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Why Are Corporate Journalists So Afraid of Questioning Authority?

By Scott Ritter, Truthdig
Posted on June 17, 2008,

"I think the questions were asked. I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president. I think not only those of us in the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that. The right questions were asked. I think there's a lot of critics -- and I guess we can count Scott McClellan as one -- who think that, if we did not debate the president, debate the policy in our role as journalists, if we did not stand up and say, 'This is bogus,' and 'You're a liar,' and 'Why are you doing this?' that we didn't do our job. And I respectfully disagree. It's not our role."

That was NBC correspondent David Gregory, appearing on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews." He was responding to former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's new book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." McClellan has challenged the role of the U.S. media in investigating and reporting U.S. policy in times of conflict, especially when it comes to covering the government itself.

As a critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, especially when unsubstantiated allegations of weapons of mass destruction are used to sell a war, I am no stranger to the concept of questioning authority, especially in times of war. I am from the Teddy Roosevelt school of American citizenship, adhering to the principle that "to announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but it is morally treasonable to the American public."

Some may point out that Roosevelt made that statement in criticism of Woodrow Wilson's foot dragging when it came to getting America into World War I, and that it is odd for one opposed to American involvement in Iraq to quote a former president who so enthusiastically embraced military intervention. But principle can cut both ways on any given issue. The principle inherent in the concept of the moral responsibility of the American people to question their leadership at all times, but especially when matters of war are at stake, is as valid for the pro as it is the con.

The validity of this principle is not judged on the level of militancy of the presidential action in question, but rather its viability as judged by the values and ideals of the American people. While the diversity of the United States dictates that there will be a divergence of consensus when it comes to individual values and ideals, the collective ought to agree that the foundation upon which all American values and ideals should be judged is the U.S. Constitution, setting forth as it does a framework of law which unites us all. To hold the Constitution up as a basis upon which to criticize the actions of any given president is perhaps the most patriotic act an American can engage in. As Theodore Roosevelt himself noted, "No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we ask him to obey it."

Now David Gregory, and others who populate that curious slice of Americana known as "the media," may hold that they, as journalists, operate on a different level than the average American citizen. As Mr. Gregory notes, it is not their "role" to question or debate policy set forth by the president. This is curious, coming from a leading member of a news team that prides itself on the "investigative" quality of its reporting. If we take Gregory at face value, it seems his only job (or "role") is to simply parrot the policy formulations put forward by administration officials, that the integrity of journalism precludes the reporter from taking sides, and that any aggressive questioning concerning the veracity, or morality, or legality of any given policy would, in its own right, constitute opposition to said policy, and as such would be "taking sides."

This, of course, is journalism in its most puritanical form, the ideal that the reporter simply reports, and keeps his or her personal opinion segregated from the "facts" as they are being presented. While it would be a farcical stretch for David Gregory, or any other mainstream reporter or correspondent, to realistically claim ownership of such a noble mantle, it appears that is exactly what Gregory did when he set forth the parameters of what his "role" was, and is, in reporting on stories such as the issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the Bush administration's case for war. For this to be valid, however, the issue of journalistic integrity would need to apply not only to the individual reporter or correspondent, but also to the entire system to which the given reporter or correspondent belonged. In the case of Gregory, therefore, we must not only bring into the mix his own individual performance, but also that of NBC News and its parent organization, General Electric.

As a weapons inspector, I was very much driven by what the facts said, not what the rhetoric implied. I maintain this standard to this day in assessing and evaluating American policy in the Middle East. It was the core approach which governed my own personal questioning of the Bush administration's case for confronting Iraq in the lead-up to the war in 2002 and 2003. I am saddened at the vindication of my position in the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, not because of what I did, but rather what the transcripts of every media interview I conducted at the time demonstrates: The media were not interested in reporting the facts, but rather furthering a fiction. Time after time, I backed my opposition to the Bush administration's "case" for war on Iraq with hard facts, citing evidence that could be readily checked by these erstwhile journalists had they been so inclined. Instead, my integrity and character were impugned by these simple recorders of "fact", further enabling the fiction pushed by the administration into the mainstream, unchallenged and unquestioned, to be digested by the American public as truth.

