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Either you are with us, or with the terrorists. -President George W. Bush, addressing Congress, September 20, 2001
As Hurricane Katrina ripped into America's Gulf Coast in late August 2005, the Bush administration had a crisis on its hands. Not the tens of thousands of people who had been abandoned in downtown New Orleans. Not the levees that had been breached, drowning the city.
No, the big disaster that the Bush administration acted decisively to solve was its loss of control over the news media. Images were coming out of New Orleans of a disaster of biblical proportions-and a federal response that ranged from inept to nonexistent to blatantly racist.
So the administration acted on instinct: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requested that the media not photograph the dead bodies that were floating down the main boulevards of New Orleans. The military followed by announcing a "zero access" policy for journalists. A FEMA spokesman said it was "out of respect for the deceased" and their families. This was the same rationale President Bush used to justify the administration's ban on photographing the caskets of soldiers returning fromIraq. FEMA was forced to back down in the face of a lawsuit by CNN.
For one horrifying week at the end of August 2005, the world was treated to something it had rarely seen: an unembedded American press showing raw footage of human suffering. The Bush administration's insistence that it had the crisis under control fell flat, as on-the-ground reporters, literally floating free of government handlers, presented the devastation and the failed response in real time. The world was shown photos of abandoned African-American residents of New Orleans struggling to survive the floods, alongside images of Bush in California on August 30-the day after he was informed that the New Orleans levees had broken-chuckling and riffing on a guitar given to him by country singer Mark Wills, whose signature hit, "Wish You Were Here," could have been the Katrina victims' theme song. With one unscripted, uncensored image, the entire Bush presidency was captured: Bush strummed while New Orleans drowned.
This was the response of an American leader to a long-forecast calamity. As even the Republican investigation into the Katrina response noted, "It remains difficult to understand how government could respond so ineffectively to a disaster that was anticipated for years, and for which specific dire warnings had been issued for days. This crisis was not only predictable, it was predicted."
But top Bush administration officials simply didn't care. For years, these antigovernment zealots had preached that the federal government could do no good. When Katrina hit, we saw a self-fulfilling prophecy play out, as the Bush administration suddenly had to rely on the inept political hacks and gutted federal agencies that it had substituted for the functioning bureaucracies that once existed.
There was also the cold political calculus: The victims on the Gulf Coast were just too black and too poor for their suffering to register high on the priority list for this administration. What else can explain the behavior of America's leaders during the days when a major American city was being destroyed? President Bush was vacationing at his Texas ranch. Vice President Cheney was fly-fishing in Wyoming. Condoleezza Rice was in New York City, where she took in the Monty Python play Spamalot, went shopping at Ferragamo for shoes, and played tennis with Monica Seles. Donald Rumsfeld attended a San Diego Padres game. And Michael Chertoff, who, as head of the Department of Homeland Security, was supposed to oversee the country's responses to this catastrophic hurricane, didn't seem to know he was in charge and stayed home the day before the storm hit.
A Media Off Its Leash
At long last, the powerful images of devastation swamped the vaunted Bush spin machine. Even the viewers of Fox News, the house organ of the Bush administration, were treated to the spectacle of Fox reporter Shepard Smith in New Orleans lashing out at right-wing pundit and anchorman Sean Hannity, who insisted that a distraught Smith put the images of abandoned New Orleans citizens in perspective. "This is perspective!" shouted Smith, pointing toward the people trapped in the darkened, flooded city behind him.
Then there was an incredulous Paula Zahn of CNN, responding to FEMA boss Michael Brown's admission that he was unaware until Thursday, September 1, that thousands of people were stranded and some were dying at the New Orleans Convention Center. "Sir, you aren't just telling me you just learned that the folks at the Convention Center didn't have food and water until today, are you? You had no idea they were completely cut off?" asked Zahn.
"Paula," replied Brown, "the federal government did not even know about the Convention Center people until today."
The next morning, CNN's Soledad O'Brien sputtered at Brown in exasperation, "How is it possible that we're getting better intel than you're getting? ... In Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, they got food dropped two days after the tsunami struck."
It was as if the corporate media, long since domesticated as a White House-trained poodle, was surprised by its own bark. After years of passing off White House and Pentagon spin as news, of cowering before administration operatives, Hurricane Katrina reminded the media of what a free press is actually supposed to do. With no troops to embed with, reporters at long last reported what they saw, not what they were told.
