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Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy notes that there are at least a dozen retired military officers giving supposedly independent opinion and commentary on the Iraq war to the various news networks. McCarthy writes: “Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been unhappy with the criticism of their war effort by former military men appearing on television. So am I, but for a different reason. The top people at the Pentagon are wondering why these ex-military talkers can’t follow the company line on how well the war has been fought. I’m wondering why these spokesmen for militarism are on TV in the first place.” McCarthy lists twelve: Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, Major General Robert Scales, Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold, Major General Donald Shepperd, General Barry McCaffrey, Major General Paul Vallely, Lieutenant General Don Edwards, Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, Colonel Tony Koren, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, Major Jack Stradley, and Captain Chris Lohman. He asks rhetorically, “Did I miss anyone?” (McCarthy 4/19/2003) In 2008, after the story of the massive and systematic Pentagon propaganda operation using at least 75 retired military officers to promote the war (see April 20, 2008 and Early 2002 and Beyond) becomes public knowledge, Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell answers the question, “[H]e sure did.” (Mitchell 4/20/2008)
Deploring the Military's Domination of the Airwaves - McCarthy continues: “That the news divisions of NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and Fox sanctioned this domination by military types was a further assault on what the public deserves: independent, balanced and impartial journalism. The tube turned into a parade ground for military men… saluting the ethic that war is rational, that bombing and shooting are the way to win peace, and that their uniformed pals in Iraq were there to free people, not slaughter them. Perspective vanished, as if caught in a sandstorm of hype and war-whooping. If the US military embedded journalists to report the war from Iraq, journalists back in network studios embedded militarists to explain it. Either way, it was one-version news.” McCarthy asks why no dissenters are allowed on the airwaves to counter the military point of view, a question answered by a CNN news executive (see April 20, 2003). McCarthy answers his own question: “In wartime, presumably, the message to peace activists is shut up or shut down.”
Viewers Unaware of Analysts' Business Connections - Presciently, considering the wide range of business connections exploited by the analysts and documented in the 2008 expose, McCarthy notes: “Viewers are not told of possible conflicts of interest—that this general or that one is on the payroll of this or that military contractor. Nor are they given information on whether the retired generals are paid for their appearances.”
Militaristic Newsmen - It is not just the retired officers who provide a militarist perspective, McCarthy observes, but the reporters and anchormen themselves. With examples of ABC’s Ted Koppel and NBC’s Brian Williams donning helmets before the cameras, or Fox’s Geraldo Rivera proclaiming in Afghanistan that “[W]e have liberated this country” (and his cameraman shouting, “Hallelujah!”), “the media are tethered to the military,” McCarthy writes. “They become beholden, which leads not to Pentagon censorship, as in 1991 (see October 10, 1990), but a worse kind: self-censorship” (see September 10, 2003).
For Us or Against Us - McCarthy concludes: “George W. Bush lectured the world that you’re either with us or against us. America’s networks got the message: They’re with. They could have said that they’re neither with nor against, because no side has all the truth or all the lies and no side all the good or evil. But a declaration such as that would have required boldness and independence of mind, two traits not much linked to America’s television news.” (McCarthy 4/19/2003)
Private Alyssa Peterson, deployed as an Arabic-speaking interrogator in Iraq, commits suicide rather than participate in torturing Iraqi prisoners. Peterson, from Flagstaff, Arizona, serves with the 311th Military Intelligence Unit, a part of the 101st Airborne, at an American air base in Tal Afar. Her death is initially cited as an accident resulting from a “non-hostile weapons discharge,” a not uncommon citation. Shortly after her death, Army officials tell the Arizona Republic that “a number of possible scenarios are being considered, including Peterson’s own weapon discharging, the weapon of another soldier discharging, or the accidental shooting of Peterson by an Iraqi civilian.” In 2005, reporter Kevin Elston will probe more deeply into Peterson’s death; documents released under the Freedom of Information Act will show that, according to Elston’s report for radio station KNAU: “Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed.” Official records show that Peterson had been “reprimanded” for showing “empathy” for the prisoners. The report of her death states, “She said that she did not know how to be two people; she… could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire.” She was reassigned to gate duty, and sent to suicide prevention training, but, the report reads, “[O]n the night of September 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle.” A notebook is found next