News Item Archive - 2001

Media War Without End

The nation’s Fourth Estate is functioning largely as a fourth branch of government.

In the wake of September 11, the White House has repeatedly sent news executives and working journalists an unsubtle message: Exercise too much independence and you’ll risk accusations of giving aid and comfort to the terrorist enemy. While a few American journalists made feisty noises during the first tumultuous weeks of autumn, for the most part they eagerly went along to get along with the war-makers.

Breaking new ground in news management, the Bush administration has indicated that it foresees a war without end. So we should understand that what’s underway amounts to far more than temporary incursions on the First Amendment.

This fall, the news media of the United States have been sliding down a long-term slippery slope. Television networks in particular are running scared — accelerating their already appreciable zeal to serve the propaganda agendas of top officials in Washington.

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The day before George W. Bush became president, a CNN anchor interviewed the incoming White House chief of staff and then bade him farewell. “All right, Andy Card,” said Judy Woodruff, “we look forward to working with you, to covering your administration.”

If major news outlets were committed to independent journalism, Woodruff’s statement on national television January 19 would have caused quite a media stir. But it was just another sign of media coziness with power brokers in Washington. Leading journalists and spinners in high places are accustomed to mutual reliance. That’s good for the professional advancement of all concerned. But the public’s right to know is another matter.

“The first fact of American journalism is its overwhelming dependence on sources, mostly official, usually powerful,” Walter Karp pointed out in Harper’s Magazine a dozen years ago. Since then, the problem has grown even more acute. A multitude of journalists advance their careers by (in Woodruff’s words) “working with” movers and shakers in government.

Behind the scenes, the tacit deals amount to quid pro quos. Officials dispense leaks to reporters with track records of proven willingness to stay within bounds. “It is a bitter irony of source journalism,” Karp observed, “that the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the ‘best’ sources.” While some fine journalism, assertive and carefully researched, gets into print and onto airwaves every day, the islands of such reporting are drowned in oceans of glorified leaks and institutional handouts.

On the surface, concerns about scant separation of press and state might seem to be misplaced. After all, don’t we see network correspondents firing tough questions at politicians? Isn’t the press filled with criticism of policymakers? Yet we’re encouraged to confuse partisan wrangles and tactical disputes with wide-ranging debate and free flow of information. To a great extent, mainstream media outlets provide big megaphones for those who already have plenty of clout. That suits wealthy owners, large advertisers and government officials. But what about democracy?

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In early May of 1991, two months after the Gulf War ended, the Washington editors for 15 major American news organizations sent a letter of complaint to then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. They charged that the Pentagon had exerted “virtually total control” over coverage of the war. The letter represented completion of a ritual for American media coverage of U.S. military actions: News outlets routinely engage in self-censorship and sometimes grouse — especially after the fact — that the government has imposed too many restrictions on the press.

This fall, scant objections came from big media institutions or high-profile journalists when the Defense Department made clear its intentions to place severe limits on war-related information. “The press policies in the war on terrorism are looking a lot like the Gulf War policies established by Bush’s father, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell,” said University of Iowa journalism professor Jeffrey A. Smith, a scholar on wartime news coverage. “There is denial of access. The press pools have not been activated. The press briefings have been few and inadequate.”

Rather than balk at such signals of news management, many in network news operations seemed to welcome them. Dan Rather drew a lot of media comment for breaking into sobs during his September 17 appearance on David Letterman’s show, but the CBS news anchor didn’t get much flak for his pledge of loyalty. “George Bush is the president,” Rather said, “he makes the decisions.” Speaking as “one American,” the newsman added: “Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he’ll make the call.”

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With the overwhelming bulk of news organizations already serving as amplification systems for Washington’s warriors in times of crisis, the White House found itself in a strong position to retool and oil the machinery of domestic propaganda after September 11. When confronted with claims about “coded messages” that Osama bin Laden and his henchmen might be sending via taped statements — as though other means like the Internet did not exist — TV network executives fell right into line.

Tapes of Al Qaeda leaders provided a useful wedge for the administration to hammer away at the wisdom of (government-assisted) self-censorship. Network execs from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN were deferential in an October 10 conference call with Condoleezza Rice. The conversation was “very collegial,” Ari Fleischer told the White House press corps. The result was an agreement, the New York Times reported, to “abridge any future videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden or his followers to remove language the government considers inflammatory.” It was, the Times added, “the first time in memory that the networks had agreed to a joint arrangement to limit their prospective news coverage.”

