Editor and author Tom Engelhardt runs one of the most influential political Web sites on the net – Tomdispatch.com. In this interview Engelhardt and Pepe Escobar discuss the tribulations of Empire, the relationship of oil and war, and how mainstream media in the US constantly edits out crucial stories.
PEPE ESCOBAR, REAL NEWS ANALYST: I’m here with Tom Engelhardt, the leader and the editor of TomDispatch.com, which may seem like a huge corporate operation, but in fact it’s practically a two-man team. And the other important part of the team is Nick Turse, the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. Guys, welcome to The Real News. So it’s you, Nick, and a group of fabulous writers, they are in this book, The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire. How would you define “empire” to an American who believes that US is not an empire?
TOM ENGELHARDT, TOM>DISPATCH,COM: I have a kind of a gut reaction to empire. I mean, think of it this way. If you sit inside the United States, you’re not enormously aware that we’re on a one-way planet. You know. So you can have on any day—I mean, it just happened recently. You can have, say, the head of the CIA get up in front of Congress and both congratulate himself and be congratulated on getting secret spies into Iran. Now, if you were to try and reverse that and you imagine the head of the Iranian secret service publicly in Tehran saying, “Great news: we’ve finally got our guys inside the corridors of power in Washington,” I mean, this country would declare war. We would be horrified. So I think it’s things like that, you know, the fact that, for instance, we can take a Predator, an unarmed aerial vehicle, one of these drones, and we can fly it over Somalia, we can decide there’s a terrorist on the ground, we can shoot a Hellfire missile into some peasant’s hut and kill a couple of people, and then, “Oh my gosh. It’s not a terrorist. We’re kind of sorry.” Now, if you reverse that and that Predator was an Iranian Predator, say, or a Chinese Predator, something flying over southern California and the same thing happened, we would declare war. We would go crazy. I think what you can say is in a way you know when you’re an empire when it all goes in the other direction. That’s the world that I think we’re in.
ESCOBAR: Could we say that the world according to TomDispatch and the work of you guys these past five years, it’s telling a story of basically oil and weapons? Because you broke stories that the mainstream media refused to break, like the empire of bases, the Pentagonization of American life, transformation of the world into a planet of slums—a Mike Davis piece.
ENGELHARDT: Although we’ve dealt a lot with Bush administration policy, we’ve dealt with the way in which what the neocons, you know, just in a turn of phrase back in, say, 2002 used to call the arc of instability, which extends from North Africa to the Chinese border, and it’s more or less the oil heartlands of the planet. We dealt with how they made it into a genuine arc of instability. So that’s been a lot of TomDispatch. And in the process we focused a fair amount on the disastrous war in Iraq and within Iraq a series of missing stories, you know, the missing stories, which really are weapons, oil, bases. You know, that is the air war, the fact that even though air wars, the American way of war, American reporters remarkably enough simply don’t look up. It’s not covered here, or largely not covered. The vast bases that we’ve been building in Iraq, multi-billions of dollars going into bases that reek of permanency, even if we don’t call them permanent and are obviously—I like to call them Bush’s [“ZIH-guh-rots”] that are meant to outlast this administration. They’re millennial objects, even though, obviously, we won’t be there in anything like that length. And, finally, the most embarrassing story of the Iraq War, which is the one thing that Iraq really produces, which is oil, which couldn’t for years be put in the same paragraph with “we’re fighting” or any serious piece in the mainstream about the situation in Iraq.
ESCOBAR: You’re one of the top US book editors. Is this a matter of editing out?
ESCOBAR: In terms of the behavior of the US corporate media?
ENGELHARDT: Yes. It’s a kind of collective editing-out. I usually say the mainstream media is a conspiracy. And what’s fascinating about it is it’s a conspiracy in which none of the conspirators know they’re a part of it. Certain stories get left out, things get shaped in a certain way, and they get shaped in a certain way. If you sit at night and you click from one prime-time news show to another, you click to the same stories. If you’re on story five, it’s the president’s getting off the plane, whether you’re on ABC, NBC, or CBS. We’re now at a strange moment in which, for the first time, the stories that TomDispatch has been covering with people like Chalmers Johnson, Dahr Jamail, Mike Klare, Mike Davidson, a wonderful set of people who have covered these missing stories, suddenly some of these stories are in our world again. Oil has just been broken by The New York Times, you know, the big oil companies.
ESCOBAR: Yeah, it’s five years late.
ENGELHARDT: Yeah, five years late. The bases are suddenly—these bases that nobody has been willing to look at or basically show Americans, which we’ve been building with billions of dollars, of tax dollars, are suddenly back in the news. And what fascinates me as I watch this—and it would be funny if it weren’t so grim—is that when the mainstream media picks up these stories and starts running with them, they act as though it’s just been part of the discussion for the last five years. Nobody stops and says, “Oh, wait—we really have a new story now. We’ve managed not to cover this for five years.” They’ve just talked about it as if they were talking about it the same way yesterday. So everything’s edited out until it’s in, and then it’s as if it’s always been in.
ESCOBAR: Would you say that Americans should give up on US corporate media?
ENGELHARDT: If we completely gave up on it, there’s a lot of information I wouldn’t have, because the fact is in bits and pieces things are covered everywhere and often covered fairly well. I mean, to give you just one example, to me the great and obvious story of the Bush years in Washington has been the expansion of the Pentagon. It’s expanded in every way because the Bush people put such emphasis on the military. And this is Nick’s great subject, of course. And that expansion has been covered bit by bit. The budgetary part, the weapons trading, you know, various aspects of it have been covered in the mainstream media, and yet it took TomDispatch and a woman named Frida Berrigan, who’s an arms expert, to do a piece that should have been on the front page of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, part of a series on the overall expansion of the Pentagon. You can’t find that anywhere. It’s just not there, even though it is one of the two or three most striking aspects of what’s happened in the Bush years here.
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