The following symposium on the mainstream media's coverage of the War on Terror was held on February 25, 2006, at the Arizona Biltmore as part of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture's annual Restoration Weekend. -- The Editors.
Andrew Brietbart: Thank you for having me. I’d like to begin by discussing the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 mindset. Before 9/11, the extent of my knowledge of Islam was that Lew Alcindor had become Kareem Abdul Jabar. I was sort of a cold warrior, even up to 1991, and I just saw the world in terms of socialism versus capitalism.
I was exceptionally ignorant on the subject matter, as I think most people still are in the United States. When 9/11 happened, I felt that it was my civic obligation to find out who the experts were—many of them are here today—and read everything that I could find about them. I look at them as my Tom Cruise. They’re the stars of my life right now, because, on 9/11, I was completely lost and, given the fact that I link stuff on a news site and I’m supposed to be paying attention, I’d better know what I’m talking about.
The mainstream media—and I’m not talking about talk radio—I think gets a “D,” maybe a “D-” for not putting the war in Iraq in its proper context. I don’t think that the mainstream media has done its job of getting America up to speed and educating them on what the greater war is about. I’ve been remodeling a house in Los Angeles for about a year and my wife and our three kids are living in a tiny bungalow. I tend not to watch television, but since we’re all in the same room on top of each other, I’d started to watch “Oprah Winfrey” for the first time. I’m amazed by her, because half of the time I find myself crying because she’s given somebody a stainless steel range or a tin of caramels. But every now and then, she’ll happen upon Islamic extremism, and I’m thinking, “Why doesn’t she do this more often? Why hasn’t this become one of her crusades, educating people day in and day out?” These are the people that need to realize that we’re in a battle for our civilization. You can’t have this once a month while you’re also handing away Ugg boots. It’s the juxtaposition of two sentiments: “Oh, yeah, we’re in an epic battle for our lives over here—but keep buying books that I’ve endorsed that aren’t true.”
When she does get it right, she does it in an extraordinarily manipulative way. What she does is this: she’ll take an idea, one that has been cultivated in the conservative movement, and she’ll Tom Friedmanize it. She’ll bring in the only leftists on the planet who actually agree with this subject matter. it’s one of the most shocking manipulations you can imagine. Where’s Mark Steyn? Where’s Frank Gaffney? Where’s Steve Emerson? Where are the people who are talking about this day in and day out?
I think that the mainstream media is doing a horrendous job. They’re playing on a pre-9/11 mindset. The only war that they really care about is the anti-Bush one, because it’s a template. They’ve been doing it for so long: “The Republicans are stupid. The Republicans are evil.” It’s an easy route to go, and it’s much harder than having to undermine their politically correct outlook on the world, where somehow there may be a mindset or an ideology like radical Islam that cannot coexist with us.
Bill Sammon: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here because I normally spend my days working and traveling with the White House press corps, and therefore it’s not very often I find myself in a room surrounded by this much common sense.
When I think of the media and the war, I think not just of the war in Iraq but also the broader War on Terror, which of course began on 9/11. It’s still striking to me that we were able to win in Afghanistan 26 days after the attacks of 9/11. Bush went on television and told the country, “This is going to be very difficult. The British couldn’t conquer it. The Soviets couldn’t conquer it. It’s going to be a tough slog.” He sort of braced the country but, nonetheless, seven days into Operation Enduring Freedom, Johnny Apple on the front page of the New York Times compared that war to Vietnam and used the cue word “quagmire.”
It was amazing, because within a matter of days, the rest of the mainstream media were also saying, “This is a Vietnam quagmire.” They were emphasizing military setbacks, talking about civilian casualties, writing about how we were alienating the Arab street. We didn’t have enough troops. We had misjudged the weather in Afghanistan. It basically was a train wreck.
This gloom and doom coverage reached a terrific crescendo about a month into the conflict and then what happened? The strategic city of Mazar-e-Sarif fell and allied forces swept across most of Afghanistan. There was still some mop-up for the next couple of weeks but essentially we had won the war in a matter of a little over a month, after the mainstream media had branded this conflict a Vietnam quagmire. It was a blunder of historic proportions by an important institution in American society—a very powerful institution: the press. They never corrected the record. They never held themselves accountable. They simply moved on to their next wrong-headed idea.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2003. There was a Pentagon briefing with Don Rumsfeld, and one of the people in the Pentagon press corps said, “Can you promise us it won’t be a quagmire?” Now, when did this happen? A couple weeks, maybe, into Operation Iraqi Freedom? Two weeks before the first shot of Operation Iraqi Freedom was fired, on live national television, a reporter asked Don Rumsfeld, “Can you promise us this won’t be a quagmire?” and Rumsfeld said, “I can promise you someone in this room will call it a quagmire, quite apart from the facts.”
Just like clockwork, seven days, exactly seven days into Operation Iraqi freedom, Johnny Apple, the former Saigon bureau chief of the New York Times, again on the front page compared this conflict to Vietnam and called it a quagmire. Again, the rest of the press predictably jumped on board and we were all talking about how we hadn’t put enough troops in, we had misunderestimated the resistance, etc., etc.
But I’ll move on now to talk about the “strategery.” Three weeks into Operation Iraqi Freedom, the statue of Saddam fell. Again there were a couple of weeks of mop-up before the U.S. and the allies had complete control of Iraq. You can certainly make an argument that post-war Iraq has been no picnic and I think President Bush has acknowledged that he misunderestimated a lot of the challenges of post-war Iraq—obviously and most importantly the security challenge, but also the challenge of rebuilding the infrastructure of standing up these institutions of Iraqi society that had cratered under Saddam’s tenure. So it’s been a learning experience and it’s been a tough, tough row to hoe in the post-war period. But my point is that the media constantly gets it wrong on military matters.
I talked about the media’s obsession with Vietnam with President Bush, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. I think Condi really had the best explanation. Of course, she comes from the academic world. She was the provost at Stanford. She said, “You know, I understand these people, Bill. For the Left, Vietnam wasn’t just a war: it’s nothing less than a lodestar.” “Lodestar” was the word she used, the lodestar that has come to symbolize the glory days of the Left and specifically the mainstream media.
If you think about the mainstream media as an institution, it is in the midst of a historic decline. There has been a corresponding rise in the alternative press. Fox News Channel, talk radio, Breibart, Drudge, the internet, the blogosphere, papers like the Washington Times, etc. The mainstream media had some glory years, and those occurred a third of a century ago. The two things they cling to almost romantically are Vietnam and Watergate. Andrew used the word “template,” and it’s a great word because the press has two favorite story templates: Vietnam and Watergate, and they are constantly trying to apply those templates to current events when they don’t really fit.
Whenever there’s a conflict or even talk of a conflict, they drag out the tired old Vietnam template, and you know is this going to be a quagmire. Whenever there’s a conservative Republican president in office, they try to drag out the Watergate template, which is, “What did you know and when did you know it?” And we’ve seen that used against Bush on everything from Enron to 9/11 to Katrina to Abu Ghraib.
I guess it’s understandable that the press clings to its favorite templates of yesteryear. But the American public doesn’t buy it. I talked to Colin Powell about this and he said, “The only people who are obsessed with the haunting ghosts of Vietnam are the press!” He said, “I’m over Vietnam. I served in Vietnam. I’m completely over it. I think the American public is over it. We’ve moved on. We’ve won many military conflicts decisively since Vietnam.” I think one of the reasons the press dislikes this president so much is that he expressly rejects the Vietnam model of fighting a war. He’s talked about this openly. He has said, “I didn’t like the way Vietnam was fought. The politicians tried to micromanage the war. You had LBJ picking targets in the middle of the night.”
Bush is a delegator. He says, “I’m going to set the strategy, or strategery, and I’m going to let the generals figure out how to get it done.” And he steps back and asks them, “Do you need more troops? Do you need less troops?” He’s always being badgered about troop levels. He said, “I’m going to do what my commanders would like.” And that drives the press crazy.
Lastly, I want to talk about the press’ attitude about the military. I used to work for The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland years ago, and like most newspapers, the staff is basically made up of doctrinaire liberals. They were all my friends, and we talked politics and all kinds of issues at lunchtime every day. I remember talking with one good friend of mine, a really great guy, about the military. I asked him about it, and he actually said, in all seriousness, that he considered the U.S. military an evil institution. He used the word “evil.” I was so just rocked back on my heels that my friend, this really nice guy, felt this seriously about it. I don’t think most people in the mainstream media are quite that extreme.
Let me give you a quick example: Remember when the Koran/toilet bogus story hit, and Newsweek wrote a story that the interrogators in Guantanamo had flushed the Koran down the toilet? This bogus story caused riots in the Middle East and people were killed in the violence. Then it came out that Newsweek didn’t really have multiple sources and actually it was pretty shaky what they reported, and they ended up saying, “Okay, we got this wrong.”
I was over at the White House and the reporters were talking at the briefing with Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary. McClellan said, “Well, I hope Newsweek uses the power of its media megaphone now to sort of inform the American public of what really goes on at Guantanamo Bay.” This was too much for my colleagues in the mainstream press, to see Scott McClellan seize the moral high ground, and Terry Moran from ABC said, “With all respect, who made you editor of Newsweek?”
Now that very week, Terry Moran, coincidentally, had given an interview to Hugh Hewitt, in which he had admitted that the White House press corps had an overwhelming anti-military bias, and he got in all sorts of trouble within ABC for saying that. But he spoke the truth.
The next questioner was Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times and she actually said, “What do you want us to do? I mean, do you want us to write a story about great the military is?” She said it just like that, just dripping with contempt for the military.
This is what the military is up against when they’re dealing with the mainstream media and this is why I think it’s so important that the mainstream media is finally getting some competition in the marketplace of ideas, thanks to the alternative press.
Frank Gaffney: Thank you. I have a confession to make at the outset. I have been writing a column for the Washington Times, Bill’s old paper, for about 18 years, and every once in a while, somebody introduces me as a “member of the press.” And I quickly turn around and try to figure out, “Who are they talking about?” I think of myself more as an observer and critic of the press than a member of it, to be sure. I think what you’ve been treated to already are most of the main points I wanted to cover but I’d like to pick up on a couple and embellish them.
I think the Vietnam syndrome is very much at work in today’s press and particularly its coverage of the war. First and foremost, though, in a way that I don’t know that my colleagues have suggested, though I think it’s implicit in what they’ve said, is that the role that the press adopted was a sort of the opposition to the war. It was not just documenting the difficulties and playing them up in many cases, notably in Tet, but it was actually sort of arranging and amplifying enormously the amount of opposition to the war.
That that has indeed become part and parcel of these “halcyon days” for many, Johnny Apple being a notable example. But I suspect its’ also sort of the tradition that’s taught in today’s journalism schools as to what your job is supposed to be. So, while there may be all of the animosity to the military that Bill has seen in his own experience, and I think that’s probably true in many quarters. There’s also this notion that the job of the press today is to tear down the establishment. In this case, that means the commander-in-chief and those who follow his orders.
This reflects such a dramatic contrast from the last time we were in a global shooting war against a totalitarian ideology bent on our destruction. The press coverage at that time was not sycophantic and it was not something that tried to gloss over shortcomings of leadership or of performance on the battlefield. On the other hand, the press saw its role as in part maintaining the morale and the support of the American people in a death struggle with Nazism and Imperial Japan.
As previous panels have discussed, I believe today we are in a war against a totalitarian ideology bent every bit as much on our destruction. Part of the confusion that is now being amplified by the press is that most of them don’t seem to get that. When you hear about “the war,” most of them seem to be talking about the war in Iraq. Oftentimes in the context that, if only we stopped fighting that war in Iraq and then we went back to what seems in their minds to be more or less a glorified police action against Osama bin Laden, then we would not only be morally on sounder grounds, but we would also be fighting the right sort of war.
Nothing would be further from the truth and this sort of disconnect from the reality that this is in fact a war much more like World War II, if anything, I would argue, worse than World War II. Because the home front we worried about in World War II was basically just making sure that Rosie the Riveter was doing her thing and that we were getting the victory gardens going and collecting nylon and so on. In fact today’s home front is a battlefield in a global war on terror. I think that’s actually a misnomer. I call it the war for the free world. By the way, if you haven’t bought a copy of War Footing, I commend it to you.
Describing it as a war for the free world I think makes it clear that’s what we’re up against and makes this disconnect on the part of the press so troubling, to the extent that what’s being amplified here and communicated to the public along with this incessant running down of the commander-in-chief and the troops, or least their missions. A real disservice is being done.
Let me just touch on a couple of other things that speak to how we grade the mainstream media in the war.
The effect of this sort of behavior is very much evident today. It is to exacerbate divisions in our society. We talk a lot about how politics is supposed to stop at the water’s edge and so on. Well, that’s certainly a bygone proposition. But politics inside this country has an effect abroad as well, and, to the extent that this is being greatly fanned in terms of the hostility, the lack of credibility, I would suggest, undermining of our government that is being made sort of the daily fare in much of the mainstream press. It is indisputably emboldening our enemies. It is adding to their determination to continue to feed that with more attacks on our forces and more attacks on those we’re trying to help, notably in Iraq but also in Afghanistan and, for that matter, elsewhere around the world.
It is compounded by the almost endless publicity given to people who are trying to cast our policies and our conduct in the worst possible light. There’s going to be a briefing later about Guantanamo Bay. The stories about torture, the stories about flushing Korans down the toilet and so on, are examples of activities that I’m quite sure have accompanied war from time immemorial. It is not a pretty side of it. It is being done, I’m certain, to a lesser degree today than in any time in the history of recorded warfare.
But, to the extent it is being done, it’s being made much of in a way that is deeply injurious to our cause. When you add on top of that the purposeful disclosure and suq compromising of activities critical to the war effort, it is inexcusable. I think of, for example, the New York Times decision, after having sat on the story for a full year, to publish on its front page information about what I call a battlefield signals intelligence operation and they call “domestic spying by the National Security Agency.” It was timed to coincide with the Senate’s contested debate about the re-enactment of the Patriot Act. That’s not journalism, ladies and gentlemen, that’s political warfare aimed at our own country and government. And it had, at least briefly, exactly the effect that was desired.
The Patriot Act was filibustered, reinforcing the impression again that there’s something awful being done here against our country, against our civil liberties, with even a few—four, to be exact—Republicans joining Democrats in a filibuster of the act.
There’s another example which has gotten a bit less attention but that is no less insidious, I must say. Compromising intelligence sources and methods—and that’s what was done there—is reprehensible. Beyond that, however, there is an activity that is so central to winning an ideological conflict like the one we’re in. We call it “political warfare,” and it involves things like making sure that your information is communicated effectively to target audiences.
I’m sure Bill and some of my colleagues may be more intimately familiar with how deeply offensive this idea is to people who have jobs as public affairs officers in some organizations, including, I’m sorry to say, in the United States Department of Defense. One such activity, in fact, to my knowledge, the only organized disciplined concerted effort by our government to actually prepare to wage political warfare, an organization that was called “the Office of Strategic Influence,” was actually destroyed by one of Don Rumsfeld’s senior people, the person responsible for public affairs, Tory Clark. Because she regarded this kind of activity as a threat to her bureaucratic turf, or her credibility, or something. But, for whatever reason what happened as a result was that the New York Times started running stories about how the United States was going to pass disinformation on to foreign journalists and therefore in due course inevitably disinform our own fourth estate, and in no time it became impossible for that group to operate.
More recently, an organizational effort like this was contracted out to a group called the Lincoln Group in Washington, and it too was blown by public affairs officers, evidently in the theater, who didn’t like the idea that they were trying to work with the Iraqi press to make sure that some of the stories other than horrible everything is were getting into the press. Including, yes, paying journalists who were willing to write these stories so that they could get security for themselves and their own families because the moment their byline appeared on a good news story, they were likely to be killed.
These are things that I believe, as they are compromised, as they are attacked, as they are demeaned by the mainstream press, have made the job of winning this global war against a totalitarian ideology bent on our destruction vastly more difficult. Our appeal to immobilization of this country, a war footing, is clearly part and parcel of an effort to bring the press back on our team. And if that can’t happen because of the institutional character or the now well-established traditions or the training in our journalism schools or whatever, then by all means, more power to the alternative media and I’m glad they’re represented so well here today.