News Corp. magnate Rupert Murdoch, speaking for Fox, promised: “We’ll do whatever is our patriotic duty.” CNN, owned by the world’s largest media conglomerate AOL Time Warner, was eager to present itself as a team player: “In deciding what to air, CNN will consider guidance from appropriate authorities.”

“Guidance” from the “appropriate authorities” is exactly what the president’s strategists had in mind — brandishing a club without quite needing to swing it. As longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas noted in a column, “To most people, a ‘request’ to the television networks from the White House in wartime carries with it the weight of a government command. The major networks obviously saw it that way…” The country’s TV news behemoths snapped to attention and saluted the commander in chief. “I think they gave away a precedent, in effect,” said James Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “And now it’s going to be hard for them not to do whatever else the government asks.”

Ostensibly concerned about coded messages, administration spinmeisters were after much more sweeping leverage over all types of mainstream media. The compliant network executives explained that the coded-messages matter “was only a secondary consideration,” the New York Times recounted. “They said Ms. Rice mainly argued that the tapes enabled Mr. bin Laden to vent propaganda intended to incite hatred and potentially kill more Americans.” (There was, of course, no need to curtail the broadcasting of propaganda intended to incite hatred and potentially kill more Afghans.) Four days after the bombing of Afghanistan started, Fleischer urged newspapers not to print full texts of statements by bin Laden and his cohorts. “The request is to report the news to the American people,” he said. “But if you report it in its entirety, that could raise concerns that he’s getting his prepackaged, pretaped message out … putting it into the hands of people who can read it and see something in it.” Newspapers were a bit less inclined than the networks to comply with such “requests,” but a chill was in the air. The First Amendment shivered.

“The government’s attempts to pressure the media regarding the airing of bin Laden’s statements are totally illegitimate,” said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “Government directives like this, especially to a regulated industry like broadcast and cable, carry the force of coercion, if not the force of law.” TV and radio executives are acutely aware that the Federal Communications Commission — more corporate-friendly and authoritarian than ever — would frown on independent behavior in the industry. The FCC chair, Michael Powell, is significantly to the right of his father, the secretary of state. And with the few dominant media conglomerates seeking even more deregulation to assist with mergers and boost market share, there are powerful incentives to go along with any “request” from the Bush administration about limiting news coverage of the latest war.

Meanwhile, at print outlets with outsized journalistic reputations, some similar precedents are in place. “There have been instances,” the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham acknowledged, “in which secrets have been leaked to us which we thought were so dangerous that we went to them [U.S. officials] and told them that they had been leaked to us and did not print them.” In November 1988, speaking to senior CIA officials at the agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, she said: “There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”

Just before the bombing of Afghanistan got underway on October 7, the Post reported that U.S. intelligence officials had informed members of Congress that the Al Qaeda network was very likely to strike again soon in the United States. It was hardly startling news — Attorney General John Ashcroft had already said as much on television — but alarm bells went off at the White House, and CIA director George Tenet swung into action to wave the Post away from further unauthorized reporting. Tenet “had been forced to persuade the newspaper not to publish even more sensitive material,” according to the New York Times. The next day, the Times quoted the Post’s executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr., who said that — “a handful of times” during the month since September 11 — administration officials called the Post and “raised concerns that a specific story or more often that certain facts in a certain story, would compromise national security.” Those calls were fruitful, Downie said: “In some instances we have kept out of stories certain facts that we agreed could be detrimental to national security and not instrumental to our readers, such as methods of intelligence collection.”

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But it is the content of collected intelligence and other secrets that top U.S. officials often seem most anxious to keep under wraps. A frequent excuse is that details of Uncle Sam’s troop movements must be tightly controlled. But the government is eager to keep crucial information from the American public — information that might undermine Washington’s pro-war line.

Concerned about reports of civilian casualties that gradually increased during the first days of bombing Afghanistan, the U.S. government took action — not by curtailing the slaughter but by foreclosing public access to detailed photos that otherwise would have been available from space. “The Pentagon has spent millions of dollars to prevent western media from seeing highly accurate civilian satellite pictures of the effects of bombing in Afghanistan,” the London-based Guardian reported on October 17. At issue were photos from the Ikonos satellite, which takes pictures at such high resolution that “it would be possible to see bodies lying on the ground after last week’s bombing attacks.”

