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How the Media Enabled US Drone Policy | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

How the Media Enabled US Drone Policy

My new “Think Again” column is called “Remembering the ‘Feminine Mystique’” and it’s here.

My new Nation column is called “Ron Fournier, Doomsayer,”  but it could have been called “High Fournierism” or perhaps “Fornierification,” but anyway it’s here.

The Cause is out in paperback and it strikes me as not as long (or thick) as I expected it to be. Here are some of the blurbs we decided to use:

"Alterman’s magnum opus . . . All aspects of liberalism are surveyed .  . . the definitive work on its subject.” — San Francisco Chronicle

“What a relief it is…to read Eric Alterman’s superb new book, THE CAUSE. [I]f your goal is to learn about, and understand, one of this country’s most potent political forces, this book belongs in your hands.”— Boston Globe

“The most thoughtful critique of contemporary liberalism written from within that worldview.." —The Weekly Standard

“…an intellectual (and actual) history of liberalism that even [Lionel] Trilling would approve of… excellent….” — Daily Beast

“…an illuminating history of postwar politics, international relations, culture, and philosophy—all in one scrupulously researched volume.” — Publishers Weekly

Alter-reviews: Big week for live-music
A Tribute to Bobby Short at the Allen Room
Chick Corea with the Jazz@Lincoln Center Orchestra at Rose Hall
Friends of Chick Corea: Musicans of the Future at the Allen Room
Tom Jones at the Bowery Ballroom
Jane Monheit at Birdland

Last Thursday night I took in the tribute to Bobby Short at the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center. MC’ed by Michael Feinstein, it featured Barbara Carroll, whose voice remains full and fingers nimble at 88 and who worked with Short for decades at the Café Carlyle and they were close friends (but I’m not even sure she was the oldest of the performers that night). Paula West sang some bluesy Cole Porter lyrics that he probably didn’t write and T. Oliver Reid came across as a genuine torch-bearer. Marti Stevens made a rare appearance making this group even older collectively, than the Rolling Stones. But they were also pretty great. The band was Tedd Firth, Andy Farber Ed Howard and Mark McLean.

The evening certainly gave the impression that Short was just as jovial and entertaining in “real life” as on stage. I did manage to scrounge one performance of his out of the people at the Carlyle, luckily, but in my youth, I was not confident I would be able to. The prices, however, were so high as to be prohibitive and so I figured it was not to be.

One day, in mid afternoon, crossing Park Avenue not far from the Carlyle, I was noticed Bobby Short waiting next to me for the light to change. I introduced myself and said that while I was a great admirer of his work, I could not afford the prices at the Carlyle. He said that was too bad, and wished luck before going on his way. About a half a block later, however, he turned around with an idea: “You know,” Short advised me, “you could always marry a rich a girl…”

Friday night, I went back to Jazz at Lincoln Center for two shows on the same night: Chick Corea with the (complete) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and then Beka Gochiashvili and Gadi Lehavi at the Allen Room, playing the music of Corea, with Ravi Coltrane and Wallace Rooney joining in.

Did I mention that Gochiashvili (a Georgian)  Lehavi (an Israeli) were only 17? They played piano together. I only caught their final songs--a thoughtful meditation on Corea’s “Matrix,” but the poise and patience each one demonstrated was impressive, especially given the big guns with whom they were performing.

I was forced to miss most of their performance because of the generosity of program being played at Rose Hall by Corea, Wynton Marsalis and the complete orchestra--with new arrangements, per usual, by members of the band. Chick Corea may be the most versatile composer alive in any musical form. I have been buying his albums since I was a teenager and I still can’t keep up. It would be impossible to do more than scratch the proverbial surface and that’s just what he and the band did though what a pleasure it was to hear them filled out by this incredible big band. Despite the formality of the hall, and everybody but Chick sartorially sporting Brooks Brothers suits, the evening had a relaxed, rather laid-back atmosphere, with Corea and Marsalis trading the mc role and the members of the band taking turns on a striking set of solos. (Mrs. Corea, Gayle Moran, stopped in the middle of her song to congratulate her husband for being able to surprise her on the keyboards after forty years of accompaniment. She, also, could not possibly have been wearing Brooks Brothers, to put it gently.) The selections moved back and forth over the past fifty years--including a striking recent piece commissioned for the the 50th anniversary of the MIT jazz program. Thankfully, there was none of the awful L. Rod Hubbard stuff, but even that is forgiveable, given everything the man has given us over the past half-century.

