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BUCKLING UNDER POLITICAL WINDS
-- and to some potent strong-arming
from the Bush administration -- the mainstream press seems more
intent these days on proving its patriotism than on dispassionately
reporting the news.
This is particularly obvious with the
televised coverage of the war in Iraq: Images of the "shock
and awe" attacks on Baghdad last week were played over and
over again while shots of Iraqi civilians wounded or killed in
those strikes were few and far between; CNN anchor Aaron Brown
seemed to apologize in advance for showing footage of the massive
anti-war protest in Chicago lest anyone's patriotic sensibilities
be offended; and whether it was Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw or Peter
Jennings, the American flag always seemed to be over their shoulder,
as if reassuring the viewer that, journalist or not, we're all
on the same team.
Most objectionable, perhaps, was the
visible excitement of anchor and reporter alike at the awesome
might of the American military. Firepower, it is clear, is sexy;
never mind that it is blowing people to bits. Also, the uniquely
American tendency to treat armed conflicts as athletic contests
was on full display: U.S. forces are the equivalent of the San
Francisco 49ers when Joe Montana was at his peak -- a juggernaut
that can't be stopped.
Lest you think the jingoistic journalism
is confined to your television screen, consider that American
newspapers all the way up to the New York Times are ignoring
a story that is major news in Europe: the bugging of the homes
and offices of United Nation's Security Council members. You
wouldn't have known it over here, but the scandal spread last
week when it was discovered that the headquarters of the European
Union in Brussels was also bugged. The No. 1 suspect? U.S. intelligence
Presented below is a report that recently
appeared in the Bay Guardian, San Francisco's venerable alternative
weekly. It can be argued that rallying behind the troops is a
longstanding tradition in the American press: Much of the coverage
of World War II, for example, was less than objective. Nonetheless,
as the following story makes clear, there is good reason to be
concerned that the Fourth Estate, at least in this country, is
betraying its own principles.
-- KEITH EASTHOUSE
Spoon-feeding the press
administration's unprecedented war on public information --
and how the major news media are going along.
by CAMILLE T. TAIARA,
staff writer, San Francisco
ON MARCH 2, the London Observer broke a stunning
story about the U.S. government -- a story with serious international
agents were bugging the homes and offices
of United Nations Security Council members who had not yet vowed
support for the war on Iraq. The news made headlines all over
Europe. The story was more timely and possibly more important
than the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked that secret
history of the Vietnam War, told columnist Norman Solomon. Yet
it did not appear in the San Francisco Chronicle until
five days later, buried on page A16 in the form of a reprint
from the Baltimore Sun. The New York Times, the
nation's paper of record, blacked out the story entirely.
The next day, the Chronicle provided
scant space to report evidence that the United States may have
falsified documents it gave U.N. inspectors indicating the existence
of certain weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- on page A11,
under the caption "U.S. Information Wanting." On the
front cover: a prominently displayed photo of two Bay Area soldiers
tossing a football in a desert camp.
Neither story of U.S. government misdeeds
was covered adequately, if at all, in the source the vast majority
of Americans rely on for their daily news: the nation's major
That's been a pattern since the attacks
of Sept. 11, 2001 -- and now that the United State has embarked
on a bloody war in Iraq, the utter complacency of the mainstream
press in this country has experienced observers shaking their
"The purpose of journalism is to monitor
the centers of power -- to challenge officialdom," Robert
Fisk, veteran Middle East correspondent for the U.K.'s Independent
newspaper, told us by phone from Beirut. "By and large,
the media in the United States has totally failed in its obligation
to do that. Instead of challenging officialdom, it's become a
conduit, a funnel down which officialdom can talk to us."
Part of the problem is the news media's
apparent fear of seeming unpatriotic in a time of war. That's
nothing new. But in the post-Sept. 11 environment, the Bush administration
is conducting an unprecedented expansion of government secrecy.
Under the ruse of national security, the feds have been drastically
decreasing access to even basic information about the workings
of government -- and for the most part, the media are allowing
it to happen.
