Francis Moriarty: From train to trainwreck


HONG KONG >> As a reporter who's spent most of his working life covering politics, I watch the U.S. presidential campaign with the kind of sick feeling you have when something awful is happening in front of you but you just can't look away.

The lack of decorum is in sharp contrast to my first memory of a political event. It was in Pittsfield in October of 1952 — easy to remember all these years later because my family had just celebrated my sixth birthday with a cake and candles. My father, a World War II veteran who would soon find himself standing in frozen Korean rice paddies, walked with me from our home on Lincoln Street to a spot about halfway down the West Street slope. The street was jammed with people from Park Square right down to Union Station.

Ike in Pittsfield

I was sitting on my father's shoulders, floating above a sea of flashing badges that switched one way to show an elephant, and the other to "I Like Ike." Red-white-and-blue bunting was strung along the elevated walkway next to the station and everyone was looking up at the bald man who was speaking. Each time the crowd cheered, the elephants flashed.

"Take a good look at that man," my father told me. "He's very famous and he's going to become the president of the United States."

And so he did. It was Dwight D. Eisenhower and a whistle-stop rally — complete with a real train. Not everyone there was a Republican (I know my father wasn't) but this was obviously someone special. This person, as I would later appreciate, had overall command of the invasion of Normandy and led the U.S. forces to victory. Even those who might vote against him as a candidate had come out in force to celebrate the man.

I share this train-stop recollection because I also want to share my deep worry about the campaign trainwreck that's unfolding before America today — a disaster on just about any level.

There is plenty of criticism to be shared, but I confine my comments to the news media and social media — the distinction between which is crumbling, not simply before the advance of new technologies but, far worse, under a well-funded blitzkrieg by forces that know what they are doing and have the resources needed to fund an information war.

And a war is what it is. We are being subjected to a full-fledged assault on the very notions of credibility and truthfulness. We are experiencing now what the propagandist Joseph Goebbels would have done if Nazi Germany had invented the internet instead of the V2 rocket.

It was Goebbels who said: "Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play."

Well, who is playing the keyboard today? And who is paying for what the keyboard player plays? What can be believed? What news sources can be trusted — if any?

Even for news outlets of note, too many "sources" for stories are anonymous, dubious, clearly ideological or flat-out propagandistic — and this goes for all sides. As for the internet, I imagine small armies of computer gnomes and willingly useful idiots slaving away at work stations to put twisted stories, baseless information and complete disinformation online, drawing inspiration from historical references (found online), reams of tobacco ads and propaganda posters.

And when pillars of the print media run front-page editorials stating their position on candidates four months prior to voting — such as The Washington Post and Houston Chronicle — we are more than just in uncharted waters; we are telling reporters to be neutral, fair and balanced in their work, then sending them into environments where they will be seen upon arrival as foot soldiers for their employers' position. One result is that some reporters are now obliged to enter venues via the general admission gate in order to cover major news events. This is unprecedented in living memory.

Guided by Goebbels

So, being a time-worn reporter, I pose some simple questions: Who is carrying out these round-the- clock online propaganda operations? From where is the funding coming? Who is putting words into the mouths of movie stars, cartoon characters and green frogs? Finding answers to these questions should be the work of our best investigative journalists. And as they work, they would do well to recall the ever-practical Goebbels, the propaganda czar who had but one guiding principle: winning.

"That propaganda is good which leads to success," he said, "and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result. It is not propaganda's task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success."

This election campaign is not about bringing our nation out of foreign conflict, although it could be. Instead, it's about dragging our nation into a domestic conflict — one that doesn't need to be.

An independent journalist and broadcaster providing reports, commentary and analysis on Hong Kong, mainland China and Asia. Francis Moriarty was a senior political reporter, Radio Television Hong Kong, from 1995 to 2014. A 1969 graduate of Williams College, he was a part-time sports writer and reporter for The Berkshire Eagle from 1966 to 1969.


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