to her body, but its contents are entirely redacted. Peterson also leaves a suicide note, which Elston will be unable to obtain. After reviewing the records documenting the circumstances of her death, Elston will say: “The reactions to the suicide were that she was having a difficult time separating her personal feelings from her professional duties. That was the consistent point in the testimonies, that she objected to the interrogation techniques, without describing what those techniques were.” Peterson’s parents will not be told of their daughter’s suicide for three years, but are told merely that she died as a result of an accident. (Mitchell 4/24/2009) In 2009, reporter and author Greg Mitchell will interview former Sergeant Kayla Williams, an Army interpreter who served briefly with Peterson at Tal Afar. Williams, like Peterson, objected to abusive techniques being used on prisoners, and is eventually transferred to different duties (see Late September 2003). Williams will note that there are probably more factors involved in Peterson’s suicide than her revulsion to torture. “It’s always a bunch of things coming together to the point you feel so overwhelmed that there’s no way out,” Williams will say. “I witnessed abuse, I felt uncomfortable with it, but I didn’t kill myself, because I could see the bigger context. I felt a lot of angst about whether I had an obligation to report it, and had any way to report it. Was it classified? Who should I turn to?… It also made me think, what are we as humans, that we do this to each other? It made me question my humanity and the humanity of all Americans. It was difficult, and to this day I can no longer think I am a really good person and will do the right thing in the right situation.” Mitchell will write, “Such an experience might have been truly shattering to the deeply religious Peterson.” (Mitchell 4/24/2009)
In light of the just-released National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iran stopped research on nuclear weapons in 2003 (see December 3, 2007), Editor and Publisher’s Greg Mitchell notes that many media pundits have “promoted [the administration’s] line” of Iran’s imminent emergence as a nuclear threat. He comments: “Many in the media have made [such] claims, often extravagantly, which promoted (deliberately or not) the tubthumping for striking Iran.… [T]oo many in the media seemed to fail to learn the lessons of the Iraqi WMD intelligence failure—and White House propaganda effort—and instead, were repeating it, re: Iran. This time, perhaps, we may have averted war, with little help from most of the media. In this case, it appears, the NIE people managed to resist several months of efforts by the administration to change their assessment. If only they had stiffened their backbones concerning Iraq in 2002.” Three pundits—David Brooks (see January 22, 2006), Thomas Friedman (see June 2007), and Richard Cohen (see October 23, 2007)—managed to, in Mitchells’s words, at least “back some kind of diplomacy in regard to Iran, unlike many of their brethren.” Others were more forceful in their calls for action, including the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland (see November 4, 2007), the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol (see July 14, 2006), and the Post editorial page (see September 26, 2007). Mitchell notes that many of these pundits are regulars on television news and commentary programs. (Mitchell 12/4/2007)
NBC anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw defends the media’s performance during the run-up to the Iraq war, and says that it was too much to expect that the media be able to cut through what he calls “the fog of war,” even before the war. In an interview with his successor, Brian Williams, Brokaw says that the coverage “needs to be viewed in the context of that time. When a president says we’re going to war, that there’s a danger of the mushroom crowd. We know there had been experiments with Iraqi nuclear programs in the past. Honorable people believed he had weapons of mass destruction. But there’s always a drumbeat that happens at that time. And you can raise your hand and put on people like Brent Scowcroft, which we did, a very creditable man who said this was the wrong decision.… There was this feeling, that this was a bad man, he had weapons of mass destruction, we couldn’t make the connection that he was sponsoring terrorists or harboring them, we raised that question day after day. But this president was determined to go to war. It was more theology than it was anything else. That’s pretty hard to deal with.… [T]here is a fog of war, Brian, and also the fog in covering war.” Many Democrats, too, went along with the Bush administration’s push to war, Brokaw adds.
Brokaw Considers War Propaganda Standard Procedure - Williams notes that former press secretary Scott McClellan has said that the war was “based on propaganda.” Brokaw replies: “All wars are based on propaganda. John Kennedy launched the beginning of our war in Vietnam by talking about the domino theory and embracing the Green Berets. Lyndon Johnson kept it up and so did Richard Nixon. World War II—a lot of that was driven by propaganda, and suppressing things that people should have known at the time. So people should not be surprised by that. In this business we often bump up against what I call the opaque world. The White House has an unbelievable ability to control the flow of information at any time but especially at a time when they are planning to go to war.”
