Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Party of Bash and Bush Flexes for the Next Election


It's a playbook that's worked time and time again. So with Karl “I dodged an indictment” Rove back to his typical pre-election shenanigans, it's hardly surprising to see the Republican attack dogs unleashed and snarling.

First came the carefully staged, post-Zarqawi, Congressional debate. The Republicans used their power in both chambers to manipulate news coverage as they pilloried the "cut and run" Democrats for deserting the cause and our troops in Iraq. (Forgotten, it seemed, was just who got the troops there to start with. Ignored, a week later, was the distinct similarity between Gen. George W. Casey’s phased withdrawal plan and the one the majority of Democrats had supported.)

Next the Republicans ratcheted up their efforts to pass a Constitutional Amendment to ban flag burning (a truly pressing national issue in that .... in that .... huh?). Stay tuned. The vote will be close and, whichever way it goes, every Democrat against tinkering with the Constitution over this utterly vacuous issue will be bashed mercilessly in the next election.

Then, this Monday, President Bush and Vice-President Cheney issued choreographed attacks against -- you got it -- the news media (and especially that evil New York Times) for having the audacity to report on yet another of their domestic "monitoring" programs -- this one to track financial transactions of terrorists (but, mind you, only terrorists).

"For people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it is of great harm to the United States," W. said, reportedly jabbing a finger for emphasis. "We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America .. What we're doing was the right thing."

Republican business as usual, you say. Perhaps. But I believe one way or another, this time around could prove a turning point in the steady erosion of civil and open debate over policy in this country. Things could get better – or, they could get a whole lot worse. The answer, ultimately, lies with the hard-working, heavily-spun, and too-often scared men and women of America – unless the election process is already so corrupted, as some have charged, that public political campaigning in this country is just a distraction.

Let’s assume for a moment that the outcome is not preordained. Will the public this November tolerate the same attack and terrify tactics it has fallen for time and time again? Or will voters pick a new tune to replace that long-running Republican hit, "There is a reason: fear, fear, fear?"

Only this is no joke. Just listen to U.S. Rep. Peter King, Republican of New York and yesterday's hit man for his party.

"We're at war, and for The Times to release information about secret operations and methods in treasonous," he told the Associated Press.

For the record: (1) The Wall Street Journal, that much-reviled left-wing rag, ran the same story and (2) this is not the first time in recent months that the Republicans have not merely bad-mouthed the media but implicitly or explicitly threatened news organizations or reporters with prosecution.

It's not surprising. The Republicans control Congress. They're getting close to controlling the highest court (seven of the justices were appointed by Republican presidents). And they’ve done their part to try to bludgeon the “liberal” press into self-censorship. So as we pursue liberty and justice and freedom in our unending war against terror around the globe, why not dispatch a few sorted scribes behind bars? Would anyone mind? And, if not, will anyone, in fact, notice when our own democracy is that in name only?

As much or more than the end game in Iraq, these questions should be on the minds of citizens as they prepare to vote in November’s midterm elections. Whether voters will, in fact, notice the erosion of First Amendment rights is tough to gauge. It hasn’t been part of the pollster’s repertoire. New polls, however, do show some signs that the "hit and run over" tactics of the Republicans may be wearing thin.

Even in the shadow of the orchestrated Congressional debate on Iraq, a USA Today/Gallup Poll taken last weekend found Bush’s approval rating had plateaued at 37 percent after rising in recent weeks. It also round that a majority of Americans support a resolution outlining a plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and that 50 percent of those surveyed would like all U.S. forces out within 12 months (Sen. John Kerry’s amendment to do just that managed to get 13 votes in the U.S. Senate).

In the end, of course, polls this week, next month and Nov. 1 won’t matter a whit come election day. I just hope the same can’t be said years from now by historians studying the story of ballots actually cast Nov. 7.

In an opinion piece the Boston Globe ran this Monday, the authors of the book, “Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?” again raised a question that has never been answered to my satisfaction: Just how could a 25-question exit poll survey of 114,559 voters that November day have been so wrong as to predict a Kerry victory by a margin of 51 to 48 percent?

Noted the authors, Steven F. Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, “In that election, 64 percent of Americans voted on direct recorded electronic voting machines or optical scan systems, both of which are vulnerable to hacking or programming fraud.”

