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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Buying The War"

by digby

I noticed this odd omission this morning too. Why didn't the NY Times review the Bill Moyers documentary that's slated to air tonight called "Buying The War"? They barely even mention it.

The LA Times did:

"Deep Throats were talking, but few in the press were listening," Bill Moyers says in 'Buying the War", a cold-eyed look at how lock-step with the Bush administration the mainstream news media became in the months leading up to the Iraq war.

Airing tonight on PBS, the documentary marks Moyers' return as a regular PBS presence. he left his previous eries, "Now With Bill moyers," at the end of 2004, frustrated by what he saw at the politicization of public broadcasting under then Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson.

Tomlinson is gone and Moyers is back (albeit with a suspicious lack of fanfare.) "Bill Moyers Journal" (which last aired in 1994) wi8ll settle into Friday Night on KCET after tonight's premiere. In "Buying the War," Moyers the citizen journalist (in the good sense of that term) goes back over the hawkish national climate in 2002 and '03, and the echo chamber the Bush administration created out of the mainstream media, including hallowed institutions such as "Meet The Press" and the New York Times, in selling the idea of Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapon programs and ties to Al-Qaeda.

The heavy-hitters that Moyers says he tried but failed to get to comment for "Buying the War" include former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Times columnists Thomas L. Friedman and William Safire, and Fox News Channel architect Roger Ailes.

The lighter hitters you will see a lot of are Warren R. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay, reporters in the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder Inc, along with their bureau chief John Walcott.

This is Moyers' larger point: that these men were exceptions to the rule, writing stories that questioned the veracity of official intelligence, and because Knight Ridder (now owned by McClatchy Co.) didn't have a paper in New York or Washington, their dissenting voices couldn't compete with the theme of the moment.

The front pages were blaring, and cable news, of course, was banging the drum --- and the pots, and the pans. The clips alone that "Buying The War" amasses are chilling, what amounts to a hall of mirrors, administration officials leaking and spinning and then going on talk shows to point at their media-fed leaks or spin.

Phil Donohue, fired as host of an MSNBC show in early 2003 says he was told he could have a war advocate on his program as a solo guest, but dissenters had to be balanced out from the right.

"Our producers were instructed to feature two conservatives for every liberal," he says.

There is no on representing the conservative argument here, not the deeper ideological reasons for believing in the Iraq invasion. But that's partly Moyers' position: In the run-up to war, point-counterpoint emerged as a devastating sham.

I guess it's not so surprising that the NY Times didn't bother to review this. It's cowardly, however.

Those of us who have been following this story in depth from the beginning know most of this, of course. But I'm glad that Moyers has amassed the footage and put it all in one place so that people can see it again in its glory. It's a big story and I'll be interested to see how many of the most dizzying moments during that long national acid trip Moyers was able to capture.

My personal favorite was Bush's press conference a few days before the invasion began. Matt Taibbi put it best:

The Bush press conference to me was like a mini-Alamo for American journalism, a final announcement that the press no longer performs anything akin to a real function. Particularly revolting was the spectacle of the cream of the national press corps submitting politely to the indignity of obviously pre-approved questions, with Bush not even bothering to conceal that the affair was scripted.

Abandoning the time-honored pretense of spontaneity, Bush chose the order of questioners not by scanning the room and picking out raised hands, but by looking down and reading from a predetermined list. Reporters, nonetheless, raised their hands in between questions–as though hoping to suddenly catch the president’s attention.

In other words, not only were reporters going out of their way to make sure their softballs were pre-approved, but they even went so far as to act on Bush’s behalf, raising their hands and jockeying in their seats in order to better give the appearance of a spontaneous news conference.


