Sunday, December 18, 2011

Media: Ashes, ashes, they all fall down

In Elaine May's Ishtar, Rogers & Clarke sing, "Telling the truth can be dangerous business, Honesty and popular don't go hand in hand." All week long, the press struggled but -- as Ted Koppel would prove Monday and Diane Rehm would demonstrate Friday -- serving up the truth shouldn't have been that difficult. Mabye it so difficult for them because they valued popularity more than honesty?


All week long, The NewsHour demonstrated that even supposed freedom from the demands of advertisers and being public television doesn't mean you can provide the truth. Monday, there was Jeffrey Brown declaring, "President Obama and the prime minister of Iraq held a final summit today before the last American troops withdraw from Iraq." And, later, "In fact, the current schedule calls for all US forces to be out of Iraq by the holidays." While Thursday, viewers encountered Judy Woodruff maintaining, "The president today welcomed the end of the war in Iraq, with all U.S. troops due to leave before the month is out."

It wasn't any better on commercial TV. Thursday on the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, Jim Axelrod was declaring, "With headquarters now closed, over the next several days the last of the US troops will begin moving towards Kuwait and leaving Iraq. The military doesn't want to say exactly when this will happen, worried about attacks from Iranian-backed militias on the way." Scott Pelley only made it worse, insisting after Axelrod's report, "And that will be by the end of the month when the last 4500 troops will leave." Wednesday Diane Sawyer could be heard gushing, "Tonight, final saulte! The president proclaims the end of the war in Iraq as the last American troops journey home after nearly nine years!" Neither she nor World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer got any better as Martha Radditz quickly grabbing the baton as she went on about "the last American troops preparing to make the final journey out of Iraq."

And then there was the sad little program known as Nightline. The ABC half-hour gave less than 3 minutes to the Iraq War on Wednesday night -- after almost 7 minutes on Mary Kay vendors doing well in a bad economy, over 7 minutes of Katie Couric interviewing and a bunch of commercials, they gave less than three minutes to the Iraq War. 'Well they are a five-day a week show,' we hear some of you say. 'Surely, they did another segment somewhere else during the week.' No, that was it for Nightline and Iraq. They had no more time for it because there were so many important topics to cover. There was time for Janet Jackson and Christmas pudding and Tim Tebow and a grandmother who may have shot her son-in-law and "extreme toddler parties" (Nightline plays like an extreme toddler party itself these days) and, most of all, pondering whether or not salt was the new food war.

With only one segment the entire week on Iraq on this supposed news program and with less than three minutes for the segment, you might think they used the limited time wisely. You would be wrong. Terry Moran started off badly (with the repetative and time consuming: "They are coming home, they are coming home.") and didn't end any better.

Now some of you -- especially news consumers -- may be wondering what's wrong with the above? Shouldn't reporters note when all US troops come home from a war?

Yes, they should. Or, as Terry Moran might word it, "Yes, they should. Yes, they should."

However, that's not what's happening.

Friday, on the second hour of The Diane Rehm Show, reality could be raised very easily as Diane Rehm demonstrated asking,"And David, how many people are we leaving there in Iraq? We're not moving out every soldier?"

And that the point that so many outlets repeatedly and consistently ignored. If you were a news consumer, you were told over and over by the bulk of the TV media that all US troops were departing Iraq. And NPR didn't do much better on their news programs. Steve Inskeep was declaring Monday on Morning Edition, "The last American troops are coming home from Iraq this week." And, even worse, Ari Shapiro's segment allowed Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes to make the following statement without challenging it, "They requested training and assistance beyond 2011, but we agreed with the Iraqis that the best way to do that was to remove all U.S. troops and have a relationship that's like the relationship we have with many countries around the world, where we sell them military equipment, we show them how to use it. We can do joint exercises, but we'll have no U.S. troops based in the country."

US troops will remain in Iraq. They're not all leaving. Nor did the US 'decide' that removing almost all of the troops was the best thing to do. That 'decision' was the only response to the White House insisting that the Iraqi Parliament grant US troops immunity and the Parliament (at that time) refusing. All Things Considered was just as bad. But on the programs not billed as "news," NPR had a little more success. This was true of Tuesday's Talk of the Town which found Neal Conan addressing Iraq with Ted Koppel.

CONAN: Though the president cheers his accomplishment, you say not so fast.

KOPPEL: I do say not so fast, and I think he knows better. But he's right, he did make the campaign promise to get all the troops out, and all the troops will be out, save 157 who will be guarding the embassy, and a few hundred U.S. military trainers. But as you pointed out, 16 to 17 thousand others will be remaining behind, and the extraordinary thing, Neal, is we're hearing echoes now of what we heard nine years ago. You know, we can't have that smoking gun be a mushroom cloud. No one is actually using that particular formulation anymore, but the fear of nuclear weapons. The danger of a nation that is supporting terrorism. Oil, which was the great unspoken issue in 2002 and 2003, very much a part of this. The difference, of course, now is that the target is Iran, not Iraq. But the two are very close to one another, and the fact of the matter is that Iran is exercising an enormous influence throughout Iraq. And the oil fields, which have under the surface, they have something - I believe it's the second-largest reserves of any country in the world. That's all very close to Iran, and if Iran were to exercise significant political, let alone military, control in that region, together with their own oil and gas, they would have the capacity to wreak havoc on Western economies.

