On the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, among the major issues being discussed is the unwavering support that the U.S. major media gave to the invasion. The major media not only placed unconditional trust in the Bush administration’s WMD pronouncements, they also even helped to hype the claims to the American people.
Given that it is the moral responsibility of the press to challenge the federal government on these sorts of things, especially given the propensity of the government to lie about them (e.g., Gulf of Tonkin, Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman), why would the major media meekly and enthusiastically go along the president’s claims regarding Saddam Hussein’s supposed plans to attack the United States with WMDs, especially given the large amount of evidence indicating that the president’s claims were without foundation?
This week, in his op-ed entitled “How the News Media Betrayed Us on Iraq,” FFF vice president Sheldon Richman pointed to three possible reasons: the fear of going out on a limb, the fact that war sells newspapers, and the standard deference to the national-security state that afflicts all too many Americans.
To those I would add the desire to curry favor with those in power. Access to White House officials and invitations to black-tie dinner parties and informal social get-togethers are important things to people in the major media.
But there is another factor involved here, one that might well explain the overall deference that the major media pay the entire national-security state apparatus, especially the Pentagon and the CIA. That factor is fear — fear of the bad things that federal officials can do to people in the media who fail to toe the line.
A good example of this phenomenon was provided by Robert Caro in his latest volume on President Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power.
Prior to President Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson was bedeviled with investigations into official corruption that involved influence peddling in Congress and illegal activities associated with his radio and television stations in Austin. In fact, as Caro details, a congressional investigation into the influence-peddling scandal was slowly tightening the noose on Johnson, all the way through the morning of the assassination. If Kennedy had not been assassinated, the likelihood is that Johnson would have been removed from office and even charged and convicted of a criminal offense, as would happen several years later with Richard Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew. As it was, Johnson was successful in getting the investigations into his corrupt and illegal activities shut down soon after he assumed the presidency.
In 1963, an enterprising Texas reporter named Margaret Mayer had become curious about the ability of Johnson’s radio and television stations in Austin to attract advertisers. She began asking questions of the station’s manager, who proceeded to notify Johnson in December 1963, the month after he had become president.
Johnson telephoned the station manager and made it crystal clear that he wanted the questions to stop and that he expected the station manager to put the clamps on his enterprising reporter. According to a tape recording of the conversation, Johnson told the manager, “I got a letter from Margaret Mayer worried me a little.” Obviously currying favor with Johnson, the station manager, who was one of his Texas supporters, said, “She certainly shouldn’t be doing it. I can assure you that it’ll be stopped.”
But Johnson wanted to make certain that the man got the point. He mentioned the names of the newspaper’s chairman of the board and president and also the president of the radio and television stations owned by the newspaper. Johnson didn’t mince words:
Tell them … that you all don’t want to be picking a fight with somebody like this. We might want to ask [for] some of you all’s records up there [in Dallas]. I imagine I could get that done.”
What Johnson was alluding to was the fact that radio and television stations operate through licenses issued by the FCC, licenses that the government could decide not to renew. Caro explains how the stations were required to carry a certain percentage of non-commercial programming. If the percentage was too low, the license could be in jeopardy when renewal time came up. Johnson hinted that while he had been helpful in this area in the past with respect to the newspaper’s radio and television stations in Dallas, he might not be so helpful in the future if the Mayer investigation were not shut down.
Even worse, as Caro points out, Johnson brought up the possibility of IRS audits, not only on the corporations themselves but also on the principals in the organizations. “I hadn’t been inquiring … what you make, and what your profit is, and what your estate tax was, and how much you paid … and all that kind of stuff. Just tell them, just tell Jim Chambers, whoever’s running the show up there, just say, ‘Listen, this guy [Johnson] might ask for some of yours, or some of our, records,” Johnson told the station manager.
Johnson instructed the station manager that Mayer was not to be told that Johnson had intervened to stop her investigation. When the station manager told Johnson that he would take care of the problem, Johnson replied, “Do that, and let me know in the morning.”
Mayer’s investigation into Johnson’s corruption at his radio and television stations was shut down.
Who knows how many other instances that Johnson engaged in such hard-ball tactics against the press? Who knows how many other presidents have done the same thing?
One thing’s for sure though. It certainly doesn’t have to be done many times. Once the message gets out that federal officials are ready and willing to engage in such stratagems, the propensity is to get in line and stay in line. Once that happens, no further threats are necessary.
We saw a similar phenomenon in the Bush administration’s illegal telecom spying scheme, in which the president secured the cooperation of the CEOs of several telecoms in the illegality. One CEO, however, Joseph Nacchio of Quest Communications, to his everlasting credit, refused to go along with the scheme, even though he would obviously be jeopardizing federal contracts for his company. The penalty for non-cooperation in Bush’s illegal scheme, however, was much worse. For his principled refusal to cooperate with the feds with their illegality, the feds indicted Nacchio for some ridiculous insider-trading violation. He’s now residing in a federal penitentiary.
Once that type of message goes out, what CEO of a major company is going to stand up to federal officials, especially on a matter of “national security”?
That, of course, is the real benefit of things like licensure, tax codes, rules, and regulations. They provide government officials with the ability to bring the hammer down on anyone they want, especially people in the banking and business community, where it’s always easy to find petty violations to go after people on.
Was that a factor in the major media’s submissive and deferential attitude in the run-up to the Iraq War? It’s a possibility that should at least be considered.