June 6th, 2008 15:25 EST
When the press waffles, democracy falters
(This is the transcript of Hot Copy No. 42, my regular pod cast for The Student Operated Press).
Scott McClellan, the former White House spokesman, has written a book confirming some of the public`s worst suspicions about the presidency of George W. Bush. McClellan says, among other things, the White House lied us images.jpeginto the Iraq war and covered up its role in destroying the career of a CIA undercover agent simply because she was married to a critic of President Bush`s war policies.
Self-righteous critics on the left and the right of the political spectrum immediately accused the once adamant Bush loyalist of being a day late and a dollar short. Why didn`t his conscience bother him when he foisted these lies on the public, his critics ask? Well, conscience isn`t always as hair-triggered as John Wayne in the movies. Sometimes it takes a lot of introspection to accept that you have been part of wrongdoing, that you are part of the problem when you have been posing as part of the solution.More...
McClellan says the press didn`t do its job. He says that no matter how he sliced it the press readily swallowed his daily servings of baloney. That`s hardly news, but it`s refreshing to hear McClellan say so. And no sooner had he said it than a number of famous reporters protested that they had been asking hard questions all along, but were stonewalled or threatened with being denied access to the White House. Oh dear me, those poor reporters. Stonewalled, can you imagine that? Now, as for me, small-time newspaperman that I was, I never covered a town council that didn`t stonewall me and threaten me with a freeze-out. I never covered any local government that didn`t at times try to bamboozle me. Where in heaven`s name have these people been? Did the big bad White House scare them into being sheep in wolves` clothing? Gee, I thought they got paid the big bucks for slaying those dragons.
Here`s what they`re not telling us. They`re not hanging out their own dirty laundry. They`re not telling us that their corporate bosses caved in to White House pressure and let it be known that questions about the wisdom of going to war and many another scandal should be soft-pedaled. They`re not telling us that we all caved in to phony patriotism, accepting the scurrilous notion that if you opposed this catastrophic war, this unjustifiable war, you were not a patriot and had no right to call yourselves Americans.
Those reporters, like you and me, were bullied and stampeded by the White House, and the White House had plenty of help from corporate America, from the corporate press. And here`s what else the reporters are not telling us. Corporate America had much to gain from the war, and has been stuffing its profits in its pockets since Day One, and that is why we were all herded like sheep. Now, if that is not a story worth covering, what is?
So all these phonies decrying Scott McClellan`s tardiness in coming clean should answer to us about just how clean they have come. For example, what happened to the story about the $9 billion that was reported to have gone missing in Iraq in 2005? Nine billion, not nine million. Imagine what that money could have done for New Orleans, for education or health care, homeland security or our returning soldiers. You better imagine it, because the press has buried that story like a dead skunk.
And here is another story the namby-pamby corporate press, so hard on Scott McClellan, is working hard to bury. The Defense Department can`t account for the money it has spent in Iraq. Here is how the press buries such stories. It tells you about the initial report, usually from some government accounting agency, and then it scrapes up some reaction from the usual big mouths on The Hill or from among the pundits, and that`s it, see ya later. And we`re talking about trillions of tax dollars here, and yet this commercially cowed press has the gall to jump all over a Bush loyalist whose conscience has been bothering him. The Washington insiders are closing their ranks, cooking up their excuses, and trying to make us believe that they were all innocents doing their jobs when they knew damned well the job they were doing was on us.
But let`s not go too fast here. I`m making a pretty serious complaint. Will it hold water? Let`s test it and see what you think. Not long ago The New York Times exposed a squalid program within the Defense Department to turn retired military brass into mouthpieces for the war. The Pentagon gave them so-called insider briefings and then they appeared on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC and elsewhere, posing as analysts but actually selling the war. In other words, they were being paid to sell a lemon. They were disgracing the uniform they had so honorably worn "for money. Remember how night after night Wolf Blitzer and Lou Dobbs and other anchors called these mouthpieces distinguished and expert? Well, where are their apologies? Why haven`t we heard these paid phonies apologize for deceiving us and misusing our tax money? And why haven`t we heard these famous anchors apologizing? Joseph Goebbels would have been proud of them.
On May 30th Wolf Blitzer asked McClellan pointblank if he was sorry for deceiving the American people. McClellan said he regretted it. Someone in a much more public forum than this should ask Wolf Blitzer if he is sorry for taking part in a running con of the American people by night after night telling us we were getting expert military opinion from distinguished retired generals when in fact we were getting paid BS. And someone should ask Mr. Blitzer and many another anchor if he actually believed that nightly blather to be honest, because if he did, and if the others did, well, maybe they`re not qualified for the job of helping the rest of us understand complex issues.
But having asked such admittedly rhetorical questions, we would then be confronted with an even bigger issue, because those anchors and reporters live in a culture determined by their bosses, and we now know that their bosses have been in cahoots with the White House to sell us slanted stories and analyses.
The corporations they work for were in on the scam. It would be worth their careers, tarnished as they are, to open their mouths and say, I`m sorry, I shouldn`t have done this, or at least I should have explained the deal.
