When, on May 26, 2004, the editors of the New York Times published a mea culpa for the paper's one-sided reporting on weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war, they admitted to "a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been." They also commented that they had since come to "wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining claims" made by the Bush Administration. But we are still left to wonder why the Times, like many other major media outlets in this country, was so lacking in skepticism toward administration rationales for war? How could such a poorly thought through policy, based on spurious exile intelligence sources, have been so blithely accepted, even embraced, by so many members of the media? In short, what happened to the press's vaunted role, so carefully spelled out by the Founding Fathers, as a skeptical "watchdog" over government?
There's nothing like seeing a well-oiled machine clank to a halt to help you spot problems. Now that the Bush administration is in full defensive mode and angry leakers in the Pentagon, the CIA, and elsewhere in the Washington bureaucracy are slipping documents, secrets, and charges to reporters, our press looks more recognizably journalistic. But that shouldn't stop us from asking how an "independent" press in a "free" country could have been so paralyzed for so long. It not only failed to seriously investigate administration rationales for war, but little took into account the myriad voices in the on-line, alternative, and world press that sought to do so. It was certainly no secret that a number of our Western allies (and other countries), administrators of various NGOs, and figures like Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Hans Blix, head of the UN's Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission, had quite different pre-war views of the "Iraqi threat."
Few in our media, it seemed, remembered I. F. Stone's hortatory admonition, "If you want to know about governments, all you have to know is two words: Governments lie." Dissenting voices in the mainstream were largely buried on back pages, ignored on op-ed pages, or confined to the margins of the media, and so denied the kinds of "respectability" that a major media outlet can confer.
As reporting on the lead-up to war, the war itself and its aftermath vividly demonstrated, our country is now divided into a two-tiered media structure. The lower-tier – niche publications, alternative media outlets, and Internet sites – hosts the broadest spectrum of viewpoints. Until the war effort began to unravel in spring 2004, the upper-tier – a relatively small number of major broadcast outlets, newspapers and magazines – had a far more limited bandwidth of critical views, regularly deferring to the Bush Administration's vision of the world. Contrarian views below rarely bled upwards.
As Michael Massing pointed out recently in the New York Review of Books, Bush administration insinuations that critics were unpatriotic – White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer infamously warned reporters as war approached, "People had better watch what they say" – had an undeniably chilling effect on the media. But other forms of pressure also effectively inhibited the press. The President held few press conferences and rarely submitted to truly open exchanges. Secretive and disciplined to begin with, the administration adeptly used the threat of denied access as a way to intimidate reporters who showed evidence of independence. For reporters, this meant no one-on-one interviews, special tips or leaks, being passed over in press conference question-and-answer periods, and exclusion from select events as well as important trips.
After the war began, for instance, Jim Wilkinson, a 32 year-old Texan who ran Centcom's Coalition Media Center in Qatar, was, according to Massing, known to rebuke reporters whose copy was deemed insufficiently "supportive of the war," and "darkly warned one correspondent that he was on a 'list' along with two other reporters at his paper." In the play-along world of the Bush Administration, critical reporting was a quick ticket to exile.
A Media World of Faith-based Truth
The impulse to control the press hardly originated with George W. Bush, but his administration has been less inclined than any in memory to echo Thomas Jefferson's famous declaration that, "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
The Bush Administration had little esteem for the watchdog role of the press, in part because its own quest for "truth" has been based on something other than empiricism. In fact, it enthroned a new criterion for veracity, "faith-based" truth, sometimes corroborated by "faith-based" intelligence. For officials of this administration (and not just the religious ones either), truth seemed to descend from on high, a kind of divine revelation needing no further earthly scrutiny. For our President this was evidently literally the case. The Israeli paper Ha'aretz reported him saying to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Prime Minister of the moment, "God told me to strike Al Qaeda and I struck, and then he instructed me to strike Saddam, which I did."
It is hardly surprising then, that such a President would eschew newspapers in favor of reports from other more "objective sources," namely, his staff. He has spoken often of trusting "visceral reactions" and acting on "gut feelings." For him as for much of the rest of his administration, decision-making has tended to proceed not from evidence to conclusion, but from conclusion to evidence. Reading, facts, history, logic and the complex interaction between the electorate, the media and the government have all been relegated to subsidiary roles in what might be called "fundamentalist" policy formation.
