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By Steven T. Jones and Tim Redmond
San Francisco Bay Guardian
The GOP is in free fall, and it's time to take the country back.
BASEBALL METAPHORS CAN be taken way too far. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald demonstrated that during the press conference he held on the criminal indictment of I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide. In a long and drawn-out analogy involving a pitcher and a hit batter, Fitzgerald likened himself to an umpire who had "dust thrown in his eyes," claiming Libby's lies had made it hard for him to determine who should be indicted for the vengeful outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.
So we hate to even mention that particular sport again. But prominent media critic Robert McChesney offered us a way of describing the prospects of the indictment that seems to capture this moment in history rather well. It addresses the question of whether the political system and mainstream media will seize on the information in Fitzgerald's 22-page indictment to finally hold the Bush administration responsible for the deliberate lies that got this country into the quagmire in Iraq.
"This is a slow fastball right over the heart of the plate," he said.
McChesney's latest book, coauthored with John Nichols, is called Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy. It's an insightful diagnosis of why the news media helped the Bush administration trick the country into going to war.
And McChesney isn't hopeful that journalists have their eyes on the ball, particularly after watching the media miss similar opportunities to show the people how they'd been lied to, including Richard Clarke's insider revelations of ulterior motives for invading Iraq, the Downing Street Memo's proof that biased intelligence on Iraq was being fabricated, and the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq.
"They've had plenty of opportunities to hit it out of the park," McChesney told us.
And once again this past week, we've seen an awful lot of newspapers and broadcast outlets swinging at air.
• • •
Let's be clear about what's in this indictment, something Fitzgerald couldn't say for legal reasons but that should be clear to journalists with open eyes and minds. The document cites sworn testimony that Libby, Cheney, "a senior official in the White House ['Official A']" – who recent press revelations indicate is almost certainly Karl Rove – and at least four other administration officials actively conspired to out Plame as an undercover CIA agent.
That conspiracy was born of a desire to discredit and punish her husband, Joseph Wilson, for exposing President George W. Bush as knowingly lying about Iraq's efforts to obtain nuclear materials during his 2003 State of the Union speech.
This is an explosive revelation that, properly pursued by the media and political systems, could potentially lead to the jailing of Libby and Rove and the impeachment of Cheney (and conceivably even Bush). Yet that wasn't the narrative that either system sought to spin out in the days since this indictment was handed up.
The mainstream media – or the "kept press," as McChesney's book labeled those who have been cowed by years of attacks by conservatives and corporate consolidations – portrayed the indictment largely as a one-shot deal. There's been very little effort to report the fact that this goes far beyond Libby.
Shortly after the indictments came down, MoveOn.org wrote to its members, "The battle over public opinion begins today. We must remind the country that this scandal isn't about a 'technicality' – it's about a White House scheme to cover up the lies that led our nation into one of the most deadly foreign policy blunders in our nation's history."
That's exactly right.
This is about telling the truth. It's about using Fitzgerald's investigation to finally prompt a long-overdue public debate over the Iraq War. It's about starting the year-long campaign to wrest control of Congress away from the Republicans who have abused their position of power.
It's about taking back the country. And here in California, you can start by voting down Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's deceptive special-election power grab.
"As Boris Yeltsin said in his 1989 Parliamentary campaign, 'Send them a message,' " Bob Mulholland, political director for the California Democratic party, told the Bay Guardian. "If you're mad about Iraq, vote against the Schwarzenegger propositions, which are part of the Bush agenda. This is a big chance to start pushing the other way."
• • •
Tragedy and Farce points out that, during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, the media were far more concerned with helping to spread the Bush administration's claims about Iraq than with investigating whether they were true.
"To a greater extent than the Bush administration, the media was responsible for creating the fantasy that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States," Nichols told us, noting that even in the wake of Libby's indictment, "They're still blowing the story" by treating it was an "inside-the-Beltway, who's-up-and-who's-down thing that barely mentions Iraq."
But Iraq is at the heart of the entire scandal.
The narrative told by Fitzgerald's indictment begins at the most relevant point: "On or about Jan. 28, 2003, President George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union address which included sixteen words asserting that 'The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.' "
It was a frightening prospect that seemed to indicate Hussein had both the means and the materials to detonate a nuclear weapon – but it was also untrue, as Wilson had discovered the year before when the CIA sent him to Niger to investigate a claim first made by the Vice President's Office. In fact, Wilson found the tip supported only by a crude and obviously forged document.
Nonetheless, the media didn't seriously question the bold and unsubstantiated claim until after the nation was at war.
The next point on Fitzgerald's narrative is May 6, 2003, when "the New York Times published a column by Nicholas Kristof which disputed the accuracy" of Bush's statement, noting the CIA's conclusion that "the allegations were unequivocally wrong and based on forged documents."