Saturday night I saw an amazing show by the sexiest seventy-two year old man on the planet, no contest. Tom Jones sounds as good or better than ever, and like so many of us, is much more handsome than he was before with his gray goatee. Seriously, Tom Jones has a voice that needs to be heard live to be believed and his choice of material in his newest incarnation makes him one of the most compelling and exciting performers I’ve seen in years.

With a tight-knit four-piece band, Jones did a 95-minute set that included songs drawn primarily from 2010’s gospel album Praise & Blame and this year’s terrific “Spirit in the Room.”

Drinking what he explained was “Gray Goose water,” he opened with “Tower of Song,” and ran through “Dimming of the Day,” “Just Dropped In,” Bad as Me,” “Sould of a Man” and some John Lee Hooker.

The only throwbacks to Jones’ past was a lovely encore of "Green, Green Grass of Home,"and in, in tribute to George Jones, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."  Now behold the man’s awesomeness in this video: Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young and Tom Jones in 1969.

Finally, Wednesday night, I caught a  shockingly crowded show at Birdland where one of my favorite singers, Jane Monheit, was celebrating the release of her new cd, “The Heart Of The Matter” her eleventh.  Highlights include:

“Golden Slumbers/The Long And Winding Road” by The Beatles to Buffy St. Marie’s “Until It’s Time For You To Go” to “Depende de Nos” by Ivan Lins, Randy Newman’s “When She Loved Me,” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” along with first song recorded by Monheit on which she has written both the words and the music, “Night Night Stars.”   Believe it or not, she actually turns that horrible “Sing, Sing a song” song into something moving and almost beautiful—though few things are as beautiful as her live version—one of eight arrangements—of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Not even loud German tourists who don’t know you’re not supposed to talk during the performance at Birdland could ruin that.

The new album was produced and arranged by Gil Goldstein, with Michael Kanan on piano, Gil Goldstein on electric piano and accordion, Romero Lubambo on acoustic guitar, Neal on bass, Rick Montalbano on drums, Rogerio Boccato on percussion, David Eggar and Richard Locker on cello, Barry Crawford and Kathleen Nester on alto flute and Sheryl Henze on bass flute and c flute.

Now here’s Reed:

How the Media Enabled U.S. Drone Policy
by Reed Richardson

For a nation that, by 2009, had grown both physically and politically weary from two interminable wars against ghost-like foes, it’s not surprising that the incoming Obama administration latched onto drone strikes as its favorite counterterrorism weapon. After all, in theory, drones have much to commend them. They’re relatively cheap, more readily deployable, don’t risk the lives of American service members, and, best of all, they dangle the enticing prospect of raining pinpoint, Zeus-like vengeance down upon the heads of specified enemy terrorists. Money saved, world safer, bad guys dead, good guys home for dinner. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, as is always true in the fog of battle, a lot, actually. In fact, the remote unbridling of lethal force against hard-to-identify individuals based on sometimes muddy, often chaotic intelligence has proven to be a sure-fire recipe to kill dozens of innocent people for every target hit. What’s more, it’s increasingly apparent the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere have ensnared us in a kind of moral and ethical tar pit—the more we exercise this weapon to fight terrorism, the more we subvert the principles of justice and due process we’re supposedly fighting to uphold.

Thus, the president’s announcement that he’ll be curtailing the use of drone strikes and re-establishing military control over the program is long overdue good news. Following on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder’s formal acknowledgment this week that the U.S. government killed four of its citizens overseas, three of them accidentally, the administration seems to have finally arrived at some kind of turning point on drones. However, it’s important to note that the new Presidential Policy Guidance on drones Obama signed on Wednesday is classified. Moreover, the administration, as was obvious by the unbowed tone of Holder’s letter to Congress, has by no means abandoned its troubling legal justifications for drone strikes overseas. It has merely deemed the strikes themselves less necessary. This leaves the door open for it, or a subsequent White House administration, to ramp it all back up again. That’s why a heaping helping of skepticism is in order.

Sadly, we’ve gotten anything but skepticism from the press since the drone program’s inception. Instead, the establishment media’s coverage has mostly been of the dutifully credulous variety, when not outright cheerleading. For instance, news organizations have routinely lauded the latest drone “success” or terrorist killed, by citing only “U.S. officials” or their proxies as sources. Little more than government propaganda, this kind of reporting uniformly ignores collateral damage and civilian casualties, and sometimes proves to be grossly inaccurate. (See this erroneous 2009 Fox News report that repeats a U.S. official’s claim about the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar Awlawki, who actually survived the attack in question unharmed.)

In addition to this steady drip of positive news briefs, the press has also served up several larger, gushing portraits of the drone program. For example, there was this cinematic, behind-the-scenes dive into the CIA’s role as well as this flattering, White House-insider account. When not chock full of macho posturing— “we are killing these son of bitches faster than they can grow them”—this reporting spins scenes of a steely but sober commander-in-chief—“The president is not a robotic killing machine. The choices he faces are brutally difficult.” Rarely encountered in the establishment media, though, was any discussion of the growing toll of innocent lives lost or the broadening legal quagmire that accompanied the rapid expansion of drone strikes during Obama’s first term.

Even when the mainstream media’s coverage of the drone program doesn’t resort to supple obeisance, there’s still a festering unwillingness to connect all the dots. For instance, New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Charlie Savage have been rare bright spots on drone coverage. But I scratch my head in wonder at why Mazzetti and the Times don’t pounce on one of the administration’s key drone strike justifications—that it’s not feasible to capture any of these suspected terrorists on the ground. This is particularly true in light of a Times article co-authored by Mazzetti from this past February, which profiled an elite Yemeni counterterrorism unit trained by U.S. forces for just such a task, but who are stuck doing traffic duty instead.

Indeed, head down to the story’s kicker quote, which raises serious questions about the proffered reasoning for drone strikes in Yemen: “‘For sure, we could be going after some of these guys,’” the [Yemeni] officer said. ‘That’s what we’re trained to do, and the Americans trained us. It doesn’t make sense.’” Ah, but perhaps it does, since any suspected Al Qaeda member captured in Pakistan or Yemen— even if they’re a U.S. citizen as Awlawki was—could end up at the prison in Guantanamo, a civil liberties nightmare that Obama has been unable to close down. Again, this is a critical discussion point that, up until Obama’s announcement today, has been missing from the traditional press’s coverage—until Guantanamo is closed down, it’s almost guaranteed that the drone program won’t be.  

But while it’s one thing for the press to fall victim to source bias or a hedging its bets about challenging the government directly, it’s quite another for it to perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy among the public—that drone strikes are overwhelmingly popular. Now, it is true that during the Obama’s administration’s first term, the few polls conducted on the topic—including 2011 and 2012 surveys from Pew and one from ABC News/Washington Post—seemed to indicate broad, bipartisan majorities supported the drone program. And as these numbers dovetailed nicely with the Beltway conventional wisdom, the DC press corps gladly ate this narrative up, splashing headlines like “The American public loves drones.” Of course, these same news outlets consistently overlooked the fact that they were busy feeding the public a steady diet of upbeat drone stories in the first place. Round and round we go.

Still, the press’s negligence on the drone program’s popularity extends beyond a mere lack of self–awareness. Its failure involves digging deeper into the polling toplines on drones. If it did, it would have found alarming inconsistencies in the questions and presumptions baked into the drone terminology. For example, the 2011 Pew study’s question was incredibly vague, asking about “the use of unmanned ‘drone’ aircraft for aerial attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.” Conflating a close air support mission in support of U.S. troops against Taliban in Afghanistan with a CIA-approved strike of a possible Al Qaeda member “elsewhere” in Waziristan makes the data gleaned here almost worthless. Similarly, Pew’s 2012 poll posed a question that said drones “target extremists” in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Notably, Pew’s wording allows for no hint of doubt about the guilt or innocence of these extremists, which is akin to gauging the popularity of sentencing already convicted criminals to jail. Indeed, it’s amazing that only 62 percent of Americans supported drones in this context.

Lately, pollsters seemed to have awakened to this stilted language, and most now identify drone targets as “suspected terrorists.” But even this formulation can present problems because just using the word “terrorist” can trigger a strong psychological response that blots out a single qualifier. (How many parents would say they’re OK with a “suspected child molester” living next door?) What’s more, pollsters never ask follow-up questions about the consequences of these suspicions being wrong or point out how often these drones miss their targets, to see if the potential for killing innocent men, women, and children might cool the zeal for drone strikes. Such nuance can make a huge difference, however. Sadly, it took a grandstanding stunt in the shape of a Senate filibuster by drone-supporting Senator Rand Paul for pollsters and the press to figure this out.

Just days before Paul’s filibuster this past March, Fox News, no slouch when it comes to tapping into the latest oncoming right-wing outrage, added more questions to its own drone policy poll, mirroring the objections of Paul. Lo and behold, it found that as you fleshed out drone use scenarios, like the targeting of suspected terrorists who were also U.S. citizens or who were located on U.S. soil, support for drone strikes fell below majority support. Weeks later, a Gallup Poll using a similar array of questions, found broad disapproval< of drone use in all but the most basic (read: least detailed) case.

Does Paul deserve credit for changing the minds of Americans? I highly doubt it. A more likely explanation is that a latent unease for the use of drone strikes already resided among the public or has been slowly growing for years. But the Beltway press was either uninterested or unwilling to ask the right questions to ferret it out. Paul’s most important contribution was not to eloquently argue the moral and legal case against drones—his superciliousness I already linked to previously. It was to provide the “objective” news outlets a convenient Republican stand-in, so they could finally justify covering the drone issue now that it fell within the confines of a partisan debate. It’s telling that the Obama administration’s reset of drone policy took until now to occur, after all the newly critical press coverage and Congressional hearings took place. Or, as Long War Journal editor Bill Roggio—who has covered this issue tirelessly for years—noted about all the newfound sunshine on drones: “I get the sense that the microscope on the program is leading to greater selectivity in ordering strikes.” 

That’s perhaps the most important lesson we should learn about the press’s complicit behavior on drones during the past few years. Public scrutiny can eventually translate into political action. But by going along to get along, the media for far too long provided the Obama administration the cover it needed to freely conduct a counterproductive drone policy that will reverberate for years to come. And the press’s passivity, to this day, enables the president to excuse his actions through a poisoned calculus, one that weighs the largely forgotten civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes against the innocents killed from terrorist attacks by other Muslims. That kind of ugly moral relativity should remind the media that there is still a toll being paid, and a steep one at that, for having failed to hold this president accountable on his drone policy. 

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The mail:
Sanford Sklansky, Racine

Regarding Watergate, one of the things the precipitated Watergate was that Nixon wanted files that would show at worst that he had committed treason by trying to stall peace talks while Johnson was still president.  Johnson had Walt Rostow take those files before Johnson left the White House.  The files later went to the Johnson library in 1974 and where not to be opened for 50 years.  They were later opened in 1994.  While not specifying exactly the Nixon tapes do indicate that this is what they were looking for.  Robert Parry does a lot better job of explaining than I can.



Secondly this has not gotten much reporting in the main stream media.  Here is Greenwald explaining it all.

He wrote a column about this the other day as well.

Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa

Hi-

Your article "Worse Than Watergate?" was great. But the PPP results included some related results. One was that fewer (70% vs. 74%) thought that Benghazi was worse than Iran Contra. I tend to think this indicates that a few more people actually remember Iran Contra. Similarly, the same number (74%) thought that Benghazi was worse than Teapot Dome! (I had a lot of fun with this fact at my website, if you are interested.) There is no question that almost no one in the poll even knew what Teapot Dome was. And that makes me think that no one remembers what Watergate was either.

Regardless, all the poll really tells us is that Republicans don't like Obama and that the conservative media outlets have been pushing the Benghazi scandal. You are right to be concerned that people don't remember Watergate. But that can't be a surprise when they don't know where Benghazi is. On the other hand, I hope they end the embargo so I can visit Benghazi, Cuba before I die!

-Frank


PS: Have you seen the brilliant "The Mitchell and Web Look" bit about Watergate-gate? It would go well with your article.

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