Toothless: The Watchdog Press That Became the Government’s Lapdog

Toothless:  The Watchdog Press

That Became the Government’s Lapdog

PART II: The Lapdogs Get Some Teeth

by Walter Brasch

In May 2004, the New York Times, while claiming it was aggressive in pursuing stories about the Bush-Cheney Administration, slipped in an apology for acting more as the mouthpiece for politicians than as a watchdog for society. “Coverage was not as rigorous as it should have been,” the Times admitted. Part of the problem, the Times acknowledged, was that “Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.” The Times concluded it wished “we had been more aggressive.”

           Almost three months later, the Washington Post, one of the most hawkish papers for invading Iraq, finally acknowledged its own pre-war hysteria and lack of journalistic competence and courage. “We were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration’s rationale,” wrote Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

           During President Bush’s second term, especially after his popularity had begun to sink, several major newspapers, including the New York Times and Washington Post, became more aggressive, publishing several major investigations into the War in Iraq, the government’s use of torture and apparent violation of the Geneva Accords, violations of due process, extensive spying upon Americans, the failure to provide combat troops with adequate body armor, the silencing of government scientists who disagreed with Bush-Cheney beliefs and values, the classification of 55,000 documents in the National Archives that had previously been declassified, the use of propaganda to support doctrine, and problems at Guantanamo Bay.  

A New York Times investigation by Tim Golden and Don Van Natta Jr. revealed “government and military officials have repeatedly exaggerated both the danger the detainees posed and the intelligence they have provided.” That same investigation also revealed a CIA report in September 2002 that questioned the arrests. Most of those picked up in Afghanistan and transferred to Guantánamo Bay, according to the CIA investigation, were low level recruits or innocent men.

           Among other reporters from the Times who broke major stories were Elisabeth Bumiller, Douglas Jehl, James Risen, and Eric Schmitt, who wrote about secret prisons and rendition; and James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, who wrote several articles about the government’s illegal spying upon American citizens. Times editors, however, had kept the stories about the government’s spying out of the newspaper for about a year, in deference to the Administration’s hysterical claims before the November 2004 election that breaking news about unconstitutional activities might somehow be aiding and abetting the enemy; the reality was that the Times was duped into protecting the Administration against a vote drain.

           For the Washington Post, Stave Fainam wrote about abuses by extramilitary private contractors in Iraq; Dana Priest wrote about secret prisons and controversial parts of the Bush-Cheney counter-terrorism tactics; Jo Becker and Barton Gellman investigated the growing influence of Dick Cheney into national policies; and Dana Priest, Anne Hull, and Michael duCille in several articles exposed the medical and psychiatric neglect of returning combat soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Although the Post’s Bob Woodward fully believed Bush-Cheney Administration claims about the need to invade Iraq, he still produced the most in-depth reporting about Bush and his decision-making process. His four books in six years were all best-sellers.

           The Los Angeles Times published a series in 2006 about Iraq’s descent into civil war following the U.S. invasion. Outstanding reporting about the impact of the war upon soldiers and civilians was done by several reporters, including Borzou Daragahia  and David Zucchino of the L.A. Times; and Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman of the Hartford Courant. However, for the most part, reporters accepted what they were given. Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, condemned much of the American press corps in Iraq for “hotel journalism,” writing stories based upon what they were told in press conferences without going into the field.

            At the Boston Globe, Charlie Savage did solid reporting about President Bush’s use of signing statements to bypass federal and constitutional law.

           Much of the best in-depth reporting about the Bush-Cheney Administration, especially its fixation upon invading Iraq, was done by reporters for national magazines.

           Seymour Hersh’s powerful series about the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and several articles about the war in Iraq first appeared in the New Yorker. Hersh had broken the story about the massacre at My Lai and its cover-up during the Vietnam War; it was this willful murder of civilians by the U.S. military that other reporters knew about but didn’t report that earned Hersh the Pulitzer Prize. However, after Hersh’s series was published, the establishment media could no longer ignore the story. Not much changed in the four decades since then. Perhaps Hersh’s greatest honor is that a senior Bush advisor called him “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.”

           Among several outstanding hard-news reports about the Bush-Cheney Administration, especially its fixation upon invading Iraq and of subsequent constitutional violations, were those of Michael Isikoff in Newsweek, David Corn in Mother Jones, Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, and James Bamford in Rolling Stone.

