The new UN estimate of 34,000 Iraqis killed in 2006 made headlines around the world, but it's almost certainly far too low. The number, as the New York Times reported, was "the first attempt at hand-counting individual deaths for an entire year," and was based on information from "morgues, hospitals and municipal authorities across Iraq."
The first problem with the UN count is that refers only to civilians--and thus almost certainly omitted deaths of Iraqi policemen, soldiers, insurgent fighters, and members of private militias like the Badr brigade. News media failed to report how the UN separated "civilian" casualties from the total, and the UN notably failed to report the total including non-civilians.
The second problem is the UN's methodology, which relied mostly on tallying official death certificates. The UN, according to the Times, argues their methodology is reliable because "a vast majority of Iraqi deaths are registered" with officials because Iraqis want to "prove inheritance and receive government compensation." But many bodies found in mass graves or ditches are unidentified. And there's another problem: according to the L.A. Times, "Victims' families are all too often reluctant to claim the bodies. . . . for fear of reprisals." And of course chaotic wartime conditions in several provinces make it difficult for officials there to issue death certificates even when victim's families do not fear reprisals.
None of the reports in leading newspapers mentioned the other count of Iraqi deaths: the Johns Hopkins study reported last October in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet. They estimated that 650,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the war--600,000 from violence and 50,000 from other war-related causes. President Bush rejected that figure--"I don't consider it a credible report," he told a press conference last October--and most of the media seem to have agreed.
But The Lancet study used state-of-the art demographic techniques, the same methodology employed to estimate war deaths in Kosovo, Congo, and Rwanda, and in natural disasters around the world. World leaders have cited those figures repeatedly without questioning their validity. It's the same methodology used in political polls in the US: the random sample.
Instead of trying to find documentation for individual deaths, The Lancet demographers, led by Gilbert Burnham of Johns Hopkins University, interviewed 12,000 people in 1,800 randomly selected households across Iraq. At each household, they asked how many people were living their currently, and whether anyone who had lived there had died since Jan. 1, 2002, and if so, whether they died before or after March 2003, when the war began. That made it possible to compare wartime death rates with pre-war rates.
Critics like Fred Kaplan at Slate.com objected. They said 12,000 was far too small a sample for a country of 30 million. But in the US, as country of 300 million, 1,000 people are interviewed in the typical political poll, and nobody objects to that sample size.
Critics also questioned whether The Lancet demographers really were able to interview all the people selected by their randomizing methodology. The demographers respond that they employed Iraqi physicians rather than Americans to do the interviewing, and that the response rate was extremely high, much higher than with political polling in the US.
There's one caveat about The Lancet study--their estimate of 650,000 wartime deaths covers the period that ended in July 2006. By all accounts the violence has increased significantly since July--so The Lancet figure now itself is undoubtedly too low.
At the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis last week, more than 3,000 people from across the United States cheered as Bill Moyers condemned the excesses and failures of big media, warning about "The Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which language conceals reality, and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power, is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies and lies to truth."
The crowd of media critics, media makers and media reformers rose to their feet to shout their enthusiastic endorsement of Moyers' call for the creation of new and alternative media outlets that speak truth to power. "We've got to get alternative content out there to people, or this country is going to die of too many lies," said Moyers, as he hailed Amy Goodman and Democracy Now and announced that he will be returning to PBS in April with a new public affairs program.
Here is Moyers' keynote address from January 12, 2007, the opening day of the conference:
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN ONCE SAID, "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner."
"Liberty," he said, "is a well-armed lamb, contesting the vote."
My fellow lambs -- it's good to be in Memphis and find you well-armed with passion for democracy, readiness for action, and courage for the next round in the fight for a free and independent press in America. I salute the conviction that brought you here. I cherish the spirit that fills this hall, and the camaraderie that we share here.
All too often, the greatest obstacle to reform is the reform movement itself. Factions rise, fences are erected, jealousies mount, and the cause all of us believe in is lost in the shattered fragments of what once was a clear and compelling vision.
Reformers, in fact, often remind me of Baptists. I speak as a Baptist. I know whereof I speak. One of my favorite stories is of the fellow who was about to jump off a bridge, when another fellow ran up to him crying, "Stop, stop, don't do it."
The man on the bridge looks down and asks, "Why not?"
"Well, there's much to live for."
"Well, your faith. Your religion."
"Are you religious?"
"Me, too. Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me, too. Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian?"
"Me, too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Savior?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me, too. Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me, too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1879, or Reform Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1917?"
Whereupon, the second fellow turned red in the face and yelled, "Die, you heretic scum," and pushed him off the bridge.
DOESN'T THAT SOUND LIKE A REFORM MOVEMENT? But by avoiding contentious factionalism, you have created a strong movement. And I will confess to you that I was skeptical when Bob McChesney and John Nichols first raised with me the issue of media consolidation a few years ago. I was sympathetic but skeptical. The challenge of actually doing something about this issue beyond simply bemoaning its impact on democracy was daunting. How could we hope to come up with an effective response to any measurable force? It seemed inexorable, because all over the previous decades, a series of mega-media mergers have swept the country, each deal bigger than the last. The lobby representing the broadcast, cable, and newspapers industries was extremely powerful, with an iron grip on lawmakers and regulators alike.
Both parties bowed to their will when the Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That monstrous assault on democracy, with malignant consequences for journalism, was nothing but a welfare giveaway to the largest, richest, and most powerful media conglomerations in the world. Goliaths, whose handful of owners controlled, commodified, and monetized everyone and everything in sight. Call it "the plantation mentality."
That's what struck me as I flew into Memphis for this gathering. Even in 1968, the civil rights movement was still battling the plantation mentality, based on race, gender and power, which permeated Southern culture long before, and even after, the groundbreaking legislation of the 1960s.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to join the strike of garbage workers in 1968, the cry from every striker's heart -- "I am a man" -- voiced the long-suppressed outrage of people whose rights were still being trampled by an ownership class that had arranged the world for its own benefit. The plantation mentality is a phenomenon deeply insinuated in the American experience early on, and it has permeated and corrupted our course as a nation.
The journalist of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, envisioned the new republic as a community of occupations, prospering by the aid with which each receives from the other and from the whole. But that vision was repeatedly betrayed, so that less than a century after Thomas Paine's death, Theodore Roosevelt, bolting a Republican Party whose bosses had stolen the nomination from him, declared: "It is not to be wondered at, that our opponents have been very bitter, for the line-up in this crisis is one that cuts deep to the foundations of democracy."
"Our democracy," he said, "is now put to a vital test, for the conflict is between human rights on the one side, and on the other, special privilege asserted as property rights. The parting of the ways has come."
Today, a hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt's death, those words ring just as true. America is socially divided and politically benighted. Inequality and poverty grow steadily along with risk and debt. Too many working families cannot make ends meet with two people working, let alone if one stays home to care for children or aging parents. Young people without privilege and wealth struggle to get a footing. Seniors enjoy less security for a lifetime's work. We are racially segregated today in every meaningful sense, except for the letter of the law. And the survivors of segregation and immigration toil for pennies on the dollar, compared to those they serve.
None of this is accidental. Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow, not known for extreme political statements, characterizes what is happening as "nothing less than elite plunder" -- the redistribution of wealth in favor of the wealthy, and the power in favor of the powerful. In fact, nearly all the wealth America created over the past 25 years has been captured by the top 20 percent of households, and most of the gains went to the wealthiest. The top 1 percent of households captured more than 50 percent of all the gains in financial wealth, and these households now hold more than twice the share their predecessors held on the eve of the American Revolution.
The anti-Federalist warning that government naturally works to fortify the conspiracies of the rich proved prophetic. It's the truth today, and America confronts a choice between two fundamentally different economic visions. As Norman Garfinkel writes in his marvelous new book, The American Dream vs. the Gospel of Wealth, the historic vision of the American dream is that continuing economic growth and political stability can be achieved by supporting income growth and economic security of middle-class families, without restricting the ability of successful business men to gain wealth.
The counter-belief is that providing maximum financial rewards to the most successful is the way to maintain high economic growth. The choice cannot be avoided. What kind of economy do we seek, and what kind of nation do we wish to be? Do we want to be a country in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, or do we want a country committed to an economy that provides for the common good, offers upward mobility, supports a middle-class standard of living, and provides generous opportunities for all?
