Top officials in the Bush administration have
often complained that news coverage of Iraq focuses on negative events too much
and fails to devote enough attention to positive developments. Yet the White
House has rarely picked direct fights with U.S. media outlets during this war.
For the most part, President Bush leaves it to others to scapegoat the media.
Karl Rove's spin strategy is heavily reliant on surrogates. They're
likely to escalate blame-the-media efforts as this year goes on.
A revealing moment – dramatizing the pro-war division of labor –
came on Wednesday, during Bush's nationally televised appearance in
Wheeling, West Virginia. On the surface, the format resembled a town
hall, but the orchestration was closer to war rally. (According to
White House spokesperson Scott McClellan, the local Chamber of
Commerce had distributed 2,000 tickets while a newspaper in the
community gave out 100.) It fell to a woman who identified herself as
being from Columbus, Ohio, to give the Wheeling event an anti-media
Her husband – who was an Army officer in Iraq, where "his job while
serving was as a broadcast journalist" – "has returned from a
13-month tour in Tikrit," she said. And then came the populist punch:
"He has brought back several DVDs full of wonderful footage of
reconstruction, of medical things going on. And I ask you this from
the bottom of my heart for a solution to this, because it seems that
our major media networks don't want to portray the good."
She added: "They just want to focus … on another car bomb or they
just want to focus on some more bloodshed or they just want to focus on how
they don't agree with you and what you're doing, when they don't even probably
know how you're doing what you're doing anyway. But what can we do to get that
footage on CNN, on Fox, to get it on Headline News, to get it on the local news?
… It portrays the good. And if people could see that, if the American people
could see it, there would never be another negative word about this conflict."
The audience punctuated the woman's statement with very strong
applause and then a standing ovation. But rather than pile on, Bush
adopted an air of restraint.
"Just got to keep talking," he advised. "Word of mouth, there's
blogs, there's Internet, there's all kinds of ways to communicate,
which is literally changing the way people are getting their
information. And so if you're concerned, I would suggest that you
reach out to some of the groups that are supporting the troops, that
have gotten Internet sites, and just keep the word moving. And that's
one way to deal with an issue without suppressing a free press. We
will never do that in America."
In effect, Bush is holding the coat of those who go after the news media on
his behalf. Many pro-war voices constantly accuse the media of antiwar and anti-Bush
biases – with the accusations routinely amplified in mass-media echo chambers.
Cranking up the volume are powerhouse outlets like Fox News, the Wall Street
Journal editorial page, the New York Post, the Washington Times,
the Weekly Standard, legions of high-profile loyalist pundits, and literally
hundreds of radio talk-show hosts across the country who have political outlooks
similar to Rush Limbaugh's.
With the current war less popular than ever, it's never been more
important for war backers to blame the media.
During the last several years of the Vietnam War, the Nixon
administration went public with a much more heavy-handed approach,
deploying Vice President Spiro Agnew to make a series of speeches
that denounced critical news coverage.
In 1969, Agnew started out by blasting American TV networks (which
could be counted on one hand at the time). Television news, he said,
came from a "tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men."
Then the vice president turned his ire on certain newspapers, especially the
New York Times and the Washington Post. He warned against "the
trend toward the monopolization of the great public information vehicles and
the concentration of power over public opinion in fewer and fewer hands."
But Agnew had nothing bad to say about big pro-Nixon newspaper chains like Hearst
and Newhouse. Nor did he utter any complaints against the huge-circulation magazines
Parade and Reader's Digest, which kept cheering on the war effort.
Often using syncopated language, Agnew conflated journalists who were reporting
inconvenient facts and protesters who were trying to stop the war. He said that
they were "nattering nabobs of negativism," an "effete corps
of impudent snobs," and "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history"
– all worthy of wrath from an administration determined to continue the
war in Southeast Asia.
Contortions of populism that embrace war, like the kind of sentiments
on display during President Bush's travel blitz in recent days,
chronically invert the realities of power. While the president and
his corporate backers wield enormous media power, they pose as
intrepid and besieged underdogs.
Unlike progressive media critics, who scarcely have a toehold in mainstream
media, the political Right has both feet firmly planted inside the dominant
corporate media structures.
The myth of the liberal media is an umbrella canard that shelters the corollary
myth of antiwar media. From the time that the New York Times splashed
stories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction on front pages before the invasion
of Iraq, a cross-section of the U.S. media has remained way behind the curve
of what could be credibly reported about gaping holes in White House claims.
But even a lapdog press corps is apt to start growling when it has been leashed
to lies too many times.
With its war policies unraveling in Iraq – and in the domestic
political arena of the United States – the administration may
continue to avoid directly attacking the press. But, with winks and
nods from the White House, some of the president's boosters will be
eager to blame news media for Republican difficulties as the midterm
congressional elections loom larger on the horizon.