Fly on the Wall: A Monkey, A Flamingo and the Ukraine War

This is the latest in Fair Observer’s series of fictional dialogues intended to make sense of the underside of the news. This imaginary conversation unlocks one of the secrets of corporate media news.

INT. NEIGHBORHOOD CAFE, MANHATTAN, NYC – DAY

Lester Holt is NBC’s celebrated anchor of “Nightly News with Lester Holt “, as well as the two-year old hit, “Nightly News with Lester Holt: The Kids Edition”.

As one reviewer opines, “Even when the world seems to have been taken over by insanity, Lester is calm, delivering the news with honesty and integrity.”

Mr. Holt has agreed to an interview with with Bill Smedley, an independent journalist who is intrigued about the historical research that underpinned a segment for kids on the background to the Ukraine war.

Quiet at this hour. SMEDLEY and LESTER HOLT seated in a booth in the back of the cafe.

SMEDLEY

Thanks for giving me the time here, I really appreciate it.

HOLT

No problem.

SMEDLEY

Okay, so we spoke earlier in the week about the topic, so I guess we can get right into it.

HOLT

Sure.

SMEDLEY

“‘The Nightly News with Lester Holt: The Kids Edition”. It’s such a great idea, and it was your brainchild, right?

HOLT

No, not at all. A few of us — production people, writers, we were sitting around after a broadcast and just out of the blue we’re talking about how great it would be if kids had their own news show. That’s how it started, and from there it was like — Well, there’s this whole big world out there that don’t know anything about and we can introduce them to it, we can excite them, help them to understand and think about the world… make it less confusing, we hope, and obviously show how much fun it can be, how inspiring. And the great thing, the great thing is that everything we cover, most of it anyway, comes from kids submitting video questions.

SMEDLEY

Lots of animals.

HOLT

Oh God, yes, a very popular feature with the kids.

SMEDLEY

Whales, sharks, dogs, cats–

HOLT

Yeah, yeah…

SMEDLEY

— Horses, baby elephants, hippos, kangaroos…

HOLT

amused)Yeah, well, the requests keep pouring in from the kids, so maybe we’ll get around to covering everything that walks, swims, crawls, slithers… The A to Z.

SMEDLEY

Great, great. And the Kids Edition premiered when?

HOLT

2020. April. And it’s been a great two years, very gratifying.

SMEDLEY

You know, I’ve always had this thing about flamingos, and I noticed that a kid, I think a boy, submitted a video question: Why are flamingos pink and white? Well,I didn’t know, and I wanted to know because I love flamingos but never wondered about it myself as a kid…

HOLT

Yeah..

SMEDLEY

And it was in the episode about the Ukraine War, which I looked at closely — and I missed the part about the flamingos.

HOLT

Monkey, not a flamingo.

SMEDLEY

Monkey?

HOLT

A cotton-eared marmalot from Brazil. They’re very small and something very special about them, their faces, very human. Got a great response from the kids. But yeah, it was the monkey and the Ukraine War, not the flamingo and why they’re pink and white. Eight-year-old girl’s question, actually. I’m pretty sure, not a boy. And then the topic of the day was, What is a midterm election?

SMEDLEY

Ah, okay, I got them confused.

HOLT

(Smiles). You probably want to talk about the monkey– I mean, the Ukraine War.

SMEDLEY

Right. Yes.

HOLT

Well, that was a hard one to tackle — How to get into something this terrible with kids. But we felt we had an obligation because it’s inevitable, right? They hear bits and pieces of it and it’s scary, so the least we could do on the Kids Edition, we decided, is to give them a basic understanding of what’s going on and how the U.S is trying to help the people of Ukraine. And if the kids knew that,the basic facts, then maybe the whole thing would seem a little less confusing and not so scary.

SMEDLEY

That’s great, so you have Michael Beschloss, MSNBC’s– what, official historian, I guess, right?

HOLT

Michael’s a great guy and one of America’s most popular historians. We’re very lucky to have him here at MSNBC.

SMEDLEY

Sure. And before he comes on– I mean, before you introduce him — you explain a couple things they should know about Ukraine, like it’s a neighbor to Russia, they share a long past, not so good, and it’s smaller than Texas.

HOLT

Ukraine is smaller than Texas.

SMEDLEY

Right, smaller than Texas, but a lot of countries are smaller than Texas.

HOLT

(laughs) Right, right. But it’s important for kids to know where it is, that they can find it on a map, or find any country on the map, it’s just important to know, to open their eyes up to the world.

SMEDLEY

Absolutely.

HOLT

And it was very important for kids to know how hard we’ve tried — the U.S. has– and Michael explains this beautifully– to convince the Russians that they should work out whatever differences they have with Ukraine peacefully, because peace is always better than war. But Russia’s never been interested in peace or dialogue or diplomacy, and certainly not when it comes to Ukraine.

SMEDLEY

Well, there are political scientists, scholars, internationally known and respected — like John Mearsheimer, hell, even Henry Kissinger — who disagree with Mr. Beschloss on that point, and I’m assuming your views reflect those of Mr. Beschloss. Am I– I mean is that fair to say? Assuming too much?

