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.]