Backbone Shortage

April 24, 2007

Tomorrow night, Bill Moyers turns the TV cameras on the journalists and news merchants who not only let Bush get away with launching the Iraq war on the basis of lies and twisted “evidence,” but actively helped him put one over on the American people.

Editor & Publisher has previewed the show, and the verdict is clear — Moyers has done a brilliant job:

Among the few heroes of this devastating film are reporters with the Knight Ridder/McClatchy bureau in D.C. Tragically late, Walter Isaacson, who headed CNN, observes, “The people at Knight Ridder were calling the colonels and the lieutenants and the people in the CIA and finding out, you know, that the intelligence is not very good. We should’ve all been doing that.”At the close, Moyers mentions some of the chief proponents of the war who refused to speak to him for this program, including Thomas Friedman, Bill Kristol, Roger Ailes, Charles Krauthammer, Judith Miller, and William Safire.

But Dan Rather, the former CBS anchor, admits, “I don’t think there is any excuse for, you know, my performance and the performance of the press in general in the roll up to the war . . . We didn’t dig enough. And we shouldn’t have been fooled in this way.” Bob Simon, who had strong doubts about evidence for war, was asked by Moyers if he pushed any of the top brass at CBS to “dig deeper,” and he replies, “No, in all honesty, with a thousand mea culpas . . . nope, I don’t think we followed up on this.”

Instead he covered the marketing of the war in a “softer” way, explaining to Moyers: “I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it, in a way, almost light – if that doesn’t seem ridiculous.”

Moyers replies: “Going to war, almost light.”

Walter Isaacson is pushed hard by Moyers and finally admits, “We didn’t question our sources enough.” But why? Isaacson notes there was “almost a patriotism police” after 9/11 and when the network showed civilian casualties it would get phone calls from advertisers and the administration and “big people in corporations were calling up and saying, ‘You’re being anti-American here.'”

Moyers then mentions that Isaacson had sent a memo to staff, leaked to the Washington Post, in which he declared, “It seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in
Afghanistan” and ordered them to balance any such images with reminders of 9-11. Moyers also asserts that editors at the Panama City (Fla.
) News-Herald received an order from above, “Do not use photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties. Our sister paper has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening emails.”Walter Pincus of the Washington Post explains that even at his paper reporters “do worry about sort of getting out ahead of something.” But Moyers gives credit to Charles J. Hanley of The Associated Press for trying, in vain, to draw more attention to United Nations inspectors failing to find WMD in early 2003.

I know something about the political pressures that can be brought to bear on journalists even at the local and regional level, so I am not without sympathy for the reporters who felt they were being boxed in after 9/11.

But the fact remains that there were journalists actually doing their jobs and raising the necessary doubts, and they could not make headway. Decades of wingnut propaganda about “liberal bias” and ideological complaint mills like Brent Bozell’s Accuracy in Media have left an imprint on management and reporters alike. Too often they seemed to have internalized the conservative dogma that any challenging question aimed at a Republican president is de facto bias. Meanwhile, the newspaper industry is withering and television news has largely abandoned any pretense at serious journalism.

The news coverage during the runup to this sleazy war was literally surrealistic: TV screens framed in flag graphics and bunting while reporters duly transcribed the latest load of lies, pundits swooning in admiration as some of the most contemptible people ever to infest the White House and Congress greased the skids for an invasion, press conferences during which Bush’s robotic repetition of discredited spin points and jingoistic appeals went unchallenged.

The leaders we rely on to tell us the truth instead lied to us. The reporters we rely on to question those leaders instead stood back and waved flags. They didn’t want to look unpatriotic. True patriots ask questions of their leaders.

Moyers is a true patriot. Would that there were more like him.


One Response to “Backbone Shortage”

  1. Chucky Says:

    Sounds like you’ve made one of your bookmarks — it linked to this story at the weekend.

    FWIW Brent Bozell runs the Media Research Center, which since 9/11 blindly attacks any news story critical of the U.S. government, the U.S. military or George W. Bush. Accuracy in Media was founded by the now-deceased Reed Irvine, who was BFF with Jack Welch of GE (the company that owns NBC).

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