NEW YORK, March 29, 2004 -- Please raise your hand if the name Richard Clarke rang a bell for you three weeks ago?
How many of us knew who he was or what he did? And who among us can cite examples of TV stories or commentators discussing in any detail his contention that the War on Iraq undermined the war on Terror?
I don't see too many hands and I can't really answer these questions with appropriate detail to my own satisfaction. Yes. there were discussions of the problems with the Iraq war and the lack of priority paid to the search for Al Qaeda but not the direct relationship between the two in the way Clarke sees the issue.
How many times have you seen that issue investigated in documentaries or hard hitting media stories? How many stories have there even been on 9-11 issues and questions before these hearings legitimized the issue?
As Richard Clarke points to intelligence failures and apologizes to 9-11 families for the government's inability to prevent the attack, who was going to raise the issue of the media's failure to discuss these issues in detail before this past week?
Who in our media will have the courage to apologize for giving the Administration a soft sell and a big pass?
Perhaps it takes a silver haired, hawkish hardliner and Washington insider and Securocrat to finally put some, but hardly all, of the 9-11 issues on the agenda. Clarke's difference with Clinton is that he wanted more bombing. His analysis of the roots of what he calls Islamic radicalism was superficial. He even expressed a wish that Fidel Castro be taken out.
This is not new. More liberal critics or people who reject the Washington cold war foreign policy consensus are rarely heard or taken seriously. It is only defectors from the right that seem to get heard like Treasury Secretary O'Neil. Even Dan Ellseberg who gave us the Pentagon Papers was credible to the Beltway crowd because he had worked for the Pentagon and Rand Corporation.
As anyone who has followed these issues knows, a whole body of questions being raised on hundreds of websites, and by independent investigators and groups of 9-11 families were marginalized and for the most part ignored. Have a look at 9-11citizenwatch.org for a sampling.
It seems like you have to be in "the club" to be taken seriously. The irony of course is that the hearings only took place because of the persistence of a handful of outsiders-- activist wives of 9-11 victims who lobbied for the investigation like crazy and then walked out in disgust when many of their questions were sidelined and after national Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice refused to testify because of a bogus separation of powers "principle," which she claims precludes her from testifying before Congress. She made the same claim in an all too friendly interview on 60 Minutes.
Neither correspondent Ed Bradley nor other commentators have pointed out to her that this Commission was appointed by the President, not the Congress and only met in a room on the Hill. The reference to testifying before Congress is misplaced.
What she did say that was interesting was to allude to the kind of context and background that is missing in most of the media, "You have to go back into the 70's and 80's," she said. Her reading of that history was very selective but at least she cited it. That is precisely what the 9-11 investigation and the media coverage has NOT done.
Changing The Subject
Ever since Clarke testified, the Administration has cleverly changed the subject from the issues he raised to his own credibility. Is he a partisan? Did he write different things in a press release he issued for the White House when he worked for President Bush than in his book, which challenges the President? Tim Russert threw every criticism that has been raised about him to him on Meet The Press this week. Clarke decried the attack politics but also answered the questions.
It was like a game of ping pong better known as 'they say/you say."
You have heard this politicizing of his testimony aided and abetted by virtually every show on the air. He has been on 15 or more news programs and on most of them the questions were the same, as commentator Harry Browne noted on HarryBrowne.org:
"Providing their usual support for big government, TV and press reporters repeated and discussed statements Clarke made in 2001 and 2002 -- statements that seemed to back up the charge that Clarke was an opportunistic hypocrite.
"But did you notice that every reporter showed us exactly the same statements from Clarke? Some of the apparent 'statements' weren't even complete sentences. Why did everyone who commented on Clarke's apparent flip-flop focus on exactly the same fragments?
"They did so because those were the only fragments they had to work with. The quotes were all provided by the Bush administration -- and they're the only quotes available. If the reporters had possessed the original documents, some of them would have picked out other statements or fragments from those documents.
Attack Dogs Get Air Time A Plenty
Media programs could not do enough to provide a platform for Administration officials to respond, to get some heat rather than light going, to "balance" the issue rather than advance it with tougher reporting. These interviews aimed to provide Bush supporters with ammunition, not information.
Notes Browne: "Top administration officials have already appeared on numerous national news shows. Condoleezza Rice showed up on all five national morning shows (on NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and CNN). The attack dogs said very little about the actual charges, preferring to attack Clarke personally as a hypocrite who previously praised President Bush's response to terrorism."
This reflects a pattern of how controversial issues that challenge those in power invariably get personalized and narrowed when they should be broadened and deepened.
Why The Media Cop-Out?
Why has the media establishment being been unwilling or unable take on the political establishment? What accounts for the lack of bravery and determination to seek the truth?
Some newspapers like The Wall Steet Journal have done a good job. Independent muckrakers alike Greg Palast have dug up some dirt. But far too many TV reporters have opted to become semi-official stenographers with American flags in their lapel. What were they afraid of in the years since 9-11 and the advent of a political season that has finally created some space for tough journalism.
No one was explicitly censoring the news, but the political climate, dominated by an Administration which polarized the challenge as "you are with us or against us" led to corporate timidity and self censorship.
With Fox News functioning as "bully boys," to use Christianne Amanpour's phrase, many networks muzzled and self-censored themselves.
War correspondent Peter Arnett saw a psychological subtext. He told me: "Don't forget the American media is based in NYC, and every reporter in NYC saw the World Trade Towers collapse and they took it personally. There was a sense of revenge and fear, which was reflected in the coverage of Afghanistan and the War on Terror. As we moved into Iraq, a more pre-emptive strike, the media maintained this sort of romance, you might say with government."
CBS's Dan Rather embodied the kind of personal schizophrenia that 9-11 produced in many journalists. Just after 9-11. He went on the Letterman show and professed his patriotism. He said: "I would willingly die for my country at a moment's notice and on the command of my president…."
The following spring in May 2002 he went on BBC's Newsnight, their "Nightline," and spoke of ways he pulled his punches because of personal fears. He invoked the memory of black South Africans necklacing informers by putting burning tires around their necks. He must have been a haunted when he explained:
"In some ways, the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck. It's that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions and to continue to bore-in on the tough questions so often. Again, I'm humbled to say I do not except myself from this criticism."
You can see the interview and read about it on the BBC's website here.
In England, it was considered big news that an anchor of Rather's prominence would confess to not asking tough questions. Almost every newspaper in London put the story on its front page.
In the U.S. the interview was mostly not covered at all, and certainly not on Rather's own network. The only reference to it I saw was a quote in The Los Angeles Times' Calendar Section
In short, it was buried.
As has much of this issue. 9-11 is not just about intelligence failures or mismanagement in the White House. It is about deeper political failures on both sides of the aisle.
As you watch the get Clarke brigades do their things on the networks recognize that the same media outlets that did such a good job covering what happened on 9-11, did a really lousy job of explaining how it could have happened by failing to systematically investigate government incompetence -- and even complicity.
This story is not over yet. We have just touched the surface. Like the Kennedy Assassination, it is predicable that more and more Americans will come to distrust the official narrative.
News Dissector Danny Schechter writes the News Dissector Blog on Mediachannel.org. His book "Media Wars" discusses coverage gaps of the 9-11 attack and news at a time of terror.
© MediaChannel.org, 2004