Something important in the overall scheme of the American experiment happened this week.
On Monday morning, MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer appeared on cable television screens across the United States and announced: “The news from Iraq is becoming grimmer every day. Over the long holiday weekend bombings killed more than 200 people in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. And six Sunni men were doused with kerosene and burned alive. Shiite muslims are the majority, but Sunnis like Saddam Hussein ruled that country until the war. Now, the battle between Shiites and Sunnis has created a civil war in Iraq. Beginning this morning, MSNBC will refer to the fighting in Iraq as a civil war — a phrase the White House continues to resist. But after careful thought, MSNBC and NBC News decided over the weekend, the terminology is appropriate, as armed militarized factions fight for their own political agendas. We’ll have a lots more on the situation in Iraq and the decision to use the phrase, civil war.”
The statement followed a similar decision by the Los Angeles Times to drop the pretense of referring to the fighting in Iraq as something other than the civil war it has obviously been for some time. Time magazine and other publications have begun to loosen up on the use of the term “civil war,” as well.
What is important about this development is that, for the first time since the debate about Iraq began, some–though certainly not all–major media outlets in the United States are making their own judgments based on developments in the Middle East. Up until now, major media has, with few exceptions, failed to embrace that most basic of journalistic responsibilities. Rather, it has served as a stenography service for the Bush-Cheney administration.
The Washington press corps has imbibed the assessments, the claims, the lies of the White House and then regurgitated them as “news.” In so doing, they have warped not just the language but the very essence of the national debate. Meaningless phrases such as “stay the course” and “cut and run” have become mainstays of a discussion that has been stage-managed by White House political czar Karl Rove and his acolytes, as opposed to the news editors who are supposed to be calling the shots for broadcast and cable networks and newspapers.
Major media’s on-bended-knee approach to the White House has forestalled an honest dialogue about the crisis into which Iraq degenerated after the U.S. invasion and occupation of that country.
By abandoning the role intended by the founders when they enshrined “freedom of the press” protections in the Constitution–that of checking and balancing executive excess, particularly during periods of one-faction or one-party political dominance–major media failed the Republic at precisely the point when its intervention on the side of realism was most needed.
In no measure has this been more the case than in the refusal of most media outlets to acknowledge Iraq’s civil war. By following the dictates of the White House and refusing to employ the only honest description for what’s happening in Baghdad and other regions of the country, broadcast, cable and print editors made themselves extensions of the Bush White House during the course of two national election cycles and three years of empty congressional debate.
This in-kind contribution to Republican presidential and congressional campaigns was never appreciated by the White House, which has perfected the art of complaining bitterly about even the most tepid deviations from the official script. But the damage was done–not merely to the Democrats and to the discourse but to the Bush himself.
A president needs a skeptical and challenging media to remind him of the realities that ideologically and personally self-serving aides seek to obscure. Read the transcripts of White House conversations involving Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War and it is evident that both men were conscious of critical reporting on their actions and often challenged the sillier spin of their advisors based on information gleaned from print and broadcast news.
For the better part of four years, as he has steered the country deeper into the disaster that is Iraq, Bush–who does not read newspapers but who reportedly catches televised news breaks while watching sports–has been at the mercy of the neoconservative nutjobs and schemers who continue to crowd his inner circle.
Now, if the president happens to tune in NBC or MSNBC, he will be exposed to the fact that he has placed more than 100,000 young Americans in the middle of a bloody civil war that they cannot resolve.
There are no guarantees that Bush will recognize reality and shift course. However, as major media begins to rise from its bended-knee position, and stenography pads are traded for reporters’ notebooks, we approach the moment where Congress and the American people can open the honest discussion that should have started years ago. Too many lies have been allowed to go uncontested, too many Americans and Iraqis have died, to suggest that editors and reporters can simply adopt the term “civil war” and then hold their heads high. It will take a lot of realism, a lot of truth telling, to lift the shame that major media brought upon itself in what historians of journalism will see as an era of relinquished responsibility and propagandistic excess. But, for the sake of those still in the line of fire, not to mention the Republic, let us hope that the critical corner has been turned.
John Nichols’ new book, The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism is out now from The New Press. “With The Genius of Impeachment,” writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, “John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States.” Studs Terkel says: “Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: ‘Bugger off!’ So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so.” The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com