Scott McClellan is correct to point out the complicity of the media in facilitating the rush to war. David Gregory is disingenuous in his denial that this was indeed the case. Jeff Cohen, a former producer at MSNBC, has written about the pressures placed on him and Phil Donahue leading to the cancellation of the latter's top-rated television show just before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Katie Couric, the former co-host of NBC's "Today Show" (and current news anchor for CBS News), has tacitly acknowledged "pressure" from above when it came to framing interviews in a manner that was detrimental to the Bush administration's case for war. Jessica Yellin, who before the war in Iraq worked for MSNBC, put it best: "I think the press corps dropped the ball at the beginning," she told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings."

Now, one would think that a journalist with the self-proclaimed integrity of Gregory would jump at the opportunity to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and focus on this story line, if for no other reason than to prove it wrong and thereby clear his name (guilty by association, at the very least) and the name of the organization he represents. The matter is simple, on the surface: NBC network executives either did, or didn't, pressure their producers and reporters when it came to covering and framing stories. Surely an investigative reporter of Gregory's talent can get to the bottom of this one?

While Gregory certainly does not need help from someone of such humble journalistic credentials as myself, perhaps my experience as a former weapons inspector in tracking down the lies and inconsistencies of the Iraqi government could be of some assistance. The first thing I would do is to frame the scope of the problem. The issue of Iraq as a target worthy of war really didn't hit the mainstream until the summer of 2002, so I would start there. I would be interested in defining the potential sources of "pressure" that could be placed on NBC as an organization when it came to reporting on Iraq.

We do know, courtesy of the Pentagon, that throughout the summer and fall of 2002, NBC News, via its Pentagon bureau chief and other contacts, worked closely with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs, on the issue of media access in any potential future conflict with Iraq. We also know that these meetings were an outgrowth of a meeting held on Sept. 28, 2001, when the Pentagon and bureau chiefs, including representatives from NBC News, discussed how to balance the needs of the media to do their job while protecting national security and the safety of military personnel. The issue of embedding media personnel with the military was raised, with the Pentagon emphasizing that "security at the source" was the principle means for which to ensure no security breach occurred. This meant that if journalists were so embedded, they would have to be responsible about what they reported.

This concept of self-censorship is not a new one, nor is it particularly controversial. Ernie Pyle and Joe Rosenthal, two famous journalists from World War II, were able to establish stellar reputations while operating under the conditions of wartime censorship. So were thousands of other journalists, in several wars. In this manner, journalists covering D-Day knew of the invasion long before the American public, or even members of Congress. Were they bad journalists for not reporting what they knew beforehand? Were their parent organizations corrupted by agreeing to censorship as a prerequisite for access? The answer in both cases is clearly "no."

However, in the interest of establishing a foundation of fact upon which to further any investigation into the possibility of pressure being exerted on NBC reporters and/or correspondents covering a war between the United States and Iraq, an intrepid investigator would want access to documents and records from those early meetings between the Pentagon and NBC News. What were the specific terms spelled out in those meetings? What derivative internal documents were generated inside NBC News, and its corporate master, General Electric, based upon those meetings, and what did those documents discuss? Unlike the situation faced by journalists during World War II, America and Iraq were not yet at war, so did NBC News establish policies on how to balance the operational security needs of the military while reporting on a war which, in the summer and fall of 2002, the Bush administration said wasn't being planned?

Formal planning for "Operation Iraqi Liberation" (only later renamed "Operation Iraqi Freedom") commenced early on in 2002. The U.S. Army began working on a public affairs plan early in 2002 and, in June of that year, briefed U.S. Central Command on a concept for large-scale media embedding for ground forces. U.S. Central Command expanded the Army's plan to include the other services, and by September 2002 had prepared a draft public affairs annex to the overall war plan. Formal public affairs planning for U.S. Central Command was initiated in October 2002, when a planning cell was established. In its first meeting, from Oct. 2-7, the Pentagon reviewed past media operations in time of war, and recommended a break with the past practice of a media pool, and instead suggested a formal embedded media program. These and other media-related issues were consolidated into Annex F (Public Affairs) of the formal "Operation Iraqi Liberation" war plan. It is curious that the Pentagon acknowledges a formal war plan in existence at a time when senior Bush administration officials were telling members of Congress that there were no plans to attack Iraq and that the Bush administration was focusing its efforts on diplomacy.

