Libertarian political theory, especially when informed by economics, tells us that the political class is essentially parasitic. And parasitism, of course, has a long-run tendency to devolve into self-cannibalism. So for those of us who take a critical view of the political class from outside of it, it can be amusing to watch when it begins to eat itself. Nobody within the liberty movement should be surprised, then, at how quickly the media turned on NBC anchor Brian Williams after he admitted to having spun tall tales about his time in Iraq in 2003.

But amusing aspects of this story aside, it is worth considering why a major news anchor admitting to lies should be a more grievous offense than telling them. And the answer lies in the relationship of the mainstream press to government power.

For the majority of American history, the press has been instrumental in the promotion of state power. And if we consider the wisdom of Randolph Bourne that “war is the health of the state”, we will know that the promotion of state power necessarily entails the promotion of war. As Sheldon Richman wrote yesterday, Brian Williams’ sensationalist reporting on the Iraq war was fuel for the war’s public support. But Williams, in the big picture, is little more than a disposable cog in the system of pro-state propaganda that the press has become, and for the purposes of a propaganda machine, a person who tells the truth is a part of the machine that has been bent out of shape.

We can see this principle in action during the Civil War, when President Lincoln attempted to silence anti-war opinion in the North by forcibly closing newspapers that published criticism of the war, and of Lincoln personally. (See the work of Thomas J. DiLorenzo, who has written extensively on this subject.) The extent to which that occurred is a matter of disagreement, but that it happened is not. Newspapers were closed, and some were burnt in acts of mob violence fueled by “patriotic” fervor. Regardless of how often such censorship was accomplished by official sanction, papers naturally learned that support for the war was the best way to ensure their ongoing existence, leading to a centralization of power and money in those news sources that benefited the state.

This was a lesson the industry did not forget during the wars that followed. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer pioneered “yellow journalism” during the Spanish American war, perhaps most famously by publishing the headline, “The War Ship Maine was Split in Two by an Enemy’s Secret Infernal Machine” in the New York Journal. Meanwhile Pulitzer’s paper, the New York World blamed Spain for the incident (even though Pulitzer would admit privately that he believed no such thing). More subtly, Hearst and Pulitzer published propaganda in favor of the war, citing the economic necessity of American industrial interests in Cuba.

During the first World War, Wilson’s domestic policy reinforced the statist bent of the press through the Committee on Public Information and the Sedition Act of 1918. Papers routinely condemned anti-war conviction as “cowardice” and “treason”. And by the time World War II happened, it seems as though the press had thoroughly learned its lesson: the state is the health of lucrative media, and war is the health of the state. Although criticism of President Roosevelt’s New Deal was in the minority, it was still relatively substantial. But war criticism was sparse. While that was true in other countries, it is still interesting how reporting on the war was handled by the American press as opposed to elsewhere. British media, while not expressing sympathy for Hitler or the Nazi Party, nevertheless portrayed Hitler’s expressed motivations honestly and without exaggeration. American media, by contrast, never failed to cram every headline and report with sensationalist and jingoistic language. (I recommend the School Sucks Podcast, episode 246, for Brett Veinotte’s excellent commentary on this topic.)

Little has changed in the time since then, except that state support in the media is now so reflexive that overt censorship is no longer often needed. Major media sources have for so long subsisted on a fattening diet of government press releases that it is unthinkable for one of their journalists to speak out against the state, especially when it comes to war. The centralization of media through government has led to a Fabian choice between the evils of pro-war “conservative” reporting versus “liberal” reporting favoring expansionist domestic policy; while neither side ever really offers substantial resistance to either the warfare state or the welfare state (as libertarian writers have long argued, you never really get one without the other). Journalists are forced between a commitment to honesty or a career in major media (see, for example, the way in which resistance to the War in Vietnam was pioneered by alternative magazines such as Playboy and Rolling Stone; or the fact that a modern journalistic critic of the warfare state such as Glenn Greenwald had to go to the relative fringe to find a home at Salon).

The history of the state-media complex consists of an endless stream of examples of the media lying, exaggerating, and selectively reporting on behalf of the state; most consistently, on the subject of war. Brian Williams’ lies were, essentially, war propaganda; and his admission that he had lied was an inadvertent admission of the true function so-called “journalists” like himself serve. His peers had no choice but to sacrifice him as an act of atonement, lest they risk the favor they have so diligently preserved as the state’s propaganda arm.