Koppel wasn't gas bagging. (And for those afraid we've forgotten the gas bags, we're almost up to Mark Shields, don't worry.) He had just returned from Iraq for the reporting he did on Monday's Rock Center with Brian Williams (NBC).

Ted Koppel: If those Iranian backed militias were to launch a full scale attack on this consulate [in Basra], would the US calvary ride to the rescue?

US Ambassador James Jeffrey: We depend upon the Iraqis and if we need security support, we will turn to them and we will tell them, "I've got a problem in Basra and you need to help us.

Ted Koppel: The question is will they?

US Ambassador James Jeffrey: I believe they will.

Ted Koppel: That's what an ambassador has to say about his hosts. This is the man who might actually have to deal with that nightmare, Lt Gen Robert Caslan. General, how are you going to get 1320 people out of there? I mean if you've 24 hours notice that something like this was going to happen, you're telling me the Iraqi government would evacuate immediately? Would get them all out of there?

Lt Gen Robert Caslan: I would argue that we do have, in theater, whether it's in Kuwait or elsewhere in theater, that we fall under the central command, Centcom, and I feel confident that Centcom has the necessary assets to take whatever measures they need to to counter that attack.

While the bulk of the country's press played dumb, Ted Koppel would remind everyone what reporting was.

Ted Koppel: I realize you can't go into it in any detail, but I would assume that there is a healthy CIA mission here. I would assume that JSOC may still be active in this country, the joint special operations. You've got FBI here. You've got DEA here. Can, can you give me sort of a, a menu of, of who all falls under your control?

Ambassador James Jeffrey: You're actually doing pretty well, were I authorized to talk about half of this stuff.

It was information most would avoid, over and over, day after day, all week.

The print medium was just as bad. An exception was the work done last week by Tim Arango, Jack Healy and Michael S. Schmidt for The New York Times -- especially this report on Nouri al-Maliki. You could have read almost every major US daily last week and been completely unprepared for what took place Saturday if the one paper you missed was The New York Times.

Take, for example, Liz Sly (Washington Post) rushing into print in today's paper insisting Iraq was "unraveling faster than had been anticipated Saturday." And quickly adding, "In recent days, the homes of top Sunni politicians in the fortified Green Zone have been ringed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, and rumors are flying that arrest warrants will be issued for other Sunni leaders." Leaving stunned readers to ponder "recent days" and why the paper had offered one wave of Operation Happy Talk after another when they should have been informing readers that the "tanks and armored personal carreis" had surrounded the homes of "top Sunni politicians" for "days."

So many seemed unwilling or unable to tell the truth. And of course there were those who had never been bound by the truth to begin with. Take MSNBC's Morning Joe on Thursday which was nothing but garbage.

We were hoping Bob Somerby would grab some of it, but he didn't. We can't blame him. Nor can we pretend that we're about to take on everything. But, for example, Jon Meachem, "the Iraq Study Group" was not a group advocating for war with Iraq. It was a group created, after the start of the Iraq War, by the US Congress, tasked with assessing and making recommendations about the Iraq War. (The Iraq Study Group is also the name of the Friday group Mike started in 2005 to discuss the Iraq War. A year later, March 2006, Congress would create their Iraq Study Group.) Meachem, asked about the 90s roots of the Iraq War, begins babbling, "Remember the right-wing was looking for an enemy in the 90s. It was China for awhile. It was ultimately the Iraq Study Group." No, it wasn't. And no one corrected him. Maybe because they were in shock over the outrageous claim by Joe Scarborough that Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin were all stating in 2002 "Saddam Hussein? I would invite him to Thanksgiving if he would come!" Hyperbole, maybe. But if you're stating you want to set the record straight, Joe, you stick to the facts and don't resort to hyperbole. Then came Willie Geist's highly offensive sexism (see Thursday's snapshot). In addition, you got this commentary from Willie Geist:

I do hope that one of the lessons, though, is that the country takes the war a little more seriously than it did ten years ago. I remember sitting on the night of March 20, 2003, watching those bombs fall over Baghdad and it looked like a video game. It was a war that was happening on TV and that's actually what it turned out to be. One percent of our country fighting a war that the rest of us watched on TV. It's important to remember that if we commit troops to a war, we commit troops to conflict, people will die. This is not a video game. It's not happening on TV.

Geist hopes the country takes the war a little more seriously? Apparently, the years spent kissing Tucker Carlson's ass altered reality for Willie. The American people did not call for this war, the American people did not send troops to this war. The White House and members of Congress did. No where in the endless crap flowing from Willie's facial anus did he ever address that or note the media's complicity in selling the Iraq War. The problem was not that American citizens turned the war into a video game, it was the media and the media portrayals. Willie is the worst sort of right wing reactionary. He grabs lefty slogans and lefty sounding ones and spins them around to strip them of their actual meaning and blame the people (not the powerful) for a war that they turned out in record numbers to oppose.

