Toothless: The Watchdog Press as 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.]