seymour Hersh also encountered problems with some sensational “finds,’ discovered to be flawed before they were published, when he was researching his book about JFK, The Dark Side of Camelot.) I’d like to think that no good historian would handle documents offered to him or her under such circumstances the way CBS did in 2004.

As to the issue of the birth certificate, I think future biographers and historians will note that fact checking stories pointed to resolution of the issue in 2008 and that polls showed a majority of the public accepted, then and later, that this was the case.

Maarja Krusten - 8/28/2009

Records at Presidential Libraries such as Dr. Palaima mentions can provide clues into how different Presidents made their decisions and what lay at the heart of their management style. What historians discover only reaches a small segment of the public. Historical accountability is a tough sell because its core objective is difficult to reconcile with a political ethos. History depends on data-driven narratives, written from a distance, relying on records, after events have cooled.

From my study of Presidents such as Richard Nixon, I’ve found that they and their associates often grumble and blame the media for their problems. Reaching for such a crutch hinders rather than enhances their ability to resolve problems of substance and communications that derive from the unpopular nature of a policy or inherent negative qualities of an action.

Yet management experts say that leadership depends on listening. As Gen. Anthony Zinni said a few years ago: “The organization must consider how ‘the led’ view leadership.” Zinni added that “It is imperative that feedback is built into this system and that the leaders are receptive to this information. This feedback helps the leadership to understand whether the organization works the way they think it does.” Zinni explained that “A good leader leads from the front, being a part of what the group or team does. The leader should only use his/her power (‘Because I said so’) as a last resort, and take time to ensure buy-in and understanding. This can be accomplished through listening to concerns. . . .”

However, a President’s political advisors often explain away poll results or seek to blame the media for negative public opinion. This overlooks the fact that a President has numerous opportunities to speak directly to the public through prime time press conferences and televised speeches. Richard Nixon used that to good effect with his “Silent Majority” speech. Nixon’s speech inspired me as a freshman in college to join Young Americans for Freedom and to wear “Tell it to Hanoi” and “Silent Majority” buttons to show my support for Nixon and his efforts to achieve peace with honor in Vietnam.

Nowadays, there are more news outlets than in Nixon’s day but as Dr. Palaima notes, historians and public policy experts often have trouble making their voices heard. When news shows feature experts, it’s often in short segments that leave little room to explain complicated issues. There’s little time to explain context or to improve civic knowledge. How often does the public hear serious discussions of how complex governance is? Former Reagan advisor and Republican economics expert Bruce Bartlett recently offered some far-from-kneejerk observations on the impact of cable tv, talk radio and the Internet at ) Bartlett explains why in his view “responsible commentators” and scholars (whom he views as often agreeing with each other) tended to fall by the wayside after the rise of cable and the 24/7 news cyle.
The Internet has really changed the representational function, creating a record of how many ordinary people view issues. It’s not just Presidents and the news media and, to the small extent their voices are heard, Presidential historians and public policy experts, that are in the mix. It’s everyone who speaks in web forums on behalf of the word view they hold. Some take a strategic approach, others a visceral approach. Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson (a former aide to George W. Bush) argued recently that “Tone and bearing are terribly undervalued commodities in American politics. On the whole, people drawn to a party like to feel that those representing the party are both amiable and peaceable. This hardly precludes conviction and tough-mindedness when it comes to articulating policy. Democracy was designed for disagreement, and the proper role of an opposition party is to oppose. But anger, personal attack, and extreme language do nothing to expand the appeal of a party in trouble.” For more on their assessment of issues, discourse, and communications, see

Bill Heuisler - 8/26/2009

Mr. Palaima,
Your comments seem naive in the least - and perhaps subject to an overweening political perspective. Have you forgotten the Cronkite direful, contagious and utterly wrongful pessimism about the Tet Offensive? What about the CBS anchor who lied about President Bush's military service in the face of overwhelmingly conclusive contrary evidence? Odious Press control of our political dialogue is directly responsible for polling changes on Vietnam, for President Bush's decline in unpopularity, for President Obama's election and, I might add, the very interesting refusal to produce a birth certificate that allows those who oppose President Obama to argue the point at all.
Bill Heuisler

Bob Harper - 8/25/2009

Mr. Palaima writes:

"We have reached the point where truth in history is determined by whoever can buy a news network and get partisans to shout loud and long."

The cynic in me replies:

And this was not true when?

Bob Harper