"When the richest nation in the world has to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to pay its bill," Garfinkel says in his book, "when its middle class citizens sit on a mountain of debt to maintain their living standards, when the nation's economy has difficulty producing secure jobs, or enough jobs of any kind, something is amiss."
You bet something is amiss, and it goes to the core of why we are here in Memphis. For this conference is about a force, the media, that cuts deep to the foundation of democracy. When Teddy Roosevelt dissected what he called "the real masters of the reactionary forces" in his time, he concluded that, indirectly or directly, "they control the majority of the great newspapers that are against us." Those newspapers, the dominant media of the day, choked "the channels of the information ordinary people needed to understand what was being done to them."
And today, two basic pillars of American society, shared economic prosperity and a public sector capable of serving the common good, are crumbling. The third pillar of American democracy, an independent press, is under sustained attack, and the channels of information are choked. A few huge corporations now dominate the media landscape in America. Almost all the networks carried by most cable systems are owned by one of the major media common conglomerates. Two-thirds of today's newspapers are monopolies.
As ownership gets more and more concentrated, fewer and fewer independent sources of information have survived in the marketplace; and those few significant alternatives that do survive, such as PBS and NPR, are undergoing financial and political pressure to reduce critical news content and to shift their focus in a mainstream direction, which means being more attentive to establishment views than to the bleak realities of powerlessness that shape the lives of ordinary people.
What does today's media system mean for the notion of an informed public cherished by democratic theory? Quite literally, it means that virtually everything the average person sees or hears, outside of her own personal communications, is determined by the interests of private, unaccountable executives and investors whose primary goal is increasing profits and raising the share prices. More insidiously, this small group of elites determines what ordinary people do not see or hear. In-depth coverage of anything, let alone the problems real people face day-to-day, is as scarce as sex, violence and voyeurism are pervasive.
Successful business model or not, by democratic standards this is censorship of knowledge by monopolization of the means of information. In its current form, which Barry Diller happily describes as "oligopoly," media growth has one clear consequence. There is more information and easier access to it, but it's more narrow and homogenous in content and perspective. What we see from the couch is overwhelmingly a view from the top. The pioneering communications scholar Murray Edelman wrote that opinions about public policy do not spring immaculately or automatically into people's minds. They are always placed there by the interpretations of those who most consistently get their claims and manufactured cues publicized widely.
For years, the media marketplace for opinions about public policy has been dominated by a highly disciplined, thoroughly networked, ideological "noise machine," to use David Brock's term. Permeated with slogans concocted by big corporations, their lobbyists, and their think tank subsidiaries, public discourse has effectively changed the meaning of American values. Day after day, the ideals of fairness and liberty and mutual responsibility have been stripped of their essential dignity and meaning in people's lives. Day after day, the egalitarian creed of our Declaration of Independence is trampled underfoot by hired experts and sloganeers, who speak of the "death tax," "the ownership society," "the culture of life," "the liberal assault on God and family," "compassionate conservatism," "weak on terrorism," "the end of history," "the clash of civilizations," "no child left behind." They have even managed to turn the escalation of a failed war into a "surge," as if it were a current of electricity through a wire, instead of blood spurting from the ruptured vein of a soldier.
The Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which language conceals reality, and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power, is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies and lies to truth. So it is that limited government has little to do with the Constitution or local economy anymore. Now it means corporate domination and the shifting of risk from government and business to struggling families and workers. Family values now mean imposing a sectarian definition of the family on everyone else. Religious freedom now means majoritarianism and public benefits for organized religion without any public burdens. And patriotism has come to mean blind support for failed leaders.
It's what happens when an interlocking media system filters through commercial values or ideology, the information and moral viewpoints people consume in their daily lives. And by no stretch of the imagination can we say today that the dominant institutions of our media are guardians of democracy.
Despite the profusion of new information platforms on cable, on the Internet, on radio, blogs, podcasts, YouTube and MySpace, among others, the resources for solid, original journalistic work, both investigative and interpretative, are contracting, rather than expanding.
I'M OLD-FASHIONED. I'm a fogey at this, I guess, a hangover from my days as a cub reporter and a newspaper publisher. But I agree with Michael Schudson, one of the leading scholars of communication in America, who writes in the current Columbia Journalism Review that while all media matter, some matter more than others. And for the sake of democracy, print still counts most -- especially print that devotes resources to gathering news.
Network TV matters, he said. Cable TV matters, he said. But when it comes to original investigation and reporting, newspapers are overwhelmingly the most important media. But newspapers are purposely dumbing-down, "driven down," says Schudson, by Wall Street, whose collective devotion to an informed citizenry is nil and seems determined to eviscerate those papers.
Worrying about the loss of real news is not a romantic cliché of journalism. It's been verified by history. From the days of royal absolutism to the present, the control of information and knowledge had been the first line of defense for failed regimes facing democratic unrest. The suppression of parliamentary dissent during Charles I's 11 years of tyranny in England rested largely on government censorship, operating through strict licensing laws for the publication of books.
The Federalist's infamous Sedition Act of 1798 in this country, likewise, sought to quell republican insurgency by making it a crime to publish false, scandalous and malicious writing about the government or its officials. In those days, our governing bodies tried to squelch journalistic information with the blunt instruments of the law: padlocks for the presses and jail cells for outspoken editors and writers. Over time, with spectacular wartime exceptions, the courts and the Constitution have struck those weapons out of their hand.
But now they have found new methods in the name of national security and even broader claims of executive privilege. The number of documents stamped "Top Secret," "Secret," or "Confidential" has accelerated dramatically since 2001, including many formerly accessible documents that are now reclassified as "Secret." Vice President Cheney's office refuses to disclose, in fact, what it is classifying. Even their secrecy is being kept a secret.
Beyond what is officially labeled "Secret" or "privileged" information, there hovers on the plantation a culture of selective official news implementation, working through favored media insiders to advance political agendas by leak and innuendo and spin, by outright propaganda mechanisms, such as the misnamed public information offices that churn out blizzards of factually selective releases on a daily basis, and even by directly paying pundits and journalists to write on subjects of mutual interest.
They needn't have wasted the money. As we saw in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the plantation mentality that governs Washington turned the press corps into sitting ducks for the war party, for government, and neoconservative propaganda and manipulation. There were notable exceptions -- Knight Ridder's bureau, for example -- but on the whole, all high-ranking officials had to do was say it, and the press repeated it until it became gospel. The height of myopia came with the admission (or was it bragging?) by one of the Beltway's most prominent anchors that his responsibility is to provide officials a forum to be heard, what they say more newsworthy than what they do.
The watchdog group FAIR found that during the three weeks leading up to the invasion, only 3 percent of U.S. sources on the evening news of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and PBS expressed skeptical opinions of the impending war, even though a quarter of the American people were against it. Not surprisingly, two years after 9/11, almost 70 percent of the public still thought it likely that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the terrorist attacks of that day.
One Indiana schoolteacher told the Washington Post: "From what we've heard from the media, it seems what they feel is that Saddam and the whole Al-Qaeda thing are connected." Much to the advantage of the Bush administration, a large majority of the public shared this erroneous view during the build-up to the war, a propaganda feat that Saddam himself would have envied. It is absolutely stunning, frightening how the major media organizations were willing, even solicitous, hand puppets of a state propaganda campaign, cheered on by the partisan, ideological press to go to war.
But there are many other ways the plantation mentality keeps the American people from confronting reality. Take the staggering growth of money in politics. Compared to the magnitude of the problem, what the average person knows about how money determines policy is negligible. In fact, in the abstract, the polls tell us, most people generally assume that money controls our political system. But people will rarely act on something they understand only in the abstract. It took a constant stream of images -- water hoses, and dogs and churches ablaze -- for the public at large finally to understand what was happening to black people in the South. It took repeated scenes of destruction in Vietnam before the majority of Americans saw how we were destroying the country in order to save it. And it took repeated crime-scene images to maintain public support for many policing and sentencing policies.
Likewise, people have to see how money and politics actually work and concretely grasp the consequences for their pocketbooks and their lives before they will act. But while media organizations supply a lot of news and commentary, they tell us almost nothing about who really wags the system and how. When I watch one of those faux debates on a Washington public affairs show, with one politician saying, "This is a bad bill," and the other politician saying, "This is a good bill," I yearn to see the smiling, nodding, Beltway anchor suddenly interrupt and insist, "Good bill or bad bill, this is a bought bill. Now, let's cut to the chase. Whose financial interests are you advancing with this bill?"
