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William Rivers Pitt: Your Media is Killing You

Your Media is Killing You

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 21 September 2004


The American mainstream television news media, in whole and in part, has catastrophically failed the American people and is singularly responsible for the untimely deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people.

The trajectory of this plunge is easy to chart. The 1980s saw unprecedented deregulation of the rules pertaining to the ownership of media outlets. Thus began the combination and consolidation of dozens of differing viewpoints under the iron control of a few massive corporations. The many voices became one voice, and a dullard's voice at that.

The opening year of the 1990s saw the push towards our first war in Iraq. Rather than hold to basic standards set by Edward R. Murrow and the other giants of journalism - see it for yourself, do the legwork, because the American people deserve to know what is happening - the mainstream television news media decided their best course was to allow themselves to be hand-fed by the Pentagon. No footage, no reports, no news whatsoever would be released to the public without first passing through Defense Department screeners. The American people learned from this that war looks like a video game, that death is remote, that victory is a simple matter of pushing a button.

After surrendering their integrity to governmental and military entities which lie as a matter of course, the mainstream television news media learned with the trial of O.J. Simpson the simple truth espoused by H.L. Mencken: "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Day after day, for sixteen months, every television was filled around the clock with soap-opera entertainment passing itself off as news. The American people, deprived of substantive information about the world around them, learned that real news is only about celebrities.

Then came the greatest entertainment-as-news extravaganza of all time: The Monica Lewinski scandal and the impeachment of a President who lied about sex. As an athlete will lose muscle tone if he stays away from the gym or the playing field, so did the intellectual muscles of the media atrophy after years of avoiding the basic efforts required in their field. Why run a scoop down about the war if I can just publish this Pentagon-prepared battle assessment? Why investigate Whitewater and the death of Vince Foster when I can just regurgitate this fax I just got from the Republican National Committee's media headquarters? If I can just get in front of the camera with a salacious bit of gossip, I can become an anchor. For many 'journalists,' the inflated nonsense of the impeachment was their "White Bronco."

Meanwhile, during the period beginning with the O.J. trial and concluding with the impeachment extravaganza, the Taliban was taking control of Afghanistan in the wake left by the completion of our anti-Soviet policies in that nation. A man named Osama bin Laden was preparing to attack anything and everything American he could get close to. UNSCOM weapons inspectors under Scott Ritter were taking Iraq's chemical and biological warfare capabilities apart literally brick by brick, and the sanctions against that nation, which were killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, were also reducing Saddam Hussein's conventional arsenal to a large collection of formidable paperweights.

One threat was on the rise, another was on the wane, but this is boring stuff compared to ill-fitting leather gloves and a stained blue dress. The American people were never provided the full scope of the security issues facing their country, because the television news media they relied upon didn't want to put in the work. Often, when then-President Clinton acted to address these security issues, he was accused of "wagging the dog," i.e. manufacturing unimportant threats to obscure the really important stuff, like whether or not he purchased gifts for Lewinski at the Big Dog store on Nantucket.

Think of these points - media laziness, media complicity with the powers-that-be, media obsession with fantastically unimportant gossip and tabloidism - and then remember those tall buildings in New York collapsing to the ground. Perhaps the 'journalists' involved could have been focusing on other things before that dark day?

Sunday night's episode of the CBS News program '60 Minutes' had a long, detailed and graphic expose on the fighting that recently took place in Najaf and Fallujah. All of the commercials for the program, however, focused on the '60 Minutes' interview with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. It was a clever bit of sleight-of-hand; by now, Americans have been well-trained to spurn whatever tiny molecules of substantive news that might somehow blunder across their screens, because the truly important stuff has more to do with who is sleeping with J-Lo and how Ben feels about it.

Sports is, of course, the champion distraction. Listen to any sports talk radio show; if the American people could rattle off housing or budget statistics, if they could quote from memory the casualty statistics from Operation Iraqi Freedom, the way they can tell you in half a second how many doubles Manny Ramirez hit in his rookie season, half-bright loafers like George W. Bush would never have a prayer in American politics. Perhaps CBS knew this. Millions of viewers made time to watch Belichick, and were treated to a bloody and terrifying and accurate view of the Iraq occupation that has been thoroughly, completely and utterly absent.

For more than two years now, this column space has been dedicated to describing, with all truth and verified data in hand, the mess an invasion of Iraq would create. This column was among the first to declare that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that any alleged connection between Osama bin Laden and the government of Iraq was laughable on its face, that democracy was a pipe dream in Iraq, that we would not be greeted as liberators, and that any military action in Iraq based upon these unfounded claims would result in a destabilized Middle East, a world filled with furious former allies, and an ocean of blood spilled by American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

All of this has come to pass.

How is it that little, with its limited resources and small staff, got it right time and again while ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN and Fox - with their massive financial resources and their huge pool of reporters - got it so totally and continuously wrong? The answer comes in two parts.