Newspapers the next day ignored the scripted-question issue completely. (King himself, incidentally, left it out of his CNN.com report.) Of the major news services and dailies, only one–the Washington Post–even parenthetically addressed the issue. Far down in Dana Millbank and Mike Allen’s conference summary, the paper euphemistically commented:

"The president followed a script of names in choosing which reporters could ask him a question, and he received generally friendly questioning." [Emphasis mine] "Generally friendly questioning" is an understatement if there ever was one. Take this offering by April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Networks:

"Mr. President, as the nation is at odds over war, with many organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus pushing for continued diplomacy through the UN, how is your faith guiding you?"

Great. In Bush’s first press conference since his decision to support a rollback of affirmative action, the first black reporter to get a crack at him–and this is what she comes up with? The journalistic equivalent of "Mr. President, you look great today. What’s your secret?"

Newspapers across North America scrambled to roll the highlight tape of Bush knocking Ryan’s question out of the park. The Boston Globe: "As Bush stood calmly at the presidential lectern, tears welled in his eyes when he was asked how his faith was guiding him…" The Globe and Mail: "With tears welling in his eyes, Mr. Bush said he prayed daily that war can be averted…"

Even worse were the qualitative assessments in the major dailies of Bush’s performance. As I watched the conference, I was sure I was witnessing, live, an historic political catastrophe. In his best moments Bush was deranged and uncommunicative, and in his worst moments, which were most of the press conference, he was swaying side to side like a punch-drunk fighter, at times slurring his words and seemingly clinging for dear life to the verbal oases of phrases like "total disarmament," "regime change," and "mass destruction."

He repeatedly declined to answer direct questions. At one point, when a reporter twice asked if Bush could consider the war a success if Saddam Hussein were not captured or killed, Bush answered: "Uh, we will be changing the regime of Iraq, for the good of the Iraqi people."

Yet the closest thing to a negative characterization of Bush’s performance in the major outlets was in David Sanger and Felicity Barringer’s New York Times report, which called Bush "sedate": "Mr. Bush, sounding sedate at a rare prime-time news conference, portrayed himself as the protector of the country..."

Apparently even this absurdly oblique description, which ran on the Times website hours after the press conference, was too much for the paper’s editors. Here is how that passage read by the time the papers hit the streets the next morning:

"Mr. Bush, at a rare prime-time press conference, portrayed himself as the protector of the country…"

Meanwhile, those aspects of Bush’s performance that the White House was clearly anxious to call attention to were reported enthusiastically. It was obvious that Bush had been coached to dispense with two of his favorite public speaking tricks–his perma-smirk and his finger-waving cowboy one-liners. Bush’s somber new "war is hell" act was much commented upon, without irony, in the post-mortems.

Appearing on Hardball after the press conference, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (one of the worst monsters of the business) gushed when asked if the Bush we’d just seen was really a "cowboy":

"If he’s a cowboy he’s the reluctant warrior, he’s Shane… because he has to, to protect his family."

A whole bunch of America sat there watching these sycophantic performances with our jaws agape, wondering if we had lost our minds. Bush was barely articulate, as usual, mouthing the worst kind of puerile platitudes (when he was coherent at all) while the press corps slavered over him as if he were Cicero. Bush, the clearly in-over-his-head man-child was molded into a hero and cheered by the media as he led this country into the dark, morass of an illegal war in the middle east. It was the most disorienting thing I've ever experienced in my life.

There are many similar memories of that bizarre period, which, looking back, I realize were a strange kind of book-end to the equally freakish Clinton impeachment --- the earlier story marked by its triviality and the latter by its terrible seriousness. Yet the press behaved in both as if they were cheerleaders for the Republican line not skeptics or fact-finders (and certainly not truth-tellers) while half the American public and most of the world looked on in utter disbelief. It was a very bad time. And I wasn't sure if we would ever be able to sort it all out. I'm still not.

Check your PBS station listing for tonight's Moyers report. It's important to document the atrocities and I'm glad that Moyers is out there doing it --- and giving some props to the Knight Ridder guys who actually did their jobs. It was what kept some of us sane when the whole country seemed to be going over the edge.


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