Then there's the social cost of free trade. For over a decade, free trade has hovered over the political system like a biblical commandment striking down anything -- trade unions, the environment, indigenous rights, even the constitutional standing of our own laws passed by our elected representatives -- that gets in the way of unbridled greed. The broader negative consequences of this agenda, increasingly well-documented by scholars, get virtually no attention in the dominant media. Instead of reality, we get optimistic, multicultural scenarios of coordinated global growth. And instead of substantive debate, we get a stark formulated choice between free trade to help the world and gloomy-sounding protectionism that will set everyone back.
The degree to which this has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that people can weigh the gains and losses is reflected in Thomas Friedman's astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it. That is simply because it stood for "free trade." We have reached the stage when the Poo-Bahs of punditry have only to declare that "the world is flat," for everyone to agree it is, without going to the edge and looking over themselves.
I think what's happened is not indifference or laziness or incompetence, but the fact that most journalists on the plantation have so internalized conventional wisdom that they simply accept that the system is working as it should. I'm doing a documentary this spring called "Buying the War," and I can't tell you again how many reporters have told me that it just never occurred to them that high officials would manipulate intelligence in order to go to war. Hello?
Similarly, the question of whether or not our economic system is truly just is off the table for investigation and discussion, so that alternative ideas, alternative critiques, alternative visions never get a hearing. And these are but a few of the realities that are obscured. What about this growing inequality? What about the re-segregation of our public schools? What about the devastating onward march of environmental deregulation? All of these are examples of what happens when independent sources of knowledge and analysis are so few and far between on the plantation.
So if we need to know what is happening, and Big Media won't tell us; if we need to know why it matters, and Big Media won't tell us; if we need to know what to do about it, and Big Media won't tell us, it's clear what we have to do. We have to tell the story ourselves.
And this is what the plantation owners feared most of all. Over all those decades here in the South, when they used human beings as chattel, and quoted scripture to justify it, property rights over human rights was God's way, they secretly lived in fear that one day -- instead of saying, "Yes, Massa" -- those gaunt, weary, sweat-soaked field hands, bending low over the cotton under the burning sun, would suddenly stand up straight, look around, see their sweltering and stooping kin and say, "This ain't the product of intelligent design. The boss man in the big house has been lying to me. Something is wrong with this system."
This is the moment freedom begins, the moment you realize someone else has been writing your story, and it's time you took the pen from his hand and started writing it yourself.
When the garbage workers struck here in 1968, and the walls of these buildings echoed with the cry, "I am a man," they were writing this story. Martin Luther King came here to help them tell it, only to be shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The bullet killed him, but it couldn't kill the story, because once the people start telling their story, you can't kill it anymore.
SO I'M BACK WHERE I STARTED WITH YOU, AND WHERE THIS MOVEMENT IS HEADED. The greatest challenge to the plantation mentality of the media giants is the innovation and expression made possible by the digital revolution. I may still prefer the newspaper for its investigative journalism and in-depth analysis, but we now have it in our means to tell a different story from Big Media, our story.
The other story of America that says, free speech is not just corporate speech. That news is not just what officials tell us. And we are not just chattel in the fields living the boss man's story. This is the great gift of the digital revolution, and you must never, never let them take it away from you. The Internet, cell phones and digital cameras that can transmit images over the Internet makes possible a nation of story tellers, every citizen a Tom Paine.
Let the man in the big house on Pennsylvania Avenue think that over, and the woman of the House on Capitol Hill. And the media moguls in their chalets at Sun Valley, gathered to review the plantation's assets and multiply them, nail it to their door. They no longer own the copyright to America's story. It's not a top-down story anymore. Other folks are going to write this story from the ground up. And the truth will be out that the media plantation, like the cotton plantation of old, is not divinely sanctioned. It's not the product of natural forces. The media system we have been living under for a long time now was created behind closed doors where the power-brokers met to divvy up the spoils.
Bob McChesney has eloquently reminded us through the years how each medium -- radio, television and cable -- was hailed as a technology that would give us greater diversity of voices, serious news, local programs, and lots of public service for the community. In each case, the advertisers took over.
Despite what I teasingly told you the last time we were together in St. Louis, the star that shines so brightly in the firmament the year I was born, 1934, did not, I regret to say, appear over that little house in Hugo, Oklahoma. It appeared over Washington when Congress enacted the 1934 Communications Act. One hundred times in that cornerstone of our communications policy, you will read the phrase "public interests, convenience, and necessity."
I can tell you reading about those days that educators, union officials, religious leaders and parents were galvanized by the promise of radio as a classroom for the air, serving the life of the country and the life of the mind – until the government cut a deal with the industry to make sure nothing would threaten the already vested interests of powerful radio networks and the advertising industry. And soon, the public largely forgot about radio's promise, as we accepted the entertainment produced and controlled by Jell-O, Maxwell House and Camel cigarettes.
What happened to radio, happened to television, and then it happened to cable; and, if we are not diligent, it will happen to the Internet. Powerful forces are at work now, determined to create our media future for the benefit of the plantation: investors, advertisers, owners and the parasites that depend on their indulgence, including many in the governing class.
Old media acquire new media and vice versa. Rupert Murdoch, forever savvy about the next key outlet that will attract eyeballs, purchased MySpace, spending nearly $600 million, so he could, in the language of Wall Street, monetize those eyeballs. Goggle became a partner in Time Warner, investing $1 billion in its AOL online service. And now Goggle has bought YouTube, so it would have a better vehicle for delivering interactive ads for Madison Avenue. Viacom, Microsoft, large ad agencies, and others have been buying up key media properties, many of them the leading online sites, with a result that will be a thoroughly commercialized environment, a media plantation for the 21st century, dominated by the same corporate and ideological forces that have produced the system we have lived under the last 50 years.
So what do we do? Well, you've shown us what we have to do. And twice now, you have shown us what we can do. Four years ago, when FCC Commissioner Michael Powell and his ideological sidekicks decided it was ok for a single corporation to own a community's major newspapers, three of its TV stations, eight radio stations, its cable TV system, and its major broadband Internet provider, you said, enough's enough!
Free Press, Common Cause, Consumer's Union, Media Access Project, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and others working closely with commissioners Adelstein and Copps, two of the most public, spirited members of that commission ever to sit there, organized public hearings across the country where people spoke deeply felt opinions about how poorly the media were serving their towns. You flooded Congress with petitions, and you never let up. And when the court said Powell had to back off, the decision cited the importance of involving the public in these media decisions.
Incidentally, Powell not only backed off, he backed out. He left the commission to become senior adviser at a private investment firm specializing in equity investments in media companies around the world. And that firm, by the way, made a bid to take over both Tribune and Clear Channel, two media companies that just a short time ago were under the corporate-friendly purview of -- you guessed it -- Michael Powell. That whooshing sound you hear is Washington's perpetually revolving door through which they come to serve the public and through which they leave to join the plantation.
You made a difference. You showed that the public cares about media and democracy. You turned a little publicized vote -- little publicized because Big Media didn't want the people to know -- a little publicized and seemingly arcane regulation into a big political fight and a public debate.
Now it's true, as commissioner Copps has reminded us, that since that battle three years ago, there have been more than 3, 300 TV and radio TV stations that have had their assignment and transfer grants approved, so that even under the old rules, consolidation grows, localism suffers, and diversity dwindles. It's also true that even as we speak, Michael Powell's successor, Kevin Martin, put there by George W. Bush, is ready to take up where Powell left off and give the green light to more conglomeration. Get ready to fight.
But then you did it again more recently. You lit a fire under the people to put Washington on notice that it had to guarantee the Internet's First Amendment protection in the $85 billion merger of AT&T and BellSouth. Because of you, the so-called Net Neutrality, I much prefer to call it the "equal-access provision of the Internet" -- neutrality makes me think of Switzerland -- the equal-access provision became a public issue that once again reminded the powers-that-be that people want the media to foster democracy, not to quench it.
This is crucial. This is crucial, because in a few years, virtually all media will be delivered by high-speed broadband. And without equality of access, the Net can become just like cable television where the provider decides what you see and what you pay. After all, the Bush Department of Justice had blessed the deal last October without a single condition or statement of concern. But they hadn't reckoned with Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, and they hadn't reckoned with this movement. Free Press and SavetheInternet.com orchestrated 800 organizations, a million and a half petitions, countless local events, legions of homemade videos, smart collaboration with allies and industry, and a top shelf communications campaign. Who would have imagined that sitting together in the same democratic broadband pew would be the Christian Coalition, Gun Owners of America, Common Cause, and Moveon.org? Who would have imagined that these would link arms with some of the powerful new media companies to fight for the Internet's First Amendment?
We owe a tip of the hat, of course, to Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell. Despite what must have been a great deal of pressure from his side, he did the honorable thing and recused himself from the proceedings because of a conflict of interest. He might well have heard the roar of the public that you helped to create. So AT&T had to cry "uncle" to Copps and Adelstein, with a "voluntary commitment to honor equal access for at least two years." The agreement marks the first time that the federal government has imposed true neutrality -- oops, equality – on an Internet access provider since the debate erupted almost two years ago.
I believe you changed the terms of the debate. It is no longer about whether equality of access will govern the future of the Internet. It's about when and how. It also signals a change from defense to offense for the backers of an open net. Arguably the biggest, most effective online organizing campaign ever conducted on a media issue can now turn to passing good laws, rather than always having to fight to block bad ones. Just this week, Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat, and Sen. Olympia Snow, a Republican, introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2007 to require fair and equitable access to all content. And over in the House, that champion of the public interest, Rep. Ed Markey, is once again standing there waiting to press the battle.
A caveat here. Those other folks don't give up so easy. Remember, this agreement is only for two years, and they will be back with all the lobbyists money can hire. As the Washington Post follows George Bush into the black hole of Baghdad, the press in Washington won't be covering many stories like this because of priorities.
A further caveat. Consider what AT&T got in the bargain. For giving up on Net Neutrality, it got the green light from government to dominate over 67 million phone lines in 22 states, almost 12 million broadband users, and total control over Cingular Wireless, the country's largest mobile phone company with 58 million cell phone users. It's as if China swallowed India.
I bring this up for a reason. Big Media is ravenous. It never gets enough, always wants more. And it will stop at nothing to get it. These conglomerates are an empire, and they are imperial.
Last week on his Web site, MediaChannel.org, Danny Schechter recalled how some years ago he marched with a band of media activists to the headquarters of all the big media companies concentrated in the Times Square area. Their formidable buildings strutted with logos and limos, and guarded by rent-a-cops, projected their power and prestige. Danny and his cohorts chanted and held up signs calling for honest news and an end to exploited programming. They called for diversity and access for more perspectives. "It felt good," Danny said, "but it seemed like a fool's errand. We were ignored, patronized and marginalized. We couldn't shake their edifices or influence their holy business models. We seemed to many like that lonely and forlorn nut in a New Yorker cartoon carrying an ‘End of the World is Near' placard."
Well, yes, my friends, that is exactly how they want you to feel. As if media and democracy is a fool's errand. To his credit, Danny didn't give up. He's never given up. Neither have the early pioneers of this movement: Andy Schwartzman, Don Hazen, Jeff Chester. I confess that I came very close not to making this speech today, in favor of just getting up here and reading from this book, Digital Destiny, by my friend and co-conspirator, Jeff Chester. Take my word for it. Make this your bible, until McChesney's new book comes out. As Don Hazen writes in his review in AlterNet this week, it's a terrific book, "a respectful loving, fresh, intimate comprehensive history of the struggles for a ‘democratic' media -- the lost fights, the opportunities missed, and the small victories that have kept the corporate media system from having complete carte blanche over the communication channels."
It's also a terrifying book, because Jeff describes how we are being shadowed online by a slew of software digital gumshoes working for Madison Avenue. Our movements in cyberspace are closely tracked and analyzed, and interactive advertising infiltrates our consciousness to promote the brand-washing of America. Jeff asks the hard questions: Do we really want television sets that monitor what we watch? Or an Internet that knows what sites we visit and reports back to advertising companies? Do we really want a media system designed mainly for Madison Avenue?
But this is a hopeful book. "After scaring the bejeezus out of us," as one reviewer wrote, Jeff offers a policy agenda for the broadband era. Here is a man who practices what the Italian philosopher Gramsci called the "pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will." He sees the world as it is, without rose-colored glasses and tries to change it, despite what he knows.
So you'll find here the core of the movement's mission. You'll agree with much and disagree with some. But that's what a reform movement is about. Media reform -- yes. But the Project in Excellence concluded in its "State of the Media Report" for 2006, "At many old media companies, though not in all, the decades-long battle at the top between idealists and accountants is now over. The idealists have lost." The commercial networks are lost, too, lost to silliness, farce, cowardice and ideology. Not much hope there. You can't raise the dead.
Policy reform, yes. But, says Jeff, we will likely see more consolidation of ownership with newspapers, TV stations, and major online properties in fewer hands. So, he says, we have to find other ways to ensure the public has access to diverse, independent, and credible sources of information.
That means going to the market to find support for stronger independent media. Michael Moore and others have proven that progressivism doesn't have to equal penury. It means helping protect news-gathering from predatory forces. It means fighting for more participatory media, hospitable to a full range of expression. It means building on Lawrence Lessig's notion of the "creative commons" and Brewster Kahle's Internet Archives, with his philosophy of universal access to all knowledge.
It means bringing broadband service to those many millions of Americans too poor to participate so far in the digital revolution. It means ownership and participation for people of color and women. And let me tell you, it means reclaiming public broadcasting and restoring it to its original feisty, robust, fearless mission as an alternative to the dominant media, offering journalism you can afford and can trust, public affairs of which you are a part, and a wide range of civic and cultural discourse that leaves no one out.
You can have an impact here. For one thing, we need to remind people that the federal commitment to public broadcasting in this country is about $1.50 per capita, compared to $28 to $85 per capita in other democracies.
BUT THERE IS SOMETHING ELSE I WANT YOU TO THINK ABOUT. Something else you can do. And I'm going to let you in here on one of my fantasies. Keep it to yourself, if you will, because fantasies are private matters, and mine involves Amy Goodman. But I'll just ask C-SPAN to bleep this out. Oh, shucks, what's the use. Here it is. In moments of revelry, I imagine all of you returning home to organize a campaign to persuade your local public television station to start airing Democracy Now!
I can't think of a single act more likely to remind people of what public broadcasting should be, or that this media reform conference really means business. We've got to get alternative content out there to people, or this country is going to die of too many lies. And the opening rundown of news on Amy's daily show is like nothing else on any television, corporate or public. It's as if you opened the window in the morning and a fresh breeze rolls over you from the ocean. Amy doesn't practice trickle-down journalism. She goes where the silence is, and she breaks the sound barrier. She doesn't buy the Washington protocol that says the truth lies somewhere in the spectrum of opinion between the Democrats and the Republicans.
On Democracy Now! the truth lies where the facts are hidden, and Amy digs for them. And above all, she believes the media should be a sanctuary for dissent, the Underground Railroad tunneling beneath the plantation. So go home and think about it. After all, you are the public in public broadcasting and not just during pledge breaks. You live there, and you can get the boss man at the big house to pay attention.
Meanwhile, be vigilant about the congressional rewrite of the Telecommunications Act that is beginning as we speak. Track it day by day and post what you learn far and wide, because the decisions made in this session of Congress will affect the future of all media, corporate and noncommercial. If we lose the future now, we'll never get it back.
So you have your work cut out for you. I'm glad you're all younger than me and up to it. I'm glad so many funders are here, because while an army may move on its stomach, this movement requires hard, cold cash to compete with big media in getting the attention of Congress and the people.
I'll try to do my part. Last time we were together, I said to you that I should put my detractors on notice. They might just compel me out of the rocking chair and back into the anchor chair. Well, in April, I will be back with a new weekly series called Bill Moyer's Journal, thanks to some of the funders in this room. We'll take no money from public broadcasting because it compromises you even when you don't intend it to -- or they don't intend it to. I hope to complement the fine work of colleagues like David Brancaccio of NOW and David Fanning of Frontline, who also go for the truth behind the news.
But I don't want to tease you. I'm not coming back because of detractors. I wouldn't torture them that way. I'll leave that to Dick Cheney. I'm coming back, because it's what I do best. Because I believe television can still signify, and I don't want you to feel so alone. I'll keep an eye on your work. You are to America what the abolition movement was, and the suffragette movement, and the civil rights movement. You touch the soul of democracy. It's not assured you will succeed in this fight. The armies of the Lord are up against mighty hosts. But as the spiritual sojourner Thomas Merton wrote to an activist grown weary and discouraged protesting the Vietnam War, "Do not depend on the hope of results. Concentrate on the value and the truth of the work itself."
And in case you do get lonely, I'll leave you with this. As my plane was circling Memphis the other day, I looked out across those vast miles of fertile soil that once were plantations, watered by the Mississippi River, and the sweat from the brow of countless men and women who had been forced to live somebody else's story. I thought about how in time, with a lot of martyrs, they rose up, one here, then two, then many, forging a great movement that awakened America's conscience and brought us closer to the elusive but beautiful promise of the Declaration of Independence. As we made our last approach, the words of a Marge Piercy poem began to form in my head, and I remembered all over again why I was coming and why you were here:
What can they do
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can
bust you, they can break
your fingers, they can
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can t walk, can't remember, they can
take your child, wall up
your lover. They can do anything
you can't blame them
from doing. How can you stop
them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can
take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.
But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.
Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fundraising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the nation's media reform network, www.freepress.net, which organized the NCMR.
Just six months ago, Israeli chief of staff Dan Halutz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were riding high. On July 12, they had launched what they were still convinced would be the knockout blow from which Lebanese Hizbullah and its Iranian allies/backers would never recover... And on July 17, despite some early signs on setback in that war, they still seemed very upbeat about its prospects of success...
Now, six months later, how are the mighty fallen.
In early November, I published a long essay in Boston Review about how the flaws in the concept that Halutz used in the war were considerably magnified by the chaos in the decisionmaking of Israel's national command authorities at the very highest level... The result was a humiliating battlefield and strategic reverse for Israel, which damaged all portions of the Olmert government very seriously.
That damage has continued to play out in the Israeli body politic until today. Israel's "Winograd" state commission of enquiry into the Lebanon episode still continues its work, after an earlier inside-the-IDF enquiry delivered a stinging indictment of the role of the chief of staff...
Today, finally, Halutz submitted a resignation that in the view of many Israelis was long overdue. Amos Harel wrote in Wednesday's HaAretz:
Harel also wrote,
Olmert is at political risk not only from the continuing work of the Winograd Commission, and not only from his continued humiliating position in the opinion polls and the apparent collapse of the brand-new political party that he heads, "Kadima"... But on Tuesday, in addition, state prosecutor Eran Shendar announced he had
So there we have it. A fateful time for Israel, indeed, with its national command authorities in a large degree of internal turmoil, and public confidence in the political leadership at rock bottom.
A situation, I should add, that is also mirrored to a great extent in a Washington whose main center of power-- in the Vice President's office-- seems to march in near political lockstep with its friends in Israel..
For these reasons, over the past day or two I have again become much more concerned about the launching of a "Wag-the dog" scenario. Desperate times for both leaderships might indeed lead to a truly "desperate" search for remedies.
As state legislators grow increasingly opposed to an Iraq war that is stretching and weakening the National Guard and draining desperately needed funds at home, activists and legislators are launching a 50-state legislative response to stop President Bush's Iraq escalation plan.
On Wednesday, the Progressive States Network, MoveOn, Women Legislators' Lobby, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, and Sen. Edward Kennedy will kick-off the effort by hosting a conference call with activists and state legislators across the nation. The call is at 11:30 a.m. and is open to the public.
"States have the power and authority to speak out on issues that will impact them and their citizens," said Steve Doherty and David Sirota, Co-Chairs of Progressive States Network. "This escalation will have major costs – in terms of human lives, in terms of state budgets, and in terms of National Guard readiness."
Matt Singer, Communications Director of Progressive States Network, added, "The Pentagon has already announced that to cope with the escalation they are removing current restrictions on deployment of the Guard and Reserves. This move has a major impact on states. Guard and Reserve members are firefighters, sheriffs, teachers, and first responders. They are also humans – often with families and children who need them at home. When deployments get extended, we will see fewer men and women reenlist. That spells trouble for the long-term – in terms of responding to domestic emergencies andinternational crises."
The Progressive States Network will work with legislators to pass resolutions calling on Congress to prevent President Bush from spending taxpayer dollars on any escalation without explicit Congressional approval. MoveOn will focus on mobilizing Americans to contact their state legislators and urge action against escalation.
A sample resolution cites, "... the costs to the states of the call-up of National Guard members for deployment in Iraq have been significant, as reckoned in lost lives, combat injuries and psychic trauma, disruption of family life, financial hardship for individuals, families and businesses, interruption of careers and damage to the fabric of civic life in our communities." The resolution also notes that the $357 billion appropriated to Iraq "could fund desperately needed education, health care, housing, nutrition and other social services in our communities… or humanitarian assistance abroad." And that the current federal debt and interest payments "will likely lead to even larger cuts in funding for critical needs in the States."
On the importance of state action, Singer said: "State and local governments changed the debate on apartheid, Darfur, and trade. They have the power to change the debate on Iraq."
And since most everyone other than the Bush administration and the still-delusional neocons recognize the costs in treasure and lives of this human catastrophe, the debate must be changed immediately. Join the call and find out how you can help in your state.
The botched executions in Baghdad have revived public discussion of thesordid "science" of killing people in a "humane" manner. Saddam Husseinwas taunted by his executioners as they pulled the trap door on him.This past weekend, when Saddam's half-brother and former secret policechief met the same fate, the hangman's noose tore his head off.
Oh, well, he IS dead. Wasn't that the point?
Civilization has progressed on this delicate question over manycenturies and none has been more conscientious than America. The USgovernment does now and then declare a public need to kill people, butis always mindful to do so in ways that avoid unnecessary pain andsuffering. The victims are presumed to be grateful for this but,unfortunately, not around to express their views.
The Catholic Church, remember, used to burn heretics at the stake inthe Middle Ages--a spectacle of suffering that instructed the populaceon the importance of adhering to the true faith. The French guillotinewas regarded as a technological improvement--swift and surgicallycertain. American industrial prowess took up the challenge and advancedfurther with the electric chair and gas chamber. These methods alsoproved imperfect. The electric chair sometimes fried the person beforeit killed him. Enlightened jurisdictions adopted an ostensiblynonviolent technique, fatal injections.
Now our "allies" in Iraq have dragged Americans back to consider therude calculations involved in hanging. John Burns, the New YorkTimes correspondent who sometimes injects droll Britishunderstatement in his brilliant dispatches, reported that the death of BarzanIbrahim al-Tikriti "appeared to have gone seriously awry." Indeed, helost his head--a vicious practice we abhor when Muslim fanatics employit.
With the thoroughness one expects from the Times, Burns went onto explain the long-established tradition for calculating the "drop"weight of the hangee's body with the proper length of rope needed tosnap the person's neck without also separating his head from his body.As Iraq develops into a more advanced democracy, it will perhapsimprove on this.
All of this puts me in mind of Woody Allen's famous distinction on thebusiness of death. "I'm not afraid of dying--I just don't want to bethere when it happens."
Exactly. That is the American position. It is the preciousness ofAmerica's niceties that mocks our moral posturing. As a nation, we killpeople--lots of them--both in war and on the home front. But, mind you,only for good reasons. And always with surgical precision. We haveassembled massive killing power and will use it, but always withsincere respect for those made dead.
Our advanced technologies allow us to sanitize this process--keep itdistant and avert our eyes from what's really happening. "Shock andawe" bombing is our high-altitude tool for teaching others to respectAmerican power. Dead civilians, including dead babies, accumulateas the regrettable "collateral damage" not to be confused with ournoble good intentions. The other side--lacking our advancedsensibilities--simply kills people, butchers them in old-fashioned waysthat we find shocking.
America has a twisted thing about "death." The mass culture playsendlessly with death as if it were a popular video game (actually,death is a wildly popular video game). Yet we are strangely squeamish.Don't let the children see the blood. Don't slaughter in disrespectfulways. Above all, don't show us the bodies afterwards.
Our nation would be healthier, I think, if we put aside the moralpretensions and looked straight at the reality. Let's see the death anddying--all of it--both at home and in war. The dead convicts, the deadIraqis and--yes--the dead Americans who went off to liberate thosepeople from their backwardness. We are tough people. We could take it,couldn't we?
Years ago, I saw a celebrated newspaper photograph from theLouisville Courier Journal. It was taken in 1938 and recordedthe last public hanging in Kentucky, held in a small country town.People in those days used to gather in the courthouse square and watch.The photographer (his name alas forgotten) did something brilliant. Atthe final moment, as the trap door opened and the body fell, he wheeledaround with the camera and shot a picture of the spectators, men andboys. Their faces were twisted in shock, slack-jawed andcontorted--made horrible themselves by the knowledge of what they saw.
"Would any of you have any difficulty fairly judging the believability of former or present members of the Bush Administration?"
In a Washington courtroom on Tuesday morning, federal district court Judge Reggie Walton read that question to the pool of potential jurors, and that was a fair way of summing up the big question of the trial: did Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff lie to cover up his own participation in a White House campaign that was mounted to protect the Bush administration's misleading case for war in Iraq?
Libby is on trial for having made false statements to FBI and a grand jury investigating the leaking of Valerie Wilson's CIA identity. But his credibility (or lack thereof) is a reflection of the administration's credibility (or lack thereof). Yet due to the normal workings of a federal court, Libby will be judged by Washington, DC, residents who are in a distinct minority: people who have not already concluded that Bush officials are not to be trusted.
Libby's defense is that he forgot the truth when he appeared before FBI agents and the grand jury. At issue is what he said about his involvement in the CIA leak. The reality is this: in June and July 2003, when the White House was trying to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (who was accusing the administration of exaggerating the prewar intelligence), Libby, as part of this effort, disclosed information about Wilson's wife (a.k.a Valerie Plame) to two reporters--Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time. After the Plame leak became a criminal matter, Libby (who was not a source for the Robert Novak column that outed Valerie Wilson) told investigators that he had learned about Valerie Wilson and her CIA connection from reporters and had passed this information along to other reporters. In other words, he was just sharing gossip, not official information; he had no reason to know if this hearsay was true.
The problem (for Libby) is this: Fitzgerald has developed plenty of evidence showing that Libby actively sought and received information on Joseph Wilson and his wife before the whole Wilson imbroglio detonated and before Libby spoke to reporters. This information--which noted that Wilson's wife was a CIA officer--was classified. It came to him from the State Department, the CIA and Cheney.
So Libby's faulty memory defense goes beyond a simple I-forgot-who-said-what. What he--or his lawyers--claim is that he completely forgot his own attempts to gather material on Wilson (and also forgot the information he obtained) and that when reporters several weeks later supposedly passed him rumors about Valerie Wilson, this did not jog his memory and cause him to recall what he had previously known. One major obstacle for Libby is that the reporters in question--including NBC's Tim Russert, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, Cooper and Miller--do not support his version of events.
More important, Libby's account relies on two purported major memory lapses that may be difficult for a jury to accept: that after collecting material on Wilson and his wife, Libby had no memory of doing so and that he completely confused his recollection of conversations he had with the reporters. Libby is essentially arguing that he forgot to remember what he had once known but had forgotten.
Yet Libby's advocates claim that Cheney's former chief of staff was the victim of a minor memory slip because he was a busy guy. On NPR the day the trial began, Ted Olson, the former solicitor general and conservative activist, said, "It's true. If you are involved in high-pressure situations....in the afternoon you don't remember exactly what you did in the morning." And when I ran into Lanny Davis, the former spinner for President Bill Clinton and Yale classmate of George W. Bush, during the trial's lunch break, he insisted that Libby might have indeed misremembered events. "That's what happens when you're doing push-back," Davis insisted. If Cheney is called as a witness by Libby's attorneys--as is expected--his testimony will presumably bolster such an argument.
Will a jury go for this? Will jurors believe that Libby, the ever-attentive aide, forgot within weeks that Cheney had told him that Valerie Wilson worked at the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA?
All that will be decided when the jury votes. But first, jurors have to be selected. As Judge Walton, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, and Libby's lawyers reviewed the initial nine prospective jurors--searching for people with little knowledge and few opinions of the case--they found some who said they could not be impartial. One young woman noted that she was "completely without objectivity" regarding the integrity of Bush administration officials. She did not believe them. She was gone. After being extensively questioned, a financial planner conceded that if Cheney's testimony was contradicted by another witness he could not regard the vice president as equally credible. He, too, was excused.
Walton hopes to have jurors selected by the end of Thursday, and opening arguments are scheduled for Monday. But it may be tough for the judge to find citizens who truly have no hard-and-fast views on the honesty of Cheney and the Bush administration. And that's the point.
DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.
With his decision to file the necessary paperwork to launch a presidential campaign exploratory committee, Barack Obama puts an end to speculation about whether he really is interested in being the Democratic nominee in 2008.
The exploratory committee is political performance art. Obama's not exploring anything. He's preparing a candidacy that, if all goes as planned, will be launched officially on February 10 in Chicago.
So Obama is running.
Now, the question is: How far will he get?
To a much greater extent than the other announced and prospective candidates for the party's nomination, that depends on the immediate response of grassroots Democrats to his prospective candidacy.
There is no question that Obama is a political superstar. That allows him to leap over many of the hurdles that are erected by the overseers of the American political process.
Obama does not need to build name recognition, in the sense that more senior figures such as Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack must. Even before he delivered the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, the Chicagoan was the most prominent state senator in the nation.
After Obama delivered that address to the approval of the delegates--and to generous reviews from most of the political and media class--he secured his US Senate seat and arrived in Washington accompanied by some of the highest expectation ever attached to a new member of Congress.
Predictably, Obama failed to meet those inflated expectations. His relative caution on the big-picture issues of Iraq and domestic civil liberties, combined with some disappointing votes on consumer and economic issues, disappointed many of the serious activists who had been most enthusiastic about his appearance on the national political scene.
As candidates began to position themselves for the 2008 presidential race, however, Obama began to look more and more attractive.
On the list of possible candidates, he was, with New York Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, one of three genuine first-tier figures--high-profile politicians with what a man who skipped the 2008 race, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, describes as the "star power" to draw media attention merely by opening their mouths, assemble a crowd anywhere in the country and, presumably, to rapidly raise the money needed to remain viable throughout the caucus and primary process that will identify the nominee.
As Obama made the rounds of state party conventions, fundraising events and rallies during the 2006 Congressional election season, grassroots Democrats remembered his inspired speaking in Boston, rather than his uninspired votes in Washington. And they gave him a welcome that most politicians can only dream of.
The message from the party base was clear: Clinton had not closed the deal. There was an opening for another first-tier contender in the Democratic race, and Obama could take it.
Instantaneously, Obama was a contender and thus began the process that culminated with Tuesday's announcement of the exploratory committee.
Did Obama hit the trail for Democratic Congressional and gubernatorial candidates in the fall of 2006 with a plan to propel himself into the 2008 competition? Perhaps. He is, by his own admission, ambitious. But most of the evidence suggests that he was taken aback by the intensity of the response he got.
Obama's stepped back to consider his options, and he was smart enough to recognize that the opportunity was real and that it might not come again.
So, now, he has stepped up, and in.
By establishing the exploratory committee, he will be able to raise money to hire staff and build a basic campaign infrastructure in advance of the expected formal announcement in February. He'll need it. Clinton and another contender, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, are far ahead of Obama when it comes to putting together the multistate campaign apparatus that is needed in a fast-paced presidential campaign.
Can Obama catch up? Yes, but only if the grassroots Democrats who have been so enthusiastic about the prospect of his candidacy now turn that enthusiasm into practical commitments in states such as Iowa, where the first caucuses will be held a year from this week, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. That transition will have something to do with Obama's star power, of course, but it will have much more to do with how he defines himself.
Democrats like Barack Obama. But they don't necessarily know what it is about him that appeals to them.
Obama's challenge is to quickly provide grassroots Democrats with a rationale for his candidacy. There will be a lot of discussion about how he must compete with Clinton, but that's not the challenge. If she runs, Clinton will do so as what she is: a cautious centrist with lots of money and prominent support but with dubious grassroots appeal.
Obama's real challenge will be to make sure that he compares favorably with Edwards. The 2004 Democratic nominee for Vice President has done a reasonably good job of identifying himself as the Democrat who wants to bring the troops home from Iraq and address fundamental issues of economic and social injustice at home. And he has spent a lot of time talking about those issues with the party faithful in the states where Democratic activists and voters will make or break Democratic candidates. Already, Edwards is beginning to attract the endorsements--particularly from labor union leaders and members--and the volunteer base that he needs in states such as Iowa and Nevada. Obama will have to move quickly, and seriously, if he wants to block not just Clinton but Edwards. That is the only way for him to transform his star power into the practical support base for a winning candidacy.
As Democrats debate how best to oppose President Bush's escalation of a war that has already squandered $400 billion and too many American and Iraqi lives, one of the Senate's best leaders – Sen. Richard Durbin – gave a speech on the Senate floor about the need to move toward withdrawal. Durbin spoke powerfully about the deceptions, denials and delusions of this Administration as it has sold and fought the war – and, most powerfully, about the cost of the war in treasure and lives. It seems valuable, in a moment of peril, to post the speech in its entirety.
The Iraq Resolution on Military Force
Remarks Delivered on the Floor of the Senate, January 8, 2007
Mr. Durbin: Madam President, it was just a few years ago--some days seem much longer--that we considered a resolution in the Senate to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. We cast thousands of votes. Most members of Congress cannot recall too many of them specifically, unless reminded. But you never forget a vote on a war because you know that, at the end of the day, if you decide to go forward, people will die.
It is your fervent hope that it will be the enemy, of course, but you know, in honesty, that it will be American soldiers and innocent people as well. So a vote on a war is one that Members of Congress--most every one of them--take so seriously. It costs you sleep, as you think about the right thing to do.
I can recall when the vote was cast on this war in Iraq. I sat on the Intelligence Committee for months listening to the testimony and all the evidence that was brought before us, listening behind closed doors to this classified information about the situation in that country, and then emerging from that Intelligence Committee and reading newspapers and watching television, saying the American people are not being told the same thing outside that room that I am being told inside that room. There were serious differences of opinion in this administration about whether there were even weapons of mass destruction.
At one point, we challenged the administration and said: If there are weapons of mass destruction, for goodness' sake, turn over some locations to the international inspectors. Let them find them. Once they discover them, it will confirm our fear, and other countries will join us in this effort against Saddam Hussein. But, no, they wouldn't do it. Although they told us there were hundreds of possible locations, they wouldn't turn over any specific location possibility to the international inspectors.
It raised a question in my mind as to whether they were very certain of any locations. And, if you remember, weapons of mass destruction were the centerpiece of the argument for the invasion of Iraq.
On Christmas Day many years later after that decision was made on the floor of this Senate, we learned that more Americans have now died in Iraq than died on September 11. Less than a week after that disclosure, on New Year's Eve, we marked a mournful milestone in the war in Iraq: the death of the 3,000th U.S. serviceman killed in Iraq.
Today, as I stand before the Senate, the Department of Defense reports that we have lost 3,014 American soldiers in Iraq. The 3,000th death is as tragic as the 1st death, the 300th death, the 1,000th death, but the staggering scope of casualties, the enormous toll this war has taken, must not be allowed to pass unnoticed.
America's service men and women are the bravest and best in the world. I know I say that with some patriotic pride, having been there to sit and have breakfast and lunch with them in Iraq, Afghanistan, and their other assignments. I just can't say enough about their courage and sacrifice, just ordinary, young-looking men and women who do extraordinary things.
This last October, with Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, while sitting for breakfast with a group of about 12 soldiers from Illinois, I went around the table: Where are you from? Downstate. Oh, you are from the suburbs of Chicago. Or, you live in the city. We talked about everything under the Sun. We talked about the Chicago Bears, the Cubs, the White Sox, and how things were going back home.
I asked them how things were going. They said: We had to get up early. We had to form an honor guard at dawn because one of our soldiers was killed in the middle of the night by one of these homemade bombs that takes so many lives.
I asked: How often does that happen?
Well, pretty frequently.
We know it does because we read the press accounts. We think of these young men and women and the challenges they face every single day as they risk their lives for America. We think about the families back home deep in prayer that their soldier is going to return home safely.
We owe them so much. We owe them our prayers and thanks for sure. But those of us in elected office owe them more than that. Part of what we owe them is a plan to bring this war to a close, a plan to bring them home safely, a plan to congratulate them as they return home for what they have given to this country.
Last March, President Bush was asked whether there would come a day when there will be no U.S. forces in Iraq. His answer to that simple question spoke volumes. The President said: That, of course, is an objective, and that will be decided by future Presidents and future Governments of Iraq.
Now we are told that in a few days the President will make a major policy announcement about this war. According to reports he is going to call for an increase, a major escalation of the U.S. troops committed in Iraq. The administration carefully has used the word ``surge'' to suggest this is somehow temporary, but we have to listen carefully when the President makes his announcement to see just how temporary it might be for the 10,000 or 20,000 or more American lives that will be at risk because of this decision.
Sending tens of thousands more troops to Iraq is not a change of course. It is not what our top military experts advise. In fact, they have said just the opposite. It is clearly not what the American people bargained for when they voted just a few months ago for a change in our direction in Iraq. It is literally and tragically more of the same. I think our troops deserve better.
President Bush has always said he will send more troops if the commanders in the field said they needed more. In December, General Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, testified before the Armed Services Committee. This is what the general said. The President told us he was listening to the generals:
Our troops' posture needs to stay where it is as we move to enhance the capabilities of the Iraq security forces and then we need to assess whether or not we can bring major combat units out of there. .....
General Abizaid went on to say:
The ability to sustain that commitment [of 20,000 additional troops] is simply not something we have right now.
That was a statement made by General Abizaid just a few weeks ago. He is now moving on. He is being replaced. This was the advice of the leader of the Army and the Central Command in the field of battle. General Abizaid continued:
I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey. We all talked together. And I said, ``In your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?''
General Abizaid testified:
And they all said no. And the reason is, because we want the Iraqis to do more. It's easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us to do the work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.
Last month, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, the group that was headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana, offered a series of recommendations that they say could allow U.S. forces to largely redeploy safely out of Iraq by April 1, 2008. The President has made it clear--although he thanked the commission--that he doesn't share their feelings. He also apparently does not share the views of the Commission that the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.
This war began with deception--a deception of the American people about the threat of weapons of mass destruction. It then moved into a phase of denial where we were told over and over: Oh, the Iraqi soldiers, the forces are just terrific; we are getting them ready to take our place there; we are going to stand down when they stand up. As violence ramped up dramatically, as more and more people died, including American soldiers, it went from deception to denial, and now we are in delusion, a delusion that somehow sending more American troops into the field of battle, putting them in the midst of a civil war that finds its roots in history 14 centuries old, that somehow placing our best and bravest soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors in this crossfire of sectarian violence, putting more of them there, as the President is likely to suggest, is going to bring this to an end sooner.
I think the President is wrong, I think the Iraq Study Group had it right, and I think sending those troops in, as General Abizaid said, gives a message to the Iraqis that is completely wrong.
Think about this for a minute. We sent the best military in the world. They deposed Saddam Hussein, took him out of power in a matter of weeks, dug him out of a hole in the ground, put him on trial which led to his execution. We then gave the Iraqis a chance to vote on their own constitution. We allowed them to form their own government. We have spent $400 billion. We have lost 3,014 lives as of this moment, and the number, sadly, continues to mount. Twenty-three thousand American soldiers have come home injured, 2,000 of them multiple amputees, soldiers who are blinded, soldiers whose lives may never be the same. We have done all this for this nation of Iraq, and now what we ask of them is simply this: Stand up and defend your own country. If you believe in your country and your future, be willing to stand and fight for it. Be willing to make the hard political decisions to bring peace and stability to your country.
That is the message we should be giving them, but instead, this administration's message is we will send in more American soldiers, maybe 10,000, 20,000, 30,000. We will escalate this conflict. We will escalate our commitment. We will build up these forces.
According to two members of the Iraq Study Group who were present when the group met with the President in November, President Bush said he continues to use the word ``victory'' to describe the vision in Iraq because ``it's a word the American people understand.'' The President said: If I start to change it, it will look like I am beginning to change my policy.
That is a staggering statement because, Mr. President, we do need a change of policy. We need to face the reality of what we are currently facing in Iraq.
There are other costs beyond what I have mentioned. There are costs that we feel at home. I voted against this Iraq war--23 of us did--but I voted for every single penny this President has asked for. My thinking on it is very basic and fundamental: If it were my son and daughter in uniform, I would want them to have everything they need--everything. I can quarrel with this President, debate him all day about the policy, but not at the expense of the safety of our troops.
The money we spent there--almost $2 billion a week, over $400 billion in total--is money that has been taken out of America, away from our needs at home, money that, sadly, has been piled up in debt as this administration refuses to even pay for the war they are waging.
We are currently spending about $8 billion a month on Iraq--$8 billion. We are going to be asked to come up with another $100 billion soon and, sadly, that money we spent so far doesn't even include the cost of reequipping our Armed Forces or caring for our veterans who have come home. That is a long-term cost of this war that we will pay for decades to come.
What could we have done in America with the $380 billion or $400 billion that we spent in Iraq? We could have paid for all of the following that I am about to list--all of the following: Health care coverage for all of the uninsured children in America for the entire duration of this war; 4-year scholarships to a public university for all of this year's graduating high school seniors in America; new affordable housing units for 500,000 needy families; all the needed port security requirements to keep our homeland safe; substantial new energy conservation programs. Or, we could have completely funded No Child Left Behind.
Remember that program where we tested our kids and found out they needed help and then the Federal Government didn't send the help? We could have done that.
Or, we could have provided savings accounts for low-income families preparing for retirement, or made a downpayment on reducing the alternative minimum tax.
From my State of Illinois, our share of the Iraq war comes to about $19 billion. With that $19 billion, we could have paid for 2.5 million Illinois children in Head Start, insured 11 million children for 1 year, paid the salaries of 330,000 teachers for a year, underwritten 170,000 new affordable housing units, and covered 900,000 4-year scholarships to public universities.
President Bush has the distinction not just for this policy in Iraq, but the fact that he is the first American President in our history who has cut taxes in the midst of a war. His tax cuts have benefited the wealthiest people in America and left the largest debt in the history of the United States, and every year we remain in Iraq we add $75 billion to $100 billion to that national debt.
Beyond the cost of human lives and dollars, there are strategic costs in this war. Our military is stretched dangerously thin. The National Guard units that have been activated have come home with less equipment. Today, in Illinois, we have about a third of the equipment we need to respond to another crisis either at home or overseas.
We also know that when it comes to combat readiness, there are no units prepared to go into war at this moment.
We have stretched our military so thin. The costs of reequipping these units and rebuilding these services are enormous and go way beyond what we have already spent in Iraq. Investing U.S. troop levels in Iraq will almost certainly prolong our involvement in that nation. It almost certainly will make President Bush's statement that it will be up to the successors to bring our forces home a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is not what the American people voted for in November. Sending these troops to Iraq will send the wrong message to Iraq. It will signal that Americans will continue to bear the burdens of this war.
This year, the British, who have been the most cooperative in helping us there, are slated to pull their troops out. At that point, it will be virtually an American struggle, with only a handful of countries remaining by our side.
General Casey, the commanding general in Baghdad, recently stated:
The longer we in the U.S. force continue to bear the main burden of Iraq's security, the longer it lengthens the time that the government of Iraq has to make the hard decisions about reconciliation and dealing with the militias.
General Casey also said:
It has always been my view that a heavy and sustained American military presence was not going to solve the problems in Iraq over the long term.
These are the generals President Bush said he listens to, and these are the people who are in command of our forces. These are voices which clearly disagree with the escalation of this war in Iraq.
Last week, America bid farewell to a good and decent man named Gerald Ford. I was honored to be at his funeral service in Grand Rapids, MI. He was a man who served at one of the most tumultuous times in American history. He inherited a war he couldn't win. Years later, when asked about that Vietnam war, President Ford said:
My approach was we inherited the problem with the job. It is my obligation on behalf of the country to try and solve the damn thing.
A generation later, our Nation faces a similar moment. We need to work together. We need to cooperate on a bipartisan basis to find a plan worthy of the courage and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. It should begin now. It shouldn't be left to future Presidents.
If one reads the authorization for Iraq, one understands that the goals and missions of that statement for the use of force have changed dramatically. No weapons of mass destruction, no Saddam Hussein, no threat to America. It is time for us to announce that we achieved our goals in Iraq and now the American people need to hand this responsibility over to the people of that nation in Iraq.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.
Does anyone in a Shakespeare play foretell President George W. Bush, who has not only committed more forces to his catastrophic war in Iraq, but now also threatens to attack Iran and Syria?
I put the question to Homer D. (Murph) Swander, a long-time friend and professor emeritus who taught Shakespeare at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"Henry IV," Murph told me. "He squeaked into the kingship (in his own words) by 'bypaths and indirect crooked ways.' W. should be so honest.
"Henry, then being on his deathbed, advised his son to 'busy giddy minds / with foreign quarrels.' The father-son relationship is upside down, of course, but we can't have everything.
"At the last, the old boy prayed, 'How came I by the crown, O God forgive.' Is it possible to imagine W. ever being so honest?"
(All of this to be found in Henry IV, Part Two, 4.5.184-218.)
Dick Cheney worked in the White House of Richard Nixon, who had to resign as Congress began impeachment proceedings that grew out of his dishonest and disreputable stewardship of the presidency
Dick Cheney worked with the White House of Ronald Reagan, which was investigated by Congress and the courts for establishing – and then lying about -- a secret plan to violate the law by directing resources to its Iran-Contra co-conspirators in the Middle East and Latin America.
Dick Cheney worked in the White House of George Herbert Walker Bush, who pardoned former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Robert C. McFarlane, Elliott Abrams and others who had been indicted, and in some cases convicted, by Iran-Contra prosecutors.
Dick Cheney left the public sector to work in the corporate sector, where he established close alliances with the executives of Enron and hired the Arthur Andersen accounting firm to manage Halliburton's books.
Dick Cheney then stepped back into the public service as the prince regent to a boy president whose administration stands accused of "fixing" intelligence in order to convince Congress and the American people to support an unnecessary – and ultimately disastrous – invasion and occupation of Iraq. As part of that initiative Cheney has repeatedly been caught promoting inaccurate claims about the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and an illusory "connection" between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
Now, as he prepares to testify in the trial that is set to begin Tuesday on the charges of obstruction of justice and perjury that have been brought against his disgraced former chief-of-staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney says of Libby: "I believe he's one of the more honest men I know."
Cheney has refused repeated requests by members of Congress who want him to testify regarding Libby's actions and the efforts of the vice president's office to discredit retired Ambassador Joe Wilson, the man who exposed one of the administration's most serious assaults on the truth – the pre-war claim that Iraq was taking steps to rapidly develop a nuclear arsenal. Yet, the vice president told Fox News anchor Chris Wallace on Sunday that he plans to offer "my whole-hearted cooperation" to Libby's legal defense.
Wallace wanted to know whether the vice president was at all concerned by the many revelations regarding Libby's professional and personal problems. "But there's nothing that you have heard," the anchor asked, "nothing that you have read that shakes your confidence in Scooter Libby's integrity?
"That's correct," replied Cheney.
Libby, the vice president exclaimed, is ``one of the finest individuals I've ever known.''
There will be those who question whether the vice president can possibly be serious when he expresses confidence in what remains of Libby's integrity and describes his longtime aide as "one of the most honest men I know."
But let's put this in perspective. After almost four decades of working with the likes of Richard Nixon, the Iran-Contra conspirators, Enron and its accountants, Cheney might actually be telling the truth here.
In the circles in which Cheney has traveled throughout his career, Libby might come off as a paragon of virtue and veracity. That ought not much trouble prosecutors, however. The vice president is his own man, and he plays by his own set of rules. Just as Cheney has never felt constrained by any Constitutional definition of duty to the republic, nor has he ever provided even the slightest indication that he is familiar with the textbook definition of "honesty" – let alone with the notion that an official ought to value that quality in those with whom he chooses to associate.
John Nichols's book, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press), is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."