Talking Turkey About a ‘Free’ Press

By Antonio Zerbisias
Toronto Star
Sunday, November 30, 2003

Let me say this straight up: I am not so cynical that I don’t believe U.S. President George W. Bush wasn’t sincerely farklempt when he talked turkey with the boys in Baghdad on Thanksgiving. Still, his talk of freedom struck me as gobbledygook.

“By helping the Iraqi people become free, you’re helping change a troubled and violent part of the world,” Bush said, to the cheers of the troops who are “helping to build a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East…”

Gobbledygook because Bush and his administration callously disregard one of the most basic freedoms of all, and that’s freedom of the press.

That the corporate media appear to happily go along with this curtailment and blatant manipulation of the press is even more shocking. But none of it is surprising — especially given the latter’s willingness to be embedded with the former in order to win regulatory reforms that will allow the media behemoths to beef up some more.

That said, to rail against how Bush’s well-planned photo op dominated the news would be a waste of time and paper. Even the most apathetic couch potato would have had a hard time missing the story with the video played and replayed more often than that of Michael Jackson’s arrest the week before. That it will show up in Bush’s next campaign commercial is a given. That the anchors were giddy with excitement over having something else to report on besides the parade and what-to-do-with-your-holiday-leftovers features was obvious. That the coverage was almost uniformly uncritical was, sadly, almost to be expected, considering the record so far.

(To be fair, everybody was caught off guard — and so the usual suspects/pundits probably couldn’t be found to be booked or quoted. Not that there are many usual suspects/pundits who are critical but, like I said, I am trying to be fair here.)

The bottom line is, the Bush people lied — L-I-E-D — about everything, including misinforming the press about what the First Family would be eating on Thanksgiving Day.

Okay, fine. Security, surprise, stealth, safety, whatever.

But why were some reporters included by the White House and not others? How come an editor at Fox News, the administration’s most rah-rah news operation, had advance word when no other editors did? And why is it that a president who refuses to acknowledge the dead and the wounded so readily exploits the — still, for now — alive?

As Joe Lockhart, former spokesperson for ex-president Bill Clinton, told the Washington Post: “There’s no way to do this kind of trip if it’s broadcast in advance, for security reasons. My problem with this is not that he misled the press. This is a president who has been unwilling to provide his presence to the families who have suffered, but thinks nothing of flying to Baghdad to use the troops there as a prop.”

And the media go along, after raising nary a peep about how the Pentagon, after banning coverage of the returning “transfer tubes” (a.k.a. body bags), now forbids journalists from getting close to funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. They’re restricted to a distant, roped-off area from which nothing can be heard. This after a Pentagon spokesperson said, “The media can get a better, more complete understanding of the person who has passed by attending and covering funeral services as opposed to coffins arriving aboard an air station.”


But, let’s leave the administration aside since, for political expediency, many a lie has been told. So what about the press? What about the stories they’re not telling here? Consider:

Last week, Richard Perle, a member of U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s policy board, told a London audience that he thought the attack on Iraq was illegal.

The Guardian reported him saying that international law “stood in the way of doing the right thing,” and it “would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone.”

To my knowledge, no U.S. media organization picked this up.

The U.S. media have forgotten the victims in whose names all this started: the Americans killed on 9/11. Their families have been struggling to get the government to answer questions about what led up to that day but get little media attention.

One widow, Ellen Mariani, who is suing while rejecting a certain pay-off from the government-allocated 9/11 funds — even though it means living on social security — put out a devastating open letter to Bush the other day. It deserves to re-printed everywhere and yet she got zero coverage. Even her lawsuit is being buried.

Why have no American media voices been raised against Rumsfeld’s outrageous suggestions that Arab journalists are compromised in their reporting because they are embedded with terrorists? Are they too embarrassed by how they compromised themselves during their G.I.-journalism days earlier this year?

And what evidence does he have to back his claims besides the fact that they are able to cover attacks on American troops quickly? Would it not make sense that they’re on the story because they’re on the ground — and not comfortably ensconced in the Pentagon’s newly renovated Baghdad briefing room, complete with banners extolling “Justice, Freedom, Liberty, Security” for the cameras?

Don’t justice, freedom, liberty and security depend on an open exchange of information?

Why does it seem that even the press is forgetting that?