Friday, January 14, 2005

All the President's Newsmen


January 16, 2005
All the President's Newsmen

NE day after the co-host Tucker Carlson made his farewell appearance and two days after the new president of CNN made the admirable announcement that he would soon kill the program altogether, a television news miracle occurred: even as it staggered through its last nine yards to the network guillotine, "Crossfire" came up with the worst show in its fabled 23-year history.

This was a half-hour of television so egregious that it makes Jon Stewart's famous pre-election rant seem, if anything, too kind. This time "Crossfire" wasn't just "hurting America," as Mr. Stewart put it, by turning news into a nonsensical gong show. It was unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, complicit in the cover-up of a scandal.

I do not mean to minimize the CBS News debacle and other recent journalistic outrages at The New York Times and elsewhere. But the Jan. 7 edition of CNN's signature show can stand as an exceptionally ripe paradigm of what is happening to the free flow of information in a country in which a timid news media, the fierce (and often covert) Bush administration propaganda machine, lax and sometimes corrupt journalistic practices, and a celebrity culture all combine to keep the public at many more than six degrees of separation from anything that might resemble the truth.

On this particular "Crossfire," the featured guest was Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, talk-show host and newspaper columnist (for papers like The Washington Times and The Detroit Free Press, among many others, according to his Web site). Thanks to investigative reporting by USA Today, he had just been unmasked as the frontman for a scheme in which $240,000 of taxpayers' money was quietly siphoned to him through the Department of Education and a private p.r. firm so that he would "regularly comment" upon (translation: shill for) the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind policy in various media venues during an election year. Given that "Crossfire" was initially conceived as a program for tough interrogation and debate, you'd think that the co-hosts still on duty after Mr. Carlson's departure might try to get some answers about this scandal, whose full contours, I suspect, we are only just beginning to discern.

But there is nothing if not honor among bloviators. "On the left," as they say at "Crossfire," Paul Begala, a Democratic political consultant, offered condemnations of the Bush administration but had only soft questions and plaudits for Mr. Williams. Three times in scarcely as many minutes Mr. Begala congratulated his guest for being "a stand-up guy" simply for appearing in the show's purportedly hostile but entirely friendly confines. When Mr. Williams apologized for having crossed "some ethical lines," that was enough to earn Mr. Begala's benediction: "God bless you for that."

"On the right" was the columnist Robert Novak, who "in the interests of full disclosure" told the audience he is a "personal friend" of Mr. Williams, whom he "greatly" admires as "one of the foremost voices for conservatism in America." Needless to say, Mr. Novak didn't have any tough questions, either, but we should pause a moment to analyze this "Crossfire" co-host's disingenuous use of the term "full disclosure."

Last year Mr. Novak had failed to fully disclose - until others in the press called him on it - that his son is the director of marketing for Regnery, the company that published "Unfit for Command," the Swift boat veterans' anti-Kerry screed that Mr. Novak flogged relentlessly on CNN and elsewhere throughout the campaign. Nor had he fully disclosed, as Mary Jacoby of Salon reported, that Regnery's owner also publishes his subscription newsletter ($297 a year). Nor has Mr. Novak fully disclosed why he has so far eluded any censure in the federal investigation of his outing of a C.I.A. operative, Valerie Plame, while two other reporters, Judith Miller of The Times and Matt Cooper of Time, are facing possible prison terms in the same case. In this context, Mr. Novak's "full disclosure" of his friendship with Mr. Williams is so anomalous that it raised many more questions than it answers.

That he and Mr. Begala would be allowed to lob softballs at a man who may have been a cog in illegal government wrongdoing, on a show produced by television's self-proclaimed "most trusted" news network, is bad enough. That almost no one would notice, let alone protest, is a snapshot of our cultural moment, in which hidden agendas in the presentation of "news" metastasize daily into a Kafkaesque hall of mirrors that could drive even the most earnest American into abject cynicism. But the ugly bigger picture reaches well beyond "Crossfire" and CNN.

Mr. Williams has repeatedly said in his damage-control press appearances that he was being paid the $240,000 only to promote No Child Left Behind. He also routinely says that he made the mistake of taking the payola because he wasn't part of the "media elite" and therefore didn't know "the rules and guidelines" of journalistic conflict-of-interest. His own public record tells us another story entirely. While on the administration payroll he was not only a cheerleader for No Child Left Behind but also for President Bush's Iraq policy and his performance in the presidential debates. And for a man who purports to have learned of media ethics only this month, Mr. Williams has spent an undue amount of time appearing as a media ethicist on both CNN and the cable news networks of NBC.

