Saturday, April 23, 2005

Bush's War on the Press

by Eric Alterman
“Make no mistake: The Bush Administration and its ideological allies are employing every means available to undermine journalists' ability to exercise their First Amendment function to hold power accountable. In fact, the Administration recognizes no such constitutional role for the press. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has insisted that the media ‘don't represent the public any more than other people do.... I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function.’

Bush himself, on more than one occasion, has told reporters he does not read their work and prefers to live inside the information bubble blown by his loyal minions. Vice President Cheney feels free to kick the New York Times off his press plane, and John Ashcroft can refuse to speak with any print reporters during his Patriot-Act-a-palooza publicity tour, just to compliant local TV. As an unnamed Bush official told reporter Ron Suskind, ‘We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’ For those who didn't like it, another Bush adviser explained, ‘Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered two to one by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read the New York Times or Washington Post or the LA Times.’

But the White House and its supporters are doing more than just talking trash--when they talk at all. They are taking aggressive action: preventing journalists from doing their job by withholding routine information; deliberately releasing deceptive information on a regular basis; bribing friendly journalists to report the news in a favorable context; producing their own ‘news reports’ and distributing these free of charge to resource-starved
broadcasters; creating and crediting their own political activists as ‘journalists’ working for partisan operations masquerading as news organizations.

In addition, an Administration-appointed special prosecutor, US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, is now threatening two journalists with jail for refusing to disclose the nature of conversations they had regarding stories they never wrote, opening up a new frontier of potential prosecution. All this has come in the wake of a decades-long effort by the right and its corporate allies to subvert journalists' ability to report fairly on power and its abuse by attaching the label "liberal bias" to even the most routine forms of information gathering and reportage (for a transparent example in today's papers, see under ‘DeLay, Tom’). Some of these tactics have been used by previous administrations too, but the Bush team and its supporters have invested in and deployed them to a degree that marks a categorical shift from the past.

The right wing's media "decertification" effort, as the journalism scholar and blogger Jay Rosen calls it, has its roots in forty years of conservative fury at the consistent condescension it experienced from the once-liberal elite media and the cosmopolitan establishment for whom its members have spoken. Fueled by this sense of outrage, the right launched a multifaceted effort to fight back with institutions of its own, including think tanks, advocacy organizations, media pressure groups, church groups, big-business lobbies and, eventually, its own television, talk-radio, cable and radio networks (to be augmented, later, by a vast array of Internet sites).

Today this triumphant movement has captured not only much of the media and the public discourse on ideas but both the presidency and Congress (and soon, undoubtedly, the Supreme Court as well); it can wage its war on so many fronts simultaneously that it becomes nearly impossible to see that almost all these efforts are aimed at a single goal: the destruction of democratic accountability and the media's role in insuring it.

The Bush attack on the press has three primary components--Secrecy, Lies and Fake News. Consider these examples:

All Presidents try to keep secrets; it comes with the job description. Following 9/11, the need for secrecy increased significantly. Bush, however, has taken advantage of this new environment to shut down the natural flow of information between the governing and the governed in ways that have little or nothing to do with the terrorist threat.

As Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity points out, "The country has seen a historic, regressive shift in public accountability. Open-records laws nationwide have been rolled back more than 300 times--all in the name of national security." Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven Aftergood adds, "Since President George W. Bush entered office, the pace of classification activity has increased by 75 percent.... His Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification system and recorded a rise from 9 million classification actions in fiscal year 2001 to 16 million in fiscal year 2004."

Some of these efforts may be justified as prudent preparation in the face of genuine threats, but this is hard to credit, given the contempt the Administration has demonstrated for the public's right to information in non-security-related matters.

Upon entering office, Bush attempted to shield his Texas gubernatorial records by shuttling them into his father's presidential library. That was followed by an executive fiat designed to hide his father's presidential records, as well as those of the Reagan/Bush Administration, by blocking the scheduled release of documents under the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and issuing a replacement presidential order that allowed not only Presidents but also their wives and children to keep their records secret. (The records had
already been scrubbed for national security implications.)

In the aftermath of 9/11, Administration efforts to prevent accountability accelerated to warp speed. Attorney General Ashcroft reversed a Clinton Administration-issued policy governing FOIA requests that allowed documents to be withheld only when "foreseeable harm" would likely result, to one in which merely a "sound legal basis" could be found. And that was just the beginning. Even when documents were not withheld de jure, Administration officials often withheld them de facto.

When People for the American Way sought documents on prisoners' cases being litigated in secret, the Justice Department required it to pay $373,000 in search fees before officials would even look. "It's become much, much harder to get responses to FOIA requests, and it's taking much, much longer," David Schulz, the attorney who helps the Associated Press with FOIA requests, explained to a reporter.

"Agencies seem to view their role as coming up with techniques to keep information secret rather than the other way around. That's completely contrary to the goal of the act."

In addition, as Aftergood notes, "an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, websites and official databases." These sources were once freely available but are now being withdrawn from view under the classification "sensitive but unclassified" or "for official use only." They include: the Pentagon telephone directory, the Los Alamos technical report library, historical records at the National Archives and the Energy Department intelligence budget, among many others.

Even more alarming is the web of secrecy surrounding the operations of what has become the equivalent of a police state at Guantánamo Bay and other military prisons around the world, where the accused are routinely denied due process and traditional rules of evidence are deemed irrelevant. Exactly two members of Congress, both sworn to secrecy, are being briefed by the CIA on these programs. The rest of Congress, the media and the public are given no information to judge the legality, morality or effectiveness of these extralegal
machinations, some of which have already resulted in officially sanctioned torture and possibly even murder.

The issue of "lies" has been the most consistently clouded by the Administration's supporters in the conservative media, who refuse to report facts when they conflict with White House spin. It's true, as I show in my book When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, that many presidents have demonstrated an almost allergic reaction to accuracy. Still, the Bush Administration manages to set a new standard here as well, reducing reality to a series of inconvenient obstacles to be ignored in favor of ideological prejudices and political imperatives--and it has done so virtually across the entire executive branch. As Michael Kinsley noted way back in April 2002,

"What's going on here is something like lying by reflex.... Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven't bothered. If telling the truth was less bother, they'd try that too."

Rather than regurgitate that fruitless debate over the war--the deliberate untruths told by the Administration have been delineated ad nauseam--consider just two recent examples of its deception on matters relating to scientific and medical evidence:

§Mercury emissions: When the EPA unveiled a rule to limit mercury emissions from power plants, Bush officials argued that anything more stringent than the EPA's proposed regulations would cost the industry far in excess of any conceivable benefit to public health. They hid the fact, however, that a Harvard study paid for by the EPA, co-written by an EPA scientist and peer-reviewed by two other EPA scientists, found exactly the opposite, estimating health benefits 100 times as great as the EPA did. Even more shocking, according to a GAO investigation, the EPA had failed to "quantify the human health benefits of decreased exposure to mercury, such as reduced incidence of developmental delays, learning disabilities, and neurological disorders."

§Nuclear materials: The Los Angeles Times recently reported that government scientists apparently submitted phony data to demonstrate that a proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada's Yucca Mountain would be safe. As with the EPA and mercury emissions, the Interior Department found unsatisfactory the results of a study from the Los Alamos National Laboratory concluding that rainwater moved through the mountain sufficiently quickly for radioactive isotopes to penetrate the ground in a few decades, so it just pretended it hadn't happened.
con·cept: Bush's War on the Press