HOLT

Well, I’m a journalist and as a journalist I deal with facts, and Michael is one of America’s most popular, well known historians, and yes, he’s MSNBC’s historian, so–

SMEDLEY

He’s your go-to historian.

HOLT

I don’t know if I’d put it that way, but yes.

SMEDLEY

Great, so quoting him here, if I can, “The leader of Russia, Vladimer Putin, has always been uncomfortable with the fact that Ukraine split off from him, and he worries that Ukraine is very hostile to him, and he would like to create a grand Russia that is very powerful, and Ukraine to be a part of it.”

HOLT

And without NATO, what would Europe do, what would the world do, because if he takes Ukraine, he’ll just keep going, moving across Europe?

SMEDLEY

Sure, sure, that’s a point you make in the segment. So, uh.. “One of the things we always try to–” — I’m continuing here with Mr. Beshloss, if that’s okay.

HOLT

Please do.

SMEDLEY

“So one of the things we always try to do is to keep the world out of war if we possibly can, and that’s what President Biden is trying to do now.”

HOLT

Well, was trying to do. The Kids Edition aired before Putin invaded on — well, the same night, actually, but we’d shot the segment the day before.

SMEDLEY

Wow.

HOLT

Wow is right.

SMEDLEY

Okay, so, um,, so Beschloss goes on to say that we… “We Americans obey certain moral values, and one of the more principled ones is, when we see a strong country trying to take over a weak country by force, we try to prevent that from happening.”

HOLT

Absolutely.

SMEDLEY

Absolutely, yes, so how does, for instance, Iraq and Afghanistan fit into this whole thing, because it raises some questions, don’t you think, about–

HOLT

Not at all. No. I mean, yeah, they proved to be terrible mistakes, terrible, in so many ways, and I think that– well, at the very least, they’re tactical blunders we regret having made.

SMEDLEY

Sure, okay, but still we’re talking about a couple of invasions, you could call them violations of national sovereignty, with a lot of… a lot of consequences. So should they be considered terrible mistakes or tactical blunders, or both?

HOLT

(checks his watch) We were talking about The Kids Edition, the Ukraine War, The Russians– and we’re getting off track a little, don’t you think?

SMEDLEY

Sorry. So back to Beschloss, and what I think is — yes, his last comment, “If we saw that Ukraine was being invaded and that the Russians were trying to conquer them, our attitude would be that a big country should not oppress a small country next door, and we should do something about it.”

HOLT

Well, we are. It’s going to be a long struggle, a very, very painful one.

SMEDLEY

Right. So about eight years ago, Putin looks next door to his neighbor, Ukraine, and he sees NATO troops training soldiers, year after year, and weapons pouring in, and he’s not too happy about it because he sees this as an existential threat, the way we looked at Cuba in 1962. And since 1997, NATO keeps moving closer and closer to Russia’s border, and for just as long he’s been warning, “This is our red line, This is our red line, This is our –,” year after year, over two decades, but we don’t listen or don’t want to listen, we don’t care about his concerns, we don’t care if he’s —

HOLT

I have to interrupt here, I’m sorry, please don’t take it personally, but you’re making Putin’s case for him, you know that?

SMEDLEY

Right.

HOLT

Right?

SMEDLEY

If this is how Putin sees it, or how he claims to see it, then it’s a narrative, or a piece of it, that historians have to consider and weigh against other facts before they formulate their own, one that they think makes sense, that’s all I was trying —

HOLT

Well, the country’s had this debate about what the facts are. We’ve had it.

SMEDLEY

We have?

HOLT

Every night on the news.

SMEDLEY

I guess… I missed it.

HOLT

(checks his watch again) I think…

SMEDLEY

Sure, the time. The point is just that the kids didn’t get much to think about, did they? That was one of the main motives behind the Kids Edition, you said. To open the world up for them to see and think about. But with Ukraine, not that much. It was explained to them — like a Marmalot monkey has a human face and lives in Brazil or why a flamingo is–

HOLT

Mr. Smedley, please, these are kids. Teach them to understand things, to think — yes. But we’re talking about Ukraine, which is far too complicated for kids, so we have to simplify it for them, bring it down to basics.

SMEDLEY

Well, again, that’s what you mean by basics — not giving them anything to think about.

HOLT

(growing more annoyed) They’re KIDS!

SMEDLEY

And Ukraine is very complicated, but by “uncomplicating” it, you’re not inviting them to think — you’re just telling them — in this case, Mr. Beschloss is: “this is enough, kids, this is all you need to know about Ukraine”… which is pretty much what he tells your Nightly News audience as well, isn’t it?

HOLT

That would include me.

SMEDLEY

Include you in…?

HOLT

What you’re suggesting is– it amounts to indoctrination.

SMEDLEY

Propaganda?

HOLT

I think we’re done here.

SMEDLEY

Mr. Holt, I’m sorry if you think — If we could end the interview on, I guess, a pleasant note? A very quick question, a very quick two-parter that has to do mostly with animals.

HOLT

Try me.

SMEDLEY

It’s the flamingo — I still don’t know why it’s pink and white… And the second part of the question is, what do you think about the 2014 U.S.-backed coup in Kiev?

HOLT

This time we’re done.

SMEDLEY

Thank you.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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