In the first episodes of the Looming Tower, the Hulu original series based on a book by the same name, there’s a reference to the public being distracted by the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinski sex scandal in 1998. This was despite Al Qaeda having attacked two overseas American sites that same year. The series uses the coverage of the scandal as a metaphor for the turf wars between three parties: the CIA, and between the Washington and the New York field offices of the FBI. The three units’ failure to cooperate in the aftermath of these attacks outside the US in 1998 were contributing factors in the authorities’ failure to prevent the attacks within the US on September 11, 2001.
Just as the public was distracted, breathlessly following the presidential sex scandal, all of us Americans took our eyes off the proverbial ball. Instead of paying attention to a terrorist attack against the United States, largely because it was on foreign soil, we were obsessing over the details of, as one character in The Looming Tower quips, “a cum stain on a dress.”
American broadcast historian Susan Douglas made a similar point about the American public aftermath of the September 11th attacks. In 2006, she wrote in “The Turn Within: The Irony of Technology in a Globalized World” that while American isolationism is nothing new…it is striking that during this particular period, when technological capabilities and geopolitical exigencies should have interacted to expand America’s global vision, just the opposite occurred.” She terms this the “turn within.”
One can make the same argument today. The only time most Americans see a foreign place represented is, perhaps, in the Instagram posts of our friends, who shared some stylized snaps and stories of their trips to whatever place they went to, what remote terrain they encountered, and what exotic snacks they ingested.
And that brings me to the just-aired 60 Minutes interview with Stephanie Clifford, more widely known “Stormy Daniels.” I agree that this scandal is more about the salacious details over an extramarital affair between a then-TV celebrity and a porn actress—it is also about abuse of power in trying to silence her during the 2016 presidential campaign. It further begs the question whether did this patten of behavior continued against others after Trump assumed the presidency.
News coverage such as this comes at the expense of reporting on other things, such as what the Trump Administration is doing with regards to foreign policy. In the last month, the Trump Administration’s top diplomat and its national security advisor were replaced by two hawkish ideologues—Tea Party nationalist Mike Pompello and right-wing warmonger John Bolton. As tensions are high between the US and several other nuclear states—Russia, China, North Korea—it would be great if we could learn more about what elevating these two men to such high positions might mean. It would also be great if we had a clue about where else we might face a potential conflict in the future.
Then again, we Americans might just satisfy ourselves with surveiling and harrassing our friends on social media.