When the Defense Department moved to prevent media access to such pictures, it did not invoke provisions of American law allowing “shutter control” over U.S.-launched civilian satellites in wartime. Instead, the Guardian reported, “the Pentagon bought exclusive rights to all Ikonos satellite pictures of Afghanistan off Space Imaging, the company which runs the satellite. The agreement was made retrospectively to the start of the bombing raids.”

Buying up all of the satellite’s pictures was a much more effective way to thwart media access than seeking a legal ban would have been. Because photos of carnage in Afghanistan from the air war “would not have shown the position of U.S. forces or compromised U.S. military security, the ban could have been challenged by news media as being a breach of the First Amendment,” the Guardian explained. According to the newspaper, “the only alternative source of accurate satellite images would be the Russian Cosmos system. But Russia has not yet decided to step into the information void created by the Pentagon deal with Space Imaging.”

Eleven years ago, during the lead-up to the Gulf War, photos from a Soviet satellite indicated that the Bush-Quayle administration was lying when it claimed that at least 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks were in Kuwait by the second week of September 1990. Much of the initial public rationale for a U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf that fall was based on the claim that those troops represented an imminent threat to invade Saudi Arabia (at a time when more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers were already stationed in that country).

After purchasing photos of the region from a Soviet commercial satellite agency, the St. Petersburg Times published a front-page article on January 6, 1991 — more than a week before the Gulf War began — reporting that “Soviet satellite photos of Kuwait taken five weeks after the Iraqi invasion suggest the Bush administration might have exaggerated the scope of Iraq’s military threat to Saudi Arabia at the time.” Analysis of the photos indicated that the actual Iraqi troop strength in Kuwait was perhaps 25 percent of the figure that the White House had trumpeted while building its war agenda.

The St. Petersburg Times reporting on the satellite photos got little play in the national media. (Similar information had gotten only a few drops of media ink in autumn 1990 without gaining any prominent media attention.) But the story was irksome to war planners in Washington. This time around, the Bush administration is striving to do an even better job of bottling up information that might undercut enthusiasm for the current war. Meanwhile, the press corps has mostly contented itself with the official news flow. A week and a half into the air war, Pentagon correspondents got an affirmative response to requests for formal spoonfeeding at day-in day-out news conferences. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was understandably upbeat. “Let’s hear it for the essential daily briefing, however hollow and empty it might be,” he said. “We’ll do it.”

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The media war overseas has been more awkward. Some U.S. officials fret about losing ground in a global propaganda war. In early October, Colin Powell urged the emir of Qatar to lean on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite TV network, which broadcasts news to 35 million Arabic-speaking viewers worldwide. The effort, coming from a government that is fond of preaching about free speech, was rich with irony and hypocrisy. Al Jazeera has raised the ire of numerous repressive Arab regimes because of its independent reporting. Since the network went into operation in 1996, an Australian journalist noted, “it has infuriated every government from Libya to Kuwait — each of whom have at various times threatened to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar in protest.”

Reporting from Cairo, a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle remarked on “the sight of the United States, the defender of freedom and occasional critic of Arab state repression, lobbying one of the most moderate Arab leaders to rein in one of the region’s few sources of independent news.” After failing at its efforts to stigmatize and isolate Al Jazeera, the Bush administration abruptly shifted tactics. In mid-October, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld went out of their way to appear on the network in sit-down interviews.

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“The Taliban have kept reporters out,” foreign correspondent Robert Fisk wrote in the London Independent shortly after the bombing of Afghanistan began. “But does that mean we have to balance this distorted picture with our own half-truths?” He asked another key question: “Why are we journalists falling back on the same sheep-like conformity that we adopted in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo war? … Is there some kind of rhetorical fog that envelopes us every time we bomb someone?”

On the home front, a fierce media war is underway. “The president has stated repeatedly that this will be a long war — which means the long-term threat to our First Amendment guarantee of free speech and freedom of the press will be enormous,” writes Charles Levendosky, editorial page editor of the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming. “Whether the First Amendment ever recovers its broad protection of speech and the people’s right to know depends upon the public and advocates who fight for our liberties.”

In these ominous times, our only hope for reviving the First Amendment is to make full use of it.

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Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.

This article appeared in the December 2001 issue of Z Magazine (www.zmag.org).

A Confederate in the Cabinet

MORE THAN 13 decades after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the U.S. Senate is getting ready to confirm as attorney general someone who has voiced fervent admiration for the Confederacy. It’s an almost unbelievable situation. Yet many news outlets – and the vast majority of senators – are perpetuating a state of denial.

