The Argus, CA
SEN. Hillary Clinton recently called the American media a bunch of wimps.
"It's shocking when you see how easily they fold in the media today," she told a group of supporters. "They don't stand their ground. If they're criticized by the White House, they just fall apart. I mean c'mon, toughen up, guys, it's only our Constitution and country at stake." Her remarks illicited sustained applause.
I have to agree with Clinton. From the coverage of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo to the American and Iraqi casualties in the war in Iraq, the media has been for the most part timid, seemingly afraid to ask tough questions and hold the White House accountable.
The timidity dates back before Iraq was invaded. The media too easily accepted the Bush administration's assertions that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Reporters embedded with military units during the invasion had just one perspective of the events. Further, they were compromised by their relationships with soldiers. From them, we got a good idea of what it was like to march into Iraq; they couldn't provide a view of what it was like to be an Iraqi civilian enduring the bombing and fighting.
When inspectors failed to find weapons of mass destruction, the media reported it, but there was almost an apologetic tone to the coverage. In general, the stories didn't communicate outrage over the fact that either the administration had abominable intelligence or it had deceived the public. Either way, it had much to answer for, but the media was not asking.
The motivation for the invasion has resurfaced with the Downing Street Memo. The memo, minutes of a July 2, 2002, meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers, indicates Bush was determined to go to war even though he knew Iraq did not pose a threat to the U.S. or its neighbors. It also states the intelligence and facts were "being fixed around the policy" and there was little discussion of the aftermath of military action.
Although the memo was published in the London Times on May 1 and has been widely discussed throughout Europe, most Americans only began to hear about it last week after a British journalist asked Blair and Bush about the memo during a press conference. It took a British journalist to finally draw attention to the memo, more than a month after it was first published.
Both men denied the assertions in the memo but offered no explanation for how the minutes would have recorded false information. Still, that was more of a response than American journalists had received. In fact, only a handful of American newspapers had even mentioned the memo before the press conference. The major television news networks hadn't mentioned it at all.
So what gives? Some have said that post Sept. 11, the American media are uncomfortable criticizing the country's leadership. That discomfort has been exploited by Republican officials who frequently invoke the fear of terrorism to justify their actions and slam their critics.
Media outlets may have been particularly cautious about the Downing Street Memo because of the "60 minutes" and Dan Rather fiasco regarding the fabricated memo about President Bush's service in the national guard. That mistake should not prevent other news organizations from investigating other sources of information. If it's had a chilling effect, some of the theories about how that memo got to "60 Minutes" are even more chilling. Some believe CBS was purposefully set up and that Karl Rove, Bush's political analyst, may have been the mastermind.
Some might argue the Downing Street Memo didn't get more coverage because it's something of a moot point. We're in Iraq now, and the disasters and atrocities of the ongoing war are today's news.
But you wonder how the memo would have been played if it suggested the opposite, that the Bush administration was truly convinced Iraq was a threat and was pursuing every avenue to avoid military action. You wonder if it would have been buried inside the newspaper and never mentioned on the network news stations.
I'm afraid Clinton's correct.
Brenda Payton writes for ANG Newspapers.
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