National Conference for Media Reform – The Press at War and the War on the Press

January 13, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

I’m still reporting from the National Conference for Media Reform, from Memphis.  The conference is sponsored by Free Press.  

This afternoon I attended a panel discussion exploring the issues set forth in the title of this post. The moderator, Geneva Overholser (of the University of Missouri School of Journalism), warned that when we criticize the press, we should not be too general.  There are, after all, many good people doing honorable work in the profession.

The first speaker was Sonali Kolhatkar, who is a host and producer of a popular morning drive time program called Uprising she is also the co-director of a nonprofit organization, Afghan Women’s Mission. 

Kolhatkar noted that the media goes where the violence goes, then moves on.  At the present time, Afghanistan “is blowing up.”  There are suicide bombs, as well as no liberation of Afghanistan women (a prime selling point for the war).  Nonetheless, the media (and thus, the American public) no longer cares. She criticized the term “war on terror.”  You can’t have a war “on an abstract noun.”

The second speaker was Paul Rieckhoff, who is the Executive Director and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America.  Rieckhoff was an infantry officer in Iraq from 2003-2004 . He was one of the first Iraq veterans to publicly criticize the war.  We’ve written about Paul before. 

Rieckhoff described the war in Iraq as a “war of disconnect.”  For instance, “you never see a dead American soldier on TV.”  In fact, you rarely hear the American soldiers’ perspective.  You never hear the perspective of the Iraqis.  After the attack on Falluja, for instance, the press did not report on the perspective of the Iraqi citizens or business people.

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According to Rieckhoff, our media failed our soldiers by failing to ask the administration important questions.  When Rieckhoff returned home in 2004, the number one story in the media was Janet Jackson’s breast.  American soldiers commonly referred to Afghanistan as Forgetistan.

Why is there such a disconnect?  Perhaps it’s because less than 1% of Americans have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan.  In World War II, 10 to 12% of the population served in the war.

According to the White House, the media coverage of the war was flawed because the media allegedly only told the stories about the bad things that were happening.  Reich offered response: “If you only want good stories, go to Disneyland.”  Rieckhoff is a harsh critic of embedding, which he describes as a “shrewd move” by the administration.”  What happens when one embeds?  “You compromise a large part of your journalistic integrity.  You can’t cover my story while I’m covering your ass.”

Rieckhoff does not agree with the characterization of this war as a “war on terror.”  This characterization is “bullshit.  Terror is not the enemy; it’s a tactic.”

In Afghanistan and Iraq, our soldiers enjoyed in unprecedented ability to communicate back home.  They could be in a firefight, then be blogging an hour later.  But not if the military finds out.  “The Department of Defense shuts down these blogs as soon as they pop up.”

Rieckhoff was asked whether he suffered any repercussions for speaking out.  He indicated that it is dangerous for veterans to speak out.  It was especially dangerous in the earlier days, before the war effort soured.  When Rieckhoff went public with his criticism, people in the military were okay with him “on the down low.”  Now members of the military can be more openly supportive of what Rieckhoff has done.  Nonetheless, “It is risky to speak out.” Rieckhoff is mindful that he might have to go back to a wreck as part of the Administration’s recently announced “surge.”  He recommended that those in the audience nonetheless encourage veterans to speak out.

Rieckhoff warns that the military very much distrusts the press, and that it will take a lot of work to convince them otherwise.  He also warns that the blame game has already started.  In the military this is what you call a CYA drill.  His concluding advice: “Don’t let the administration blame the media or the Iraqis.”

The next speaker was Helen Thomas, the noted news service reporter who has served for 57 years as a correspondent in the White House press corps.

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Thomas stated that the American press corps has lost his way.  Reporters failed to ask the right questions, “despite the shifting rationales for the war that were offered by the administration, all of them untrue.”  Any reporter who dared to ask challenging questions were ridiculed.  They were asked things like “Who the hell are you to ask that question?”  Because of this resistance, “We gave up our one weapon: skepticism.”  The Iraq war has drained our treasury, destroyed Iraq and destroyed American credibility.  We “lost our Halo as visionaries for a better mankind.”

In the meantime, the White House became a disinformation mill.  For example, it has been uncovered that the military paid reporters to write for Iraqi media..

The media continues to get it wrong.  Bush is allowed to issue signing statements indicating that he will not abide by the law.  He listens in on our phone calls and opens our mail.  He sends people to secret prisons “to be tortured possibly.”

Fact gathering has suffered.  “Soundbites cannot replace a good solid story.”

Where is the liberal vigorous press, asks Thomas.  “I say bring em on.”  Thomas reminded the audience “A free press is indispensable for a democracy.  You can’t have a free country without a free press.”

Ultimately, Thomas is an optimist, based upon the recent election and other developments.  “The truth cannot be buried.”  She notes that the message has gotten out of the people now, and that Bush’s support has almost entirely vanished.

The next speaker was Eric Boehlert, an author (Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled over for Bush (2006)) and a senior fellow at Media Matters for America.  Boehlert echoed Overholser’s concern that criticisms of the media should not be too general. Good things are happening too.

Nonetheless, “this war could not have been sold without the help of the press.”  He argued that the press was “timid” and that the press “fell down” for this war on terror.”  In his opinion, Iraq is “the most serious press failing in the last half-century.”  What is the basis for his claim?

March 6, 2003 is a good illustration.  It was still 10 days prior to the invasion, and Bush held a so-called press conference.  This was the press conference where Bush used a “cheat sheet” to decide who he was going to call on her questions.  He made a comment during the press conference that “this is scripted,” laughing that is, was a joke.  The problem, however, was that the press conference was scripted.  “It was classic kabuki theater.”  Bush provided almost no information about why we were attacking Iraq.  “Anyone tuning in to get an explanation for the imminent invasion got no answer.”  Nor were there any follow-up questions.  It was during this press conference that Bush made 13 references to Al Qaeda.  How is that relevant?

In theory, Iraq was the first uncensored war.  On the other hand, photographers were sending back numerous excellent photographs showing the casualties, military and civilian.  An editor of a prominent magazine wrote his reporter, “do not send any more photos of civilians.” 

There are no photos of dead American soldiers that have been made available to the American public.  Further, the media has refused to show photographs of wounded soldiers and soldiers in dire situations.  This is not the way it necessarily needs to be.  When Clinton was president, for example, graphic photographs of America casualties in Mogadishu were made available.

Revisionists abound now.  You can hear them arguing that the lack of debate was caused by the Democrats, who were not speaking out.  But some Democrats were speaking out, including Ted Kennedy, who made an impassioned plea against the war.  The Washington Post, which had published at least a million words about the upcoming war, gave Kennedy’s speech only 23 words of coverage.  It was in the run-up to the war that the Washington Post editorialized in favor of the war eight times.  The lone exception at the Washington Post was E.J. Dionne.

Boehlert reminded the audience that the war against the press started long before Iraq.  President Bush was noted for his lack of press conferences.  According to Andy Card, the press is “just another special interest.”  The Bush administration showed the low regard in which it held a press when it repeatedly invited Jeff Gannon to press conferences.  Gannon, who did not hold any journalism credentials, was affiliated with a gay escort service.

Boehlert suggests a reason why the press did not resist the administration on Iraq.  The reporters wanted to go to Iraq for four days “to come back as heroes.”

As if the above information wasn’t a lot to digest in 1 1/2 hours, the audience also heard from two additional people who warned about government threats being made against journalists.

The first of these speakers was Sarah Olson, a freelance journalist from Oakland who has been subpoenaed to testify for in the prosecution of the U.S. Army court martial of 1st Lt.Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq.  To read of Olson’s story in detail, go to her site. In addition to refusing to report for duty, Watada had the audacity to speak out against the Iraq war.  For those statements, he was charged additionally with four counts for making statements unbecoming. Olson had interviewed Wataba, and that’s why she was subpoenaed to Watada’s court-martial.  According to Olson, Warada’s court-martial hearing is coming up in February, and she is facing felony charges if she refuses to testify.  She came to this media conference looking for money, ideas, or any other form of support.

Olson argues that this attempt to force her to testify is eviscerating the First Amendment.  The military is “trying to turn journalism into the investigative arm of the government.

The second speaker is the mother of Josh Wolf, an independent journalist and video blogger.  Wolf is currently in custody in California for civil contempt.  He was incarcerated earlier this year (he’s now been in custody for 144 days) after resisting a subpoena to testify before a grand jury and refusing to turn over the video he shot of a San Francisco protest against the G8 Summit in 2005.  Wolf had covered such protests in the past, and therefore had some privileged access to the Bay Area activist community.  He is resisting this subpoena because this is an attempt to identify political dissidents which constitutes a fishing expedition.  Like Sarah Olson, Josh’s mother was at the convention to find any sort of assistance.  To learn more, go to his site.  To read his daily blog which he updates from prison, go here.

The solution, according to Wolf, is that the government should enact a federal shield law that upholds the right of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources.  For more on protecting sources of reporters, see the site of Reporters Without Borders.



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Category: American Culture, Iraq, Media, Politics, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Just because we don't all write responses to each of these journalistic posts doesn't mean we aren't reading.

    We're with you there, here. Keep up the reporting, Erich.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    To read Amy Goodman's interview with Ehren Watada at DemocracyNow, click here.

  3. i think there are people who are providing live news from battle fields like Afghanistan, Iraq etc.They travel a lot for us and hats off for them.

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