The embedded media program was formally endorsed by the Pentagon in November 2002. On Nov. 14, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, together with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a message to all military commanders discussing public affairs, and in particular the embedded media program. In it, Rumsfeld addressed how potential future operations [i.e., war with Iraq] could shape public perception of the national security environment, and recognized the need to facilitate access to national and international media to "tell the factual story -- good or bad -- before others seed the media with disinformation and distortions as they most certainly will continue to do. Our people in the field need to tell the story."

When did NBC News become aware of this Rumsfeld memo? Were there any reactions to the concept of embedded journalists being targeted by the military as being facilitators for disseminating a pro-Pentagon point of view? The Pentagon states that while no formal meetings about draft public affairs annex content were conducted with bureau chiefs, "informal discussions were held with some key individuals in the media, who provided input for consideration." The Pentagon also acknowledges that changes to the public affairs annex were made "based on a bureau chief's recommendation." Was NBC News part of the "informal discussions" with the Pentagon? Did NBC News provide any recommendations to the Pentagon's public affairs office based on such meetings? If so, what were the recommendations, who made them, and how was this staffed within the NBC/GE corporate structure?

These are important questions, since balancing the need to maintain secrecy of potential military operations would appear to conflict with any effort undertaken by NBC News to probe Bush administration claims on not only the justification for confronting Iraq, but whether or not there was any plan to attack Iraq to begin with. How did NBC News compartmentalize its knowledge of the Bush administration's plans to attack Iraq? Was there any crossover in terms of management? Did the same personnel who managed Pentagon relations also manage the reporters whose task it was to press the Bush administration on the veracity of its case for war against Iraq? Did such crossover ever manifest itself in a case of conflict of interest? What is the documentary record of internal discussions within NBC in this regard? Were any policies established on the control of information that touched upon sensitive military activities?

It might appear as if I am on a fishing expedition, so to speak, probing for documents for which there is no evidence that they even exist. Again, I'll do my best to help focus David Gregory on his investigation. Much has been made of the fact that parent company GE makes a great deal of money from the machinery of war. It is useful, however, to examine a specific case, an instance where the news operation, the corporate parent and the military were all too intertwined.

In November 2002, the Pentagon established formal rules that specifically forbade any journalist to "self-embed" with a given military unit, noting that all requests for embedding would be handled via the Pentagon's public affairs office. At the same time, in Kuwait, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division brigade and battalion commanders were experimenting with embedding journalists during short (three to five days) training exercises. The 2nd Brigade Combat Team in particular pushed the embedding concept, getting journalists embedded at the battalion level. From this experience, the 2nd Brigade was able to establish embedding tactics, techniques and procedures that worked for both the media and the commanders. According to the U.S. Army, "The embeds realized they needed to work with their equipment and develop procedures for filing reports. They identified problems with the durability of their equipment and its ability to withstand the elements and a need for power sources for extended periods."

One of these embeds was NBC News correspondent David Bloom. It should be noted that Bloom tragically died while covering the Iraq war. Bloom was a rising star at NBC, with an eye for a developing story. "Early on," NBC News President Neal Shapiro said shortly after Bloom's death, "he said, 'I want a piece of this war.' " Shapiro isn't specific about the date Bloom made that statement, but since Bloom was dispatched to Kuwait in November 2002, we can assume it was on or about that time. Bloom was one of the embeds who worked closely with the U.S. Army during that time, developing the "tactics, techniques and procedures" for embedded media. In December 2002, Bloom called NBC News from Kuwait, where he had just covered the largest U.S. military live-fire exercise since the first Gulf War. Bloom told his NBC News bosses that he had been given permission to embed with the 3rd Infantry Division, even though official Pentagon policy in place at the time specifically forbade any such action. Bloom already exhibited a familiarity with the war plans of the 3rd Infantry Division, bragging that they were the "tip of the spear." Not only would Bloom and his cameraman be able to ride with the 3rd Infantry Division, they would be able to broadcast live while doing so. Clearly, Bloom and his 3rd Infantry Division colleagues had perfected their embed "tactics, techniques and procedures."

