The Big Chill

By Dennis Loy Johnson

On the front page of the June 13, 2002 San Francisco Chronicle a photo ran under the headline “100,000 March Against Venezuelan President.” Investigative journalist Greg Palast, who had just come back from Caracas, admits that the photo is legitimate. But what the Chronicle failed to report is that nearly half a million Venezuelans had marched for the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. Furthermore:

By the time the story reached the New York Times, the anti-Chavez crowd had metastasized into 600,000, a fantasy easy to print as the paper of record had no reporter in Venezuela. Pro-Chavez demonstrations of up to a million citizens had, appropriate to Latin America, “disappeared” from American papers and broadcasts.

“Sometimes,” Palast observes, “a picture is worth a thousand lies.”

This sort of media manipulation doesn’t just happen in Latin America. As Dennis Loy Johnson documents in The Big Chill, a picture of a presidential inauguration in Washington D.C. can also be worth a thousand lies.

The “impossible photo” that took up nearly half of the front page of the New York Times the day after the inauguration showed the new president and his wife walking along Pennsylvania Avenue and waving happily to the crowd. This is not exactly how it happened. In fact, George W. Bush had been unable to get out of his car during most of the route due to the strength of the protest. When he reached a heavily guarded area behind some barricades he quickly got out of the car with his wife, had some pictures taken, and then got back in. The result: “A staged photo had been successfully planted in our nation’s most influential newspaper, where it was treated as genuine news.”

And what about the real story, the story of the protest demonstrations? According to the Times, that wasn’t news:

In general, we devote more space to events, developments and situations than to demonstrations protesting (or supporting) the events, developments and situations. One reason for this is that the demonstrations are staged events, designed to be covered.

But what isn’t a staged event? As Johnson notes, the Times seems “blithely unaware that the inauguration itself was a staged event”, and that the Times front page photo was a staged photo. Reality as created (and denied) through the media is inherently staged. Even the attack on the World Trade Center and the invasion of Iraq were staged events, consciously made-for-TV spectacles.

Instead of reporting on the the story of the protests, many of the reporters covering the inauguration behaved like embedded journalists (the military’s version of Hollywood’s junket whores), only commenting on what they were supposed to see. Indeed, it is the embedded journalists driving along the parade route who draw the lustiest boos from the protesters. Why?

One of the great successes of the political right in America has been its creation of a “liberal media” bogey-man run by anti-democratic “elites” who censor the genuine voice of the people. This story works largely because people really do resent the power arrogant and unresponsive media have over their lives. In particular, they feel that the news is not something to be stage-managed and controlled. (This is despite the fact that there is nothing about the media today that is democratic, and the “news” is a media creation.) Being de-mediaed, then, is akin to being disenfranchised. Votes disappear or are never counted. Protests never take place. An “almost visceral anger” starts to take hold.

As a historical document The Big Chill should take its place alongside classics like Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night. With luck it might become part of a similar revolution in journalism (corresponding to the “new journalism” of the 1960s), and help bring about a much-needed Big Thaw.

Review first published online October 14, 2004. The Venezuelan march story comes from Greg Palast’s The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.


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