Bush, war and censorship

NEW ANALYSIS “Let’s roll” is how President Bush ended his speech to the nation on Nov. 8. And roll is the word to describe the public relations campaign his administration has organized to sell the war abroad and repackage the domestic crisis at home.

A New York Times editorial characterized the speech as “a homeland pep talk.” Delivered in prime time, although only broadcast live by one major network, the speech attempted to correct the confused and evasive messages by government spokespeople on “homeland security.”

It was a restatement of praise for patriotism and national unity that covered no new ground, resulting in the Fox network not airing it because it was deemed “not newsworthy.”

The Bush administration, keeping a watch on its high public approval ratings, is now fully organized to spin disaster to the advantage of its political agenda.

However, a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll released Nov. 12 shows that, although support for the military strategy remains strong, there is the beginnings of a shift from the “total support” category to the “mainly support” and “mixed feelings” categories.

The softening of support in the past month reflects the rapid pace of developments, often bringing more questions than answers.

Pep rallies and media spin can’t answer the questions flowing from the terrorists acts of Sept. 11 and the whirlpool of domestic issues.

It requires a media that has access to facts and information, both of which the administration’s public relations campaign keeps in short supply.

Support of this censorship among owners and management of media conglomerates is dramatized by a CNN memo instructing reporters that coverage of civilian causalities should be followed by editorial comment highlighting the war against terrorism, the Taliban’s role in harboring bin Laden and the Sept. 11 attack.

John MacArthur, publisher of Harpers magazine, has said, “This will be the most censored war in history.”

By comparison, during the Vietnam War, frontline coverage unfolded nightly on TV, informing the public opinion that spurred on the anti-war movement.

The constant declarations of success by the Johnson administration sharply conflicted with the news reportage. The American people saw the realities of war for themselves and ultimately changed the government’s policy.

A whole generation of professional military people remain convinced that the media lost that war for the United States. Far-right conservatives continue that drumbeat today.

So far, press releases and briefings have been the only sources on Afghanistan and the war on terrorism. The Pentagon bought all available satellite photographs, spending millions of dollars, and no reporters were allowed on the front lines.

The restrictions on reporting the effects of the war, imposed by the Bush administration and the Pentagon, have perhaps been the greatest factor in maintaining the strong support for the war effort.

As the war was launched, the Pentagon immediately hired, without any bidding process, the public relations firm, the Rendon Group. The administration appointed Charlotte Beers as undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Beers, who comes from Madison Avenue, is in charge of the international spin. She has private briefing sessions with only foreign reporters.

As Price Floyd, deputy director of media outreach at the State Department, said, “We can’t give out propaganda to our own people.”

The total control of war information, according to Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of In These Times, has resulted in “much of the media ... performing as the fourth branch of government.”

The Bush administration, on top of hiring PR experts, also has military leaders who have experience putting the lid on news coverage – Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell were the architects of press censorship during the Gulf War.

They sealed off the war front, allowing only one reporter to file reports – which were prescreened by a public affairs officer – on behalf of all the news agencies.

The Associated Press Managing Editors Conference voiced concerns about the current extent of censorship in a statement that said, while the need for “unusual measures” in time of war is understandable, the restrictions also “pose dangers to American democracy.”

Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), critiquing the role of the media while speaking to a conference in her district, said, “They don’t want you to hear these other voices out there. Help me come up with a strategy to get through this white noise that’s put out 24 hours a day.”

A national campaign is needed to break the Bush administration’s censorship and spin cycle. “Let’s roll” with a free press that discusses how to end the threat of terrorism and bring about a peaceful world.

The author can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org