The White Hawk Club
Who got to preview and review President George W. Bush's State of the Union address?
To answer that question, I channel-surfed across ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and cable news channels CNBC, CNN, Fox and MSNBC. That's a lot of surfing for one TV viewer, so I may have missed a few faces. But by my conscientious but unscientific count, there were 76 American talking heads and three foreigners (seasoned correspondents interviewed on ABC Nightline).
Of the 76 Americans, 72 were white, one was an Arab-American and three were African Americans. That's 95 percent white, five percent were "other."
As a group, the white talking heads were far more eager for war than white America as a whole (see polling data below). As for the Arab American and three African Americans, they didn't begin to reflect the unease in their respective communities.
A word on my methodology: If someone appeared on more than one network or channel, I counted once for each network/channel he or she appeared on. I also counted anchors and hosts, who may be the most important talking heads of all, because they influence or determine outright who gets to pontificate. All of these crucial "gatekeeper" positions were reserved for whites. I did not count as "talking heads" the cross-section of ordinary Americans who gathered in the NBC and MSNBC studios and got to spit out some brief soundbytes. Someone else might wish to investigate why Tom Brokaw (who now turns to Rush Limbaugh for election-night analysis) deems it appropriate to use Frank Luntz -- a rightwing, highly partisan Republican pollster -- to organize and moderate NBC's "voice of the people" segments
The Talking Heads Roll Call
First, a list of who was on and on which channel:
CNBC: Larry Kudlow, Jim Cramer (a Krauthammer admirer who represents "the left" on Kudlow & Cramer show), Ron Insana, Alan Murray, Ed Gillespie, Martha MacCallum, Brian Williams, Andrea Mitchell, Howard Fineman
NBC: Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, Frank Luntz (Republican pollster), Ted Kennedy
Fox: Brit Hume, Tony Snow, Fred Barnes, Mort Kondracke, Juan Williams, Cece Connolly, Jim Angle, Bill OReilly, DeeDee Myers, Michael Waldman, Bill Bennett, Peggy Noonan, Sean Hannity, Allen Colmes, Jon Corzine, Kay Bailey Hutchison
MSNBC: Chris Matthews, Peggy Noonan, Pat Caddell, Donna Brazile, Dick Armey, Norman Schwarzkopf, Barbara Boxer, Howard Fineman, Rahm Emanuel, John Warner, Dianne Feinstein
CNN: Larry King, John McCain, John Warner, Dianne Feinstein, Bill Frist, Joe Biden, Mitch McConnell, Aaron Brown, Christiane Amanpour, Judith Miller (New York Times reporter), Kevin Peraino (Newsweek reporter), former senators Alan Simpson and George McGovern
ABC: Peter Jennings, George Will, Cokie Roberts
ABC Nightline: Ted Koppel, David Gergen, John Podesta (I think); foreign journalists Justin Webb of the BBC, Tom Buhrow of ARD German TV, Said Arikat of Arab daily Al Quds
CBS: Dan Rather, Fouad Ajami
PBS: Jim Lehrer, Mark Shields, David Brooks
PBS Charlie Rose: Joe Lieberman, Fred Thompson, Alan Brinkley, Roger Cohen, David Brooks, David Frum, Jim Hoagland, Michael Kinsley
Pro-war Trumps Anti-war
The range of views of the 76 talking heads didnt come close to reflecting the thinking of the public at large. According to the latest Newsweek poll, four out of five polled (81 percent) want the United States to join its major allies and get full U.N. support before possibly attacking Iraq, and a majority approve of giving U.N. weapons inspectors more time.
While 77 percent of those polled agree that Americans would be safer and more secure if Saddam were ousted, sixty-six percent think it's more important to allow more time. Only 32 percent say moving forward quickly with military action is the only way to effectively deal with Iraq."
The segments before and after Bush's address and the lame Democratic response were filled with hardline rightwingers and mainstream conservatives. There were quite a few Democrats who are moderately liberal on domestic issues but generally right-of-center and hawkish on international issues, including Iraq.
There were very few strong, capable opponents of war. Barbara Boxer was one, and Chris Matthews and Pat Caddell had their moments. The line-up included Ted Kennedy, who has emerged as a stellar opponent of the looming war, and George McGovern, a World War II vet who can be counted on to reach fence-sitters in the heartland.
The sharpest skeptics were a trio of mainstream foreign journalists who appeared on ABC's Nightline. They pointed out that Bush presented no evidence, which is precisely what Europe and the Arab world were waiting to see. These foreign reporters with no axe to grind were far more skeptical about the content of Bush's speech (as opposed to how well he recited the script) than were most of the talking heads put on the air for the express purpose of challenging Bush! The Arab journalist, Said Arikat, reflected the view of most of the Arab world when he declared that war simply isn't required to resolve this hyped-up crisis over Iraq.
As noted above, of the 76 American talking heads who got to comment on the speech, 72 were white. Not one was Hispanic, Native American or Asian, though the Democrats did select Washington state's Gary Locke, the nation's first Chinese-American governor, to deliver their rebuttal. But the Democratic response touched on Iraq just long enough to congratulate Bush for being on the right track.
Here's a brief look at the four non-white talking heads who participated in pre- and post-speech commentary:
Fouad Ajami: A regular commentator on CBS, Ajami is widely regarded as the last man on earth Arab-Americans would select as their sole media spokesperson. He is about as far-removed from the thinking of the Arab or Arab-American "street" as Dan Rather.
Rep. Harold Ford: The Tennessee Democrat and media darling plays it down the center on domestic issues, but runs hard to his right on international issues and backs Bush on Iraq.
Donna Brazile: The director of Al Gore's 2000 presidential bid is a self-described "moderate." She has liberal tendencies on domestic issues, but centerist tendencies on foreign policy. Possessing neither the knowledge nor inclination to make a strong anti-war case, she'll happily go along if the U.S. is able to strongarm and bribe the U.N. to authorize an attack.
Juan Williams: The versatile Williams plays two roles on Fox: token liberal and token black. I didn't hear his views on this occasion, but he's likely near the bottom of the list of who blacks, liberals, and black liberals wish to see amid the sea of white conservative Fox jingoists.
African Americans are the strongest anti-war demographic in the country. On the night of the State of the Union address, they were under-represented both in number and in the strength of their anti-war conviction.
A Call For Competent Critics
Are major-media gatekeepers interested in presenting competent critics of Bush's rush to war -- men and women who aren't afraid to call the president a liar? Critics who can show viewers precisely how the president twisted, omitted or invented facts and why he did so? Critics such as political scientist Stephen Zunes, who demonstrates in this devastating "annotated overview" that Bush delivered a fundamentally dishonest speech?
If the news media were a meritocracy, where people were promoted based on their proven ability to unearth unpleasant truths that governments and corporations prefer to keep hidden, rank-and-file reporters at places like NBC and CNN would have documented Bush's verbal trickery immediately. Then again, if our news media were a meritocracy, Americans would never have heard of Tom Brokaw or Charlie Rose. And Wolf Blitzer would be a minor functionary in the Pentagon's PR department.
The news media can do better. The question is: Do they want to?
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, TomPaine.com, Slate and The Black World Today, among other outlets.