Mis-Covering Clarke

Please raise your hand if the name Richard Clarke rang a bell for you three weeks ago. How many of us knew who he was or what he did? And who among us can cite examples of TV stories or news commentators discussing in any detail his contention that the War on Iraq undermined the war on terror?

Yes, there were discussions of the problems with the Iraq war and the lack of priority paid to the search for Al Qaeda, but not of the direct relationship between the two as framed by Clarke.

The question now is whether any one is going to raise the issue of the media's failure to discuss these issues in detail before Richard Clarke pointed to intelligence failures and apologized to the victims' families for the government's inability to prevent the attack. More importantly, who in our media will have the courage to apologize for giving the Bush administration a soft sell and a big pass?

Insiders Only

It takes a silver haired, hawkish hardliner and Washington insider and Securo-crat to finally put some, if not all, of the 9/11 issues on the agenda. Clarke is hardly a dove. He wanted Clinton to bomb more often. His analysis of the roots of what he calls Islamic radicalism was superficial. He even expressed a wish that Fidel Castro be taken out.

More liberal critics or people who reject the Washington cold war foreign policy consensus are rarely heard or taken seriously. This is not new. It is only defectors from the right -- such as Treasury Secretary O'Neil -- that seem to be heard. Even Daniel Ellsberg, who gave us the Pentagon Papers, was seen as credible by the Beltway crowd because he'd worked for the Pentagon and Rand Corporation.

Before Clarke came forth, questions were being raised on hundreds of websites and by independent investigators and groups of 9/11 families, who were marginalized and for the most part ignored. (Take a look at 911 Citizen Watch for a sampling.) You have to be in "the club" to be taken seriously.

The irony, of course is that the hearings only took place because of the persistence of a handful of outsiders -- for example, the activist wives of 9-11 victims who lobbied for the investigation but later walked out in disgust when many of their questions were sidelined.

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has refused to testify in front of the commission because of a bogus separation of powers "principle." She made the same claim in an all too friendly interview on 60 Minutes on Sunday. Surprisingly, neither correspondent Ed Bradley nor other commentators have pointed out to her that this commission was appointed by the President, and not by Congress. It merely happens to hold hearings in a room on the Hill. The reference to testifying before Congress is misplaced.

Rice did offer one valid insight during the interview when she alluded to the kind of context and background that is missing in most of the media coverage. "You have to go back into the 70's and 80's," she said, to understand the challenge of terrorism. While her reading of that history is very selective, it is precisely what the 9-11 investigation and the media coverage need to consider.

Air Time for Attack Dogs

Ever since Clarke testified, the administration has cleverly changed the subject from the issues he raised to that of his own credibility. Is he a partisan? Did he write different things in a press release he issued for the White House when he worked for President Bush than in his book, which challenges the President? Tim Russert threw every criticism that has been raised at him on "Meet the Press" this weekend. Clarke held his ground.

It was like a game of ping pong, better known as 'they said/you said."

This politicizing of his testimony was aided and abetted by virtually every show on the air. He has been on 15 or more news programs and on most of them, the questions were the same, as commentator Harry Browne notes on HarryBrowne.org:

"Providing their usual support for big government, TV and press reporters repeated and discussed statements Clarke made in 2001 and 2002 -- statements that seemed to back up the charge that Clarke was an opportunistic hypocrite.

"But did you notice that every reporter showed us exactly the same statements from Clarke? Some of the apparent 'statements' weren't even complete sentences. Why did everyone who commented on Clarke's apparent flip-flop focus on exactly the same fragments?

"They did so because those were the only fragments they had to work with. The quotes were all provided by the Bush administration -- and they're the only quotes available. If the reporters had possessed the original documents, some of them would have picked out other statements or fragments from those documents.
Media programs bent over backward to provide a platform for administration officials to respond to Clarke's claims -- but to build some heat for ratings rather than shed light on the issues; to "balance" the debate rather than advance it. These interviews aimed to provide Bush supporters with ammunition, not information.

Browne notes, "Top administration officials have already appeared on numerous national news shows. Condoleezza Rice showed up on all five national morning shows (on NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and CNN). The attack dogs said very little about the actual charges, preferring to attack Clarke personally as a hypocrite who previously praised President Bush's response to terrorism."

The coverage of Clarke is typical of a pattern where controversial issues that challenge those in power invariably are personalized and narrowed when they should be broadened and deepened.

Why the Media Cop-Out?

Why has the media establishment been unwilling or unable to take on the political establishment? What accounts for the lack of bravery and determination to seek the truth?

Some newspapers have done a good job, and independent muckrakers like Greg Palast have dug up some dirt. But far too many TV reporters have opted to become semi-official stenographers with American flags in their lapel. No one explicitly censored the news, but the post-9/11 political climate, dominated by an administration that saw the world in terms of "you are with us or against us," led to corporate timidity and self-censorship. With Fox News functioning as "bully boys," to use Christiane Amanpour's phrase, many networks muzzled themselves.

War correspondent Peter Arnett sees a psychological reason for this timidity: "Don't forget the American media is based in NYC, and every reporter in NYC saw the World Trade Towers collapse and they took it personally. There was a sense of revenge and fear, which was reflected in the coverage of Afghanistan and the War on Terror. As we moved into Iraq, a more pre-emptive strike, the media maintained this sort of romance, you might say with government."

CBS's Dan Rather embodied the kind of personal schizophrenia that 9/11 produced in many journalists. Just after the attacks, he went on the Letterman show to profess his patriotism. He said: "I would willingly die for my country at a moment's notice and on the command of my president."

The following spring in May 2002 he went on BBC's Newsnight, their version of "Nightline," and revealed the ways he pulled his punches because of personal fears. Invoking the memory of black South Africans "necklacing" informers with burning tires, he explained: "In some ways, the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck. It's that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions and to continue to bore-in on the tough questions so often. Again, I'm humbled to say I do not except myself from this criticism."

In England, it was considered big news that an anchor of Rather's prominence would confess to not asking tough questions. Almost every newspaper in London put the story on its front page.

In the U.S., the interview was mostly ignored, and certainly so on Rather's own network. The only reference to it I saw was a quote in The Los Angeles Times' Calendar Section

In short, it was buried -- just like any serious discussion of the 9/11 attacks.

9/11 is not just about intelligence failures or mismanagement in the White House, but also about deeper political failures on both sides of the aisle.

As you watch the "Get Clarke" brigades do their thing on television, remember that the same media outlets that did such a good job covering the details of what happened on 9/11, have done little to explain why it happened.

Danny Schechter writes the News Dissector Blog on Mediachannel.org. His book "Media Wars" discusses gaps in the media coverage of the 9/11 attack and news at a time of terror.

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