The truth has become a casualty of the campaign to support the war

Notes from the National Media Reform Conference Panel: The Press at War & the War on the Press

by Sarah Kuck

As a concerned group of media reform activists, those attending the National Conference for Media Reform were keenly aware of the problem with the U.S. coverage of the war: it’s been largely replaced with impressive audio/visual hype, discussions about facts have been replaced with discussions of ideology, and reliable sources have been whittled down to politicians and military personnel involved in the war. Embedded reporters struggle with remaining objective because those they report on safeguard their lives, while unembedded reporters continually risk their lives to do so. Those who attended the NCMR panel, The Press at War & the War on the Press came to have their questions answered about what the impact of this “coverage” has been, and especially to have Helen Thomas be one of those answering.

The panel included:
Helen Thomas (Hearst Newspapers)
Eric Boehlert (Media Matters for America)
Sonali Kolhatkar (Afghan Women’s Mission and KPFK)
Geneva Overholser (University of Missouri),
Paul Rieckhoff (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America)

The first casualty of the coverage has been the forgotten war – Afghanistan. Paul Rieckhoff, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the troops refer to it as “Forgotistan.” When Rieckhoff returned to the States he said he assumed people would be having discussions about the war, but people were mostly focused on Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. The war has personally affected Rieckhoff, and while he was wondering why it wasn’t affecting those back home, he realized it was because of the lack of coverage. Those back home weren’t seeing the depth of human sacrifice -- they’d never see a dead soldier, they’d never hear soldiers’ voices. Now, he said he’s asking the important questions because those in uniform didn’t get the chance to.

For the most credible information he recommended reading soldier’s blogs.
“This is the only war where I can go out on patrol and go back to base and write a blog on it,” Rieckhoff said. Unfortunately the Department of Defense is shutting these blogs down. Embedded reporters cannot provide credible coverage, said Rieckhoff, “you couldn’t enter my platoon and remain objective because I’m covering your ass.”

Helen Thomas, who has worked for 57 years as a correspondent and has covered seven presidents, was the draw for many attendees.

“I haven’t been to Iraq,” Thomas said, “but I live with it every day.”

She said 90 correspondents and interpreters have already been killed, more than WWII.

“I went from ‘who the hell are you, why do you think you get to ask those questions,’ in the Kennedy era,” Thomas said. “Now it’s ‘where is the press, what has happened to you, where is the active, take no prisoners reporting?”
Thomas said she feels that the American press core has lost its way, it has not kept a spotlight on public officials, and gave up our one weapon -- skepticism.

Congress rolled over as the press did, Thomas said, and now we have a destroyed country and thousands dead. She said the government has created an information mill, and reporters simply record it as stenographers. This unquestioned information is then fed to the people. Thomas said the media’s lack of coverage has allowed the government to get away with were wire tapping, the right to open mail, and the Patriot Act, which spies on e-mail.

“Tell me where is the liberal press, so called? I say bring them on,” Thomas said. “We’ve been intimated for so long, and I don’t really see the liberals popping up.”
Thomas said a free press in indispensable from a free country; you can’t have a free country with out a free press.

Eric Boehlert, who also wrote Lapdogs, How that Press Rolled Over for the President, said the government understood that the war was not possible without the press because without the press, the government couldn’t get the public to go along with a war against a country that has done nothing to them.

Although this war had the potential to be the first uncensored war (due to available technology), the government’s campaign to drum up support for the war eradicated any hope for full, unrestricted coverage, he said. The worst part was that the press went along with it, Boehlert said, even our own editors are refusing to print photos that war photographers are taking, refusing to show the kidnapped or dead because it would be ‘propaganda.’

Boehlert called the press’ coverage of the war the worst press failing in the history of this country. The press is just as much to blame, he said, because not only did Bush made sure no one could ask skeptical questions by having a press sheet of who to call on, but also the press didn’t ask any questions when given the chance. For example, during Bush’s press conference about Iraq, he brought up Al-Qaeda 13 times, and no one asked any questions about what the connection was.

Boehlert said the press has to be held accountable because they had a hand in our going to war. The Washington Post wrote more than 1 million words on the war gave less than 30 words to Kennedy’s anti-war speech.

“The War could not have happened without the people from the Washington Post,”

After the panelists spoke, they turned to the audience for questions. A young man walked up to the microphone in front of the stage and directed his questions to Helen Thomas. He asked her who she thinks could possibly replace her, is there anyone she could think of who will be the next “Helen Thomas?”

Thomas replied, “Everyone in this room.”

It was a perfect end note. It was the last panel I attended, and it made me feel that although those in the mainstream media have failed the people, it doesn’t mean that we will. As a member of the next generation of great reporters, it gave me great hope to continue on.

Sarah Kuck, an editorial intern at YES! Magazine, attended the National Conference on Media Reform as a Reclaim the Media scholarship recipient.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey