The Shame of the Press (& TV)

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As everyone now knows, the "mainstream media" has been losing advertisers, readers, and money for years. The familiar reasons include younger non-readers, a lack of interest in world affairs, and ideologically inspired attacks on the "liberal media" plus the Internet and bloggers and assorted technological advances. Scrawls listing "news" headlines on the bottom of TV screens are the latest gimmicks. Worst of all, our print press and of course TV networks have long since given up on hard, and if need be skeptical, reporting about what our "leaders" say and want us to believe.

What brought the major media to this point is debatable but nothing in recent history can absolve virtually every American newspaper and TV network for the spineless manner it became an echo chamber for the Bush administration’s bellicose, deceitful and incompetent misadventure in Iraq. (An honorable exception is Knight-Ridder’s Washington staff — now McClatchy — which recognized almost from the start that a catastrophe lay ahead.) How and why our newspapers and news magazines fell for the utopian fantasies dreamed up by feckless neoconservatives and our five-draft deferment hawk Dick Cheney will forever haunt them. At least the New York Times has publicly apologized for its bad reporting about Iraq but we have yet to hear many apologies or explanations from anyone else.

Lying by Presidential administrations is hardly novel. The Spanish American War, the invasion of the Philippines, entry into World War I, the repeated occupations of Caribbean and Central American mini-states, the Vietnam War, Reagan’s proxy war in Central America, the curious and unexplained invasions of miniscule Granada and Panama, where America’s erstwhile protégé Noriega ( la Saddam) suddenly became the "enemy" are prime examples of presidential falsehoods. In every instance what the press reported then and now during "crises" hatched in Washington is what the White House and the so-called foreign policy elite wanted it to report.

To begin with, not many in our press corps seriously asked before 2003 why we intended to go to war. Was it because of the region’s oil or to defend Israel? If so, these possibilities were rarely discussed and debated. Or was it simply American arrogance that the "world’s only superpower" could do whatever it pleased?

From the beginning, skeptics were anathema and absent on TV, where, sadly, most Americans find their news. A critic like Scott Ritter was denigrated. Sagacious commentators such as Seymour Hersh, Mark Danner, Michael Massing, Ron Suskind, Murray Waas, Robert Parry, Pat Buchanan, former Reagan administration official and sometime Wall Street Journal associate editor Paul Craig Roberts, together with the libertarians at LewRockwell.com, wrote early and often for relatively small groups of intellectuals and policy wonks but could not be heard over the din of triumphal home-front warriors. Major book publishers, at least until the Iraq War consensus began falling apart, initially shied away from putting out books critical of the way the war was foisted on an unsuspecting public. Sunday morning TV offered viewers a dreary round of familiar oracles saluting our "Churchillian" President. The authors of When The Press Fails (University of Chicago Press), a significant and timely well-documented account (W. Lance Bennett and Regina G. Lawrence are political scientists and Steven Livingston teaches media and public affairs), report in detail how Americans were never informed in any detail of the possible risks involved in initiating a distant war in so volatile a region against a nation that had never harmed us.

What every one of them did over and again was allow Bush and Cheney and their sycophants to define the terms and therefore the "debate" about WMDs and Sadaam Hussein’s non-existent connection to Al Qaeda; that is, until the truth caught up with them. When Andrew Card, the White House Chief of Staff, explained in 2002 why their propaganda campaign for war had to start in September, he said, "From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August" few in the press or the tame 6:30 TV "news," let alone the vaunted Washington press corps, began investigating "when there was still time to debate the U.S, invasion in public." The authors continue: "In short, a war being promoted through a sales campaign was not the story the news highlighted." Instead, "the result is that the public was saturated with the sales pitch, which was delivered loud and clear throughout the news media."

There were many other examples for challenging the war makers, such as the "Downing Street" memo, which proved that the Bush administration had Iraq in its sights long before March 2003, a fact which was widely noted in the U.K. but essentially ignored in this country. Torture and Abu Ghraib are prominently discussed in the book. The three authors of When The Press Fails point out that the word "torture" was generally dropped in the media and the softer word "abuse" substituted, leading many unsuspecting readers and viewers to accept the President’s view that Americans didn’t torture.

