Joined: Sat May 29, 2004 11:46 pm
The Guards Are Sleeping
By Gael Murphy, AlterNet. Posted May 2, 2005.
White House correspondent Helen Thomas speaks about the herd mentality of mainstream media and challenging the administration
on its rationale for the war.
: This is an excerpt from 'Stop the Next War Now:
Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (Inner Ocean),'
edited by Code Pink co-founders Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans.
Helen Thomas, known as "the first lady" of the press, was a White House correspondent for four decades, sitting in the front row during presidential press conferences, asking the tough questions. She was the first woman to hold posts in the White House Correspondents' Association and the National Press Club. She now writes a syndicated column twice a week for the Hearst newspapers. She was one of the only "mainstream" journalists who vehemently opposed the invasion of Iraq and challenged the Bush administration on the fabrications and distortions that led the United States to war. The following is a conversation between Helen Thomas and CODEPINK cofounder Gael Murphy.
: Our so-called independent media, the cornerstone of our democracy, have truly failed us in the most recent events around Iraq. They didn't do the investigations or critical analyses of the administration's policy toward Iraq. They didn't take into account opposing voices, alternative sources, and the millions of protesters. Why do you think the corporate media paid so little attention to exposing the flaws in the Bush administration's justification to go to war?
Helen Thomas: I think that the media really went into a coma and rolled over and played dead, just as Congress did. It was a politics of fear after 9/11. Everybody, even reporters, started wearing flags after 9/11. At these White House briefings there was an atmosphere among the reporters that you would be considered unpatriotic or un-American if you were asking any tough questions. Then it segued into a war where you'd be seen as jeopardizing the troops if you asked certain questions.
And the administration did an amazing job of linking Saddam Hussein and terrorism. In every briefing I attended in the lead-up to the war, the spokespeople would say, "Saddam Hussein, 9/11"--"Saddam Hussein, 9/11" in the same breath. Obviously they had put the two together and wanted the media to as well. Then a week or so before the war they said there was no connection. Well, by this time, the job was done. It was a beautiful propaganda message, and it worked.
Another problem is that there are no investigative reporters anymore. During the unraveling of the Watergate scandal, the Washington Post had eighteen reporters on the story and the New York Times had an equal number, digging in everywhere. In this case, no one was around, really, to challenge the administration.
But there were a lot of alternative sources of news and investigative journalism, and there was also the world press doing its job. Don't mainstream journalists look at these other sources?
We have a herd mentality here. It was groupthink. Nobody wanted to get out of line. Reporters felt that they shouldn't push too hard. I didn't feel that way. I was against this war from day one, and I kept challenging the White House spokesperson, Ari Fleischer. One day, about six months before the U.S. invasion, I said, "Ari, why does the president want to kill thousands of people?" I mean that's about as simplistic as I could put it. And he said, "Why are you saying that, Helen? They have a dictator! They have no say in their country!" I said, "Neither do we." I went up to Condoleezza Rice after the U.S. invasion and said, "Where are the weapons? Where's the smoking gun? Where's the mushroom cloud?" She said, "Saddam used these weapons twelve years ago, he had them. ..." And then she went up in smoke herself. She flew out of there with her eyes blazing, so angry that she should be challenged.
Regarding the White House press corps, is it sort of the cream of the crop of journalists who get to be part of those briefings?
Every new administration comes in with a new crop of reporters who have been on the campaign with them and have gotten to know them, and their bosses say, "You're going to the White House because you know intimately so-and-so and can call them up and get an interview." So not only do they tend to be young, but they tend not to question what is said.
It almost sounds like reporters are embedded with a presidential candidate and then inherit the White House as their reward.
That's certainly true. They get to the White House because they've done a good job on the campaign, they've gotten to know the players, and they're supposed to have this kind of entrée and closeness. And then they engage in self-censorship instead of challenging everything that's being said. I remember Bush's press conference a few days before the war. It was a fiasco, because everybody knew we were going to war and asked things like Do you pray? instead of asking the hard-news questions like: Why are we going to war? Why haven't you done more to avoid it? Why haven't you used diplomacy? Under what justification can you go into someone else's country? I'm also one of the few reporters who push the Pentagon on Iraqi casualties. When I'm writing a column about war casualties, I call the Pentagon and say, "Well, now, how many fatalities?" They'll readily say how many, in battle and in accidents. Then I ask about the wounded soldiers, and they reluctantly tell me about the wounded. Then I say, "How many Iraqis?" And the answer I'd get is, "We don't track that. They don't count." So once I called back and I said, "Look, aren't we supposed to be liberating these people? What do you mean they don't count? I want a rationale for why you don't count them." And they said, "Look, our purpose is not to kill, but if there is resistance, we do our job and don't count the numbers." Iraqis don't want foreigners in their country, and some will resort to terrible things to get rid of them. But what right do we have to be there? That's the bottom line. I can assure you no reporter has asked that question. What right do we have to be there?
