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Widows and Orphans First... | The Nation

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Column > Stop the Presses

Widows and Orphans First...

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The beast will not die. In a March 21 profile of Lizz Winstead of Air America Radio, for instance, the Washington Post's conservative media critic, Howard "Conflict of Interest" Kurtz, writes, "Why would people listen to Winstead and company when liberals already populate much of the media?" This nonsense allows conservatives to continue to deploy the phantom charge of a "librul media" to conduct guerrilla operations with a cooperative media against targets on the left.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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A textbook example of the dishonest tactics employed by the right-wing smear machine can be found in the recent campaign against September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a 122-member organization of the families of lost loved ones who seek to prevent the exploitation of its legacy for inappropriate (and aggressive) purposes. Group members have participated in antiwar marches and were particularly vocal when the Bush campaign used 9/11 footage in a campaign commercial designed to mask the Administration's lack of preparedness for the attack, its panicky response in the immediate aftermath and its (now obvious) bait-and-switch operation designed to justify its longtime desire to invade Iraq.

Following the airing of the Bush commercials--which were also vehemently protested by the firefighters union--Peaceful Tomorrows held a March 5 press conference in which its leaders made two requests: that the Bush campaign immediately stop running its exploitative television commercials and that no other candidates employ the imagery. That's when the firestorm began, touched off by the ravings on the nutty extremist website www.FreeRepublic.com.

Moralizing illegal-drug procurer Rush Limbaugh took an early swing at the group, complaining, "These people are poisoned. They have literally been poisoned by their hate." The recently rehabbed reactionary referred to Kristen Breitweiser and Monica Gabrielle as Democratic "campaign consultants...not grieving family members...obsessed with rage and hatred." He neglected to get his facts straight, for neither of these two widows had any relationship to the organization, and Breitweiser is a Republican who voted for George W. Bush.

No doubt the most influential attack was that published by the editors of the Wall Street Journal. Complaining of the "free face time" that media types give to victims' families, they spun out a complicated conspiracy theory in which they charged that group members were "subsidiaries of established anti-Bush forces--political entities committed to defeating the President this fall."

The argument--which was repeated to varying degrees by Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Brit Hume, Charles Krauthammer, The Weekly Standard, the New York Post and Richard Mellon Scaife's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among others--goes like this: Peaceful Tomorrows is "a front organization for the Democratic Party," because it is a "project of the leftist Tides Center," which "provides back-office services to ideologically acceptable 'charitable' organizations for a fee. The Center receives generous financial assistance from liberal foundations, including various Heinz family endowments. The chairman of at least one of those endowments is Teresa Heinz, wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry." The New York Post picked up the gauntlet under the headline "Mrs. Kerry's Cash Connection," insisting that "Peaceful Tomorrows' parent group, the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, has received millions from foundations controlled by Kerry's heiress wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry."

Here are the facts: The Tides Center does provide administrative and financial services to Peaceful Tomorrows and is paid 9 percent of all the funds the organization raises in return. The Tides Foundation, which funds the center, among many other causes, made four grants to Peaceful Tomorrows during 2002 and 2003, totaling $34,665. Meanwhile, the Heinz Endowments, of which one is headed by Teresa Heinz Kerry, made grants to the Tides Foundation of $230,000 between 1994 and 1998. These were specifically earmarked to support a pollution prevention initiative and other environmentally friendly practices by industries in western Pennsylvania. In other words, there is absolutely no connection between Mrs. Kerry and the Heinz Endowments and Peaceful Tomorrows. The Heinz donations were made between four and eight years before the group even existed. They were made to support local environmental causes. And absolutely none of the money in question ever ended up in the coffers of this tiny, frugally funded organization of those who lost someone the day America was attacked.

You might imagine, Limbaugh aside, that given what these people have suffered, even conservative hacks might exercise a little journalistic care before attempting to demonize them. You would be wrong. While the Journal editors lecture the rest of the media ("We sympathize just a little with the failure of the press corps to get to the bottom of this") they themselves never bothered to contact anyone at Peaceful Tomorrows before launching their misguided missive, according to Johnny Temple of Akashic Books/RDV Books, which published September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning Our Grief Into Action for Peace.

As it turns out, according to a survey published in USA Today, 66 percent of Americans questioned share the view that all candidates--including George W. Bush--should refrain from using 9/11 imagery in their ads. A clear subtext of this campaign, however, is the far right's desire to turn Teresa Kerry into its newest version of Hillary Clinton, whom it succeeded in demonizing as a radical leftist in much of the mainstream media despite her middle-of-the-road, "New Democrat" leanings.

This episode should serve as a warning shot to the Kerry campaign and to all organizations seeking to hold this Administration accountable. The far-right smear machine is saying: We will do anything--up to and including McCarthyite attacks on 9/11 widows and orphans--to insure victory in November. We are on the cusp of something extremely ugly in 2004.

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