Bush's War on the Press
by John Nichols & Robert W.
The Nation magazine, December
In his speech to last spring's National
Media Reform Conference in St. Louis, Bill Moyers accused the
Bush Administration not merely of attacking his highly regarded
PBS program NOW but of declaring war on journalism itself. "We're
seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of
power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell
the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable,"
explained Moyers. With the November resignation of Moyers's nemesis,
Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) board chair Ken Tomlinson,
amid charges of personal and political wrongdoing and a host of
other recent developments, it becomes increasingly clear that
this White House is doing battle with the journalistic underpinnings
To be sure, every administration has
tried to manipulate the nation's media system. Bill Clinton's
wrongheaded support for the Telecommunications Act of 1996 cleared
the way for George W. Bush's attempts to give media companies
the power to create ever larger and more irresponsible monopolies.
But with its unprecedented campaign to undermine and, where possible,
eliminate independent journalism, the Bush Administration has
demonstrated astonishing contempt for the Constitution and considerable
fear of an informed public. Consider the bill of particulars:
§_Corrupting PBS. Tomlinson's tenure
at the CPB, which annually distributes $400 million in federal
funding to broadcast outlets, was characterized by an assault
on the news operations of the Public Broadcasting Service in general,
and Moyers in particular, for airing dissenting voices and preparing
investigative reports on the Administration. His goal was clearly
to fire a shot across the bow of all public stations so managers
would shy away from the sort of investigative journalism that
might expose Bush Administration malfeasance. On November 15,
on the heels of Tomlinson's resignation, the CPB's inspector general
issued a sixty-seven-page report documenting Tomlinson's repeated
violations of the Public Broadcasting Act, CPB rules and the CPB
code of ethics with his political meddling, though it stopped
short of calling for prosecution, or of examining the link between
Tomlinson's actions and White House directives.
§_Faking TV News. Under Bush Administration directives,
at least twenty federal agencies have produced and distributed
scores, perhaps hundreds, of "video news segments" out
of a $254 million slush fund. These bogus and deceptive stories
have been broadcast on TV stations nationwide without any acknowledgment
that they were prepared by the government rather than local journalists.
The segments--which trumpet Administration "successes,"
promote its controversial line on issues like Medicare reform
and feature Americans "thanking" Bush--have been labeled
"covert propaganda" by the Government Accountability
§_Paying Off Pundits. The Administration
has made under-the-table payments to at least three pundits to
sing its praises, including Armstrong Williams, the conservative
columnist who collected $240,000 from the Education Department
and then cheered on the ill-conceived No Child Left Behind Act.
§_Turning Press Conferences Into
Charades. Bush has all but avoided traditional press conferences,
closing down a prime venue for holding the executive accountable.
On those rare occasions when he deigned to meet reporters, presidential
aides turned the press conferences into parodies by seating a
friendly right-wing "journalist," former male escort
Jeff Gannon, amid the reporters and then steering questions to
him when tough issues arose. They have effectively silenced serious
questioners, like veteran journalist Helen Thomas, by refusing
to have the President or his aides call on reporters who challenge
them. And they have established a hierarchy for journalists seeking
interviews with Administration officials, which favors networks
that give the White House favorable coverage--as the frequent
appearances by Bush and Dick Cheney on Fox News programs will
§_Gutting the Freedom of Information
Act. As Eric Alterman detailed in a May 9 report in these pages,
the Administration has scrapped enforcement of the Freedom of
Information Act and has made it harder for reporters to do their
jobs by refusing to cooperate with even the most basic requests
for comment and data from government agencies. This is part of
a broader clampdown on access to information that has made it
virtually impossible for journalists to cover vast areas of government
§_Obscuring the Iraq War. In addition
to setting up a system for embedding reporters covering the war--which
denied Americans a full picture of what was happening during the
invasion--the Defense Department has denied access to basic information
regarding the war, from accurate casualty counts to images of
flag-draped coffins of US dead to the Abu Ghraib torture photos.
§_Pushing Media Monopoly. The Administration
continues to make common cause with the most powerful broadcast
corporations in an effort to rewrite ownership laws in a manner
that favors dramatic new conglomeratization and monopoly control
of information. The Administration's desired rules changes would
strike a mortal blow to local journalism, as media "company
towns" would be the order of the day. This cozy relationship
between media owners and the White House (remember Viacom chair
Sumner Redstone's 2004 declaration that re-electing Bush would
be "good for Viacom"?) puts additional pressure on journalists
who know that when they displease the Administration they also
displease their bosses.
In his famous opinion in the 1945 Associated
Press v. US case, Justice Hugo Black said that "the First
Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination
of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential
to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition
of a free society." In other words, a free press is the sine
qua non of the entire American Constitution and republican experiment.
The Bush Administration attack on the
foundations of self-government demands a response of similar caliber.
Under pressure from media-reform activists Congress has begun
to push back, with a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate Commerce
Committee to limit the ability of federal agencies to produce
covert video news segments and to investigate Defense Department
spending on propaganda initiatives. But until the Administration
is held accountable by Congress for all its assaults on journalism,
and until standards are developed to assure that such abuses will
not be repeated by future administrations, freedom of the press
will exist in name only, with all that suggests for our polity.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington
correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in
the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently
the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital
Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid
and Jews for Buchanan.
Robert W. McChesney
Robert W. McChesney, who teaches at the
University of Illinois, is the author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy
(New Press) and, with John Nichols, of It's the Media, Stupid
(Seven Stories). With John Nichols, he founded Free Press, a media
reform network (http://www.freepress.net).