           With a few blips for courageous reporting, the American press, according to media critic Norman Solomon, continued to blindly accept the Bush-Cheney doctrine as truth. “The American media establishment,” wrote Solomon in August 2007, “continues to behave like a leviathan with a monkey on its back- hooked on militarism and largely hostile to the creative intervention that democracy requires.”

           However, reporters for one establishment news agency consistently represented the highest ideals of an uncompromised press.

           John Walcott, the Knight Ridder bureau chief in Washington, and bureau reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, were aggressive in publishing well-documented stories that challenged Bush-Cheney claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the need for the invasion. When McClatchy bought out Knight Ridder in 2006, Walcott continued as bureau chief, and Landay and Strobel become senior correspondents. They continued to challenge the propaganda, and proved that their organization was doing everything the Founding Fathers demanded when they said the primary function of the media is to act as a watchdog on government. When other media disregarded the anti-war dissidents, Walcott’s reporters interviewed them; when other media gave Guantanamo Bay coverage little more than “he said/she said” coverage, the McClatchy bureau dug into the story to present the truth and not the spoon-fed lies. When other media took down what they were told at press conferences and private meetings with senior Bush-Cheney officials, Walcott’s reporters listened, but went to innumerable professionals and lower-level staff in the Defense and State departments to get the truth.

           “Journalism is not stenography,” says Walcott, winner of the first I.F. Stone medal for journalistic independence. The role of the journalist, he says, isn’t to record what people say, but to question it in the search for the truth. “One of the reasons we pressed so hard for the case for the war in Iraq,” says Walcott, “is that what they [the Administration] said simply made no sense.” The primary focus for Walcott’s reporters was “how were the decisions being made in Washington, [by] many who had never been to war, would affect the men and women” in the military.  

            “On the whole, the Bush Administration did not put out the welcome sign for us,” says Roy Gutman, McClatchy foreign editor. On even routine stories, the White House planted its leaks with friendlier organizations, and tried to isolate the Knight Ridder/McClatchy bureau from the other media. Publicly, the Bush-Cheney Administration issued no retort; by maintaining silence, the Administration knew the establishment media would also ignore a competitor’s reports.

           “We were alone at the beginning,” says Walcott, “and are still fairly lonely at the end.”

Forthcoming: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The alternative press, and establishment commentators.

[Walter Brasch continually challenged Bush-Cheney claims about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. He wrote about the shredding of civil rights under the PATRIOT Act, including violations of free speech, due process, and the rights of privacy. He and Rosemary Brasch, two years before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, wrote about disaster preparedness and concluded that the U.S., because of political incompetence and the deployment of troops and resources to Iraq, wasn’t prepared to deal with a natural disaster. The establishment media ignored their reporting.]

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Toothless: The Watchdog Press That Became the Government’s Lapdog

by Walter Brasch


        The president of the Associated Press (AP) was spewing venom at the Bush-Cheney administration for having turned the Department of Defense into a propaganda machine.

        Americans “expect honest answers about what’s happening to their sons and daughters,” Tom Curley told journalism students and faculty at the University of Kansas. Listing innumerable ways the Pentagon had advocated Bush-Cheney political beliefs, Curley questioned if the United States should “be trying to influence public opinion through subterfuge, both here and abroad,”  

        An AP investigation had just revealed that the Pentagon budget for “influence operations” this fiscal year is at least $4.8 billion, with about 27,000 civilian and military personnel assigned to information dissemination.

        The penalty for failing to agree to the Pentagon’s terms of reporting, said Curley, was that he was told by top commanders that “if I stood and the AP stood by its journalistic principles, the AP and I would be ruined.”

        With a new Administration, “now is the time to resist the propaganda the Pentagon produces and live up to our obligation to question authority and thereby help protect our democracy,” said Curley.

        Brave words, but words that would have had more impact had they been said publicly four years ago instead of a month after Bush and Cheney left office, and a more transparent administration was elected.

        Although the Bush-Cheney Administration put propaganda ahead of truth, the media, like Congress, were willing accomplices.

        Most media were far too deferential to the Bush-Cheney administration following 9/11, perhaps believing it was unpatriotic, or at least detrimental to their revenue, to oppose the tools the president said he needed to fight the war on terrorism.