"It's refreshing in a way to not have the official line, where your only choice is just to see it in front of you," an awed New York Times correspondent, Kate Zernike, told the New York Observer. She seemed astonished by the power of journalism when it simply reports the realities on the ground, through the eyes of the victims.
The media also missed and distorted plenty of stories during Katrina-such as when white people taking supplies from a store were described as "just trying to survive," while African-American residents doing the same thing were characterized as looters. That was inexcusable, because the media missed the biggest looters in New Orleans: the Halliburtons and Bechtels getting huge no- bid disaster relief contracts-the same Bush-connected profiteers that are making a killing in Iraq.
On Democracy Now!, Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley described the situation in New Orleans from inside Memorial Hospital, where his wife worked. Hospital personnel were instructed not to speak to the press-and it quickly became clear why the image managers were so fearful. He reached us at midnight on Tuesday, August 30. With backup generators barely working, and people's cell phones dying, he knew the situation was too desperate to remain silent: "Tens of thousands of people are left behind, and those are the sickest, the oldest, poorest, the youngest, the people with disabilities and the like.... There was no plan for that.... There's a huge humanitarian crisis going on here right now."
Quigley compared the situation in New Orleans to Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, where he has worked for years as an attorney: "I had always hoped that Haiti would become more like New Orleans. But what's happened is New Orleans has become more like Haiti."
Two days later, as cell phones died, Bill sent a text message to a friend's phone: "No water, sick, no heat, call somebody for help."
The American public reacted swiftly and viscerally to the images of the drowned and abandoned Gulf Coast. In response to the unembedded reporting, millions of dollars poured in to relief agencies. And a week after the hurricane hit, President Bush's approval ratings tanked to a then-record low 38 percent.
Meanwhile, another American war zone burns out of control-and out of sight. Thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis are dead as a war based on lies drags on with no foreseeable end. Mindful of the power of images, the Bush administration has been careful to ensure that the war casualties do not appear on the evening news. Reporters who are embedded with the U.S. military are perpetually spun by their military handlers, and the grateful journalists ensure that their dispatches are carefully "balanced" by official caveats. Images of war are sanitized as a result of outright government censorship-such as the Pentagon ban on photographing flag-draped coffins-and helpful American networks that purge pictures of carnage and death that they deem to be "in poor taste."
The result: When it comes to Iraq, Bush-with the help of the media-can fake his way past the electorate. When it comes to Katrina, the images shock the nation, giving the lie to official explanations, forcing the resignation of the incompetent FEMA chief (though he continued to receive a paycheck), and foisting unprecedented fury on the ever-vacationing commander-in-chief. Even Republicans have raised their voices in outrage at the administration. With Bush's popularity in free fall, his entire second-term political agenda was suddenly in danger of being derailed.
If only the media acted in Iraq as they did in New Orleans, a consistent theme would become apparent: When it comes to death and destruction, George W. Bush is an expert. But when it comes to saving lives and rebuilding societies, as goes New Orleans, so goes Iraq-and the world.
The War on Truth
President George W. Bush has long preferred illusion to reality. "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda," Bush explained of his approach at a public forum in 2005. For Bush, there are no real problems, only political problems. The only crises are when poll numbers fall.
Bush administration officials are obsessed with controlling the flow of information. Their strategy for maintaining their grip on power is simple: Perpetuate fear. We must remain in a state of total war. The implications for democracy are chilling. President Bush has asserted a right to unlimited wartime powers. Thus the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Geneva Conventions, and the very notion of a balance of power have been shredded. The official rhetoric is that we are now in a Long War, led by the president, über alles.
The media, so cowed for so long, has failed to present a coherent picture of this frontal assault on our democracy. Alarming stories emerge, piecemeal, of warrantless wiretaps, of U.S.-sanctioned torture, of offshore prisons where thousands are being held at the whim of a president who invokes sweeping life- and-death powers and dispatches propagandists to cover his trail.
Information is a crucial weapon in Bush's war. In a February 2006 speech Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that "information warfare" will be vital to fighting terrorism. He lashed out at the media for "an explosion of critical press stories" that exposed secret U.S. anti-terror programs, including propaganda efforts in Iraq. He declared: "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. 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."