John Ashcroft, defeated for re-election to the Senate in November, is the incoming president’s most controversial Cabinet pick. Arguments are raging about Ashcroft’s hard-line positions against civil rights, affirmative action, school desegregation, women’s rights, abortion, gay rights and protection of civil liberties. Media attention has focused on the extraordinary actions that he took in 1999 to block the appointment of African-American Judge Ronnie White to the federal bench by smearing him as “pro-criminal.”

If he becomes attorney general, Ashcroft will be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. He’ll have enormous power while running the Justice Department and making weighty recommendations to the president on judicial appointments. For good measure, Ashcroft will oversee such agencies as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and federal prisons.

Less than two years ago, in an extensive interview with Southern Partisan magazine, Ashcroft was emphatic about his admiration for Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders. At the time, the senator was considering a run for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, a quest that would have involved cultivating support among white voters in GOP primaries in the South.

During the interview, Ashcroft praised Southern Partisan as a magazine that “helps set the record straight,” adding “You’ve got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I’ve got to do more. We’ve all got to stand up and speak in this respect, or else we’ll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda.”

Should the attorney general of the United States be someone who doubts that the preservation of slavery was a “perverted agenda”?

That’s not the only question arising from the interview. And to fully understand the impact of Ashcroft’s words, you must understand who reads Southern Partisan, which has been described as “a leading journal of the neo-Confederacy movement.”

In 1996, the magazine asserted that slave owners “encouraged strong slave families to further the slaves’ peace and happiness.” And in 1990, Southern Partisan touted former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as “a Populist spokesperson for a recapturing of the American ideal.”

Some Ashcroft backers have strained to pooh-pooh the fallout from the interview. For example, a Dec. 31 editorial in the Detroit News scoffed at any suggestion that Ashcroft’s comments “call into question his commitment to civil rights and may be grounds for a challenge to his appointment.”

The newspaper declared: “That’s a nonsensical smoke screen. The views Sen. Ashcroft shared several years ago with Southern Partisan magazine reflect a curious American reality – the ability to reconcile admiration for the courage, nobility and commitment of the rebels with an objection to their cause.”

In fact, Ashcroft derided the idea that pro-slavery leaders had a blameworthy agenda, and he did not express any “objection to their cause.” The Detroit News editorial was misleading in another important respect: Like so much other media coverage, it did not scrutinize – or even mention – Ashcroft’s sweeping endorsement of Southern Partisan as a magazine that “helps set the record straight.”

Avoidance of Ashcroft’s overall record has been typical of editorials by newspapers supporting him for attorney general, including the Boston Herald, the Atlanta Journal and the Chicago Tribune.

But at least as many daily papers – notably the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis – have editorialized against the Ashcroft nomination. And quite a few other dailies (such as The Sun, the Atlanta Constitution, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and St. Petersburg Times)have expressed editorial misgivings.

Perhaps most telling has been the response from the most prominent newspaper in the prospective attorney general’s home state of Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – which swiftly urged the Senate to “investigate Mr. Ashcroft’s opposition to civil rights, women’s rights, abortion rights and to judicial nominees with whom he disagrees.”

The Post-Dispatch recalled that “Mr. Ashcroft has built a career out of opposing school desegregation in St. Louis and opposing African-Americans for public office.”

It’s no surprise that Bob Jones University, notorious for bigotry, gave Ashcroft an honorary degree in 1999. Accepting the award in person, he was proud to deliver the commencement address.

While the country’s editorial writers and columnists are deeply divided over whether Ashcroft should become attorney general, there is much less division in evidence on Capitol Hill. Republicans, of course, are marching to Bush’s drum. Meanwhile, the Senate’s 50 Democrats have been mealy-mouthed at best.

Democratic politicians are fond of preening themselves as champions of civil rights. But now, at a pivotal moment in history – while some complain that Ashcroft’s ideology makes them uncomfortable and promise that the nominee will face tough questions – the bottom line is that the Democrats in the Senate seem very willing to cave.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont lost no time signaling pacific intent toward Ashcroft, a six-year-member of the club: “I do not intend to lead a fight against him.”

Another purported liberal on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, was quick to say: “Unless there’s something I’m unaware of, I’d be inclined to vote for him.”

The Ashcroft nomination could turn out to be the defining issue of the presidential transition. Right now, the cowardice of Senate Democrats is sending an obscene message of contempt toward all Americans who have struggled against racism since the Civil War.


Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a nationwide consortium of policy researchers with offices in San Francisco and Washington.