Media War Without End

Norman Solomon

In the wake of
September 11, the White House has repeatedly sent news executives and working
journalists an unsubtle message: Exercise too much independence and you’ll risk
accusations of giving aid and comfort to the terrorist enemy. While a few
American journalists made feisty noises during the first tumultuous weeks of
autumn, for the most part they eagerly went along to get along with the

Breaking new
ground in news management, the Bush administration has indicated that it
foresees a war without end. So we should understand that what’s underway amounts
to far more than temporary incursions on the First Amendment.

This fall, the
news media of the United States have been sliding down a long-term slippery
slope. Television networks in particular are running scared—accelerating their
already appreciable zeal to serve the propaganda agendas of top officials in

The day before
George W. Bush became president, a CNN anchor interviewed the incoming White
House chief of staff and then bade him farewell. “All right, Andy Card,” said
Judy Woodruff, “we look forward to working with you, to covering your

If major news
outlets were committed to independent journalism, Woodruff’s statement on
national television January 19 would have caused quite a media stir. But it was
just another sign of media coziness with power brokers in Washington. Leading
journalists and spinners in high places are accustomed to mutual reliance.
That’s good for the professional advancement of all concerned. But the public’s
right to know is another matter.

“The first fact
of American journalism is its overwhelming dependence on sources, mostly
official, usually powerful,” Walter Karp pointed out in Harper’s Magazine
a dozen years ago. Since then, the problem has grown even more acute. A
multitude of journalists advance their careers by (in Woodruff’s words) “working
with” movers and shakers in government.

Behind the
scenes, the tacit deals amount to quid pro quos. Officials dispense leaks to
reporters with track records of proven willingness to stay within bounds. “It is
a bitter irony of source journalism,” Karp observed, “that the most esteemed
journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves
useful to the powerful that they gain access to the ‘best’ sources.” While some
fine journalism, assertive and carefully researched, gets into print and onto
airwaves every day, the islands of such reporting are drowned in oceans of
glorified leaks and institutional handouts.

On the surface,
concerns about scant separation of press and state might seem to be misplaced.
After all, don’t we see network correspondents firing tough questions at
politicians? Isn’t the press filled with criticism of policymakers? Yet we’re
encouraged to confuse partisan wrangles and tactical disputes with wide-ranging
debate and free flow of information. To a great extent, mainstream media outlets
provide big megaphones for those who already have plenty of clout. That suits
wealthy owners, large advertisers and government officials. But what about

In early May
1991, two months after the Gulf War ended, the Washington editors for 15 major
American news organizations sent a letter of complaint to then-Secretary of
Defense Dick Cheney. They charged that the Pentagon had exerted “virtually total
control” over coverage of the war. The letter represented completion of a ritual
for American media coverage of U.S. military actions: News outlets routinely
engage in self-censorship and sometimes grouse—especially after the fact—that
the government has imposed too many restrictions on the press.

This fall,
scant objections came from big media institutions or high-profile journalists
when the Defense Department made clear its intentions to place severe limits on
war-related information. “The press policies in the war on terrorism are looking
a lot like the Gulf War policies established by Bush’s father, Dick Cheney, and
Colin Powell,” said University of Iowa journalism professor Jeffrey A. Smith, a
scholar on wartime news coverage.

Rather than
balk at such signals of news management, many in network news operations seemed
to welcome them. Dan Rather drew a lot of media comment for breaking into sobs
during his September 17 appearance on David Letterman’s show, but the CBS news
anchor didn’t get much flak for his pledge of loyalty. “George Bush is the
president,” Rather said, “he makes the decisions.” Speaking as “one American,”
the newsperson added: “Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And
he’ll make the call.”

With the
overwhelming bulk of news organizations already serving as amplification systems
for Washington’s warriors in times of crisis, the White House found itself in a
strong position to retool and oil the machinery of domestic propaganda after
September 11. When confronted with claims about “coded messages” that Osama bin
Laden and his henchmen might be sending via taped statements—as though other
means like the Internet did not exist—TV network executives fell right into

Tapes of Al
Qaeda leaders provided a useful wedge for the Administration to hammer away at
the wisdom of (government-assisted) self-censorship. Network executives from
ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and CNN were deferential in an October 10 conference call
with Condoleezza Rice. The conversation was “very collegial,” Ari Fleischer told
the White House press corps. The result was an agreement, the New York Times
reported, to “abridge any future videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden or
his followers to remove language the government considers inflammatory.” It was,
the Times added, “the first time in memory that the networks had agreed
to a joint arrangement to limit their prospective news coverage.”