Tammy Bruce: Thank you everyone. I think that many of you have in some way or another have already heard some of this analysis of everything that’s already been discussed, either because you’ve read columns on the internet or because you listen to talk radio. You have a sense of this kind of thing. I’ll tell you 10 to 15 years ago, the mainstream was used to being the only resource you had. So if you had a feeling that something was wrong or you didn’t like the nature of something that was happening and yet you heard every single news source ranging from the ever trustworthy Walter Cronkite to the New York Times, you, or maybe you would think, “Well maybe something’s wrong with me. It looks like the whole world is thinking a certain way and I guess I need to get with the program.” Maybe you had some friends at the bar you were even afraid to mention what you thought about politically, because you presumed that, well, if the New York Times and Walter Cronkite were saying “x,” your friends probably thought that way, too. Perhaps you had a very small group that agreed with you but you certainly felt maybe you were out of step.
The problem with that of course is that that kept you quiet. A shift has occurred due to transition of talk radio, courtesy of Rush Limbaugh. Now regardless of whether or not you like that man’s style or always agree with him, which I don’t, the reality is that he set up a framework that has allowed talk radio to gain a legitimacy and to gain such popularity that a majority of people finally have realized that they’re not alone. The reason the mainstream media is in a meltdown, in part, if not in great part, is because you don’t take it seriously anymore. That power, whether it be political power or media power, relies on you giving it that. Its existence relies on your relationship to it. So the moment that people started listening to talk radio, they realized that, “Well, wait a minute, Walter Cronkite might be a loon—isn’t that shocking!” And, “The New York Times does not necessarily have our best interests in mind.” And, “I disagree and I’m not crazy. Listen to all these other people who are nice and smart and normal who also disagree.”
Whether you call or not, you hear the discussions, and it’s a reinforcement. There’s also discussion that occurs where issues come out that normally never would have been exposed before, such the Jayson Blairs and reporters who make things up. Walter Cronkite, who you thought never really had a political opinion, has revealed that it’s not that way. He was followed, of course, by Dan Rather, trying to pick up that torch of being the epitome of an objective individual just presenting to you what’s happening, never mixed with opinion, which of course it always is.
What I talk about in my current book, The New American Revolution, is the part of the reason you have this civil war going on now in this heightened way is that the average American has realized: “There is that elite out there. They don’t necessarily know more than I do. They’re opinion isn’t necessarily better than my opinion. Their attitude and bias isn’t necessarily something that I should respect.”
There are, if you will, the journalistic elite. There are very few people who are making the decisions at major newspapers around this country. They do it by tacit agreement. They’re certainly not meeting up in smoke-filled rooms sitting under portraits of Stalin. But there’s a tacit agreement based on the nature of their attitudes that are reinforced in journalism school, so it really is impossible to look to them for any kind of a framework or any kind of assistance in framing our culture.
Now what we have, of course, is the benefit of what talk radio has done and don’t look at that as being an alternative until we get the mainstream media back to where it should be. I write in The New American Revolution that an institution like the New York Times should be torn down. My argument is, with the New York Times or the ACLU or the IRS, just because something’s always been around doesn’t mean it always has to be. There is nothing in the Constitution that says the New York Times shall always exist into perpetuity forever into the history of this nation.
What bad thing would happen if the New York Times went away? Now many of us don’t think of that and you may think, “Well, is that possible?” There are many newspapers that have folded in this nation, now haven’t there? And the New York Times has in fact outlived its usefulness and become a danger to this country. Now the good news is their profits are down 50 percent.
Certainly they do what they do in part because it’s business. We all are in business. I do talk radio because I love it, but it’s also a business. Newspapers do what they do because they need to make money but they figure they can make money by doing what they’ve always done. In shaping your world for you, they have been used to being the ones to determine your reality because you haven’t had the alternative. What they have not adapted to, and what I argue also that the political establishment has not adapted to, is the fact that you, the average person, wherever you’re sitting in your office or at your home or now with your laptop or any other medium, can look up and say, “What is that port deal that’s going on? What’s that about? What is that that we’re leasing out six of our Eastern seaboard ports to an Arab nation?” And suddenly you know about it and you’re going to draw your own conclusion, and you’re going to react to it.
