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.
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).