Scott McClellan has done his first good deed to the people of the United States in the last 8 years. He has pointed out in his new book that the Bush White House manipulated the media to get a war that they knew was unnecessary, and that the television media in the U.S. was completely complicit in this deception.
We know that the White House lied to get us into the war. There is no reasonable point of debate on this issue any longer. We know that Congress allowed the White House to dominate this issue, and gave them the war they wanted without any significant debate. Even under the Democratic Leadership, Congress has been unwilling to reign in the White House’s excesses. We are painfully aware of how the Supreme Court has largely allowed the White House to do what it will, with only token disagreement by allowing Civil instead of Military trials of U.S. Citizens captured within the U.S. as terrorists.
Now, with McClellan’s and other voices being heard, there is no longer any doubt that the television media in the United States at best allowed the White House to completely have its say, and at worst actively suppressed dissent of a war that would kill thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Before the war former weapons inspector Scott Ritter came to the college I was attending to give a talk about his experiences. He made it absolutely clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because he and his team found and destroyed them. He also told us, as a former Marine, that he believed that invading Iraq would be a huge mistake. He believed that invading Iraq and taking Saddam out would mean that we would be mired in the country for decades. He said that he believed that Iraq would break out in civil war. He said all of this before we set one foot over the Iraqi border. Perhaps the President had bad information about how the Iraq war would go, but that means I had better information available to me. The sad thing is the media had the same access to this information I did, and ignored it.
Before we went into Iraq, CNN news chief, Eason Jordan, went so far as to say of Mr. Ritter, “Well, Scott Ritter's chameleon-like behaviour has really bewildered a lot of people…U.S. officials no longer give Scott Ritter much credibility..." Perhaps U.S. Officials didn’t, but CNN should have. Not long after, Paula Zahn said on her show that Scott Ritter had “drunk Saddam Hussein’s Kool-Aid.”
In the final weeks of the run up to the war, MSNBC fired Phil Donahue from his highly rated show because he was willing to book guests that were speaking out against the war. A memo from MSNBC stating this explicitly surfaced at allyourtv.com soon after the firing that confirmed the reasons.
Perhaps it’s this mind set that explains why, as reported by The New York Times, these news bureaus didn’t carefully check the connections that their military experts had with the Pentagon. The vast majority of the military experts seated in all of the networks were working directly for the Pentagon or for military contractors. If the analysts said anything the Pentagon didn’t like, then they were denied access to the Pentagon and threatened with being fired. This means that all military analysis that was seen on U.S. television was approved by the Pentagon. Considering that the White House fired any dissenters in the Pentagon prior to the war, for all intents and purposes all military analysis of the war shown on TV was approved by the White House. We got no differing views. The reporting was anything but fair and balanced. And this was happening at all of the networks.
There is no other way to say this: The “Fourth Branch of Government”, the one given its existence in the First Amendment, failed us completely and spectacularly, at least as badly as the three traditional branches of government.
The framers of our Constitution knew that Democracy requires a well informed citizenry. That is the reason why they created an independent press in the First Amendment. For at least the last decade, television news has completely fallen down on their responsibility to keep us well informed by making sure we know and understand all points of view.
Newspapers, the main source of news when the Constitution and the First Amendment were written, are no longer the main source of news in this country. Television surpassed newspapers decades ago. Those who work for television news have done everything they could to become the most important news source for us, without realizing that there is an enormous responsibility that comes with it. The use of the limited public airwaves, whether directly to the home, via satellite link, or over the internet, obliges them to help with the nurturing of our democracy. Becoming the primary source of news to the average citizen clinches that responsibility. This is a responsibility that cannot be disregarded. Doing so will guarantee that democracy in this country will fall into despotism, and even the television news organizations will not be immune to that.
In order for us to regain our trust in television news, it is necessary for the news organizations to apologize to us, directly and publicly. This is not optional, and the failure to do so compromises the integrity of those news organizations. The longer it takes to get that apology, the more serious the breach of trust.
All of us need to demand this of our news organizations, including all of the ones mentioned in this essay, as well as all of the others in this country. There has been a major breach of trust, and it needs to be fixed. An apology is the least that they can do, and it should be done now.
CNN’s attack on Scott Ritter:
CNN's Hatchet Job on Scott Ritter, by Antonia Zerbisias, originally in The Toronto Star, archived at: http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0912-02.htm