He responded to the images of and charges about American torture of detainees in Guantánamo Bay and Iraq by dismissing them as fabrications. "The terrorists are trained ... to lie. They're trained to allege that they've been tortured. They're trained to put out misinformation, and they're very good at it," he declared.
In a speech a month later, Rumsfeld made clear that he believes the real problem in Iraq is simply the coverage: "Much of the reporting in the U.S. and abroad has exaggerated the situation.... Interestingly, all of the exaggerations seem to be on one side.... The steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists."
The "truth" that Rumsfeld prefers can be found in the articles that the Bush administration is planting in the "free" Iraqi media, written by American psychological warfare operatives.
IRAQI ARMY DEFEATS TERRORISM blared an October 2005 story in Iraqi newspapers that said, "The brave warriors of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are hard at work stopping al-Qaeda's attacks before they occur." Another planted article crowed, "The ISF has quickly developed into a viable fighting force capable of defending the people of Iraq against the cowards who launch their attacks on innocent people." The latter story was published in the Iraqi press around the time that the United States conceded that no Iraqi battalions were capable of fighting on their own.
The audience for this cartoonish propaganda is not just Iraqis: The Bush administration has turned psychological warfare, which by U.S. law can only be targeted at foreign audiences, on Americans. Rumsfeld dismissed the legal prohibitions against using foreign propaganda at home, declaring in February 2006: "The argument was, of course, that it was taking taxpayers' dollars ... and propagandizing the American people. Of course, when you speak today, there's no one audience.... Whatever it is we communicate inevitably is going to be heard by multiple audiences."
Rumsfeld is leaving nothing to chance. A Pentagon briefing for Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, identifies the "home audience" as one of the major targets of American propaganda. The Washington Post reported in April 2006 that U.S. psychological operations soldiers produced a video about atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein that was "seen on Fox News." The Bush administration also attempted to hype the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who was killed in Iraq in June 2006. Bush officials used Zarqawi to falsely connect Saddam Hussein with the 9/11 attacks, and to bolster their dubious claim that the Iraqi insurgency was led by al Qaeda-backed foreign fighters. "Villainize Zarqawi/leverage xenophobia response," stated one U.S. military briefing. As part of this effort, U.S. psy-ops soldiers in 2004 leaked a supposed letter from Zarqawi to the New York Times that boasted of foreigners' role in suicide attacks in Iraq. Other reporters questioned the authenticity of the document that wound up in a widely cited front-page Times story. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military's chief spokesman in Iraq in 2004, boasted later, "The Zarqawi PSYOP program is the most successful information campaign to date."
The "information war" Rumsfeld describes is deadly serious. ABC News reported in May 2006 that the government was tracking the phone numbers dialed from major news organizations in an attempt to root out whistle-blowers. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales added that it "is a possibility" that journalists will be prosecuted for publishing classified information. The message is clear: The media can either participate in Bush's war, or become a target of it. As Bush administration officials have warned, journalists who do not follow the party line are promoting terrorism.
Declaring war on the media is a desperate and risky move. But the corporate media, so compromised and atrophied by its own complicity in promoting the lies of the Bush administration, is woefully unprepared to do battle. If the past is any guide, as the government aims a sword at the heart of our civil liberties and freedoms, the media will provide sporadic resistance at best, and at worst, will help drive the sword home.
Covering for Power
When the Bush administration launched its PR blitz to sell the Iraq War in September 2002, the American public never stood a chance of learning the truth behind the massive fraud emanating from the White House. Bush and his propaganda czars knew something the American public had not quite grasped: The American media was little more than a megaphone for those in power. This was especially true for celebrity journalists like Judith Miller, the now-disgraced national security correspondent for the New York Times; and Bob Woodward, once a crusading muckraker at the Washington Post, now father confessor to the political elite.
Excerpted from Static by Amy Goodman David Goodman Copyright © 2006 by Amy Goodman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|Introduction : unembedded||1|
|Sect. I||Liars and cheerleaders|
|5||The mighty Wurlitzer||90|
|6||Hijacking public media||100|
|9||The torturers' apprentice||149|
|11||Unembedded in Fallujah||189|
|Sect. II||Fighting back|
|17||We interrupt this program ...||271|
|Conclusion : voices of hope and resistance||292|
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