Secrets in high places
Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, President
George W. Bush and his inner circle began formulating plans to
exercise greater command over information and decisionmaking
processes. It has since become the most secretive administration
"From the time they came into office
in January 2001, it has been the position of the Bush administration
to restrict information to the public and to Congress and the
media in order to enhance what they believe is the diminished
power of the executive branch," said freedom of information
specialist Will Ferroggiaro of the National Security Archive,
a nonprofit research institute, library of declassified U.S.
documents, and public interest law firm. As an example, Ferroggiaro
cites President Bush's executive order, signed Nov. 1, 2001,
blocking the release of 68,000 presidential documents from the
Reagan era. Then there's Vice President Dick Cheney's insistence
on conducting energy task force hearings behind closed doors
-- even hearings between energy company executives charged in
the Enron scandal and government officials who were supposed
to be investigating the case.
To this day, the White House has refused
to release information on those hearings to Congress.
It's hard to make any logical connection
between protecting Enron and preserving national security. But
no matter: The Bush administration has capitalized on the Sept.
11 attacks to constrain the dissemination of information and
decisionmaking power on every level.
One year after al-Qaeda operatives flew
planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Reporters
Committee for Freedom of the Press issued its second edition
of a report titled "Homefront Confidential: How the War
on Terrorism Affects Access to Information and the Public's Right
to Know" that includes a chilling chronology of the crackdown.
Here are a few highlights:
- Sept. 21, 2001: Chief Immigration Judge
Michael Creppy orders the closure of immigration and deportation
proceedings when directed by the Justice Department. Even family
members are not allowed to attend.
- Oct. 5, 2001: The White House narrows
the list of congressional leaders entitled to briefings on classified
law-enforcement information from the Central Intelligence Agency,
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the State, Treasury,
Defense and Justice Departments.
- Oct. 10, 2001: National Security Adviser
Condoleezza Rice tells network executives Osama bin Laden could
be using his videotaped messages to communicate with al-Qaeda
members in the United States.
- Oct. 12, 2001: Attorney General John Ashcroft
issues a memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act -- drafted
by his office the previous summer -- reversing Clinton-era FOIA
policy that allowed government officials to release documents
so long as doing so would not cause any "foreseeable harm."
Instead, agencies that opt to withhold records "can be assured
that the Department of Justice will defend [their] decisions
unless they lack a sound legal basis," Ashcroft wrote, in
effect discouraging the release of any information unless clearly
required by law. The Bush administration has since retaliated
against government agents who have released nonclassified information
it deemed "sensitive."
- Nov. 13, 2001: President Bush decrees
that suspected terrorists can be tried by secret military tribunals.
- Dec. 10, 2001: President Bush grants the
Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture
and the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to classify
- Dec. 27, 2001: The Bush administration
announces it will imprison suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters
in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It refuses to release the names of the
- n Dec. 28, 2001: The White House issues
a statement asserting the president's right to withhold any information
from Congress he deems necessary for reasons of "foreign
relations, the national security, the deliberative processes
of the executive, or performance of the executive's constitutional
- Feb. 19, 2002: The New York Times reports
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's intentions to disseminate
false information to the media through its new Office of Strategic
Influence. Rumsfeld eventually closes the office as a result
of public outcry but makes a cryptic statement to the press in
November indicating he intends to go forward with its misinformation
- March 19, 2002: White House Chief of Staff
Andrew Card issues a memorandum to all federal departments and
agencies ordering them to review and safeguard all data on weapons
of mass destruction as well as any other information "that
could be misused to harm the security of our nation." More
than a dozen agencies remove information from their Web sites
as a result. The memo also rewards private corporations for submitting
"sensitive" information to the government by exempting
such information from FOIA disclosure.
- April 18, 2002: The Immigration and Naturalization
Service orders the names of all INS detainees be kept secret.
Three months after the Reporters Committee
for Freedom of the Press issued its report, Congress granted
Bush the green light to create the Department of Homeland Security.