Just as the free exchange of information plays little role in the relationship between a fundamentalist believer and his or her God, so it has played a distinctly diminished role in our recent parallel world of divine political revelation. After all, if you already know the answer to a question, of what use is the media, except to broadcast that answer? The task at hand, then, is never to listen but to proselytize the political gospel among non-believers, thereby transforming a once interactive process between citizen and leader into evangelism.
Although in the Bush political universe, freedom has been endlessly extolled in principle, it has had little utility in practice. What possible role could a free press play when revelation trumps fact and conclusions are preordained? A probing press is logically viewed as a spoiler under such conditions, stepping between the administration and those whose only true salvation lies in becoming part of a nation of true believers. Since there was little need, and less respect, for an opposition (loyal or otherwise), the information feedback loops in which the press should have played a crucial role in any functioning democracy, ceased operating. The media synapses that normally transmit warnings from citizen to government froze shut.
Television networks continued to broadcast and papers continued to publish, but, dismissed and ignored, they became irrelevant, except possibly for their entertainment value. As the press has withered, the government, already existing in a self-referential and self-deceptive universe, was deprived of the ability to learn of danger from its own policies and thus make course corrections.
A Universe in Which News Won't Matter
Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, bluntly declared to New Yorker writer Ken Auletta that members of the press "don't represent the public any more than other people do. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function." Auletta concluded that, in the eyes of the Bush Administration, the press corps had become little more than another special-interest lobbying group. Indeed, the territory the traditional media once occupied has increasingly been deluged by administration lobbying, publicity, and advertising – cleverly staged "photo ops," carefully produced propaganda rallies, preplanned "events," tidal waves of campaign ads, and the like. Afraid of losing further "influence," access, and the lucrative ad revenues that come from such political image-making, major media outlets have found it in their financial interest to quietly yield.
What does this downgrading of the media's role say about how our government views its citizens, the putative sovereigns of our country? It suggests that "we the people" are seen not as political constituencies conferring legitimacy on our rulers, but as consumers to be sold policy the way advertisers sell product. In the storm of selling, spin, bullying and "discipline" that has been the Bush signature for years, traditional news outlets found themselves increasingly drowned out, ghettoized and cowed. Attacked as "liberal" and "elitist," disesteemed as "trouble makers" and "bashers" (even when making all too little trouble), they were relegated to the sidelines, increasingly uncertain and timid about their shrinking place in the political process.
Add in a further dynamic (which intellectuals from Marxist-Leninist societies would instantly recognize): Groups denied legitimacy and disdained by the state tend to internalize their exclusion as a form of culpability, and often feel an abject, autonomic urge to seek reinstatement at almost any price. Little wonder, then, that "the traditional press" has had a difficult time mustering anything like a convincing counter-narrative as the administration herded a terrified and all-too-trusting nation to war.
Not only did a mutant form of skepticism-free news succeed – at least for a time – in leaving large segments of the populace uninformed, but it corrupted the ability of high officials to function. All too often, they simply found themselves looking into a fun-house mirror of their own making and imagined that they were viewing reality. As even the conservative National Review noted, the Bush administration has "a dismaying capacity to believe its own public relations."
In this world of mutant "news," information loops have become one-way highways; and a national security advisor, cabinet secretary, or attorney general, a well-managed and programmed polemicist charged to "stay on message," the better to justify whatever the government has already done, or is about to do. Because these latter-day campaigns to "dominate the media environment," as the Pentagon likes to say, employ all the sophistication and technology developed by communications experts since Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, first wed an understanding of psychology to the marketing of merchandise, they are far more seductive than older-style news. Indeed, on Fox News, we can see the ultimate marriage of news and PR in a fountainhead of artful propaganda so well packaged that most people can't tell it from the real thing.