And when Cheney suggested time and again that war against Iraq was a necessity, as he does now when he threatens war against Iran, consequences be damned, the press and of course TV "news" remains largely silent about the new war he and the neocons —virtually all of whom neither served on active military duty nor sent their own kids off to war — are now urging on Americans. The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported on 7/16/07 that Cheney’s pro-war views about Iran seem to be winning. "The balance in the internal White House debate over Iran has shifted back in favor of military action before President George Bush leaves office in 18 months."

True or not, who in the major national media will now turn their reporters loose to determine what the White House has in mind for Iran and whether yet another war is in American interests? Will they investigate as best they can why three US aircraft carriers and almost half the U.S. fleet of 227 ships are stationed near Iran? Will they ask if a tacit Washington-Jerusalem agreement has been reached whereby Israel will attack Iran, and then the U.S. will find an excuse to enter another Middle Eastern conflict? And above all, they need to ask how another war can be fought without a draft.

One of our most incisive commentators today is Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker. Referring to Cheney’s threats against Iran, Hertzberg closed his July 9 and 16 essay on an alarming note: "The awful climax of u2018Cheney/Bush’ may be yet to come."

That the media performed so miserably is hardly novel given that the " significant legacy of the McCarthy era is caution in the newsroom in the face of government intimidation." This charge is made by former CNN correspondent Edward Alwood’s Dark Days in the Newsroom: McCarthyism Aimed at the Press (Temple University Press) another acute examination how the press — again with so few exceptions — rolled over when Joe McCarthy, HUAC, Hoover’s FBI and other opportunistic rogues hounded and assailed everyone they claimed — without evidence — was promoting Communism in this country.

Notwithstanding the careful studies by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, who relied on the invaluable Venona transcripts to prove there were indeed Soviet spies who needed to be prosecuted, the Washington-based inquisitors and headline hunters of the fifties, backed by a terrified national press (Some proud exceptions: The New York Times, the New York Post and Time) gave McCarthy and Hoover’s red-hunters all the support they needed. Yet aside from truthful informers such as Elizabeth Bentley and Whitaker Chambers, the inquisitors employed liars like Harvey Matusow, a cunning Bronx hustler, who eventually came to his senses and published his mea culpa, False Witness, with a minuscule pro-communist publishing house no less.

But McCarthy, Eastland, Jennings, J. Parnell Thomas, Hoover and other headline hunters were after bigger fish than low-level current and ex-CP members and fellow travelers. One of their primary targets was the Newspaper Guild, their way of taming frightened publishers and editors. Men and women reporters in newspaper offices and the union were often unjustly smeared because they had been liberals, leftists or during the darkest days of the Great Depression had once joined the Communist Party, then quite legal. Many other people were also savagely attacked and humiliated. The rabid Hearst and Scripps-Howard press and McCarthyite columnists excoriated them and scared employers promptly fired them. When some of my public school teachers were fired for being “leftists” or “Communists” none were ever shown to have propagandized their students. Nor were any of them ever convicted of spying. In that most shameful of times lives were smashed, careers ruined, marriages broken. One of my dismissed teachers spent the remainder of his working life delivering milk. Public officials, university presidents and boards of education cowardly gave up their employees. I don’t recall many newspaper editorials or radio commentators defending their right to teach.

McCarthy also went after editor James Wechsler, who as a young man had briefly been a Communist. As the tough editor of the then-liberal New York Post his paper had critically scrutinized Nixon, Hoover and McCarthy. For these crimes he was always shadowed by the ubiquitous FBI and forced to testify before the amoral McCarthy.

In the end, Wechsler had wise words for the press.

"It was said long ago that the function of a newspaper [and TV networks] is to u2018comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," Wechsler said years later. "Too many newspapers have forgotten the words or grown soft and comfortable themselves that they view the phrase as inflammatory. We like it and we propose to remember it, not because we regard success as subversive but because success too often means the complacent loss of conscience."

Murray Polner [send him mail] co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous, a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran. This article originally appeared on George Mason University’s History News Network.

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