When the Bush-Cheney Administration, aided by a compliant Congress, pushed through the PATRIOT Act, with severe constitutional violations, the media barely raised a voice to protest. Reporters who wrote against the PATRIOT Act were often ostracized by the establishment press. It was the nation’s librarians, not the nation’s journalists, who even led protests of First Amendment free speech/free press violations during most of the eight years of the Bush-Cheney Administration.

        When the Bush-Cheney Administration established “free speech zones,” as much as a mile from any presidential or vice-presidential speech or rally, whether official or political, the media ignored the dissidents and, for the most part, the blatant constitutional violation of the First Amendment.

        When the Bush-Cheney Administration laid out lies that Saddam Hussein was tied into 9/11, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and then launched an invasion of a sovereign nation, the media saluted and reported what they were told.

        When the Bush-Cheney Administration rewrote the rules of press coverage in combat to compromise independent reporting, the press didn’t challenge their new restrictions. They grumbled over beers, but didn’t push back. By their failure, the press allowed themselves to become part of a propaganda machine, spewing good news from their tunnel vision.

        When the Bush-Cheney Administration, trying to find “good news” in Iraq, fed information to the Washington Post that Army PFC Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, was a hero whose Humvee was ambushed, that she fought a heroic battle, killed some attackers, was herself shot, was tortured in an Iraqi hospital, and that Army Rangers and Navy SEALS made a heroic rescue, no one at the Post or most other media questioned the Defense Department’s statements, pleased to have been given a human interest scoop. But the story was a phony. Lynch herself confirmed suspicions raised in the alternative media that she didn’t wield a gun, that her injuries were sustained when she was pinned under the Humvee, and that she was treated well by Iraqi physicians, who had even given the American “rescuers” the hospital’s master key.

        When the Bush-Cheney Administration tried to cover up that former NFL star Pat Tillman, an Army Ranger, was killed by friendly fire and not playing John Wayne, and that the Army delayed and then lied to Tillman’s parents, the press just went along with what they were told.

        When the Bush-Cheney Administration made sure that retired military officers, favorable to the Administration, got choice TV network assignments, hardly anyone protested until it became so obvious that the commentaries were skewed to Bush-Cheney policies.

        When the Bush-Cheney Administration lied about massive spying upon Americans, the environment, public health, and hundreds of other areas, the media yawned and swallowed what they were told.

        When the Bush-Cheney Administration said the U.S. was not in a recession, that the economy was doing just fine, while all around them the sub-prime crisis and Wall Street greed was eating up the fabric of America, the media reported the latest pop-celeb’s tryst, movie deal, drinking or drug problem.

        Even when the Bush-Cheney Administration blocked attempts by reporters to get public information through the Freedom of Information laws, their bosses usually didn’t back them up, content to save the financial and manpower resources that were necessary to break down the barriers.

When the Bush-Cheney Administration moved Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps, from the first row to the back row on press conferences, and refused to call on her to ask a question, most of the establishment media barely protested, ‘lest they would also be banished to the back of the press bus, denied “face time” on Air Force One, or not invited to exclusive black tie parties.

        The New York Times and Washington Post, which eventually redeemed themselves as Bush’s popularity sank, each published lengthy apologies for failing to adequately question Administration claims, and doing little more than recycle the lies.

        Americans have every reason to complain about the Bush-Cheney Administration. But, the nation’s news media, by abandoning their journalistic credibility and principles, had willingly become an extension of the propaganda machine that Tom Curley complained about.

NEXT WEEK: Media and reporters who challenged authority and tried to fulfill their responsibilities as watchdogs upon the government.

[ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Walter Brasch, an award-winning journalist, continually challenged Bush-Cheney claims about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. He wrote about the shredding of civil rights under the PATRIOT Act, including violations of free speech, due process, and the rights of privacy. He and Rosemary Brasch, two years before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, wrote about disaster preparedness and concluded that the U.S., because of political incompetence and the deployment of troops and resources to Iraq, wasn’t prepared to deal with a natural disaster. The establishment media ignored their reporting. Dr. Brasch is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. His books about the Bush-Cheney Administration are America’s Unpatriotic Act: The Federal Government’s Violation of Constitutional and Civil Rights; ‘Unacceptable’: The Federal Government’s Response to Hurricane Katrina; and Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush.]

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