He took to CNN last October to give his own critique of the CBS News scandal, pointing out that the producer of the Bush-National Guard story, Mary Mapes, was guilty of a conflict of interest because she introduced her source, the anti-Bush partisan Bill Burkett, to a Kerry campaign operative, Joe Lockhart. In this Mr. Williams's judgment was correct, but grave as Ms. Mapes's infraction was, it isn't quite in the same league as receiving $240,000 from the United States Treasury to propagandize for the Bush campaign on camera. Mr. Williams also appeared with Alan Murray on CNBC to trash Kitty Kelley's book on the Bush family, on CNN to accuse the media of being Michael Moore's "p.r. machine" and on Tina Brown's CNBC talk show to lambaste Mr. Stewart for doing a "puff interview" with John Kerry on "The Daily Show" (which Mr. Williams, unsurprisingly, seems to think is a real, not a fake, news program).

But perhaps the most fascinating Williams TV appearance took place in December 2003, the same month that he was first contracted by the government to receive his payoffs. At a time when no one in television news could get an interview with Dick Cheney, Mr. Williams, of all "journalists," was rewarded with an extended sit-down with the vice president for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a nationwide owner of local stations affiliated with all the major networks. In that chat, Mr. Cheney criticized the press for its coverage of Halliburton and denounced "cheap shot journalism" in which "the press portray themselves as objective observers of the passing scene, when they obviously are not objective."

This is a scenario out of "The Manchurian Candidate." Here we find Mr. Cheney criticizing the press for a sin his own government was at that same moment signing up Mr. Williams to commit. The interview is broadcast by the same company that would later order its ABC affiliates to ban Ted Koppel's "Nightline" recitation of American casualties in Iraq and then propose showing an anti-Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor," under the rubric of "news" in prime time just before Election Day. (After fierce criticism, Sinclair retreated from that plan.) Thus the Williams interview with the vice president, implicitly presented as an example of the kind of "objective" news Mr. Cheney endorses, was in reality a completely subjective, bought-and-paid-for fake news event for a broadcast company that barely bothers to fake objectivity and both of whose chief executives were major contributors to the Bush-Cheney campaign. The Soviets couldn't have constructed a more ingenious or insidious plot to bamboozle the citizenry.

Ever since Mr. Williams was exposed by USA Today, he has been stonewalling all questions about what the Bush administration knew of his activities and when it knew it. In his account, he was merely a lowly "subcontractor" of the education department. "Never was the White House ever mentioned anytime during this," he told NBC's Campbell Brown, as if that were enough to deflect Ms. Brown's observation that "the Department of Education works for the White House." For its part, the White House is saying that the whole affair is, in the words of the press secretary, Scott McClellan, "a contracting matter" and "a decision by the Department of Education." In other words, the buck stops (or started) with Rod Paige, the elusive outgoing education secretary who often appeared with Mr. Williams in his pay-for-play propaganda.

But we now know that there have been at least three other cases in which federal agencies have succeeded in placing fake news reports on television during the Bush presidency. The Department of Health and Human Services, the Census Bureau and the Office of National Drug Control Policy have all sent out news "reports" in which, to take one example, fake newsmen purport to be "reporting" why the administration's Medicare prescription-drug policy is the best thing to come our way since the Salk vaccine. So far two Government Accountability Office investigations have found that these Orwellian stunts violated federal law that prohibits "covert propaganda" purchased with taxpayers' money. But the Williams case is the first one in which a well-known talking head has been recruited as the public face for the fake news instead of bogus correspondents (recruited from p.r. companies) with generic eyewitness-news team names like Karen Ryan and Mike Morris.

Or is Mr. Williams merely the first one of his ilk to be exposed? Every time this administration puts out fiction through the news media - the "Rambo" exploits of Jessica Lynch, the initial cover-up of Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire - it's assumed that a credulous and excessively deferential press was duped. But might there be more paid agents at loose in the media machine? In response to questions at the White House, Mr. McClellan has said that he is "not aware" of any other such case and that he hasn't "heard" whether the administration's senior staff knew of the Williams contract - nondenial denials with miles of wiggle room. Mr. Williams, meanwhile, has told both James Rainey of The Los Angeles Times and David Corn of The Nation that he has "no doubt" that there are "others" like him being paid for purveying administration propaganda and that "this happens all the time." So far he is refusing to name names - a vow of omertà all too reminiscent of that taken by the low-level operatives first apprehended in that "third-rate burglary" during the Nixon administration.

If CNN, just under new management, wants to make amends for the sins of "Crossfire," it might dispatch some real reporters to find out just which "others" Mr. Williams is talking about and to follow his money all the way back to its source.

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