Tales From Inside the Editorial Board Room

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Tales From Inside the Editorial Board Room

by
Ruth Rosen

When I first heard about Scott McClellan's charges that the Bush administration had lied and deceived Americans during the months and years leading up to the war, I burst into tears of happiness. No, nothing he wrote was new. And even if he still seems like a sleazy public relations expert in obfuscation, an insider was finally telling the truth, in one book.

My story is different from those who felt seriously constrained about raising questions about the administration's obvious lies. I worked as an editorial writer at The San Francisco Chronicle, where a liberal editorial board raised serious objections to the war. And yet, in the years following 9/11, I felt editorial restraints that never allowed us to tell the whole truth about the lies and deception that led to America's most catastrophic foreign policy disaster.

Others in the mainstream media felt far greater restraints. Jessica Yellin, a CNN journalist, for example, says she felt pressured by corporate executives at her previous network to support the Iraq War. To Anderson Cooper, she described how she and others were "under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings." On the Today Show, Katie Couric, Brian Williams, and Charles Gibson also admitted feeling pressure from the Bush administration to support the war, MSNBC reported. Couric even recounted a threat from the White House Press Secretary to "block access to [the network] during the war" if she did not change the tone of her interviewing style."

So what did I experience? An editor and an editorial board who felt that, in the absence of inside sources, we could not counter the administration's lies.

Let me give you some examples. I was raised in a Republican family, but schooled by the great iconoclastic journalist I.F. Stone, who taught me that you can find the truth without inside sources, if only you're willing to see beyond patriotic fervor and examine voices in the public domain that are marginalized, So, I would read national security experts who countered Donald Rumfeld's ridiculous predictions; I would read the British, Canadian, Italian and French press; I would read the writings of experts in resource wars and weapons of mass destruction.

No, I didn't know I was right. But I was sure that the administration was lying. And, I knew that at the very least that our editorials should be asking why Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al should be believed when I had found strong evidence that they were cherry picking intelligence, and setting up their own office in the Pentagon, and acting in complete secrecy.

The rush to war drove me crazy. In the days that led up to the war, I went to my editor and told him I needed a few days unpaid leave to accept the fact that we were, in fact, going to war. In my mind's eye, I saw a baby tied to the railroad tracks and saw the train rapidly moving toward the helpless child. I saw years of quagmire, bloodshed, and tens of thousands of deaths. I needed a few days to accept that reality before I could return to writing. He understood and allowed me to regain my professional composure.

To its credit, the editorial board raised some of the toughest questions in the mainstream media. And yet....I was the only one who didn't believe Colin Powell's shameful presentation at the United Nations. Why? Not because I had special insider knowledge, but like I.F. Stone, I had found credible people who could dissect his speech and found it unconvincing and unpersuasive.

When I heard Bush's inaugural address, I heard two major lies embedded within his speech. But somehow that still wasn't enough to accuse him of plagiarism and deception.

The truth is, even a liberal newspaper, blessed with a liberal editorial board, did not engage in truth telling. We raised some good questions, wrote about supporting the troops, but failed to describe the deception that led to the catastrophe that was unfolding right before our eyes.

While I was writing editorials, I was also publishing two weekly political columns on the op-ed page. I also felt constrained as a columnist. If I wanted to discuss this country's desire to gain control and access over oil, I had to bump up against the accusation that I was a vulgar Marxist, rather than conversant with the reality of resource wars.

Finally, I am an historian, and I knew Iraq's history. I also knew that the war would end in a disastrous occupation, not a liberation, and that no country, including our own, will ever tolerate occupation by a foreign nation.

This week, I sat with a former colleague from the editorial board in a café, rather than in the room where we used to make our editorial decisions. He admitted that I had been right, but even more, that even in a liberal paper, the editor and most of the board, had felt restrained, afraid of seeming unpatriotic, afraid of saying the emperor wore no clothes, afraid of not giving the President the benefit of the doubt, afraid of truth telling without access to inside sources.

You may say, "Ho Hum, even the Senate has now, after five years, come out with a report that describes (oh, so tepidly) the years of deception.

But for me, the tears flowed because I remembered all those years when I felt passionate about telling the public the truth, but was unable to do so in a mainstream, liberal, newspaper.

Ruth Rosen, a journalist and historian, is professor emerita of history at the University of California.

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