News Corp.
magnate Rupert Murdoch, speaking for Fox, promised: “We’ll do whatever is our
patriotic duty.” CNN, owned by the world’s largest media conglomerate AOL Time
Warner, was eager to present itself as a team player: “In deciding what to air,
CNN will consider guidance from appropriate authorities.”

“Guidance” from
the “appropriate authorities” is exactly what the president’s strategists had in
mind—brandishing a club without quite needing to swing it. As longtime White
House reporter Helen Thomas noted in a column, “To most people, a ‘request’ to
the television networks from the White House in wartime carries with it the
weight of a government command. The major networks obviously saw it that
way….” The country’s TV news behemoths snapped to attention and saluted the
commander in chief. “I think they gave away a precedent, in effect,” said James
Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “And now it’s
going to be hard for them not to do whatever else the government asks.”

concerned about coded messages, administration spinmeisters were after much more
sweeping leverage over all types of mainstream media. The compliant network
executives explained that the coded-messages matter “was only a secondary
consideration,” the New York Times recounted. “They said Ms. Rice mainly
argued that the tapes enabled Mr. bin laden to vent propaganda intended to
incite hatred and potentially kill more Americans.” (There was, of course, no
need to curtail the broadcasting of propaganda intended to incite hatred and
potentially kill more Afghans.) Four days after the bombing of Afghanistan
started, Fleischer urged newspapers not to print full texts of statements by bin
Laden and his cohorts. “The request is to report the news to the American
people,” he said. “But if you report it in its entirety, that could raise
concerns that he’s getting his prepackaged, pretaped message out…putting it
into the hands of people who can read it and see something in it.” Newspapers
were a bit less inclined than the networks to comply with such “requests,” but a
chill was in the air. The First Amendment shivered.

government’s attempts to pressure the media regarding the airing of bin Laden’s
statements are totally illegitimate,” said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media
ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “Government directives like this,
especially to a regulated industry like broadcast and cable, carry the force of
coercion, if not the force of law.” TV and radio executives are acutely aware
that the Federal Communications Commission, more corporate- friendly and
authoritarian than ever—would frown on independent behavior in the industry. The
FCC chair, Michael Powell, is significantly to the right of his father, the
secretary of state. With the few dominant media conglomerates seeking even more
deregulation to assist with mergers and boost market share, there are powerful
incentives to go along with any “request” from the Bush administration about
limiting news coverage of the latest war.

Meanwhile, at
print outlets with outsized journalistic reputations, some similar precedents
are in place. “There have been instances,” the late Washington Post
publisher Katharine Graham acknowledged, “in which secrets have been leaked to
us which we thought were so dangerous that we went to them [U.S. officials] and
told them that they had been leaked to us and did not print them.” In November
1988, speaking to senior CIA officials at the agency headquarters in Langley,
Virginia, she said: “There are some things the general public does not need to
know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take
legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to
print what it knows.”

Just before the
bombing of Afghanistan got underway on October 7, the Post reported that
U.S. intelligence officials had informed members of Congress that the Al Qaeda
network was very likely to strike again soon in the United States. It was hardly
startling news—Attorney General John Ashcroft had already said as much on
television—but alarm bells went off at the White House, and CIA director George
Tenet swung into action to wave the Post away from further unauthorized
reporting. Tenet “had been forced to persuade the newspaper not to publish even
more sensitive material,” according to the New York Times. The next day,
the Times quoted the Post’s executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr.,
who said that—“a handful of times” during the month since September
11—administration officials called the Post and “raised concerns that a
specific story or more often that certain facts in a certain story, would
compromise national security.” Those calls were fruitful, Downie said: “In some
instances we have kept out of stories certain facts that we agreed could be
detrimental to national security and not instrumental to our readers, such as
methods of intelligence collection.”

But it is the
content of collected intelligence and other secrets that top U.S. officials
often seem most anxious to keep under wraps. A frequent excuse is that details
of Uncle Sam’s troop movements must be tightly controlled. But the government is
eager to keep crucial information from the American public—information that
might undermine Washington’s pro-war line.

Concerned about
reports of civilian casualties that gradually increased during the first days of
bombing Afghanistan, the U.S. government took action—not by curtailing the
slaughter but by foreclosing public access to detailed photos that otherwise
would have been available from space. “The Pentagon has spent millions of
dollars to prevent western media from seeing highly accurate civilian satellite
pictures of the effects of bombing in Afghanistan,” the London-based Guardian
reported on October 17. At issue were photos from the Ikonos satellite, which
takes pictures at such high resolution that “it would be possible to see bodies
lying on the ground after last week’s bombing attacks.”