Bush signed the act Nov. 25 establishing the department, which
consolidates 22 agencies -- including the Secret Service, the
Coast Guard and what used to be the INS -- into a single, cabinet-level
entity. As it stands, the act creating the department includes
a special exemption to FOIA that allows private companies to
provide information to the DHS without that information ever
being disclosed. It also allows for criminal charges to be levied
against any federal employee who discloses "critical infrastructure
information" to the public without proper legal authorization
-- thereby undermining whistleblower-protection laws.
"Information has become consistently
more difficult to obtain, through every channel," Steven
Aftergood, editor of Secrecy News for the Federation of American
Scientists, told us. He conceded that some information previously
available to the public should not have been: "There were
reports available for sale from the government on the production
of biological and chemical weapons that we're better off without,"
he noted. But he added, "It's clear to me that the Bush
administration has gone overboard. It has removed all kinds of
things that ought to remain in the public domain.... The result
is a much more one-dimensional picture of government activity."
Indeed, actions to classify documents jumped
by 44 percent during fiscal year 2001, according to the federation's
Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees classification
programs in government and industry. The public can no longer
access such basic information as the risks associated with chemical
toxins used in local plants or maintenance violations by commercial
airlines. Members of Congress can't even find out details of
how the Pentagon intends to implement the USA PATRIOT Act. In
the meantime, fewer high-ranking officials are available to the
news media -- inquiries and interview requests are being routed
through public affairs offices -- and the Bush administration
has been exceptionally aggressive in cracking down on officials
who have leaked even the most innocuous details to the press.
In effect, the Bush administration has
hamstrung the public's -- and with it, the media's -- ability
to scrutinize governmental and corporate misdeeds.
But the onslaught doesn't stop there. On
Feb. 7, an anonymous Justice Department staffer sent a draft
of a new bill titled the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of
2003 to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity.
The bill, commonly referred to as Patriot Act II, expands on
the government's authority to curb civil liberties in the name
of national security. If implemented, it would codify into law
many of the steps taken by the Bush administration limiting the
public's right to know -- including the withholding of information
on suspected terrorists in government custody, restrictions on
the information the EPA must make available associated with the
Clean Air Act, and immunity from civil lawsuits for corporations
that provide sensitive information to the government, to name
but a few.
The Bush crackdown is working: The administration,
many agree, has succeeded in making it harder to report the news.
Already suffering from downsized newsrooms, reporters spend more
time trying to fight for basic information and pin down simple
details and have less time to analyze the data and its impact.
As a result, they become more susceptible to official spin.
Journalists have also been coming under
fire from sources they rely on to do their jobs. "Reporters
demand access to elected officials and to government officials
in order to do their business," explained Peter Hart, media
analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and cohost of
"Counterspin." "If they offend [those officials]
or cross them somehow, they run the risk of losing that source.
There have been reports that this administration has been much
more open about scolding reporters and keeping reporters at a
certain distance if they perceive them as overly hostile or aggressive.
So you have this sense among reporters in Washington that this
administration really doesn't tolerate much in the way of critical
But it gets worse. "American journalists
face an increasing likelihood that courts will treat them as
government agents with no constitutional right to keep sources
confidential or to withhold unpublished materials from prosecutors,"
write the authors of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the
Press report. On July 12, 2002, a U.S. district judge ordered
CNN freelance reporter Robert Young Pelton, who had interviewed
"American Taliban" John Walker Lindh on videotape in
Afghanistan, to testify in Lindh's terrorism trial. The order
became moot when, three days later, Lindh pleaded guilty to the
charges against him; but the judge's published ruling can be
used as a precedent in future cases. "It may only be a matter
of time before government agents descend on newsrooms with subpoenas
for confidential sources, unpublished notes, and video outtakes,"
the report ominously predicts. The report also warns that journalists
could easily become entrapped in antiterrorism investigations
through the expanded surveillance powers granted to the FBI by
the PATRIOT Act.
"The real danger," Hart said,
"is the fact that it's very difficult to reverse these trends.