The 2nd Brigade Combat Team had offered Bloom the use of a large M-88A1 tank recovery vehicle. Bloom had worked with the Army to mount a camera and a mobile satellite transmission unit on the M-88. The images taken from the camera would be sent back, while the M-88 was traveling at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, to a radically modified Ford F-450 SuperDuty truck that carried specialized satellite communication equipment built by Maritime Telecommunications Network, and a gyro-stabilizing transmission dish mounted underneath a protective dome on the rear body. This truck would trail the leading elements of the 3rd Infantry's spearhead at distances of up to two miles. The M-88 carrying Bloom broadcast microwave signals back to the Ford F-450 truck, which in turn transmitted these signals via satellite uplink back to NBC News headquarters.

Bloom was able to provide the specifications of his idea to his NBC bosses, and in just 40 days, engineers from Maritime Telecommunications Network and NBC were able to modify a Ford F-450 to not only withstand the rigors of the Iraqi desert, but also to accommodate the electronics and satellite dish. Four weeks before the start of the war, the vehicle was tested, only to have the signal drop every time the vehicle turned. The engineers worked frantically to fix the problem, and the modified F-450, nicknamed the "Bloommobile," was airlifted to Kuwait, arriving just days before the start of the invasion.

The cost of the Bloommobile has not been formally revealed, but is thought to run into seven figures. This vehicle would never have been made without the support of GE, which underwrote the cost of its construction. GE also fronted for NBC in negotiating special clearances with the Pentagon and State Department on exceptions to policy and import-export control. The Pentagon's official policy while the Bloommobile was being built was for embeds to ride in vehicles provided by their respective unit, and that the media were not to provide their own transportation. Clearly, the Bloommobile represented a stark exception to that rule.

Keep in mind that the entire time GE/NBC was investing millions of dollars into building the Bloommobile so they could get crystal-clear live video transmitted from the "tip of the spear," the Bush administration was playing coy on the subject of war with Iraq. With GE/NBC News so heavily invested in exploiting a war, was there any pressure placed on NBC reporters/correspondents concerning how they dealt with the Bush administration's case for war? It is a fair question, and one that could best be dealt with through an examination of the internal GE/NBC documents concerning the Bloommobile. Who in GE/NBC served as the project manager for the Bloommobile? Certainly Bloom, the brain trust, was away in Kuwait. Who oversaw the project back in the United States? What did the Bloommobile cost? What was the internal debate within GE/NBC concerning the merits/faults of the Bloommobile? An organization like GE/NBC does not allocate millions of dollars on a whim. There had to be some sort of oversight that was documented. Who in GE/NBC fronted for the Bloommobile with the U.S. government? What is the record of communication between GE/NBC and the U.S. government concerning the vehicle? Did GE/NBC have to provide the U.S. government with any guarantees concerning the use of the Bloommobile?

In investing in the vehicle, GE/NBC News was investing in the war. There are quid pro quo arrangements made every day, and the link between the U.S. government granting NBC News so many exceptions in the creation and fielding of the Bloommobile, and the crackdown within the GE-controlled NBC/MSNBC family on anti-war and anti-administration sentiment, cannot be dismissed as simply circumstantial. But a review of the available documents would clarify this issue.

David Gregory has vociferously defended the role he and NBC News played in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Scott McClellan's new book, combined with testimony from other sources, including those from within the NBC News family, has called into question the integrity of the operation Gregory serves. An allegation from a credible source has been made, and any denial must therefore be backed with verifiable, documented information. To paraphrase former Secretary of State Colin Powell when talking about Iraq before the invasion, the burden is on NBC to prove that it wasn't complicit with the Bush administration concerning its reporting on Iraq and administration policies, and not on NBC's critics to prove that it was.

The old proverb notes that "a fish stinks from its head," something that aptly describes the GE/NBC News team when discussing the issue of Iraq. I challenge David Gregory to demonstrate otherwise.

Scott Ritter served as chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 until his resignation in 1998.

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