consortiumnews.com

An Upside-Down Media

By Robert Parry
February 18, 2006

The gravest indictment of the American news media is that George W. Bush has gutted the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Charter – yet this extraordinary story does not lead the nation’s newspapers and the evening news every day.

Nor does the press corps tie Bush’s remarkable abrogation of both U.S. and international law together in any coherent way for the American people. At best, disparate elements of Bush’s authoritarian powers are dealt with individually as if they are not part of some larger, more frightening whole.

What’s even odder is that the facts of this historic power grab are no longer in serious dispute. The Bush administration virtually spelled out its grandiose vision of Bush’s powers during the debates over such issues as Jose Padilla’s detention, Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination and the disclosure of warrantless wiretaps.

For instance, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has defended the wiretapping program in part by citing the inherent powers of the President to override laws during war time, an argument that the administration also has applied to detentions without trial, abuse of prisoners, launching foreign military operations and committing extra-judicial assassinations.

All Bush has to do, it seems, is deem someone an “enemy combatant” or an “affiliate” of some terrorist group and that person’s life and liberty are delivered into Bush’s hands, without any impartial evaluation of the evidence.

Unique Authority

But what makes Bush’s assertion of authority uniquely dangerous in U.S. history is that his claim of “plenary” – or unlimited – powers as the Commander in Chief are not made in the short-term context of a national crisis or a war with a definable end.

Rather these presidential powers have been asserted during what administration officials are calling the Long War against terrorism, a conflict that could well last for decades and quite possibly forever. Instead of the Long War, it could really become the Endless War.

In other words, the American system of government as the world has known it for two-plus centuries – with its “unalienable rights” and its “checks and balances” – has effectively come to an end.

Yet this earth-shaking development is barely a news story in the United States. Even when prominent Democrats and some Republicans draw troubling conclusions about Bush’s megalomania, the major news media barely mentions the protests.

For instance, Sen. Russ Feingold observed in a Feb. 7 speech to the Senate about Bush’s warrantless surveillance, “this administration reacts to anyone who questions this illegal program by saying that those of us who demand the truth and stand up for our rights and freedoms have a pre-9/11 view of the world. In fact, the President has a pre-1776 view of the world.”

But Feingold’s declaration, implicitly comparing Bush to King George III, got far more attention on Internet blogs than in the mainstream news media.

Another of the few political leaders who has sounded the alarm is former Vice President Al Gore, who addressed the issue of presidential power in a largely ignored speech on Jan. 16, the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

“An Executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution – an all-powerful Executive too reminiscent of the King from whom they had broken free,” Gore said.

“As the Executive acts outside its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would expose its actions, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police it. Once that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we become a government of men and not laws.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “End of Unalienable Rights.”]

Info War

The Bush administration’s obsession with controlling the flow of information also carries a foreboding sense of doom to anyone who believes in a vibrant democracy. It now appears that Bush’s concept of a terrorist “affiliate” is sliding inexorably toward covering people who present facts that undermine Bush’s “information warfare” goals.

On Feb. 17, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that the battle over information will be a decisive front in the War on Terror and juxtaposed “the enemy” and “news informers” as part of the problem.

“We are fighting a battle where the survival of our free way of life is at stake and the center of gravity of that struggle is not simply on the battlefield overseas; it’s a test of wills, and it will be won or lost with our publics, and with the publics of other nations,” Rumsfeld said.

“We'll need to do all we can to attract supporters to our efforts and to correct the lies that are being told, which so damage our country, and which are repeated and repeated and repeated. …

“Let there be no doubt, the longer it takes to put a strategic communication framework into place, the more we can be certain that the vacuum will be filled by the enemy and by news informers that most assuredly will not paint an accurate picture of what is actually taking place.”

Already, Bush’s allies in the right-wing news media have taken to accusing “news informers” and other critics of Bush’s policies of “aiding and abetting” the enemy and of committing “treason.”

At times, the White House has coordinated these right-wing media attacks with government leaks to target critics, such as the disclosure of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, challenged Bush’s case for war in Iraq.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

So, in big ways and small, the Bush administration has thrown down the gauntlet to Americans who want to protect individual liberties and preserve the democratic Republic envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

But a major obstacle to any unified resistance to Bush’s authoritarian model is the failure of the news media to explain these historic developments to the public. More often, the big newspapers and networks have bowed to the administration’s news management.