When the
Defense Department moved to prevent media access to such pictures, it did not
invoke provisions of American law allowing “shutter control” over U.S.-launched
civilian satellites in wartime. Instead, the Guardian reported, “the
Pentagon bought exclusive rights to all Ikonos satellite pictures of Afghanistan
off Space Imaging, the company which runs the satellite. The agreement was made
retrospectively to the start of the bombing raids.”

Buying up all
of the satellite’s pictures was a much more effective way to thwart media access
than seeking a legal ban would have been. Because photos of carnage in
Afghanistan from the air war “would not have shown the position of U.S. forces
or compromised U.S. military security, the ban could have been challenged by
news media as being a breach of the First Amendment,” the Guardian
explained. According to the newspaper, “the only alternative source of accurate
satellite images would be the Russian Cosmos system. But Russia has not yet
decided to step into the information void created by the Pentagon deal with
Space Imaging.”

Eleven years
ago, during the lead-up to the Gulf War, photos from a Soviet satellite
indicated that the Bush-Quayle administration was lying when it claimed that at
least 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks were in Kuwait by the second week of
September 1990. Much of the initial public rationale for a U.S. military buildup
in the Persian Gulf that fall was based on the claim that those troops
represented an imminent threat to invade Saudi Arabia (at a time when more than
100,000 U.S. soldiers were already stationed in that country).

purchasing photos of the region from a Soviet commercial satellite agency, the
St. Petersburg Times published a front-page article on January 6,
1991—more than a week before the Gulf War began—reporting that “Soviet satellite
photos of Kuwait taken five weeks after the Iraqi invasion suggest the Bush
administration might have exaggerated the scope of Iraq’s military threat to
Saudi Arabia at the time.” Analysis of the photos indicated that the actual
Iraqi troop strength in Kuwait was perhaps 25 percent of the figure that the
White House had trumpeted while building its war agenda.

The St.
Times reporting on the satellite photos got little play in
the national media. (Similar information had gotten only a few drops of ink in
autumn 1990 without gaining any prominent media attention.) But the story was
irksome to war planners in Washington. This time around, the Bush administration
is striving to do an even better job of bottling up information that might
undercut enthusiasm for the current war. Meanwhile, the press corps has mostly
contented itself with the official news flow. A week and a half into the air
war, Pentagon correspondents got an affirmative response to requests for formal
spoonfeeding at day-in day-out news conferences. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was
understandably upbeat. “Let’s hear it for the essential daily briefing, however
hollow and empty it might be,” he said. “We’ll do it.”

The media war
overseas has been more awkward. Some U.S. officials fret about losing ground in
a global propaganda war. In early October, Colin Powell urged the emir of Qatar
to lean on the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite TV network, which broadcasts
news to 35 million Arabic-speaking viewers worldwide. The effort, coming from a
government that is fond of preaching about free speech, was rich with irony and
hypocrisy. Al Jazeera has raised the ire of numerous repressive Arab regimes
because of its independent reporting. Since the network went into operation in
1996, an Australian journalist noted, “it has infuriated every government from
Libya to Kuwait—each of whom have at various times threatened to withdraw their
ambassadors from Qatar in protest.”

Reporting from
Cairo, a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle remarked on “the
sight of the United States, the defender of freedom and occasional critic of
Arab state repression, lobbying one of the most moderate Arab leaders to rein in
one of the region’s few sources of independent news.” After failing at its
efforts to stigmatize and isolate Al Jazeera, the Bush administration abruptly
shifted tactics. In mid-October, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld went out
of their way to appear on the network in sit-down interviews.

“The Taliban
have kept reporters out,” foreign correspondent Robert Fisk wrote in the London
Independent shortly after the bombing of Afghanistan began. “But does
that mean we have to balance this distorted picture with our own half-truths?”
He asked another key question: “Why are we journalists falling back on the same
sheep-like conformity that we adopted in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo
war? … Is there some kind of rhetorical fog that envelopes us every time we
bomb someone?”

On the home
front, a fierce media war is underway. “The president has stated repeatedly that
this will be a long war—which means the long-term threat to our First Amendment
guarantee of free speech and freedom of the press will be enormous,” writes
Charles Levendosky, editorial page editor of the Casper Star-Tribune in
Wyoming. “Whether the First Amendment ever recovers its broad protection of
speech and the people’s right to know depends upon the public and advocates who
fight for our liberties.”

In these
ominous times, our only hope for reviving the First Amendment is to make full
use of it.                                     Z

Solomon’s latest book is
The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.
He is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy