The day before Bill Moyers debuted his documentary “Selling the War,” a scorching indictment of our national press corps in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Naomi Wolf published an article titled “Fascist America, In Ten Easy Steps” in The Guardian. Examined together, along with recent news, they provide a disturbing picture of our nation’s precarious grip on democracy and the evolving danger of the mainstream media’s entrenched dysfunction and unrepentant attitude.
In assessing Bush’s America, Wolf does something our mainstream media is loathe to do: view the threat of anti-democratic precedents established by this White House in the context of historical fascist regimes. Here’s her how-to list, which she believes, as would anyone who’s been paying attention, the Bush administration has already fulfilled:
1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
2. Create a gulag
3. Develop a thug caste
4. Set up an internal surveillance system
5. Harass citizens' groups
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
7. Target key individuals
8. Control the press
9. Dissent equals treason
10. Suspend the rule of law
Wolf shows how the fingerprints of former fascist regimes - from Mussolini's Italy to Nazi Germany to communist East Germany to Augusto Pinochet’s Chile - are ubiquitous in Bush administration activities. Specifically, on controlling the press, she writes:
Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s, East Germany in the 50s, Czechoslovakia in the 60s, the Latin American dictatorships in the 70s, China in the 80s and 90s - all dictatorships and would-be dictators target newspapers and journalists. They threaten and harass them in more open societies that they are seeking to close, and they arrest them and worse in societies that have been closed already.
As Wolf then points out, “The Committee to Protect Journalists says arrests of US journalists are at an all-time high.” So what does that tell you about where we are right now?
Even worse is the treatment of journalists covering the Iraq War:
The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations ranging from al-Jazeera to the BBC. […] In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the Associated Press in Iraq had staff members seized by the US military and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations were unable to see the evidence against their staffers.
Wolf also underscores the insidious effect of excessive, long-term manipulations of fact on the public:
Over time in closing societies, real news is supplanted by fake news and false documents. Pinochet showed Chilean citizens falsified documents to back up his claim that terrorists had been about to attack the nation. The yellowcake charge, too, was based on forged papers. […] What you already have is a White House directing a stream of false information that is so relentless that it is increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth. In a fascist system, it's not the lies that count but the muddying. When citizens can't tell real news from fake, they give up their demands for accountability bit by bit.
It’s no wonder that six months after the Iraq invasion, seven out of 10 Americans still believed Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks. For years, President Bush and members of his administration inserted “Saddam” and “9/11” into as many speeches, press conferences and public appearances as they could. Yet in most cases they were careful not to state directly “Saddam planned the 9/11 attacks.” As Wolf points out, it’s the muddying of information that’s most dangerous – the mantra of Saddam-9/11 drummed into the minds of an already fearful populace trumped all the known information that confirmed otherwise.
In Moyer’s “Selling the War,” he kicks off his documentary by reiterating a point that, to this day, most Americans still do not realize: Bush’s press conference on the eve of the Iraq invasion was scripted, in that all the reporters allowed to ask questions were on a pre-screened list (one has to wonder if the questions as well were scripted). Yet even more outrageous was the White House press corps’ utter willingness to play along with this charade.
BILL MOYERS: At least a dozen times during this press conference he will invoke 9/11 and Al Qaeda to justify a preemptive attack on a country that has not attacked America.
REPORTER: Mr. President, if you decide…
BILL MOYERS: But the White House press corps will ask no hard questions tonight about those claims. Listen to what the President says:
PRESIDENT BUSH: This is a scripted…(laughter)
REPORTER: Thank you Mr. President--
BILL MOYERS: Scripted. Sure enough, the President's staff has given him a list of reporters to call on.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Let's see here… Elizabeth… Gregory… April…Did you have a question or did I call upon you cold?
APRIL: No, I have a question. (laughter)
PRESIDENT BUSH: Okay. I'm sure you do have a question.
ERIC BOEHLERT: He sort of giggled and laughed. And, the reporters sort of laughed. And, I don't know if it was out of embarrassment for him or embarrassment for them because they still continued to play along. After his question was done. They all shot up their hands and pretended they had a chance of being called on.
Certainly one of the lowest moments in the annals of American journalism. One that led to possibly the most inane, obsequious question posed to a democratic leader calling for war:
APRIL: How is your faith guiding you?
PRESIDENT BUSH: My faith sustains me because I pray daily. I pray for guidance.
Moyers proceeds to connect the dots in the media’s complicity, from falling into line behind the Bush administration’s hyper-patriotism directly following 9/11, which included yielding to corporate and White House pressure to greatly limit images of civilian casualties in Afghanistan; to parroting and/or uncritically reporting the administration’s 9/11-Saddam connection; to using patently unreliable sources such as known conman and formerly paid CIA informant Ahmed Chalabi, while simultaneously failing to perform the most fundamental journalistic due diligence, such as picking up a phone to confirm easily accessible nuclear information with an expert (e.g., on aluminum tubes); to perpetuating a false sense of balance through Crossfire-style debate but ignoring highly pertinent facts and failing to challenge bald-faced lies often spouted by administration lackeys in the press and government; to, finally, fawning over Colon Powell’s highly dubious testimony.
All in all, Moyers shows the shameful abdication of the mainstream media to provide oversight of our government’s elected officials. As Moyers notes, “…in the six months leading up to the invasion The Washington Post would editorialize in favor of the war at least 27 times.”
A couple of moments in the documentary stood out for their effectiveness to encapsulate everything that went wrong then, the roots of which continue to fester today. Not so ironically, both moments involve two Bush administration enablers, who, it should be noted, at least had the guts to face the music with Moyers: Tim Russert and Peter Beinart. (Lead drumbeater Judith Miller, along with proudly outspoken hawks Bill Safire, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and Roger Ailes, declined to meet with Moyers.)
The Vice President just happened to show up on Russert’s Meet the Press the very same morning a front-page New York Times article - penned by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon – told of Saddam’s accelerated acquisition of WMD. When Moyers asks Russert why it didn’t cross his mind that Cheney’s appearance and that morning’s splashy cover story might be orchestrated, “a circular, self-confirming leak,” Russert, routinely hailed by his mainstream colleagues as a hard-nosed no-nonsense reporter, a bulldog even, suddenly becomes a shrinking violet: “What my concern was, is that there were concerns expressed by other government officials. And to this day, I wish my phone had rung, or I had access to them.”
How’s that for proactive, investigative journalism? I’ll wait until my phone rings.
But Moyers’ discussion with Peter Beinart may be my favorite moment. No scene better exposes the unchecked nonsense and unethical journalism that drove much of the received wisdom in Washington at the time.
BILL MOYERS: Peter Beinart became editor of THE NEW REPUBLIC at age 28. During the run-up to the invasion he was one of the hottest young pundits in town, a liberal hawk, accusing opponents of the war of being "intellectually incoherent and echoing the official line that Hussein would soon possess a nuclear weapon.
PETER BEINART: (CNN 4/29/02) We need a little bit of logistical support, but we don't need the moral support of anyone, because we're on the side of the angels in this.
BILL MOYERS: Had you been to Iraq?
PETER BEINART: No.
BILL MOYERS: So what made you present yourself, if you did, as-- as-- as a Middle East expert?
PETER BEINART: I don't think that I presented myself as a Middle East expert per se. I was a political journalist. I was a-- a columnist writing about all kinds of things. Someone in my-- in my position is not a Middle East expert in the way that somebody who studies this at a university is, or even at a think tank. But I consumed that stuff.
I was relying on people who did that kind of reporting and people who had been in the government who had-- who had access to classified material for their assessment.
BILL MOYERS: And you would talk to them and they would, in effect, brief you, the background on what they knew?
PETER BEINART: Sometimes, but--
BILL MOYERS: I'm trying to help the audience understand. How does-- you described yourself as a political-- a reporter of political opinion, or a journalist--
PETER BEINART: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: --political opinion. How do you-- how do you get the information that enables you to reach the conclusion that you draw as a political journalist?
PETER BEINART: Well, I was doing mostly, for a large part it was reading, reading the statements and the things that people said. I was not a beat reporter. I was editing a magazine and writing a column. So I was not doing a lot of primary reporting. But what I was doing was a lot of reading of other people's reporting and reading of what officials were saying.
BILL MOYERS: If we journalists get it wrong on the facts what is there to be right about?
PETER BEINART: Well I think that's a good point, but the argument in the fall of 2002 was not mostly about the facts it was about a whole series of ideas about what would happen if we invaded.
The facts, of course, were beside the point. War was a given in large part because the facts were irrelevant. That’s why all those military analysts and former generals kept popping up on every channel to discuss war gaming. That’s how millions of people marched against the war and U.N weapons inspectors said there was no proof of WMD, yet the majority of Americans still didn’t hear them.
In the final analysis, Bill Moyers shows how members of the mainstream media, in spite of the facts, helped this administration successfully pitch the Iraq War to the American people, and, almost unanimously, refuse to take responsibility for their actions.
Writing about Moyers’ documentary, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald notes the danger inherent in not holding the press enablers accountable: “The people who committed the journalistic crimes Moyers so potently documents do not think they are guilty of anything -- ask them and they will tell you -- and as a result, they have not changed their behavior in the slightest.”
In detailing the practices of the dysfunctional journalism that led to the Iraq War, which today remain firmly in place, Moyers also provides a window into how the same media might continue to aid and abet this administration, eventually allowing it to fulfill each of Naomi Wolf’s ten easy steps to fascism.
Part II of “Moyers, Wolf and Journalism in Crisis” will explore how the pervasive dysfunctional journalism that Bill Moyers detailed is contributing to the Bush administration’s ongoing dismantling of democracy about which Naomi Wolf cautions.