Starting later that month, Libby began gathering all the information that he could on Wilson and Plame and leaking that information to Times reporter Judith Miller and others. After the Times published an op-ed by Wilson titled "What I Didn't Find in Africa," that smear campaign went into high gear, with almost daily efforts by Libby and others to discredit Wilson and other critics.
The indictment also includes strong indications that Libby knew what he was doing was illegal, such as when he discussed the matter on the phone with his principal deputy, who suggested leaking the matter to the press, to which "Libby responded that there would be complications at the CIA in disclosing that information publicly, and that he could not discuss the matter on a nonsecure telephone line."
Nichols, in reading the indictment, honed in on one particular passage: "On or about July 12, 2003, Libby flew with the Vice President and others to and from Norfolk, Virginia on Air Force Two. On his return trip, Libby discussed with other officials aboard the plane what Libby should say in response to certain pending media inquiries, including questions from Time reporter Matthew Cooper."
The next thing Libby did, according to the indictment, was to call both Cooper and Miller and tell them that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Nichols said Fitzgerald seemed to make a point of linking the events of that day – Libby's meeting with Cheney and the decision to illegally leak the information on Plame.
"To me, that's the smoking gun, the flashing light, the thing I'd like to explore more," said Nichols, whose previous book, Dick: The Man Who Is President, describes the ruthless tactics Cheney, Libby, and their cohorts have used to attain and wield power.
Yet, in surveying the media landscape, Nichols sees few other journalists from major media outlets who are even trying to read between the lines and follow up on the many leads this indictment provides. For example, why haven't major media organizations sent journalists to Niger to investigate the forged document or at least more clearly laid out the pattern of official lies and smear campaigns?
"Our media seem to be waiting for Fitzgerald to do all the work. What if during Watergate we left things up to Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox?" Nichols said, noting that the work of the media in Watergate and other scandals is what pushed the investigations beyond the few obvious fall guys.
• • •
The problems with the mainstream media and their subservient relationship to the Bush administration are deep and systemic. But there is hope. Either Fitzgerald's continuing investigation will take down others, Democratic leaders will find their spines and start challenging Bush administration lies, and/or segments of the journalist and activist communities will begin to change the terms of the political debate.
McChesney argues that "Judith Miller is the epitome of what's wrong." The two critics blasted Miller in their book for her anonymously sourced fear-mongering and ultimately inaccurate stories about Saddam Hussein's purported WMD stockpiles and clandestine nuclear weapons program – and her unapologetic stance that her job is to let the powerful speak through her articles without checking the veracity of those statements.
"It's clear that there is a highly corrupt relationship between some journalists and those in positions of power," McChesney told us. "This indictment shows the corrupt nature of the press system and its linkage to power."
• • •
There are flashpoints in American history, moments when you can almost feel the tide turning. Watergate was one of them: The combination of the sleaze in the Nixon administration and the lingering impacts of the Vietnam War turned into a sense of public outrage that elected dozens of reform-oriented Democrats to Congress in 1974 and, two years later, put Jimmy Carter in the White House.
The Iran-Contra scandals never quite turned out that way; the administration of Ronald Reagan took a hit, but the Democrats never fully seized on the structural corruption in a way that would force the GOP out of power. And the Bush administration – for all its many failures – has been skillful at managing media and perceptions.
"They are playing the media brilliantly and are on the top of their games," Nichols said of how the Bush administration spun the Libby indictment and then watered down its coverage by withdrawing one Supreme Court nominee as the indictments hit, then nominating a controversial conservative days later. "This administration knows the media, and they're going to get away with this. But I hope I'm wrong."
After all, this is the Internet era, and after Katrina, the 2000th Iraq War casualty, and the indictment, there's a real sense of grassroots furor in the ether. With the midterm congressional elections just 12 months away, there's a chance that a significant shift in political power is possible.
The first test will come in places like New Jersey and Virginia, where there are races for governor – and just as important, in California, where a Republican governor taking a page from the Cheney-Rove playbook is trying to seize executive power and cripple the opposition.
If the governor's proposals go down, it will be a signal to the nation and the world that Americans are ready to take their country back. And maybe, just maybe, even the mainstream media will start to take note.
PS If you're mad and want to be counted, skip work or school and join "The World Can't Wait! Drive Out he Bush Regime!" rally Nov. 2 starting at noon in Civic Center Plaza and marching down Market Street until about 4:30 p.m. And don't forget to vote Nov. 8 and to follow our live election night coverage at www.sfbg.com.
E-mail Steven T. Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org; e-mail Tim Redmond at email@example.com