When I was a child, tall tales seemed wonderful. I liked to read about Paul Bunyan and his huge ox, tromping around in the wilds and creating natural wonders like the Great Lakes. But these days, there's nothing fun or charming about tall tales written for adults under the guise of journalism.
Consider a couple of big news stories-nuclear testing in India and upheaval in Indonesia. Evidently, judging from the recent coverage, the media establishment finds it very easy to report that the CIA was incompetent but very difficult to mention that the agency was involved in evil deeds.
As soon as news broke about the Indian nuclear tests, the Central Intelligence Agency proclaimed that it had been taken by surprise. Media outlets quickly treated the claim as a statement of fact. From there, politicians and pundits went on and on, skewering the CIA for failure to anticipate the test explosions.
The only trouble with the CIA's mea culpa was its absurdity. India's ruling Hindu nationalist party gained power this year after campaigning on a platform that called for the country to reassess its nuclear arms options. Many independent observers were expecting atomic tests.
But we're supposed to believe that the CIA-an agency with a multi-billion-dollar budget, access to the world's most precise spy satellites and agents in every corner of the globe-was in the dark until the New Delhi government made the announcement.
All in all, it's about as plausible as tracing the origins of Lake Superior to the activities of Paul Bunyan and his ox Babe. Three days before the ground shook at the Indian test site, a small newsletter published May 7 by Sikh separatists in Canada explained that "preparations for an Indian nuclear test has been further confirmed by our sources in India." The periodical, Charhdi Kala International, said that its sources, "who so far have never been wrong having millions of pairs of eyes and ears fixed to the ground," were reporting "all kinds of feverish nighttime activities" at India's test site in Rajasthan state.
The most powerful political factions in Washington have no desire to challenge the yarn that India's nuclear testing caught the CIA flat-footed. The tall tale has been helpful for an array of agendas.
The CIA and its boosters can claim that the agency needs more funds to do a better job. Opponents of a comprehensive test ban treaty can claim that adherence to such a pact is not verifiable. And the Clinton administration can claim that it failed to take action to discourage the Indian tests because it didn't know they were in the offing.
Meanwhile, coverage of the crisis in Indonesia has often been Orwellian. For instance, dozens of New York Times articles detoured around inconvenient history. On May 16, the newspaper's front page referred to "mass killings of 32 years ago, when Mr. Suharto took power from the country's founding president, Sukarno. At that time, as many as half a million people died in an anti-Communist purge."
The next day, another prominent Times story recalled that "hundreds of thousands were killed in the turmoil of the last political transition, as Mr. Suharto presided over a hunt for leftists around the country and consolidated his power." Actually, the CIA and other accessories of American foreign policy played key roles in the carnage that took the lives of a half-million Indonesians during the "turmoil" of the mid-1960s. Along the way, the U.S. government supplied a list of 5,000 leftists to Indonesia's military, fingering them for assassination. Washington also supported Suharto throughout his subsequent brutalities, including the slaughter of 200,000 people in East Timor by Indonesian army occupiers.
Now, after Suharto's resignation, we still cannot understand what's happening without truthful accounts of the past. Some tall tales are told with a flourish, some with careful silences. But whatever the style, they should not be confused with journalism.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."