Did you ever challenge your colleagues about their reporting?
No. They knew how I felt, they could hear me, but there is an unwritten rule that you do not challenge your colleagues. Except I must say that the Wall Street Journal called me the crazy aunt in the attic, and so did Fox, for questioning the war. Well, I want to know, who is the crazy aunt in the attic now? I think the Wall Street Journal owes me an apology.
Have you always questioned U.S. military involvement?
I was in favor of U.S. involvement in World War II. It was absolutely necessary. We were attacked. And our country was unified--we believed in it. I'm critical of unnecessary wars. I hated the Vietnam War, not from the moment Kennedy and Johnson put their foot in the door, but from the time of French colonialism from 1948 and the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1953. I certainly thought it was wrong for us to go into Indochina after the French had been defeated.
I did support the invasion of Afghanistan. I thought we had to go to the core and find out more about Al-Qaeda. But I thought Iraq was absolutely wrong. It was just out of the blue, when Bush came into power and decided that he was going to have a regime change in Iraq. And then Congress signed on the dotted line, giving a blank check without asking any questions!
I couldn't believe the people in Congress who actually did that. I couldn't believe Senator Kerry--he went to Vietnam and came back saying, "War is horrible. This is a horrible war and we shouldn't be in it." I suppose that eighteen years in the Senate can make you an Establishment person, and you forget. The authorization to go into Iraq is practically word for word from the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Why didn't bells ring? How on earth could Kerry have just signed on? Because he was running for president and thought it would get him more votes?
So how do we get journalists and the media to do their job, to be critical of administrations and the policies that are not in the best interests of the public? How do we wake up America?
I think journalists are coming out of their coma now. I think they're getting a little more feisty. I think the public kind of bore down on the press and the press started to respond, although there is certainly a lot more we need to do.
I think the public should reach out to the editorial writers and the publishers and take them to task for their pro-war positions. People should get meetings with the editorial departments of the major papers and the local papers and say, "Look, your paper came out for this war. Can you explain why? And what do you have to say now? Have you changed your mind? Have you printed your new position?" Ask them if they'll do a mea culpa. I'm sure most of them won't, but they should be encouraged to do it.
People should also go to the TV stations, including the talk shows. They should complain about the one-sided nature of the guests on the show. They should ask why, every Sunday, did we hear from Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, but not equally from the antiwar side? Remember, a free and independent press is the basis of democracy. Journalism is the last resort against a government with such imperial motives, and we have to hold their feet to the fire.
I think that we should shame Congress for signing on the bottom line but not asking the tough questions they should have asked. They defaulted on the most important privilege they have in the Constitution--the right to declare war. They let the Constitution down. They let the country down. I think everyone who voted to authorize the president to go to war should be pinned down. [John D. Rockefeller IV, of West Virginia] was the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He said that if he knew then what he knows now, he would not have voted to go to war. I would go to every congressman, every senator, who voted for the war, and say, "Knowing what you know now, would you still have voted the same way? And if you would, why?" Reporters should put them on the line, and so should their constituents.
Reporters should put presidents on the line as well, and the public should demand that presidents have regular press conferences. During the campaign we should make them say that they will hold regular news conferences every two weeks. Bush hated talking to the press and only did when forced to. He had a seating chart and would pick the journalists he wanted. He was told to not call on me because I would ask a very tough question. He didn't allow any follow-up questions and would get mad if a reporter asked a two-part question. I mean, c'mon. The president of the United States should be able to answer any question, or at least dance around it. Presidents should be obligated --early and often--to submit to questioning and be held accountable. The presidential news conference is the only forum in our society, the only institution, where a president can be questioned. If a leader is not questioned, he can rule by edict or executive order. He can be a king or a dictator. Who's to challenge him?
So in terms of the media, looking toward the future, what hope do you see?
My hope is that we'll all wake up and realize our tremendous collective failure. Maybe we could have saved lives. Maybe we could have stopped Bush from the folly of invading Iraq. We certainly must learn from our mistakes-- not being aggressive enough, not being curious enough, not demanding enough--so that we can help to stop the next folly of war.
And my hope is that people will begin to hold their government leaders accountable, and that we'll have true leaders who understand the horror of war and who do everything in their power to work for peace.
Gael Murphy is a cofounder of CODEPINK.
"Behind every great fortune lies a great crime."
Honore de Balzac
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That other party, they work for people who don't need help.
That's all there is to it."
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