The New York Times, the Washington Post and other key U.S. news outlets only grudgingly admitted that they let the country down before the Iraq War by swallowing Bush administration claims on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

But little has really changed in the past three years, either in the media’s structure or in the pecking order of elite columnists. With only a few exceptions, the commentators who bungled Iraq's WMD have survived and are still shaping – or misshaping – public opinion.

Indeed, most elite columnists are still acting as if all is normal – that it’s not so strange that Bush is saying that he or his successors can do whatever they want to anyone in the world for the duration of the so-called Long War.

Even after the WMD debacle, most of these editorial writers and commentators continued to behave as Bush’s cheerleaders, for instance, praising his Second Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 2005, for its endless invocation of the words “freedom” and “liberty.”

The pundits also have kept spotting glimmers of hope in the Middle East, even as the U.S. position has grown grimmer and grimmer. A year ago, these commentators were hailing Bush for unleashing the cleansing winds of democracy across the Middle East.

But the pundits missed the fact that many of those regional developments were unrelated to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. They also didn’t catch the possibility that elections might not bring the blessings of peace and moderation that Bush promised.

Like many of his U.S. press colleagues, New York Times foreign policy columnist Thomas L. Friedman pronounced himself “unreservedly happy” about the Iraqi election of Jan. 30, 2005, adding: “you should be, too.”

But there was always a dark potential to the pleasing images of Iraqis voting with stained fingers. Rather than pointing toward an exit for the United States from Iraq, the election actually was a way for the Shiite majority to consolidate its sectarian control of Iraq, further isolating and alienating the rival Sunni minority.

However, this sobering possibility was banished mostly to the Internet and other fringes of American media.

At Consortiumnews.com, we wrote that “if the Sunni-based insurgency doesn’t give up in the months ahead, American soldiers could find themselves enmeshed in a long and brutal civil war helping the Shiite majority crush the resistance of the Sunni minority. The Sunnis, who have long dominated Iraq, find themselves in a tight corner and may see little choice but to fight on.” [See “Sinking in Deeper.”]

But the big media was busy waving its pom-poms.

‘Tipping Points’

After those Iraqi elections and several other regional developments, Friedman was perceiving historical “tipping points” that foreshadowed “incredible,” positive changes in the Middle East. [NYT, Feb. 27, 2005]

To Friedman, this expected transformation of the Arab world would also be a personal vindication for his endorsement of the bloody Iraq War, which has now killed nearly 2,300 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

“The last couple of years have not been easy for anyone, myself included, who hoped that the Iraq war would produce a decent, democratizing outcome,” Friedman wrote. [NYT, March 3, 2005]

A lead editorial in the New York Times struck a similar tone, crediting Bush for supposedly inspiring democratic changes in Lebanon and Palestine, not to mention Egypt and Saudi Arabia. “The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances,” the editorial said. [NYT, March 1, 2005]

Over at the Washington Post’s Op-Ed page, there was similar applause for Bush and the neoconservative vision of imposing “democracy” on Arab nations by force.

“Could it be that the neocons were right and that the invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Hussein and the holding of elections will trigger a political chain reaction throughout the Arab world?” marveled Post columnist Richard Cohen. [Washington Post, March 1, 2005]

Another influential Post columnist, David Ignatius, also was swept up in the excitement.

“The old system (in the Middle East) that had looked so stable is ripping apart, with each beam pulling another down as it falls,” Ignatius wrote. Crediting the U.S. invasion of Iraq for the “sudden stress” that started the collapse, Ignatius wrote, “It’s hard not to feel giddy, watching the dominoes fall.”

Ignatius hailed what he called “the Middle East’s glorious catastrophe” and urged the United States to do what it could to accelerate the process.

“We are careening around the curve of history, and it’s useful to remember a basic rule for navigating slippery roads: Once you’re in the curve, you can’t hit the brakes. The only way for America to keep this car on the road is to keep its foot on the accelerator,” Ignatius wrote. [Washington Post, March 2, 2005]

(It’s not clear where this Post columnist went to driving school, but few instructors would tell their pupils, who find themselves sliding into an icy curve, to step on the gas.)