Once you've set this in motion, it would be hard to imagine a
future administration deciding to loosen the rules and allow
increased access to government business and to government documents."
Not fighting back
In the face of this secrecy blitzkrieg,
you might expect the major news media to be up in arms, fighting
back in the courts and on the front pages.
For the most part, it hasn't happened.
"The No. 1 effect on the media since
Sept. 11 has been to create this atmosphere of overwhelming timidity
on the part of journalists," Hart told us. "They've
understood, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, that patriotism and
unity in the nation was to override journalistic values of skepticism
and inquiry. I think that sensibility took hold in the journalistic
culture in the mainstream right away. It still has a huge impact
on how they're processing information now."
Most recently, Hart said, the media have
paid scant attention to the potential ramifications of Patriot
Act II and have failed to question whether Colin Powell was accurate
in his recent statements to the United Nations calling for war
on Iraq. "These stories haven't been pursued with the kind
of vigor one might expect in a society with a free press,"
The attitude starts at the top. In a Feb.
25 article in the U.K. Independent, Robert Fisk reports
that CNN has instituted procedures under which all news script
originating outside Washington, D.C., Los Angeles or New York
must be approved by a team of editors at the network's headquarters
Implemented Jan. 27, this requirement has
already led to censorship from above: Fisk reports that a CNN
executive recently killed a story by reporter Michael Holmes
on how Israeli troops regularly shoot at Palestinian ambulances
in the occupied territories as they attempt to transport the
"The reason was we did not have an
Israeli army response, even though we stated in our story that
Israel believes that Palestinians are smuggling weapons and wanted
people in the ambulances," Holmes told Fisk. But the army
had refused to grant CNN an interview. "Only when, after
three days, the Israeli army gave CNN an interview did Holmes'
story run -- but then with the dishonest inclusion of a line
that said the ambulances were shot in `crossfire'," Fisk
wrote. "The relevance is all too obvious in the next Gulf
War. We are going to have to see a U.S. Army officer denying
everything the Iraqis say if any report from Iraq is to get on
There are glimmers of hope. Media activists
such as Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee
for Freedom of the Press, see some indications of a turnaround.
"The Detroit newspapers and the newspapers in northern New
Jersey and New Jersey Law Journal challenged the INS policy preventing
any member of the public from attending an immigration detention
hearing," Dalglish said. Now the Supreme Court must decide
whether to hear those cases. "Organizations like mine [are]
co-plaintiffs in a FOIA lawsuit against the Justice Department
trying to find out the identities of the detained. We have participated
with a number of news organizations along the way that have been
trying to make sure we get as much access as possible to what's
going on in the [alleged Sept. 11 co-conspirator Zacarias] Moussaui
case. And Washington bureau chiefs have been working very hard
in trying to make sure we get better access to military units
than we did during Gulf War I."
As a result of mass, worldwide protests
against the drive to war on Iraq -- and public criticism of the
media's downplaying of such actions -- more media outlets were
also doing a better job of covering dissent than they had been
a couple of months ago.
But now that the war has started, the outlook
On the ground
There was a time -- and it wasn't so long
ago -- that aggressive media coverage helped turn around public
opinion on a war. It took a while for the press to get beyond
the pro-military reporting from Vietnam, but when the critical
stories came in, most historians agree, the words and pictures
showing the reality on the ground shook up the nation.
But the government learned from that experience,
"When I first went to Vietnam, I just
wandered around by myself. I didn't ask anybody's permission,"
said syndicated columnist Robert Scheer, who covered the Vietnam
War for Ramparts magazine in the mid '60s and then worked
for the Los Angeles Times for 27 years. "A lot of
journalists, they just checked into a hotel in Saigon and they
went off to look for their own stories.... They gave you a sense
of the madness of it, of the contradictions." Since then,
he said, "they learned how to make these wars appear antiseptic.
War has been turned into a video game.... They've managed to
make war palatable. They've cleaned it up."