The first part is the degree to which these nationally broadcast news stations have become compromised by the corporations that own them. The ownership of the media is key to understanding the process. Take the example of General Electric, owners of NBC, MSNBC and CNBC. This company is one of the largest defense contractors in America; they get paid every time we go to war, and yet we somehow believe they will tell us the truth of war, even though it affects their profit margin. Such thinking is folly.

Take the example of AOL/TimeWarner, owner of CNN. This company lives and dies by the 'outsourcing' of American technological jobs overseas, where labor is cheaper. Do you think they will tell a straight story about the economy with so much on the line? Such thinking is folly, and never mind the fact that AOL/TimeWarner's largest investor is a Saudi. So much for the truth about who really supports Osama bin Laden and international terrorism. So much for the truth about what really happened on September 11, and why.

The decision by the mainstream television news media to get into bed with the very entities they are supposed to stand watchdog against has been a mortal one. Once it becomes acceptable to get your reporting from Defense Department and military spin-doctors, without doing any work on your own, the game is over. What started with the Gulf War as a new 'reporting' technique has become an institutionalized process of standing as mouthpiece for those who deserve the strongest scrutiny.

The White House and Defense Department boys know this, and exploited it ruthlessly in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration sought to capitalize on the tragedy by using it as an excuse to invade Iraq, something the power-pitchers in the administration had wanted for more than a decade. A shadowy and little-known media consulting company called The Rendon Group got a $100,000-a-month contract from the Pentagon right after the attacks. The Rendon Group was getting paid to offer media strategy advice. Or, in other words, propaganda.

The Rendon Group has been around a long time, and stands at the center of the media's failure to report accurately on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The Rendon Group has received close to $200 million from the Pentagon and CIA over the last several years to spread anti-Hussein propaganda far and wide. One of the first steps they took was to create in 1992, out of absolute thin air, the Iraqi National Congress. The Iraqi National Congress, and its most famous spokesperson Ahmad Chalabi, are entirely the creation of a media strategy company doing the bidding of the United States government.

Since 1992, the Iraqi National Congress has become accepted completely by the mainstream news media as a legitimate group. They were embraced by the American Congress under Newt Gingrich and given hundreds of millions of dollars. They were, with the help of the aforementioned Congress, the driving force behind the passage of the Iraqi Liberation Act in 1998, an Act which made the removal of Saddam Hussein a matter of American law. All this for a group made out of nothing by what amounts to a media consulting company.

The post-9/11 money paid to the Rendon Group returned handsome dividends for the investment. Rendon creation Ahmad Chalabi, who has since been accused of giving vital national security secrets to Iran, arranged an interview between Judith Millerof the New York Times and an Iraqi defector named Adnan Ishan Saeed al-Haidieri. al-Haidieri claimed to have personal knowledge of the vast and growing stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Miller, thinking Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress were worthy sources, believed al-Haidieri and printed an exclusive report on the threat posed by Iraq in the Times.

Time and a little legwork has since exposed al-Haidieri as a total fraud, but Rendon's propaganda got out there; as the New York Times goes, so goes the rest of the mainstream media. Miller's report, released in 2001, created a landslide push towards war, and allowed George W. Bush to sell the American people a frightening and utterly inaccurate portrait of why war was necessary, and necessary now.

Companies like The Rendon Group are a bellweather for exactly how depraved our journalistic institutions have become. Millions of dollars in government contracts are there for the taking by anyone who wants to scam the media with bogus stories. The media is more than happy to oblige, because it relieves them of having to put the necessary work in. Meanwhile, stories that might negatively affect the parent companies go by the boards, and everyone is happy.

Well, almost everyone is happy. The families of 1,033 American soldiers who have died in Iraq aren't happy. The families of the 17,000 or so American soldiers who have been 'medically evacuated' from Iraq for things like missing legs and faces aren't happy. The families of the 20,000 or so civilians killed in the invasion of Iraq aren't happy, and a lot of them are taking their unhappiness to the streets with grenades and rifles so they can make more American families unhappy by killing American soldiers.

Don't look to the mainstream television news media for an apology or a reversal of course anytime soon. They can't report the truth now. To do so would expose them as the incompetent lapdogs they have become, and as anyone who has ever screwed up at work knows, the hardest person to face after a grievous error is the person you find in the mirror.

The second part of the answer to that question - How is it that little got it right time and again while the entire mainstream television news media got it wrong? - is simplicity itself.

We put in the work. We did the research in triplicate. We talked to the people who knew the score. We took the time. We cared. We understood that September 11 did not require us to click our heels and say "Yes sir!" to whatever balderdash Mr. Bush and his crew spouted. Quite completely the opposite is true. We understood that September 11 made it more important than ever for us to be very, very good at what we do.

The American mainstream television news media, in whole and in part, has catastrophically failed the American people and is singularly responsible for the untimely deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people. It is not too late for them to reverse course, to take again the simple rules and requirements espoused by Murrow and Mencken and place them at the forefront of their institutional mission. Nothing less than the basic stability of our republic is at stake.


William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'

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