Without an audit, they continue, and without any means of verifying the official count, “a reasonable person could … argue that a well-conducted exit poll that confirmed the official count would be about the only reason we would have to believe the results.”

Let’s hope someone conducts such a poll this November – and that the media pay attention if it doesn’t reflect the recorded vote. If not, it won’t be long before a newly molded system of American justice begins to heed Rep. King’s calls for action against the “treasonous” press.

Friday, June 16, 2006

When Will the Mainstream Media Get It Right?

This blog appeared on www.commondreams.org

06/16/06 -- My New York Times today paints a pretty grim picture of life in Iraq three-plus years into W's war of choice.

A graphic compares a variety of statistics this May (2006) to the last three. Other than a slight drop in U.S. military deaths from 77 last May to 68 this May, the graphic's stats comparing this year to last are awfully disheartening:

-- Monthly incidents of sectarian violence -- up from 20 to 250

-- Daily insurgent attacks -- up from 70 to 90

-- Multi-fatality bombings -- up from 36 to 56

-- Iraqi civilian deaths -- up from 1,000 to 1,500

-- Number of insurgents -- up from 16,000 to 20,000

And so on.

Unfortunately this news appears in views, on Page A27, the opinion page, in a graphic compiled by a senior Brookings Institute fellow and his senior research assistant. The lead news story on Page 1 in my New York Times today is about an entirely different war -- the public relations war of the Republican Party aimed at obliterating any sense of reality among voters of what's really going on in Iraq. The Times reports the Republican offensive without comment, which is appropriate on the news pages. But it also reports this offensive with very little context, which is not appropriate.

WASHINGTON, June 15 -- The House and the Senate engaged in angry, intensely partisan debate on Thursday over the war in Iraq, as Republicans sought to rally support for the Bush administration's policies and exploit Democratic divisions in an election year shadowed by unease over the war.

It was one of the sharpest legislative clashes yet over the three-year-old conflict, and it came after three days in which President Bush and his aides had sought to portray Iraq as moving gradually toward a stable, functioning democracy, and to portray Democrats as lacking the will to see the conflict through to victory.

In the House, lawmakers moved toward a vote on a Republican resolution promising to "complete the mission" in Iraq, prevail in the global fight against terrorism and oppose any "arbitrary date for withdrawal...."

And what do the facts say in support of this Republican offensive? Well the story doesn't offer any. There is no evidence that proves or disproves the Republican's assertion that Iraq is moving toward a stable, functioning democracy. In its 6th paragraph, however, the article does prominently quote Republican House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who says of Iraq, "It is a battle we must endure and one in which we can and will be victorious. The alternative would be to cut and run and wait for them to regroup and bring the terror back to our shores." (Emphasis added.)

Back to our shores?

But wait. Doesn't The Times remember that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with either Al Qaeda or the bombing of the World Trade Center, according to U.S. intelligence? Doesn't it recollect that this mythical connection is one Republicans have insinuated for years through often-unchallenged quotes such as Hastert's? Has it forgotten that even before the war began, those opposing the war warned repeatedly that it would turn Iraq into the very breeding ground of terrorism that the United States was trying to eradicate?

The Times lead article mentions none of this context. Nor does it include any of the statistical context found on Page 27 of the same edition.

Given The Times stature in the American press, this kind of omission leads me to wonder just how mainstream media today are defining their role in delivering the news. More than 50 years ago, the press for a long time failed to challenge the anti-communist hysteria spread by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin -- hysteria based on the thinnest of facts or none at all. McCarthy knew that if he attacked someone as a communist sympathizer, that person's denial would mean little. The news media rarely bothered to look at his evidence. Recognizing, somewhat ashamed, in the years that followed that they had failed to serve the public, news organizations and journalism schools spoke of the need for "fairness" instead of "objectivity," for reporting that was based on verifiable fact rather than “he said-she said” fencing. Has that recognition of a need for a better model of reporting simply been forgotten?

The Bush Administration and its Republican allies in Congress today regularly eviscerate all opponents of the war as weak on terror if not anti-American. Shouldn’t the news media accounts of such attacks review the evidence of how the war is going? Or is it enough to merely print the attacks and the denials and move on?

I believe the media should be providing the context of the Iraq war during the current congressional debate -- unless the press is willing to accept that its job has morphed into serving as a conduit of propaganda meted out, to be fair, by both sides.

I haven't read a transcript of the full House debate. But The Times itself makes clear that at least one Democrat referenced the context of the war. His comment can be found, for the truly dogged reader, in paragraph 21 of today's lead story, the second to last paragraph of the article. There, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts say -- or asserts as The Times chooses to put it -- that "the war in Afghanistan was the response to the terrorist attacks" -- not the war in Iraq.

Wait a minute. Frank asserts? Is it not verifiable fact that Osama bin Laden operated out of Afghanistan with the support of its Taliban leadership? Is it not verifiable fact that the World Trade Center terrorists were overwhelming Saudi Arabian and that there wasn't an Iraqi among them. Remember? We ostensibly went to war there to keep Saddam from using weapons of mass destruction, which -- oops -- it turned out he didn't have.

Facts have never gotten in the way of the Bush Administration. Too often, it lives and dies by the big lie, repeated over and over again. Reporters call this “spin,” because the word "lie" makes them uncomfortable. But whatever name they give it, they should always provide evidence (call it verifiable fact or context) that measures the spin against what is known. Providing this contrast, after all, is the news media's job.

What’s happening in Washington this week is clear. After weeks of utter chaos on the ground in Baghdad -- kidnappings, sectarian mass murders, bombs and the flight of the middle class to neighboring countries -- the Iraqi government filled its Cabinet and U.S. troops killed a very evil guy, Musab al-Zarqawi. It is good news and it does provide an inkling of hope. But now the Bush Administration wants to cash in politically by renewing its historical assault on Democrats as wimps and defeatists and by making the news of Zarqawi’s death partisan.

The problem with this spin is that most of the facts don't support either the Administration’s vision of reality in Iraq or its renewed efforts to tie Iraq to the broader war on terror (and, by extension, 9/11). That information, too, is part of the news – an important part if the American public is to make sense of what’s really going on.

Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He can be reached by email at jerry_lanson@emerson.edu.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Peace Sign


Driving throught the artistic Cape Ann, Mass., community of Rockport last weekend, I saw a minivan with two yellow "support the troops" ribbons and a peace sign. My first thought was, "This guy is confused." But then maybe it's the rest of us who are.

White and bellicose America, the anti-immigrant and anti-gay marriage brigades, has long usurped the symbols of pride and patriotism. The yellow ribbon is one example. The flag another. I count the pro-Bushie Republicans in my neighborhood by looking for houses that fly their flags every day. And it ticks me off. My parents were New Yorkers, liberal, inclusive and very much pro-American. My dad, a German refugee of Jewish descent, came to this country by hiking over the Alps into Czechoslovakia with enough money in his shoes to live until he could learn a new language and get a job. He served three years in the U.S. Army in World War II, leaving as a staff sergeant. He loved parades, flew a flag on every holiday and sang the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games, loudly and badly.

But he'd have been even louder in denouncing an administration that tramples on the law, spies on Americans in their homes, leads by division and marginalization, and flexes its muscles at any opportunity.

Pomp should not be a circumstance restricted to the right. Perhaps that was the minivan driver's message. We should all support our troops. Not that they're always squeaky clean.
But they're dying and losing their legs and minds in a country and for a cause we barely notice.
Each day they awaken in a country so indiscriminately violent (although we only seem to see blood in the news when a top-gun terrorist gets killed) that even our best-trained fighting force, the Marines, faces allegations that some among its number went nuts in a town called Haditha last November and over a period of hours assassinated 24 civilians, including women and children.

There's no excuse for slaughter. But there may be even less excuse for leaving our troops as targets in a shooting gallery. We did that once in my lifetime, in Vietnam, feinting and faking a "peace treaty" withdrawal for a half dozen years while more than 25,000 more of our troops died.

Mr. President, this is your chance to avoid a replay. Musab al-Zarqawi is dead. That's given you mileage and cover. This is your perfect opportunity to declare victory, pull out our troops and wave more flags. If you're lucky Iraq will stay glued together through the 2006 midterm elections, and most Americans won't much care anyway.

Those who do might consider the minivan driver's counterattack: Go out and buy a yellow ribbon and mount it with a peace sign.