Rebutting Brokaw - Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell calls Brokaw’s arguments “bankrupt,” and counters several specifics. For Brokaw to say that it was “hard to deal with” the administration’s “drumbeat” for war is specious, Mitchell says: “NBC and others chose to focus on the ‘evidence’ of WMD rather than the evidence that the administration was simply bent on going to war, WMD or not.” Neither Brokaw nor most of his colleagues spent much time focusing on the fact that UN inspectors had found no evidence whatsoever of the WMD programs being hyped by the administration. Mitchell finds Brokaw’s dismissal of the administration’s propaganda efforts disturbing, and writes: “For Brokaw, who has embraced the notion of [World War II] being the ‘good war,’ to put the Iraq invasion in the same class is outrageous. There is a huge difference between admitting that there is a propaganda element to every war—and pointing out that certain wars are mainly based on propaganda and that a country has been misled, or lied, into war. Surely, Brokaw doesn’t think FDR hyped the Japanese and German threat—or was hellbent on war.” Mitchell finds Brokaw’s note that NBC allowed war critic Brent Scowcroft on the air to be disingenuous: “Studies… have shown that such critics were vastly—hideously—outnumbered by war supporters who got face time.” As for Democratic complicity, Mitchell retorts, “What kind of journalist explains a failure to probe the real reasons for a war on others who may not be doing their own due diligence?” (Mitchell 5/31/2008)
In his regular “Journal” broadcast, PBS political commentator Bill Moyers focuses on the role of the media in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. “America was deceived, with the media’s help,” Moyers declares, and interviews three media figures to help explain how: John Walcott, Washington bureau chief of McClatchy News; Jonathan Landay, one of Walcott’s “ace reporters;” and Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher, “known to many of us as the watchdog’s watchdog.” Part of the discussion focuses on the failure of most media reporters and broadcasters to question the Bush administration’s assertions about the Iraq war. Landay says, “I was just I was left breathless by some of the things that I heard where you heard correspondents say, ‘Well, we did ask the tough questions. We asked them to the White House spokesmen,’ Scott McClellan and others. And you say to yourself, ‘And you expected to get real answers? You expected them to say from the White House podium—“Yeah, well, there were disagreements over the intelligence, but we ignored them”’ when the President made his speeches and the Vice President made his speeches. No, I don’t think so.” Mitchell agrees, noting that ABC reporter Charles Gibson said that we “wouldn’t ask any different questions.” Mitchell says he found Gibson’s remarks “shocking.” Mitchell continues: “[T]hat someone would say we would even with the chance to relive this experience and so much we got wrong—going to war is—which is still going on over five years later, all the lost lives, all the financial costs of that. And then to look back at this, you know, this terrible episode in history of American journalism and say that if I could do it all over again, I’m not sure we would ask any different questions.” Walcott takes a different tack, saying that reporters “may have asked all the right questions. The trouble is they asked all the wrong people.” Landay notes that “you have to take the time to find those people,” and Mitchell adds that when you do find real information, “[y]ou can’t bury it.” Landay adds that some powerful, public admission of error and self-examination might go far to counter the perception that the media is just as untrustworthy as the government.
Drowned Out - Walcott notes that even when reporters found informed sources willing to talk about the realities behind the push for war, they were drowned out by “Donald Rumsfeld at the podium or Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice saying, ‘We can’t allow the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud’” (see September 4, 2002 and September 8, 2002). “Over and over again,” Moyers notes. “Over and over again on camera,” Walcott continues. “[T]hat trumps the kind of reporting that John and [Landay’s partner] Warren Strobel did from these mid-level guys who actually know that there’s no prospect of any smoking gun let alone a mushroom cloud. And so when it gets to packaging television news, it’s picture driven, it’s celebrity driven, and that doesn’t allow much room for this kind of hard-nosed reporting under the radar.” Mitchell says, “There’s been at least six opportunities in the last two months for the media to do this long delayed and much needed self-assessment, self-criticism to the American public and it hasn’t happened.”
Liberal vs. Conservative Media - Moyers notes that many conservative media outlets “do not believe they got it wrong. I mean, Fox News was reinforcing the administration’s messages back then and still does today.” Walcott notes, “You know, if Fox News’s mission is to defend Republican administrations then they’re right, they didn’t fail.” He notes that in his book, McClellan draws a distinction between the conservative and the “liberal” media (presumably the New York Times, Washington Post, etc). “I don’t understand what liberal versus conservative has to do with this,” Walcott says. “I would have thought that conservatives would be the ones to ask questions about a march to war. How much is this gonna cost us? What’s the effect of this gonna be on our military, on our country’s strength overseas? I don’t think it’s a liberal conservative question at all. I think that’s, frankly, a canard by Scott.”