For three-plus years, we have been governed by people who don't view news, in the traditional sense, as playing any constructive role in our system of governance. At the moment, they are momentarily in retreat, driven back from the front lines of faith-based truth by their own faith-based blunders. But make no mistake, their frightening experiment will continue if Americans allow it. Complete success would mean not just that the press had surrendered its essential watchdog role, but – a far darker thought – that, even were it to refuse to do so, it might be shunted off to a place where it would not matter.
As the war in Iraq descended into a desert quagmire, the press belatedly appeared to awaken and adopt a more skeptical stance toward an already crumbling set of Bush administration policies. But if a bloody, expensive, catastrophic episode like the war in Iraq is necessary to remind us of the important role that the press plays in our democracy, something is gravely amiss in the way our political system has come to function.
The Bush administration has brought the notion of the "marketization" of American life to heights unequalled in history. With former (and probably future) business executives and lobbyists in so many key positions, whole cabinet-level departments, the Department of Defense included, are now run more like large corporations than agencies of government.
Unsurprisingly, a new, business-style mind-set has gripped Washington, for corporate leaders like to pride themselves on being resolute, on knowing how to move rapidly, boldly, and with a certain Promethean energy as they go about the process of merging and acquiring. In the sclerotic corridors of the federal bureaucracy it may, indeed, take a bold and driven leader to change the old terms of the game and get things done in inventive and previously unimagined ways.
In a sense, this is the appeal of men like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Richard Cheney and Treasury Secretary John Snow. They do not allow ambiguities, temporary reversals, or naysayers to throw them off course. Like those dynamic entrepreneurs of the 1990s who blazed corporate trails, creating new global business structures in the process, these men do not view themselves as simple keepers of the status quo. They exude a faith-based fervor in their market-driven conviction that they have been almost divinely anointed to usher us into a new world, one guided by new styles of management and sanctified by the accumulation of wealth. They believe in the divine providence of the market, take the gospel of the "long boom" as their religious text, and have an unalloyed confidence that, under their tutelage, the commonweal can only move onward and upward. Their seminaries are the great business schools of the country to which the best and the brightest of a generation flocked to become acolytes of this new commercial cloth, the chosen people of a marketized world.
Such men feel no compunction about operating in the public sphere just as they did in the private one. Indeed, like the Calvinist businessmen analyzed in Max Weber's treatise, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," they view success and wealth as God's way of sanctioning their industrious ministries. They also believe that they have every right to use up whatever resources are at hand to further their goals.
However, the fates of so many of their corporate comrades in the private sector hint at where their new course at home and abroad -- whether in the resource-rich American West or resource-rich Iraq -- may end up. So many of their cohorts of the 1990s, motivated by a similar near-millenarian mind-set, crashed and burned as the dot.com bubble imploded, leaving behind a Ground Zero of collapsed companies, criminal activity, depressed stock values, mega-debt, bankruptcies, legions of unemployed workers, and phalanxes of defrocked CEOs. This speaks not just to the over-weaning arrogance and self-deception with which they went about their neo-liberal revolution, but to the direction similar attitudes may be leading the Bush administration.
If there were any stars by which these titans of nouvelle corporate dynamism were supposed to unswervingly steer as they blazed deal-making trails in the governmental heavens, they were:
The extraordinary thing about our present impasse in Iraq is that these corporate evangelists, who played such a critical role in plunging us into war, did such a poor job of due diligence on this Middle East "merger" before committing us to it. And like their take-the-money-and-run entrepreneurial corporate kin, now under indictment or in ignominious retirement, they were so ginned up over their inevitable success that they never bothered to develop a viable exit strategy. Now, as a result of short-sightedness (not to say malfeasance) in their latest "offshore enterprise" in Iraq, their own administration risks suffering a version of collapse that may one day look not so different from that of Enron, WorldCom, or Tyco.
So what is the remedy for us, if not them? Is there any exit strategy that would actually bring "peace with honor" to our country and extricate us from a sandy quagmire, never mind bring about the well-being of the long-suffering Iraqi people?
