Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Be Very Afraid

Be afraid, be very afraid. Freedom of the press and, with it, your right to know is under frontal assault.

I know whereof I speak. I worked for three years in communist Poland with the United States Information Agency and some of my best friends at the time were Polish communist journalists who, despite that second adjective, sought to report truthfully, helpfully to their fellow Poles on what was happening in their country and the world.

Those journalists, struggling to be honest, shared with me their thoughts on dealing with censorship. It was a time – in the mid-1970s – when rules were being “loosened.” Prior to that time, they wrote the truth as they saw it and let the censors do their dirty work. Pieces of the truth would leak out, and they were not responsible. Afterward, however, prior censorship was removed. They were “free” to print what they wanted within the loose guidelines of what was and was not acceptable. If, however, their stories discomfited the government or party, they could be fired or jailed.

Those communist journalists, testing the limits of the system, confided to me that they preferred the old way of doing things. They could test those limits boldly with little fear of retribution. Under the new rules, however, they had to exercise judgment and be prepared to accept the consequences of any misjudgment. They became more timid, more gun shy, pulling their punches in advance.

American journalists, I fear, are now in that same uncomfortable situation and headed rapidly in the opposite direction, not toward greater freedom, but toward a priori enforced censorship. American media, as Bill Moyers said in a courageous speech May 15, is now being cowed into what he called “preventative capitulation.”

What began a couple of years ago as a drip by drip draining of the life blood of our freedom of the press has been transformed almost overnight into a life-threatening hemorrhage.

The American media, especially the broadcast media, are being transformed – before our very eyes – into a sycophantic propaganda arm of our ruling government and party.

Item: The literal drumbeat of cheerleading by the media for the Iraq war, coverage marked by the “political analysis” of colonels, breathless reports from “embedded” “journalists,” flapping American flags in the corners of your TV screens, and freedom of information requests needed to see the American flags on the coffins of our heroes.

Item: The manipulated chicanery last year of Swift Boat Vets, “Rathergate,” and the pre-election stand-down before the gates of Fallujah, giving the insurgents there months to prepare for the assault that began two days after the election.

Item: Planted stories by Armstrong Williams and planted questions by Jeff Gannon (aka James Guckert), whose White House pass has gotten a press pass.

Item: Taxpayer funded “infomercials” touting Administration programs circulated as “news” clips to small town TV stations.

Item: The Administration outing of Valerie Plame, the undercover CIA wife of an Administration critic, the recipient of the leak, Administration-insider Robert Novak, going untouched, while reporters who didn’t report the story are being threatened with jail time.

Item: Staged “town hall” meetings covered as “news” by Fox and CNN.

Item: The Pentagon Channel, a military propaganda outlet, being piped into American homes by satellite dish providers.

Item: Kenneth Tomlinson, a veteran of Charles Z. Wick’s Voice of America, now dispatched by Karl Rove to whip PBS and, now, NPR, into “preventative capitulation.”

It is against this background that the White House brow-beating of Newsweek over its story about the alleged desecration of the Qu’ran in Guantanamo Bay engenders such fear. Never mind that the story is probably true, having been reported months earlier by released detainees. Never mind that Newsweek had floated the story by the Pentagon without eliciting a denial. Never mind that the Department of State had promised to investigate the allegations. Never mind the still oozing scab of Abu Ghraib.

Violent protests erupted across Afghanistan and the Muslim world – precisely because the story, which is so in line with our already demonstrated behavior, is so believable. But, according to White House spokesman Scott McCllelan, the image of the United States, had been “tarnished” – not by substance of the allegations, but the fact that they were reported. He demanded a retraction by Newsweek. There was Rumsfeld of Abu Ghraib lecturing the American media about their “responsibility” to be “careful” and “cautious.” Never mind addressing the content of the story, attack the messenger! Beat the reporter, the respected Michael Isikoff, and his editors into submission. And so they have, shamelessly.

And, at the end of the day, Newsweek could not take the pressure. Watching Isikoff’s editor, Newsweek Washington bureau chief David Klaidman, playing back Rumsfeld’s words on Charlie Rose, my thoughts drifted back to communist Poland. “You can always be more cautious,” he said, “We will redouble our efforts to be careful.” The way in which he swallowed the lump in his throat, like a chastised child, was as instructive as his words. The chill made its way up my spine. Suddenly I was very afraid.