Updated: 06/21/2013

 

The Media's Sins of Omission and Cowardice --

 

" One of the most important disciplines in journalism is to challenge your working premises."

Bill Keller, Executive Editor, The New York Times

 

 

When the Watchdog

Goes To Sleep


Links to Sections:

>>The Pentagon Papers
>>The Watergate Scandal
>>The 9/11 Attack
>>Valerie Plame / CIA
>>Sibel Edmonds / Classified Woman

 

>>Journalists for the major news media have a responsibility -- one that often conflicts with prevailing public opinion.

Throughout history, political, legal and economic pressures have been applied -- often successfully -- to keep journalists from doing their jobs as watchdogs for democratic societies. 

Although such pressures are commonplace in autocratic societies such as North Korea, China and Iran where news people end up in jail or worse for simply telling the truth, we assume that such things are rare in the United States.

Unfortunately, this is not true.

What follows are three examples.  We will not include the recent stock scandals or the religious molestation crimes that have ruined many lives, as bad as these have been. The implications of the following examples go beyond even these.

The Pentagon Papers

>>The Pentagon Papers were top-secret documents detailing the decisions and policies behind the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1965-1973).

Viet Nam War Memorial>> During the Vietnam War between three and four million Vietnamese on both sides were killed, and more than 58,000 Americans lost their lives. All of their names are engraved in the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. (See photo.) For years this war saturated each night's TV news.

The Pentagon Papers brought to light the political and military thinking behind the war  --  including decisions and justifications that in retrospect seem politically motivated.

The government knew that releasing the Pentagon Papers would undermine the public's confidence in the government  --  and, as it turned out, they were right.

" But out of a fear of alienating viewers and readers the mainstream media did not want to question the war effort -- although many things had emerged that should have been reported."

>>Opposition to the war started on college campuses and was fostered by campus newspapers. Since the general public was originally behind the war, a major "generational rift" resulted with many young people being arrested and on one college campus even shot for protesting the war.

Feeling that the public had a right to know what went on behind the scenes of the war, The New York Times announced that they were going to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Daniel Ellsberg, who helped write this exhaustive, top-secret study for the government, had tried to get the report to the Times. His efforts to get these papers to the New York Times, and the government's efforts to find and stop him, represented a vicious cat and mouse game for many weeks.

Ellsberg was finally able to get the papers to a reporter, but he was subsequently arrested for treason, which carries the death penalty.

Fortunately for him, the government had resorted to illegal and highly questionable activities in perusing him, and when this came out during the trial, the judge threw out the charges.

Even so, the Nixon administration moved to block the publication of the papers and his Republican staff won temporary injunctions against the New York Times, and later, the Washington Post, which by this time had also planned to publish them.

But, on June 30, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that stopping publication amounted to “prior restraint,” which violated free speech protection.

Years later, even the major architect of the Vietnam war, the late Robert McNamara, who had been Defense Secretary during that time, spent his later years publicly disavowing his decisions on the war as, "wrong, terribly wrong."
 

The Watergate Scandal

>>In 1973, two reporters for the Washington Post faced down major threats and engaged in some tenacious investigative journalism to bring to light the corrupt dealings of President Richard Nixon.

The story of the Watergate Scandal and reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post is documented in the Academy Award-winning film, All the President's Men, from which this photo was taken.

The film, which documents what led up to the resignation of the only president in U.S. history, is worth renting for its educational and dramatic values. 
 

Patriotism and the Press

>> After 9/11 patriotism again soared in the United States, and, again, the mainstream press failed to critically examine the premise of a war -- in the case, the recent Iraq war.

The Bush Administration first tried to tie the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Iraq (later, the Administration conceded there was no direct connection) and to the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (none were ever found).

In short, the justification for going to war with Iraq was bogus -- a fact that was rather openly stated by the leaders of many of our allies1 at the time but ignored by the Republican Administration.

Although the facts are all there for anyone that takes the time to find them, even now much of the public continues to believe in the discredited justification for the war. Studies have shown that once people believe something they tend to hang onto those views, even in the presence of new and contradictory information.

>> In a rare admission, The New York Times, considered the nation's most influential newspaper, accepted some of the blame. The Times had gone along with one of their reporter's pro-war reporting -- a reporter who it turned out had a less than objective relationship with the administration.

" The public didn't want to hear things that contradicted what they had been led to believe."

Those who questioned the justification for the war were discredited by popular pundits and even branded as traitors.

Modern Day CIA Spy Story

>> The dramatic DVD  Nothing But the Truth parallels the case of Valerie Plame, whose status as a CIA agent was exposed in the media after her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, wrote a New York Times opinion piece charging the Bush administration with manipulating intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. Valerie PlameAs documented in numerous books on the subject, his charge was later substantiated.

This photo of Ms. Plame is from her subsequent book, Fair Game, which tells the story from her perspective.

Knowingly exposing a CIA agent's identity and possibly jeopardizing her life and the lives of associated agents is a federal offense of the highest order.  Even so, those responsible escaped imprisonment.

Even though Ambassador Wilson, and a few others had tried to alert the public to the questionable justification for the Iraq war, by that time the public had been effectively led to believe that the war was justified.


Update: A film starring Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe, and based on Ms. Plame's autobiography, Fair Game, is available on DVD. (See Fair Game Foul Game.)

Fair Game, considered by many critics as one of the best films of the year, won the National Board of Review's Freedom of Expression Award in 2010.

According to the New York Times, "...the movie is a vivid reminder of one of the most egregious abuses of power in history...."
 

The 9/11 Attack

>>Finally, this addendum.  It is widely believed that the 9/11 attack on the United States was a total surprise.

However, now it appears that the Bush Administration had numerous warnings which, because of surrounding secrecy, the news media is only now discovering.

According to recent reports, before the 9/11 attacks some in the intelligence community pleaded to be heard about this, but their reports were shuffled to the background and ignored. It was apparently thought, "It just couldn't happen here."

Condescenza Rice, the Secretary of State, received an intelligence briefing that that outlined the possibility -- even rather clear probability -- of an attack.

However, since it was kept secret for some time, along with related information that is still secret, the news media can hardly be blamed for not bringing it to the public's attention. It may be decades before the full story is revealed.


Sibel Edmonds

 

Update: Much of the story is now documented in Sibel Edmonds' book, Classified Woman.

The government went to extraordinary lengths to suppress the book and its writer.

However, the many months of legal efforts on the part of the government did not silence the writer.

Once it was published, Classified Woman received more five-star reviews than almost any non-fiction book in modern times.


-Dr. Ron Whittaker, is a Professor of Broadcasting and former newspaper reporter and TV news anchor.


1 It wasn't just some or our allies that warned about getting into a war with Iraq. In this country there were some journalists that also warned us about getting involved.


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