Celebrity 'Experts' - Moyers asks about the “experts” who predicted that the war would be quick, bloodless, and successful. Even though they were “terribly wrong,” Moyers notes that most of them are “still on the air today pontificating. I mean, there seems to be no price to be paid for having been wrong about so serious an issue of life and death, war and peace.” Walcott says they are not news analysts so much as they are celebrities. Big name actors can make bad movies and still draw million-dollar salaries for their next film: “It’s the same phenomenon. A name is what matters. And it’s about celebrity. It’s about conflict. It’s about—” Landay completes Walcott’s sentence: “Ratings.”
'Skunks at the Garden Party' - Perhaps the most disturbing portion of the discussion is when Walcott notes that the kind of old-fashioned investigative reporting exemplified by Landay and Strobel is “by definition… unpopular.… Because the public doesn’t wanna hear it.… Doesn’t wanna hear the President lied to them. Doesn’t wanna hear that the local police chief is on the take. You know, people don’t like necessarily to hear all that kind of stuff. And when you’re worried about, above all, your advertising revenue, you become more vulnerable to those kinds of pressures.… Well, the skunks don’t get invited to the garden party. And part of our job is to be the skunks at the garden party.” (Moyers 6/6/2008)
PBS political commentator Bill Moyers hosts a wide-ranging discussion of the media’s role in legitimizing the Bush administration’s military interventionism in the Middle East (see June 6, 2008). Joining Moyers are John Walcott, the Washington bureau chief of McClatchy News; McClatchy reporter Jonathan Landay; and Greg Mitchell, the purveyor of the media watchdog site Editor & Publisher. The four spend a good part of their time discussing the US’s attempt to “sell” a war with Iran. Moyers says the administration is having trouble pushing such a war because the American public is leery of more dire administration warnings, “given how we were misled about Iraq.” Walcott points out that Iran is a more imminent threat than Iraq, “a much tougher problem than Iraq ever was,” and notes that while Iraq never supported terrorists or had WMD, Iran supports terrorist groups “with a fair amount of enthusiasm” and has a nuclear energy program with the potential to cause grave harm. Landay notes that one big difference in the way the administration is handling Iran as opposed to how it handled Iraq is the fact that the administration is now working with the UN Security Council and even the International Atomic Energy Agency, whereas with Iraq the administration displayed a belligerent, “go it alone” attitude.
They're a Bunch of Crazy Shi'ites - Walcott notes that he finds one argument about Iran particularly disturbing: “[T]hat’s the one that says the Iranians would use nuclear weapons against us or against Israel. Well, both Israel and the United States have the capability to turn Iran into a skating rink. When you explode a nuclear weapon over sand, it turns into glass. And the counter to that from some quarters has been as crazy as anything I’ve heard, which is, well, that we can’t deter the Iranians because they’re Shi’ites and they’re all eager to commit suicide to hasten the arrival of the 12th Imam. So deterrents won’t work against Iran because they’re a bunch of crazy Shi’ites. That to me is as crazy as anything we heard about Saddam [Hussein] and his ties to al-Qaeda. That one, the fact that that one’s out there concerns me.”
Military Strike against Iran? - Walcott says he knows for a fact that there is a large and influential faction within the Bush administration that is determined to force a military strike against Iraq before Bush’s term of office ends. This faction has the support of influential Israeli government officials, even hints of support from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “[T]hat issue’s gonna be on the table until January 20th [2009, when the next US president is inaugurated] because one of the things we’ve learned is these people don’t go away,” Walcott says. “They’re still out there. They’re still advocating.” Landay notes that many of the same people who advocated for the invasion of Iraq are the ones pushing for a strike against Iran, “[a]nd yet they keep being brought on television and quoted in newspaper stories, when their, you know, now, after this horrendous track record they had in Iraq. So you wonder how it is that there are people who have been fanning the flames for going after Iran. Some of them the very same people.” Mitchell notes that the questions that should have been asked and re-asked by the media before the Iraq invasion—will military force neutralize the threats, what will be the aftereffects and ramifications of military strikes, how many will die—are not yet being asked about Iran. Walcott notes how easily Iran could retaliate for US strikes: “sink one oil tanker in the Persian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz, just one, and the insurance rates will take care of the rest. And you’ll have $200, $250 a barrel oil. So that’s one thing to think about.”
