Two weeks before the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, an unnamed military officer involved in the planning offered the Washington Post some chilling insight into the Bush administration’s media strategy: “This is the most information-intensive war you can imagine,” the source said. “We’re going to lie about things.”
If you expected the press to summon up some outrage at the prospect of a deliberate disinformation campaign—to maybe start asking, “Was that a lie? No? How about that?” at White House news briefings—you were probably disappointed. Not one major U.S. paper bothered to reprint the quote. (Salon.com did.)
A free, independent, and critical press is never more crucial than in wartime, when millions of lives and the course of history can turn on small bits of information. But since the September 11 attacks, corporate media outlets have been busy doing what News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch called their “patriotic duty”: waving the flag, toeing the government’s line, and ceding their major editorial judgment calls to Condoleezza Rice and other administration bigwigs. These insiders have pressured news executives to suppress information ranging from Al Qaeda statements and security details to public health data available under the Freedom of Information Act.
Rather than challenge government censorship, the press seemed willing propagandizers: the U.S. war should be “media-driven,” a Forbes writer said. On network broadcasts, news analysts and pundits currently or formerly affiliated with the White House, Pentagon, CIA, and FBI portrayed military retaliation as inevitable. While such insiders are valid sources, it’s unsurprising that they provided little historical context regarding the CIA’s prior role in aiding Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen in Afghanistan’s battle with the Soviets. And though they argued that the Taliban should be overthrown partly for their violent misogyny, these mostly male hawks didn’t mention that for years, the United States largely ignored feminists’ pleas on behalf of brutalized Afghan women.
In contrast, international peace and justice experts who could offer non-military response options were virtually invisible in a debate rarely broader than “How Wide a War?,” as PBS’s News Hour framed it. Some journalists, like Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, answered that question by advocating the starvation of civilians; others, like former New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, answered the question by proposing the complete destruction of the civic infrastructures of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and Sudan—war crimes that would surely kill millions of innocent people.
Other influential reporters, while not as bloodthirsty, saw themselves as proud partners of the politicians they cover. On David Letterman’s Late Show, CBS anchor Dan Rather announced, “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions . . . wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.” Several days later, Rather told Entertainment Tonight that if Bush ever “needs me in uniform . . . I’m there.”
ABC’s Cokie Roberts certainly didn’t volunteer to suit up, but she, too, unself-consciously admitted to Letterman an almost blind faith in our boys at the Pentagon: “Look, I am, I will just confess to you, a total sucker for the guys who stand up with all the ribbons on and stuff.”
A few reporters were less accommodating. After Dubya’s testosterone-fueled, with-us-or-against-us speech to Congress, a Texas City Sun editor, Tom Gutting, lamented Bush’s “poor judgment and leadership,” writing, “I’m aware of the American custom not to criticize our coun