The political establishment and the media establishment are not used to you learning about something in real time, knowing that your opinion matters and being able to be organized to make the difference and to say something about it. And then to hear talk radio and realize, “Okay, I’m not the only one who’s mad, and what is the phone number for the Senate?” This is a new dynamic that none of the establishments are used to and that’s why you see this kind of chaos in many ways. The president doesn’t know what to say, and sometimes the New York Times gets shocked when he gets caught with something. And even though they see it happening as well, they don’t understand you, because they’ve never seen you before. They’ve never really known you. They think of you as a vote during a ballot box or a circulation number. But that has changed now because of talk radio and also because of the blogosphere.
How many of you go onto the internet every day and look at a blog or a news source? Now this is significant because you’re going to do that perhaps more than you now are going to a newspaper, aren’t you? Now you might go to both but briefly and you’re going look at the newspaper with some suspicion and you’re going look to multiple sources or at least you should go on the internet, brietbart.com being one of them and tammybruce.com being another as well. Not that I have an opinion.
The D.C. Examiner will have a website as well. You’ll see me linking to that. But you here is what I want to encourage and tell you about. Besides the 50 percent decline in profits of the New York Times, circulation at every major newspaper in this nation is also down. People have stopped reading them.
The press is important at the same time. I’ll end with one international example—the controversy of David Irving in Germany. You’ve heard about this man. He is a Holocaust denier. He is generally regarded as someone you would not invite to dinner. He has been saying things that upset Europeans, and Germans in particular, and he has now been sentenced to three years in prison for having opinion that people don’t like. It’s extremely disturbing.
Now I’m a big supporter of Israel. On its fac,e there is proof we understand that the Holocaust occurred and that we know what happened in World War II. To deny that would be like somebody coming up to you and saying, “You’re not a person; you’re a cocker spaniel.” Well that may be that person’s opinion, we don’t know that person’s frame of mine, but we know that you’re not a cocker spaniel. So David Irving has been sentenced to three years in jail for holding his opinion.
The problem is, when it comes to dealing with issue of opinions, media should present the issues in reality. It should play a role in asking questions about authority. It should play a role in saying, “Is this okay, or is it not?” And there are basic facts on its face, like the war against radical Islam, that are clear. This is not a vague issue about whether or not they’re evil and we’re not. There are clear issues, regardless of who you are. Europe does not have a free press, because they live in socialist societies and they have laws that, if you’re press person or a writer, you can’t insult Islam. Bridget Bardot was arrested and had to pay a fine, because she was accused of insulting Islam when she described what happened on September 11th.
Reporters are in the same position. If the media could play its honest role about, let’s say, stigmatizing someone like David Irving, the Germans wouldn’t have to be locking someone like that up. It’s a social role that the press should play, so we have a very important transition happening. While blogosphere and talk radio are seen as alternative, right now it shouldn’t be alternative, it should be the primary way in which people find information and have discussions. At the same time, as it grows in power, Hilary Clinton, for many years, has now suggested regulating the internet and regulating talk radio. Now you see that this will begin those kinds of fights, as people on the Left realize this is the only real true free medium, they don’t want you to be able to have these discussions and that will be a fight that comes up at this.
I don’t see this as being an alternative until the mainstream media gets its act together. I think that’s impossible. I think that as long as elites are in charge we now have a problem because of the decades that the Left has been in charge of the university. I think we’ll need several more generations to reverse that and, with David Horowitz’s analysis, his new book, his work and the work of the Center and of FrontPage Magazine, we can expose these people and we can change it. But it will probably be our children and our grandchildren who will be continuing this work.
In the meantime, look to talk radio and the blogosphere and your participation. These are participatory mediums, unlike newspapers. You aren’t just being talked at, as I’m doing right now. But these are mediums that exist and rely on you. That is one of the fundamental differences, that you are no longer passive viewers to be fed this information. You will now make determinations about what you want to hear.
I’ll close in saying that what the Left wants you to think about yourself is that you can’t trust yourself, there’s a little Hitler in each one of you, that you shouldn’t trust your opinions and that you need to be controlled. In that, they’re projecting, aren’t they? The reality is, there’s just a little bit of projection there.
When you make these determinations about what’s happening, when you hear issues, you are realizing that you are the ones who know best. You are the ones whose opinions matter. You will be ones to determine the future. The American character and sensibility is the thing that will save the world and you will prevail because of these new mediums. I’m honored to be a part of it.