As outrageous as Willie's nonsense was, centrist Mark Shields may have been even more outrageous due to his age, his outlet (The NewsHour on Friday) and the fact that he should know a few things after all these years. Yet there he was yammering away:

This was a war that the generals opposed, generals like Brent Scowcroft, and Anthony Zinni, and Joe Hoar, and Norman Schwarzkopf, and Eric Shinseki, people who had seen combat and tasted it. It was a war favored by civilians who had never experienced combat, whether it was Richard Perle, or Paul Wolfowitz, or Don Rumsfeld, or George Bush, or Dick Cheney.

No, Mark Shields, civilians didn't favor this war. Were that the case, they would not have been protesting it in large numbers before it even started. It was not the reluctant generals against the civilians. Nor, for that matter, is that how we determine whether or not to go to war but Mark appears to be insisting it should be: If generals don't want it, don't do it; but if they do want it, go for it.

The generals actually have no say. While we don't buy the lie -- and it is a lie even when it's Debra Sweet repeating it -- that the peace movement ended the Iraq War, we do expect that it is recognized in the discussions of the war.

But why should anyone speak to reality when, from the top, it's all blurred.

Barack gave many speeches on Iraq last week. They were nothing to be proud of.

For example, Monday, at the White House, he delivered a series of remarks to the press including that "more than one million Americans, military and civilian, who have served in Iraq; nearly 4,500 fallen Americans who gave their last full measure of devotion; tens of thousands of wounded warriors, and so many inspiring military families."

More than.


Tens of thousands.

You know what, if you're president of the United States, your speech writers can get the actual numbers. If the number of Americans who died serving in Iraq matters, you don't say "nearly 4,500." If it matters, you ask someone to call up the Pentagon and provide you with the number (it was then and right now remains 4487). If you're the president of General Motors and you're going to give a speech on how many trucks you sold this year, you're going to ask for that exact figure.

But if 4487 lives actually mattered, you visit the graves of those who died in the Iraq War at Arlington National Cemetery. You don't, instead, take the prime minister of Iraq with you to visit the grave of the Unknown Soldier.

How insulting to those who served in the Iraq War.

By Wednesday, delivering a speech at Fort Bragg (with his two teleprompters clearly visible), he finally got an estimate on the number injured, "We know too well the heavy cost of this war. More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq - 1.5 million. Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded. And those are only the wounds that show. Nearly 4500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice." Over 30,000.

The number most reporters noted was 32,000. And credit to Terry Moran of Nightline for noting 4487, one of the few reporters who actually did. But numbers were hard for Barack and, by Saturday when he delivered his national address, he'd be back to "tens of thousands" for the injured, "More than 1.5 million Americans have served there with honor, skill, and bravery. Tens of thousands have been wounded. Military families have sacrificed greatly -- none more so than the families of those nearly 4,500 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice."

If he truly believed it was "the ultimate sacrfice," he'd make someone at the White House supply him with a number to give.

Back to The Diane Rehm Show's second hour on Friday:

Diane Rehm: 32,000 U.S. troops wounded, more than $800 billion spent. While you say we're getting out of this rather quietly, the president didn't make a huge thing of it, the president's campaign is making a bigger thing of it, Nadia. They've got a website with a very glossy film posted.

Nadia Bilbassy: Of course, because from the beginning, Diane, President Obama described this war as a war of choice, it wasn't out of necessity.

He gave one speech after another on Iraq last week. You can't honestly say he's played it low key. As Mara Liasson (NPR's Morning Edition) explained Tuesday, "The White House has choreographed a series of events to drive home one message: The deployments to Iraq are over. At a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the White House yesterday, Mr. Obama reminded Americans that when he came into office there were 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and that he had pledged to bring them home."

Liasson actually reported, but so few bothered to. And looking at the junk that passed for news, we wondered why that was until Nadia Bilbassy declared (on the second hour of The Diane Rehm Show Friday):

Well, that was the stated reason by the Bush administration that the regime of Saddam Hussein was dangerous, in the process of acquiring weapons of mass destruction and they will threaten the world and the United States. But looking back again, I don't know if it's worth looking into the pretext of the reason why they went to war or the actual reasons of the conspiracy theory in the Arab world why the United States decided to invade Iraq or this whimsy link with al-Qaida.

When that's the attitude of a journalist, that reflection no longer matters, that people shouldn't look back into the reasons given for doing something just don't matter, you get a very shallow press corps covering the world in a very shallow manner. For all his bluster, Willie Geist never spoke of humanity. Sadly very few bothered to. The Iraq War was a thing and now it's a thing that's ended -- and all the US troops came home! -- to follow the bulk of the press coverage. Having blown their reputations selling the Iraq War, they spent last week treating it as a meaningless event unworthy of exploration or, as Nightline demonstrated, even three minute of your time.

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