Sydney Schanberg, a veteran war correspondent
whose coverage of the war in Cambodia formed the basis of the
Oscar-winning movie The Killing Fields, explained how
the change happened. "After Vietnam," he told us, "there
were two rehearsals on how to deal with the press: Grenada and
Panama." It was during those military campaigns, Schanberg
said, that the Pentagon began creating elaborate rules of engagement
for reporters, limiting access in the field.
Those rules were toughened during the first
Gulf War and in the Afghanistan conflict. On Oct. 7, 2001 --
the day the United States began dropping bombs on that faraway
nation -- the U.S. military prevented the media from obtaining
footage of the campaign by purchasing exclusive rights to private
satellite imagery of Afghanistan, although its own satellites
provided better resolution. At one point, "Marines quarantined
reporters and photographers in a warehouse to prevent them from
viewing American troops killed or injured by a stray bomb near
Kandahar," according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom
of the Press's "Homefront Confidential" report. Not
until March 4, 2003, did the Pentagon allow reporters to accompany
U.S. soldiers into the field.
Distressed by the lack of access during
Gulf War I and, more recently, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan,
major media outlets began lobbying for more openness. As a result,
the Pentagon issued a set of rules for war coverage in the campaign
against Iraq that include the current "embedding" of
approximately 500 reporters with U.S. troops. The new regulations
have been hailed as a victory by mainstream media. But when you
look at what the rules really say, the picture isn't so pretty.
"On paper it looks like a considerable
improvement," Schanberg said. "For example, there's
no auto review of copy by the military." On closer inspection,
however, Schanberg found reasons for concern. All reporters "embedded"
with U.S. troops must sign a contract agreeing to the Pentagon's
rules governing coverage. Included in the document is a clause
dictating what kinds of information reporters can and cannot
detail. Journalists can be precluded from reporting certain "sensitive"
information according to the military commander's discretion.
What's more, "all conversations [with
the troops] must be on the record," Schanberg said. That's
a big problem: In the Vietnam era, much of the most damning information
came from military sources who would talk to reporters if their
names were not used.
The Pentagon can revoke a reporter's credentials
at any time, for any reason.
Schanberg, who now writes for the Village
Voice, argues that ultimately there should be as many reporters
-- if not more -- working on the ground in Iraq independently
of the U.S. military as there are stationed with the troops.
Also, some worry that placing reporters with U.S. troops -- indeed,
having them undergo similar training and wear similar gear --
creates a heightened identification with the soldiers that could
slant coverage of the war.
"Embedding is bullshit," Scheer
insisted. "You're just getting swept up into a big, mass
machinery. They're just giving you photo ops. It's when you get
away from the crowds, stick around and talk to people that you
get the real stories. Otherwise, you're just being led around
by the nose."
Most of the coverage of the buildup to
war centered on troop movements and possible war scenarios interspersed
with flag-wrapped fluff pieces such as ABC's ongoing "Profiles
from the Frontlines" series. Ultimately, the critics interviewed
for this story would like to see reporters ask tougher questions.
"The real story will be, where's the
threat?" Scheer said. "Is it manufactured? Will reporters
go after that?"
Schanberg's big question is, what happens
afterward? Like Fisk, he'd like to see more contextualization
of the issue: how did we get here, and what lessons might we
learn from the past?
"Why didn't journalists say, hang
on here, I thought bin Laden was the guy we were after,"
Fisk asked. "What's Saddam got to do with Sept. 11? But
the media in the United States just went along with the new version:
`OK, today it's Saddam Hussein week,' and that's how it went....
We need to use some kind of morality instead of presenting everything
blandly and accepting what American officials and intelligence
Hart and Dalglish agree there's no good
reason reporters shouldn't do more to take the Bush administration
to task. "I'd like to see more newsrooms, when they're told
they can't have access, to write about it ... and let the public
know what the impact of that action is," Dalglish said.
Ultimately, it's up to the media and the
public as to how much secrecy and control we'll accept -- and,
in general, to what degree we'll consent to toeing the Bush administration's
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