I'm afraid to say that I do not see any easy, constructive, or even face-saving ways out. The bitter fact of our willful entrance into Iraq, and of the stubborn, unilateral and prideful way that we have "stayed the course" since, has brought us to a point in this sorry drama where options once available are being foreclosed with an alarming rapidity. Even if the US were to reverse its policies by 180 degrees and, having long eschewed any multilateralization of the invasion or occupation, suddenly sought to share responsibility with NATO and the United Nations, it is doubtful sufficient support from other nations could be mustered.
In the French daily Le Croix, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has just rejected the Bush administration's plan to speed up the ceding of sovereignty to an "Iraqi provisional government" as "too late," and he might have added, too little. Similarly, Francois Heisbourg of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, "Had this happened in July, you would have had 50,000 to 60,000 European troops in Iraq. But there is no way a French, a German, or a Russian politician can explain to his people why they should risk being associated with the mess created by the Americans just so the Americans can be home before the next presidential election."
Now, the French may be distinctly French in their sentiments towards the US, but they are hardly alone. After having its headquarters blown up, the UN has largely vacated Baghdad. The Turks, having suffered grim reminders of the price of consorting with the Bush Administration, have left the military table. The Italians, never great supporters of the Berlusconi-Bush axis, are burying their dead, licking their wounds, and wondering how they ever let themselves be inveigled into this ill-advised adventure. The Japanese, too, are now on hold along with the South Koreans. And with Bush landing in Britain, where London's streets are filled with angry anti-war protesters, one wonders how long it will be before the first of our "allies" in Iraq -- whether the Poles, the Spanish or the Mongolians -- under pressure at home, will make its exit, following the path already paved by the UN, the Red Cross, and Doctors without Borders?
And so multilateralization may have become something of an idle dream. The notion that "the coalition" can survive, no less succeed in any meaningful way on a few hundred soldiers from such un-gung-ho countries as Norway, Azerbaijan, Portugal and Bulgaria -- and let's not forget New Zealand's 61 engineers, humanitarian aid workers and reconnaissance personnel -- has become little more than a PR ploy. And so Bush's sudden, but terminally belated, conversion on the road out of Baghdad to the idea that Iraqis should now expect to be granted a far earlier "gift" of sovereignty and that multilateral control of this unraveling mess might not be such a bad idea after all, comes at a time when few other workable, much less honorable, options remain open.
It is hard to imagine a more awkward bind for such an arrogantly can-do administration. After a victorious war, they now find themselves in a hellish occupation in which there's no convincing way either to stay or depart. No wonder the Bush administration, after all these months of treating Iraq as if it were some priceless treasure too precious to be shared with allies -- much less Iraqis -- is panicking. The President and his captains of corporate governance are only now beginning to realize what it must have felt like for Ken Lay as he watched his dream of a new corporate paradigm implode.
Stuck in a bad play with no exit in sight and no good management strategies up their sleeves, key officials are suddenly frantically looking for some doorstep on which to deposit the writhing body of Iraq. It is all well and good to talk of the UN as if it were some convenient home where countries battered in ill-conceived and badly run conflicts could be dropped off for rehab at international public expense; but partly thanks to our own fiscal and psychological abuse, the poor UN is paradoxically hardly up to the task, never mind whether it has the will, or even the desire, for it.
Eighty-three years ago, during a violent revolt against British rule in Iraq, Gertrude Bell, deputy to British Commissioner Arnold Wilson, warned in a letter to a friend against trying to "squeeze the Arabs into our mould," because, as she wrote, she feared that the British would only "have our hands forced in a year -- who knows -- perhaps less."
A poorly thought-through war justified by a kaleidoscope of changing explanations and fought in a place we know little about is hardly different from a badly executed merger or corporate acquisition where both companies, ill-wed, are badly damaged. The difference is that such damage to countries affects so many more people.
Before our own triumphant age of euphemism and spin-doctoring, we called such an ending by its rightful name -- defeat. One emphatically does not wish defeat on the US, even for such a gargantuan blunder. Nonetheless, a full measure of our leadership's ineptness in this war may be gauged by the fact that, just at the moment when failure forces the administration to consider alternative scenarios to belligerent unilateralism, there may be no hopeful options left open.
Orville Schell is a long-time observer of Asian affairs and Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Virtual Tibet, Searching for Shangri-la from the Himalayas to Hollywood.