But there`s even more hypocrisy and cover-up. Any logical listener or reader would have said to himself: If the military experts at Annapolis and West Point are teaching our next generation of officers in this same unquestioning, unbalanced and one-sided context, will we have the officer corps we need to win future conflicts? I say the answer is no. And if the answer is no, then what possible cause could these so-called analysts have served other than to dish up propaganda in behalf of a corrupt administration from which they were profiting? The truth is that the academies are teaching our future officers well, but we can`t vaccinate them against the attempts of politicians to politicize the military.
Did the one-sidedness of their analyses never occur to Wolf Blitzer, a veteran print and television reporter? That`s hard to believe. Whether these reporters and military people were in on the scam for money or idealism, it was a scam. Where then are their apologies?
If these retired generals had looked upon combat conditions the way they analyzed the war for us in the media they would have disgraced themselves in the field. They knew how to think in complicated terms. They knew how to examine circumstances. They knew their military history. They are the best and brightest. But they conned us for money. And so did the media that employed them.
So when some media or political hot shot in high dudgeon says, Why didn`t Scott McClellan quit rather than serve such corruptors, I would ask, Why didn`t those anchors quit? Why didn`t those executives quit? Why didn`t those generals say, No, we can`t do this, it`s dishonorable?
Serving officers are supposed to be apolitical. They can have their opinions and they can vote them, but until they retire, they are supposed to refrain from politics. One of the worst aspects of the Bush Administration has been its concerted campaign to politicize the serving military, to make it unpatriotic to oppose a neo-con agenda, to corrupt the military. As The New York Times story showed, to a larger extent than we could have imagined the White House has succeeded in doing just that. And yet here we have a vice president who never deigned to serve in uniform and a President who spent a lot of time dodging his reservist obligations.
This isn`t just the problem of the Tim Russerts and Wolf Blitzers of the industry, it`s everyone`s problem. All of you who aspire to honorable careers in journalism will someday confront similar predicaments. On the one hand office holders and revered public figures will lie to you, and on the other hand your corporate bosses will tell you to tone it down, ignore it, go along to get along. And then what? What will you do?
It isn`t going to be a black and white dilemma. You may happen to like your bosses and enjoy pleasing them. They may like you and promise you a rewarding career. You may even like the liars. They may charm you.
They may feed you choice tidbits that advance your career. Your wife or your girlfriend, husband or boyfriend, may plead with you to go along. Don`t go to the wall for nothing, they may tell you. You have to give a little
to get a little, to keep the bread on the table. You`re going to hear it all.
And what are you going to do? I don`t know. I know what I did, and it didn`t do my career any good, and that`s why I say it`s our problem. Our society`s. A moral issue confronting so important a sector of our society as the Fourth Estate is surely worth debate. So where is the debate? Have you heard it from the pulpit? Have you heard it in the streets? You certainly haven`t heard from the mainstream media. Many books and television serials have glamorized reporting, encouraging the public to trust the integrity of the press. The Scott McClellan story tells us otherwise. It tells us why the press isn`t trusted. It isn`t trusted because it shouldn`t be. It needs to repent and to regain the public trust. McClellan was corrupted by power and charm, and the press he misled was corrupted, even though we`re not hearing any admissions. There would be a lot more hope to go around if we were hearing those admissions.
I once quit a job as a small-town city editor because I knew the newspaper was covering up a secret plan by the city, the county and a big manufacturer to build a huge factory whose presence would have devalued nearby residential property. The mechanisms in place required public hearings. But they were being circumvented "for the public`s own good," as if the public needed a big daddy. I felt the taxpayers had a right to a public hearing without the scheme being railroaded through in the dark. My decision hurt my career. I was on a fast track. I was a good reporter, a better editor. It could be argued, and there were those who did argue it, that I should have been less naive, that I should have borne with the amorality of the scheme for my own sake, for my family`s. But I didn`t. I took a job as a copy editor somewhere else and moved on. I`ve never felt self-righteous about that decision. I`m still not sure whether I was brave or just immature. But I did what my conscience dictated, and I do ask myself these days how many people who have been involved in the scandals and corruptions of this administration "both within the administration and within the press corps and its corporate front offices "have made similar decisions. And, if they have, do they regard those decisions as moral necessities or immaturity? We can get awfully het up about gay marriages; why can`t we get het up about being conned and swindled?
I do remember asking myself back then when I was in my thirties how I would appear to myself in the mirror as I shaved. I didn`t appear as a hero, I can tell you that. I appeared as a young family man with tears in his eyes. I loved my job. I didn`t want to quit. I was getting ahead, as they say. But I was also sitting on a moral wrong, as are Big Media today.
So don`t be telling me now that McClellan is a day late and a dollar short, because there are just too many of us who happen to be in the same boat, and some of us are famous newsmen and women, and some of us are rich executives and shareholders, and some of us are ambitious and lying politicians. And as for me, I`m just gulled and angry, and I suspect that`s the way a great many others feel.
For a dispassionate look at how the press corps bought the Iraq war I urge listeners to read Gregg Mitchell`s story in the May 30th issue of Editor & Publisher.
You have been listening to Hot Copy. I`m Del Marbrook, and if you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at www.DelMarbrook.com or www.myspace.com/delmarbrook.
See www.djelloulmarbrook.com for more.