Interrupting Neal Conan’s poker game

by Stephen Philion, ZNet

On NPR’s call-in show Talk of the Nation, hosted by Neal Conan, it is a rarity to hear a voice from the anti-war left. The spectrum of voices on this program, as is the case with NPR programs such as All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, is almost, entirely filled by representatives of the US foreign policy establishment. Typically a ‘discussion’ on Iraq would feature a pro-war think tanker promoting war against a ‘cautious liberal’ think-tanker calling for increased troops or a ‘better strategy to win’. A public radio program thus is rendered one in which voices of the anti-war left are left out of the ‘discussions’ on important matters such as war.

Occasionally such voices do make themselves heard; they are the product of fortunate callers who pass the TOTN screener and are able to suggest a left-oriented critique of important issues of the day. The program framework implicitly deigns left antiwar voices as not worthy of being part of the serious discussion going on among the invited guests. Instead, they are relegated to the role of peripheral ‘callers’. The hierarchy is as plain as can be.

January 9th’s TOTN provided a classic example of what happens when such callers do make themselves onto the air. They are dealt with in a manner far more sophisticated than the brazenly anti-leftist Rush Limbaugh, who would simply shut out or shout down left dissent after hanging up on a caller. NPR’s format is an ‘alternative’ to the shout-show call-in format of right-wing commercial radio. It calls for discussion that is civil, an worthy ideal surely. However, it’s an alternative that allows no chance for the left to be represented in its discussion of important national or international matters.

On issues such as “What Next for Iraq?” , TOTN on the 9th , the discussion featured NYT chief Washington Correspondent David Sanger, Washington Post military reporter Thomas Ricks, and NPR senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins. The boundaries of the discussion stayed within the range called for by the foreign policy establishment at this failed stage of the US occupation of Iraq, to maintain present troop levels or to increase troop levels. A caller, Kathleen from Ohio, proposed to Conan and his guests that large numbers of Americans had already marched in the millions to oppose the initial US invasion of Iraq and, in subsequent marches, against the US occupation and would be out in the streets again in large numbers in Washington on January 27th . The caller then twice extended an invitation to Neal Conan to come out to the streets that day to witness the people expressing their demand that US troops come home now. Conan’s response said it all:

Kathleen from Ohio: So I’d like to invite you [and other news media personalities] to join the people in the streets on the 27th….

Conan: Well, I’ll have to break up the poker game to do that…

The caller unwittingly reinforced the peripheral role assigned to her by laughing along with Conan’s witty rejoinder. Nonetheless, the dismissive content could not be missed, Conan would sooner play cards than mix it up with the riffraff who show up, often enough hundreds of thousands, to protest the US occupation of Iraq and demand more than a little more or a little less of the same as the resolution to a war that has cost easily 1-200 times more Iraqi lives than American ones. Given the past record of NPR having to publicly apologize for underestimating crowd sizes at rallies in the run-up to the Iraq war, this is not a terribly surprising attitude on Conan’s part toward anti-war protestors amassing in large numbers, then or today.

But more substantively, the reaction of Conan’s guests Kathleen from Ohio when she suggested support for Dennis Kucinich’s call for reenrolling the UN as a force, which might play a productive role after the US departed, even more explicitly reveals the narrow framework within which NPR and the US foreign policy establishment engage in ‘discussions’:

Kathleen from Ohio: Representative Kucinich has been looking into the possibility of international UN forces, I’m wondering how realistic that it is…

Conan then turned the question of how realistic the idea of sending in UN troops to NYT’s David Sanger and Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks, who predictably sneered at very thought of that as an option:

Sanger: I’ve never heard that as a serious possibility. 1) UN troops go in on peacekeeping operations, there is not peace to keep. This requires significant firepower…2) They’re already in too many places…and 3) to believe the job we are doing can be replaced by the UN…

Ricks: Military term “NGH”, not gonna happen. The UN’s headquarters got blown up in 2003, an event regarded within the UN as their own 911.

That’s not necessarily an inaccurate assessment. In fact, it’s doubtful that UN involvement need or should be a demand of the antiwar movement to begin with. It would indeed be unrealistic to expect that the UN would be brought in or able to do much of any good given the way warmaking as an integral component of US capitalism is structured. However, as long as the discussion on the current US occupation of Iraq and future options is left to Washington insiders, the possibility of answering “Why so” remains low.

In order to answer that question we’d have to go beyond the non-answers provided by Sanger, Ricks, and the US foreign policy establishment and ask what would be required for the UN to play such an ideal role. Invariably, the first thing that would have to happen would be the US admitting that it was wrong to illegally invade Iraq, wrong to wreak such havoc on an infinitesimally weaker nation without cause, and that it was now called upon to not only withdraw fully from, but, as critically, to pay massive reparations to the Iraqi people.

Such demands have been consistently called for in the writing of many an eloquent left critic in the fields of academia, journalism, and activism. Writers such as Michael Klare, Michael Schwartz, Robert Dreyfuss, Tariq Ali, Christian Parenti, Naomi Klein, to name but a few. They offer a great deal of material with which to have a truly full discussion of why the UN is not likely to be called on to play the role in Iraq that it was nominally assigned over half a century ago.

Furthermore, we would also need to ask why US foreign policy would not allow for such conditions that might actually make it possible for UN involvement if so requested by an actually autonomous Iraqi government [i.e. autonomous of both military and economic coercion from abroad]. Such questions cannot be answered within mainstream discussions, whether heard on NPR or within the halls of congress.

And as long as such questions are not pursued there, they need to be all the more seriously pursued by large numbers of Americans who take the discussion on Iraq policy to the alternative media, teach-ins, and the streets. When shapers of American opinion at nationally established media outlets such as NPR cannot or will not offer room for such discussion, then we need to make sure they happen elsewhere to develop a consciousness that goes beyond a little more or a little less of the same as acceptable to either Iraqis or Americans on issues such as “What’s Next for Iraq?”.

article originally published at

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