Our Captive Media

I have to say that watching Bill Moyers’ “Buying the War” was quite an experience for me: a kind of vindication, yes, but also, ultimately, quite a depressing experience.

As the editorial director of Antiwar.com, my job is to make sure that we cut through the government propaganda and get at the truth about what is really going on in the world, and during the run-up to the Iraq war we had quite a time of it. The lies were coming so thick, and so fast, that it was all we at Antiwar.com could do to continually refute them, and yet that is precisely what we did. Moyers takes us through the lies, and shows how the “mainstream” media failed to make any critical analysis of the administration’s allegations. That job, sadly, was left to us.

Saddam’s mythical nuclear program was really the linchpin of the case for war, and we debunked it as early as February, 2001 (also here), and kept doing so throughout the years. The fake “centrifuges,” the tall tales of Iraqi “defectors” (in reality, phonies primed by the Iraqi National Congress), and the really quite comical claim by the President that Iraq was going to bomb the U.S. using unmanned aerial vehicles – all of this was derided in this space, and in the editorial columns of Antiwar.com, years before the rest of the media woke up to the fact that they’d been fooled.

Iraq’s alleged “links” to al Qaeda – the “cakewalk” fantasy – the Niger uranium mythos – the lies of Ahmed Chalabi – the announced goal of building “democracy” in Iraq: we debunked all this, and more, every day before war finally broke out (having predicted its outbreak as early as 1999).

So, if we – at the time, practically a singlejack operation with even less funding than we have now – could get this right, how come the major media organizations, with all kinds of bureaus, analysts, and whatnot, got the story so wrong? The answer doesn’t really come through in the Moyers documentary. Here’s Walter Isaacson, formerly chairman and CEO of CNN:

“There was even almost a patriotism police which, you know, they’d be up there on the internet sort of picking anything a Christiane Amanpour, or somebody else would say as if it were disloyal.”

Yet this “patriotism police” didn’t have police powers: journalists were free to broadcast and write what they pleased, and media outlets were free to carry it: so what was the problem? Was the head of one of the biggest cable television outfits in the world really afraid of what a few fiercely partisan bloggers were going to say about him and his network? That’s hard to believe. As for poor little Ms. Amanpour – surely she had plenty of experience as a human megaphone for U.S. government pronouncements in wartime, having acted in that capacity during Bill Clinton’s war to “liberate” Kosovo. So it wasn’t too surprising when she played the same role during the run-up to war with Iraq. Moyers isn’t satisfied with Isaacson’s answer, either, and goes on to press him:

“’When American forces went after the terrorist bases in Afghanistan, network and cable news reported the civilian casualties …the patriot police came knocking.’

ISAACSON: – We’d put it on the air and by nature of a 24 hour TV network, it was replaying over and over again. So, you would get phone calls. You would get advertisers. You would get the Administration.’

MOYERS: – You said pressure from advertisers?’

“ISAACSON: – Not direct pressure from advertisers, but big people in corporations were calling up and saying, ‘You’re being anti-American here.'”

Oh please – “big people in corporations”!? Spare us the excuses. Isaacson says there was no “direct pressure” from these people, and I believe him. That leaves all those terribly hurtful phone calls, fer chrissake, which somehow forced CNN to capitulate to the War Party. One has to wonder: if phone calls are enough to scare the American media into a complicit silence, then how much of a backbone did they have to begin with?

This had nothing to do with bowing to market forces, or suffering real economic consequences from telling the truth – and everything to do with sheer cowardice. Journalists are human beings, like the rest of us, and they want to be liked: this is only natural. However, when the desire for approval dominates everything else, and prevents you from doing your job, it becomes a problem. An irate phone call never hurt anyone – but to hear Isaacson tell it, these calls were the equivalent of IEDs that had the media under fire and were enough to put a major network out of commission when it came to doing real journalism. This is, frankly, a ridiculous assertion, and I – for one – don’t believe it for a moment.

Isaacson tried to pin the blame on Fox News, whining that

“We were caught between this patriotic fervor and a competitor who was using that to their advantage; they were pushing the fact that CNN was too liberal that we were sort of vaguely anti-American.”

Oh, poor baby! Come to Mama! The fact is that there was nothing to stop CNN from attacking Fox as a shill for the administration: indeed, it would have made for some good television, and helped their ratings. Nothing is better than a good old feud, as MSNBC has recently learned (there’s a reason why Keith Olbermann keeps twisting the knife in Bill O’Reilly’s ribs, aside from the sheer joy of doing it). But that apparently never occurred to Senor Isaacson: instead, he and his ilk chose to cut and run – and lose whatever journalistic integrity they could previously lay claim to.

Moyers makes a number of points that hit the War Party straight in the kisser: the centrality of the neoconservatives as the vanguard of the War Party, and their ubiquitous dominance of the “debate” in the media, is a point we at Antiwar.com kept making over and over. The story of the spiking of Phil Donahue’s show, which Moyers delves into, is particularly instructive in detailing how and why any and all alternative voices were eliminated by media bigwigs. I am glad to see Knight-Ridder News Service, now McClatchy News Service, getting a lot of credit as a swimmer-against-the-tide of public -and elite opinion. The duo of Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay are particularly incisive when it comes to analyzing the failure of their colleagues in more influential venues to get the real story about how the administration was essentially fabricating “evidence” of Iraqi WMD and links to al Qaeda.

The New York Times is taken to task for its monumental contribution to the Grand Deception: it’s well-known by now how Judith Miller single-handedly pulled off one of the biggest cons in the history of journalism, second only to the fraud perpetrated by the Hearst papers in the prelude to the Spanish-American War. Less appreciated is the treacherous role played by Vanity Fair magazine as one of the biggest purveyors of lies, second only to the Times – their series of defector stories, all of which turned out to be completely and utterly fictitious, did a lot to convince the elites that war was necessary because Saddam represented a real threat.

One by one, the shills for war are brought before the cameras and questioned: Peter Beinart, editor (at the time) of The New Republic, looks like a deer in the headlights as he comes under Moyers’ relentless assault. Here is a guy who wrote an entire book about how the battle is now between “pro-American” Trumanites in the Democratic party, and “appeasers” vaguely analogous to the followers of Henry Wallace during the 1950s – that, apparently, was his big qualification as a “Middle East expert.” Beinart smeared the antiwar movement as “anti-American,” and rallied the “Truman Democrats” around the War Party’s banner: now he says the whole thing was a “tragic” mistake – and is being rewarded with a column in Time magazine, alongside his fellow neocon Bill Kristol.

When Moyers points out that “Far more people saw you, see Bill Kristol on television, than will ever read the Associated Press reports or the Knight Ridder reporters,” Beinart bemoans the effect of television on the American consciousness but understandably balks at reaching the obvious conclusion: not that, as Beinart puts it, we’d “be a better society if people got most of their news from print rather than television,” but that we’d be a lot better off if we saw less of him and his fellow neocons on television. The problem is the message, not the medium.

In the meantime, those of us who were right – not just in our general opposition to the interventionist policies that brought us to a disastrous war, but in the details of the administration’s case for invading Iraq – are still laboring in the vineyards of relative obscurity, unsung and surely unrewarded. I can live without a column in Time magazine – although I have to admit it would be nice – but at least I ought to be spared the obscenity of watching as these hapless twits are lionized for getting it wrong.

Tim Russert gets his just deserts, finally, when Moyers points out to him how the administration would leak phony “evidence” of Iraqi WMD on Friday, and then Cheney or someone else would come on his Sunday show and cite it as “proof” of their case for war. “What my concern was,” avers Russert, “is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.”

Cutting away from Russert, Moyers trenchantly observes: “Bob Simon didn’t wait for the phone to ring,” and then goes on to describe how Simon, of CBS News, did interview experts who cast doubt on the administration’s “evidence.”

Moyers gets very close to the real essence of the issue when he asks Isaacson: “How do you explain that the further you get away from official Washington, the closer you get to reality?”

Isaacson mumbles something about too much reliance on “top level sources,” but really this doesn’t cover it. The problem clearly goes much deeper than that: after all, why should one believe those “top level sources”? These are high government officials who are hardly unbiased, and, in this case, were actively trying everything they could to sell a war. Whatever happened to caveat emptor?

No, the problem is not in the sources themselves, but in the mindset that analyzes and evaluates the information given out. The Washington press corps is as much a part of the courtier system as the government itself: indeed, it has been subsumed into the government in all but name. These people work together, live together, and often marry each other (no one objected, for example, when Christiane Amanpour was given a leading role in reporting on the Kosovo war when her husband, James Rubin, was a spokesman for Madeleine Albright’s State Department). More importantly, their politics are all centered around the importance and even the majesty of government: most of them are liberals, albeit of the modern sort, who believe that government is the end-all and be-all of human existence: that there is no problem, large or small, which cannot be solved by state action. This panacea applies abroad as well as at home: is Saddam Hussein a “problem”? Well, then, by all means, let Uncle Sam solve it!

That the media is the handmaiden of power in 21st America comes as no surprise: after all, this is what decadence is all about – a quest for comfort above any principle, and safety (especially career safety) above all. In any age or era, cowardice is the rule rather than the exception: in a truly decadent society, however, bravery is almost unknown – and, in any case, atavistic individuals likely to exhibit it are almost entirely excluded the higher up one travels in the social hierarchy. The worst rise to the top, while the best achieve only obscurity – until the society is so top-heavy with venality that the whole structure is in danger of collapsing.

No, we at Antiwar.com didn’t buy the war: but, then again, we were just doing our job – subjecting the “evidence” dished out by the War Party to the strictest scrutiny. Too bad the “mainstream” media didn’t do their job. What scares me is that all the excuses they give for their failure – “reporting is hard,” whines Dan Rather – are good for another round of being manipulated by the Powers-That-Be. After all, reporting is still hard: it’s still difficult to stand up against war hysteria, and next time – and there will be a next time, trust me – one fully expects them to revert to their role as government stenographers.

Yes, I suppose I should take the opportunity to point out that this underscores the vital importance of Antiwar.com as an alternative source of news and opinion, and yet – well, yes, it’s true enough. But it’s depressing to realize that integrity is so rare, and that so much of the burden is falling on us. Sad, and a bit scary, too.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].