Another Washington Post columnist, neoconservative Charles Krauthammer, sounded like a modern-day Trotsky and Robespierre, urging an escalation of Bush’s radical strategies. “Revolutions do not stand still,” Krauthammer wrote. “They either move forward or die.” [Washington Post, March 4, 2005]

This conventional wisdom of Bush bringing democratic enlightenment to the Arab world also permeated the news pages.

“A powerful confluence of events in the Middle East in recent weeks has infused President Bush’s drive to spread democracy with a burst of momentum, according to supporters and critics alike,” reported the Washington Post in an awestruck page-one article. [March 8, 2005]

Failed Promise

Just a year later, however, it is clear how off-the-mark these columns were. Many of the developments – viewed by the pundits as interrelated and inspired by the Iraq War – were actually reactions to distinct local conditions.

The Lebanese protests against Syrian occupation were not influenced by Bush’s invasion of Iraq or his “freedom” Inaugural Address, but rather by growing impatience with the longtime Syrian presence. Those tensions were brought to a head by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and suspicions of Syrian complicity.

A year ago, a brief revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was sparked by the death of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and the desire of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to leave behind a more positive legacy. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocon Amorality” or “Bush’s Neocons Unbridled

Another giant hole in the conventional wisdom was that elections – which would likely reflect the angry mood of Muslims at this time – could well take the region in the opposite direction, toward greater religious fundamentalism and extremism.

Contrary to Bush’s happy rhetoric about how “history has proven that democracies yield the peace,” the reality can be the opposite. Historically, voters in democratic societies often have responded to fear, hate, religious fervor or some other irrational stimuli in supporting political demagogues who provoke unnecessary wars.

Historians can trace this pattern from Ancient Athens to the war fever that Bush released in the United States in 2002 before invading Iraq. While democracies have many admirable qualities, moderation and peacefulness are not always among them.

Anyone with a sense of history and an awareness of the animosities in the Islamic world should not have been surprised that some recent elections served to exacerbate sectarian tensions and bring religious fundamentalists to power.

In Iraq, elections indeed did solidify the power of the Shiite majority over the Sunnis. The pro-Iranian Shiite parties and their Kurdish allies also have consolidated their control of the nation’s oil riches, leaving the Sunnis without either political power or oil wealth – and thus creating new incentives for them to fight on.

The year-ago optimism about Palestine also proved to be misplaced. Not only have prospects for peace talks foundered, but a stroke removed Sharon from power and a new crisis has emerged after Islamic militants in Hamas defeated the more secular Fatah movement in a Palestinian election.

Now, rather than hailing those blessings of democracy, Israel and the United States are considering ways to isolate, bankrupt and destroy the elected Hamas government.

Blind Media

So, instead of democracy ushering in a new era of peace and moderation in the Middle East, the opposite appears to be occurring.

By pushing for elections while simultaneously stirring up Islamic fury over Iraq and other issues, Bush is opening the door to more violence, more extremism and more anti-Americanism.

All of these possibilities were logical outgrowths of what was occurring a year ago. Indeed, it should have been obvious to U.S. analysts that elections represented a huge risk amid Muslim animosity over the Iraq occupation, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and long-term U.S. support for Israel and corrupt Arab leaders.

But many leading U.S. columnists were caught off-guard by these developments, much as they were duped by Bush’s claims about Iraq’s WMD. Yet these error-prone columnists haven’t been fired or replaced.

Now, the danger is the media’s failure to react to Bush’s unprecedented assertion of power inside the United States.

Just as the nation’s elite editorial pages misunderstood the reality in the Middle East, most columnists are missing the extraordinary transformation now underway toward a system of American authoritarianism.

The pundits would rather bathe in the feel-good rhetoric about Bush spreading freedom and democracy around the world than face the harsh reality of Bush eradicating constitutional safeguards at home.

[For more on Consortiumnews.com’s reporting on the media crisis and the Middle East, see “Politics of Preemption,” “Giving War a Chance,” “The Bush Rule of Journalism,” “Washington’s Ricky Proehl Syndrome,” “LMSM – the Lying Mainstream Media,” “Iraq & the Logic of Withdrawal,” “Explaining the Bush Cocoon,” “Alito & the Point of No Return,” and “Alito & the Media Mess.”]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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