Thursday, November 11, 2004
BOB GARFIELD: Over the past four years, we have received mail from many listeners impugning our objectivity—mostly charging that we were biased against the president. After reviewing our four-year record, we readily admit that we can detect an increasingly critical tone. We do, after all, focus on media, and the news media rely on the free exchange of information.
If this show is a watchdog, press freedom is what it seeks to guard under any administration. So, as we prepare for another Bush administration, we thought we’d consider how freedom of information has fared under our once and future president.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we burrowed into our archives this week, we found in our first post-inauguration interview with veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas, early signs of an impending chill.
HELEN THOMAS: I would like to feel, and I hope, that the new administration will understand the role of the press, will not cut us off, that our questions are legitimate, and that they cannot operate in total secrecy, which they seem to be wanting to do lately.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Every administration seeks to control the day’s message, but few as doggedly as this one. Reporters with probing questions, like Ms. Thomas, were skipped over in press briefings. Reporters’ notes were subpoenaed in determined pursuit of government leakers. An official secrets acts, of sorts, re-emerged in Congress. We spoke to Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press six months into the Bush administration.
LUCY DALGLISH: I just can’t get over this chilling effect. I’ve heard some old-timers from the journalism world here in Washington describe this as almost a Nixonian atmosphere and how the media is feeling put upon with these subpoenas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that was only August. After Sept. 11, the chill deepened into what one reporter called “an Arctic zone.” The number of classified documents soared. In a report on government secrecy, California Democrat Henry Waxman noted that the administration had repeatedly refused to provide members of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, and congressional commissions with information necessary for meaningful congressional oversight, thereby blocking a key route by which inconvenient facts reach the public.
And here’s more from Vermont Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy in March of 2001.
PATRICK LEAHY: GAO is having to sue Vice President Cheney to get information that everybody else would acknowledge should be readily available. Attorney General Ashcroft has put restrictions that no other attorney general has put on FOIA requests. The closing of presidential papers that are normally available to scholars—three federal judges have already had to order the Bush administration to stop their delaying tactics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Congress passed the Homeland Security Act, one provision of which exempts a whole new class of information from Freedom of Information requests, specifically “any request for information that would expose weaknesses in our infrastructure, power plants and bridges and reservoirs, because that could be useful to terrorists.”
But because of that exemption, we also can’t find out about the Love Canals or mismanaged Super Fund sites or foremen who dump pollutantsinto rivers.
The legislative coup de grace, of course, was the Patriot
Act, which permitted secret wiretaps, searches, detentions,
trials and deportations.
In January of 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld barred the media from taking photographs of prisoners from Afghanistan, citing the Geneva Conventions.
DONALD RUMSFELD: There are a bunch of lawyers who are looking at all these treaties and conventions and everything, trying to figure out what’s appropriate. The only thing I did notice, that you can’t take pictures of them. That’s considered embarrassing for them, and they can’t be interviewed, according to the Geneva Convention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, as they were sent off to Guantanamo Bay, media and human rights groups couldn’t follow them because the prisoners, now hooded and shackled, had acquired a new status.
DONALD RUMSFELD: And they will be handled, not as prisoners of wars, because they’re not, but as unlawful combatants. As I understand it, technically, unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Pentagon followed a press blackout in Afghanistan with a blaze of footage from Iraq, supplied by reporters embedded with and under the protection of American troops.
But, the Pentagon instructed those reporters that if they
left their assigned units to, say, talk to Iraqis in their
villages or assess bomb damage, they would lose their spots.
So, mostly, the reporters stayed put, covering the war through
a soda straw. Military analyst Bill Arkin had the Pentagon
BILL ARKIN: All I can do is point to the organizations, because we don’t know yet what they are actually doing or how it has had influence.
What we do know is that a deputy undersecretary of defense for special plans has been created. What we do know is that there is a special cell that has been established within that office that is responsible for deception.
What we do know is that information warfare has been elevated to a mission of the US Strategic Command.
What we do know is that the Air Force has transferred all of its bombers and fighters out of the Eighth Air Force and made it solely an information operations Air Force. What we do know is that the Navy has created a Naval Network Warfare Command.
What we do know is that there are new doctrines and policies which have been created by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by the Secretary of Defense, and by the individual services which trumpet deception, perception management, strategic influence operations, better control of the news media—and those doctrines and policies, all of which have been established, signed and issued in 2001 and 2002, seem to indicate that there is a kind of blurring of the distinction between public information and psychological warfare.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, as the Bush administration played offense on the foreign information front, it played defense at home—all in the ostensible cause of our own protection.
But, as our founding fathers understood, the chief protection against mischief at home is accountability. If we can’t hold our leaders accountable, we can’t function as a democracy.
Ken Auletta, who has written numerous books on the media, offered us this anecdote.
KEN AULETTA: Bush has held fewer press conferences than any modern president in the post-World War II period. The number is roughly three times fewer than his own father had, and it’s a reflection of his attitude towardsthe press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, the president has chosen to speak past the press corps, directly to the people, believing they need only hear his convictions, not a cacophony of facts. For his part, he says his advisors tell him all he needs to know.
GEORGE W. BUSH: There’s a sense that people in America aren’t getting the truth. I’m mindful of the, of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people, and that’s what we will continue to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is, indeed, a sense that people in America aren’t getting the truth, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. In another retrospective, we will review the media’s responsibility for withholding or burying the facts.
But the solution to most problems is found in more information, not less. If we don’t trust the news we are getting, we ought to look elsewhere. That’s why we have a free press.
Most administrations are resistant to the sunlight, preferring to pursue some of their policies in the shadows. But in the president’s first term, the curtains were drawn on matters not just of war and peace, but of business and science and energy and the environment—even the papers of past presidents.
This has been a presidency conducted in the dark. So the press must use even higher wattage in the effort to peer in.