Iran and the NIE - Moyers asks why it was so easy for President Bush to simply disavow the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons (see December 3, 2007) just by saying that, in essence, “the NIE’s conclusions don’t reflect his own views, that there is an ongoing threat.” Moyers says that Bush does not care “what the facts are, this is [his] reality.” Mitchell notes that NBC anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw called it more of a matter of “theology” (see May 29, 2008). But Landay says that just as interesting is the fact that, if Iran indeed is building nuclear weapons, which it well may be, “the administration’s having a really hard time getting traction for its case. Why? Because it’s lost its credibility on Iraq.” Mitchell adds, “And the media has lost credibility.” (Moyers 6/6/2008)
During a PBS broadcast of a panel discussion about US interventions in the Middle East, host Bill Moyers observes that the hidden costs of the Iraq war are staggering. He notes that the huge number of suicides among US soldiers in Iraq as well as those who have come home is “the dirty little secret of this war.” The broken Veterans Administration, and its inability to provide decent medical care for the troops, is another, he says. Not only are these underreported in the US media, he says, even the economic costs get relatively little play, despite the fact that “The war’s costing us $5,000 a second, $12 1/2 billion to $13 billion a month,” with the costs ultimately soaring into the trillions of dollars. “[T]hat would seem to hit people in the viscera,” he says. Guest Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher says that the economic issues of the war are one of the biggest reasons why President Bush’s approval ratings stay below 30 percent, even as the media touts the “surge” (see January 2007 and January 10, 2007) as such a success. “[T]he reason is the people figured out long ago, long ago that the war was a mistake and that it’s incredibly costly in the human and financial and even moral terms.” (Moyers 6/6/2008)
Journalist and media observer Greg Mitchell reports on the reaction on an extreme-right Web site to the museum shooting by white supremacist James von Brunn (see June 10, 2009 and After). Mitchell pays a visit to the Web site of the neo-Nazi organization Stormfront, and finds that an apparently lively discussion thread about the shooting has already been shut down; one poster says that the thread was closed because commentators were overly supportive of the shooting. Other threads, including what Mitchell calls “years-old tributes” to von Brunn, are still active. Many of the comments are critical of the shooting because of the negative publicity sure to ensue from it. Other comments are neutral. Some posters call von Brunn a “victim of Jewish extremism,” setting off a number of anti-Semitic responses. One poster writes that “von Brunn was trying to send a powerful and courageous message,” and someone else writes: “Heroes refuse to go out with a whimper. An example to all of us.” One poster writes: “I am watching the media try to pull to heart strings of white Americans who are watching. Remember if you ever question whats going around you you’ll eventually be led to psychotic acts of violence.” And other posters predict that the shooting, and the subsequent publicity, “will do some recruiting for us.” (Mitchell 6/10/2009)
Jay Townsend, the campaign communications director for Representative Nan Hayworth (R-NY), resigns after weathering a week of controversy over his Facebook recommendation that his readers should “hurl some acid at those female democratic Senators who won’t abide the mandates they want to impose on the private sector” (see May 27-31, 2012). Four days before his resignation, Hayworth’s campaign refused to apologize, and instead blamed Hayworth’s Democratic opponent Richard Becker for “manufactur[ing a] controversy” (see June 1, 2012). Two days ago, Townsend wrote an apology (see June 3, 2012), which liberal columnist Greg Mitchell calls “the usual no-apology apology [that claimed] his words were simply taken the wrong way.” Following Townend’s resignation, Hayworth issues a brief statement, saying: “Jay Townsend has offered, and I have accepted, his resignation from his position with my campaign. Now let’s return to talking about issues that really matter to families: job creation, spending restraint, and economic development.” Becker takes credit for the resignation, saying: “The timing of this announcement, coming one hour after we completed a press conference outside of Hayworth’s office calling on her to take exactly this step, was not coincidental. Our campaign broke this story, and for five days we’ve been leading the charge to hold Mr. Townsend and Rep. Hayworth accountable for the horrendous comments made on her behalf. This kind of language is unbecoming of a Congressional spokesman and unworthy of the Hudson Valley, and we’re pleased Nan Hayworth [belatedly] realized what most of us saw last week.” (Jeltsen 6/3/2012; Nocera 6/4/2012; Mitchell 6/5/2012) Hayworth’s campaign spokesperson Tim Murtough says of Townsend’s comments: “Certain rhetoric is not acceptable. [Hayworth] was not very pleased about what he had said.” (Athans 6/4/2012) Mitchell expects Townsend to become a successful speaker on the right-wing circuit, noting that one of Townsend’s blog posts is entitled “Are Middle-Class Whites Fleeing Obama’s Plantation?” (Mitchell 6/5/2012)
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