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On Message

by David Samuels

David Samuels writes frequently for HARPER'S magazine. This article appeared in HARPER'S magazine December, 2001 [edited here for brevity].


The day that the Secretary of Defense left for the Middle East and Central Asia, I spent a morning with John McWethy. One of the senior reporters on the Pentagon beat, McWethy, fifty-four, works out of a windowless cubicle that he shares with Barbara Starr, anABC News producer who does radio. The office measures approximately eight feet by eight feet, the size of the cage at a parking garage, which it greatly resembles, with the addition of the dark institutional carpet that runs up the walls. Stuffed with books, papers, television monitors, and broadcast equipment, the office gives the two of them just enough room to work at their desks while sitting back-to-back. Fluorescent light pours into the room from a boxlike plastic fixture. It’s government-issue light, the kind you might see inside a big-city courtroom in the middle of December.

[Samuels asks McWethy for an assessment of Secretary Rumsfeld]

"He’s so absolutely . . . I don’t know how to say this," McWethy says, when I ask him about Rumsfeld. He pauses. "He has a passion for secrecy," he finally says, "and he is absolutely unforgiving and unrelenting on this issue." Not only has Rumsfeld threatened sources with legal prosecution, from the Briefing Room podium, on national television, he notes, but the Pentagon also refuses to confirm or deny much of the information that reporters do manage to find out, thus ensuring that the news that does reach the public is often riddled with guesswork and error.

"You’ve already seen disinformation created by this policy," he says, referring to rumors of a deployment of F-15 fighter planes to the Middle East, which turned out to be false. Refusing to answer reporters’ questions, he says, is hardly compelled by a desire to protect the lives of American troops.

"I think it’s nonsense," he says flatly. In recent off-the-record meetings with the Secretary, he adds, reporters aired their concerns about the effects of the department’s policy for the second or third time this month. "I think he was delighted to hear the effect of his edicts," he says. In the talks that McWethy gives at the Naval Academy, he adds, he has noticed how often the cadets make reference to "the Vietnam effect," a phrase that implies, in so many words, that the press was responsible for losing that war.

"What they seem not to understand is that we were being lied to at the highest levels of government," McWethy continues. "This terrible breach of trust . . ."

***

The effect of this attitude on the psyches of even the most experienced reporters is easy to spot. In the middle of the afternoon, on the fourth day of the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan, David Martin, fifty-eight, the correspondent for CBS, is sitting alone in the dark. His office is larger than McWethy’s, and it has a window: the sun is blocked out by a plastic shade.

It makes sense that Martin might be depressed. The job he does now is no longer the same as the job he was hired to do. Like McWethy, Martin belongs to an older generation of reporters who imagined that television would provide them with a way to reach tens of millions of people with stories that shed real and necessary light on the actions of their government. (The evidence of the nineties suggests that the networks are no longer interested in reporting the news. By cutting news budgets year after year, and by eliminating investigative and foreign reporting in favor of the serial dramas of 0. J. Simpson, Jon-Benet Ramsey, and Monica Lewinsky, the networks have succeeded in transforming "news" into yet another shabby subdivision of the Magic Kingdom. The networks now have little choice but to treat the war as a dramatic entertainment, rather than as an occasion for asking the larger and subtler questions that need to be asked.)

***

I talk to CNN’s regular Pentagon team, Jamie McIntyre and Christopher Plante, whose sunny, capacious surroundings say all one needs to know about the relative importance of the networks and instant news: the total square footage of the CNN office is roughly equal to that of ABC, NBC, and CBS combined.

"The first ‘N’ stands for ‘news," says Plante, gesturing toward the network logo with his thumb, "as opposed to the domestic entertainment networks down the hall."

Plante is shooting down a rumor that originated on debka.com, a website that offers actual reporting on troop movements, intelligence agencies, and the motivations for actions by foreign governments. "Major portions of this story," he remarks, "will be impossible to verify and impossible to report." Still, he adds, he is quite satisfied with the product that CNN is putting on the air.

"The guys down the hail do one show a night," he explains. "They do one small package. They know what we have, because they’re watching us all day long. Our mission is to leave them with nothing at the end of each and every day."

There’s plenty of nothing at the Pentagon. As the sun sinks below the highway, Charlie Aldinger is sitting in the press room, talking to the Reuters Washington desk. "When in doubt, fudge," he says. "You got that?" The rank of senior Pentagon correspondent is not without its privileges; his cubicle adjoins a large window.

"The man was in a lot of trouble before the war came along," he says, using his pointer finger to indicate the man upstairs. "He staked it all on missile defense, then the tax cut eliminated the surplus." Back then, he says, Rumsfeld’s relationship with the press was poor.

"There was the sense that he didn’t have time for the press and that he didn’t give a rat’s ass about the press," he explains. His conclusion is simple:

"The war saved the man."

But what about the press?

***

[Samuels talks with the "oldest living reporter at the Pentagon" -- ninety-one year old Raymond Cromley.] The hour is getting late, so I ask him if he can sum up all that he has learned in a few simple sentences. He is happy to oblige.

"People of all countries are nice," he offers, gently. "There are some villains in every country. All the top commandments of every religion are the same."

Down the Corridor, the Fox News guys are preparing for their seven o’clock hit.

A line of black-boxed videotapes marches west on a shelf across the far wall. They are the visuals, perhaps several miles’ worth of Pentagon-approved operational footage of destroyers and aircraft carriers, bombers, fighters, and other weapons systems in action, produced in concert with the defense contractors who profit from their manufacture and who would love nothing more than to gain additional appropriations from Congress based on cool-looking footage. In the meantime, the footage stands in for the reality of a war that is impossible to see, hear, or touch.

***

The gap between what the correspondents say in private and what they can say on the air is one of the most familiar features of the American corporate news business. The arrangement is fair to everyone—unless, of course, you are one of the 11.4 million viewers who watched tonight’s broadcast of ABC news. In that case it appears that you were robbed.

Two USAF C-17s Globemaster III from Charleston AFB, SC perform high altitude humanitarian airdrops into Afghanastan using the TRIAD (Tri-wall Airdrop) system to deliver Humanitarian Daily Rations (HDR’s) to fleeing refugees, I read. The text is a precise description of the footage I have just seen on television. I wonder, idly, when "fleeing refugees" might gain its own acronym. This mission, the handout continues, with pride, was the first Combat Airdrop for the C-17 aircraft, the first operational test of the TRIAD system with the C-17, and the first high-altitude airdrop of its kind for the C-17. The footage serves as a plausible facsimile of the war as defined by the Pentagon; it tells viewers nothing about the origins and nature of an enemy that Republicans and Democrats alike have been ignoring for the last ten years, out of deference to the demands of Big Oil and in the hope that a world of six billion people might wake up one morning, consider the odds, and start bowing to Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, and the Goddess of Democracy.

Somehow, it seems, the Pentagon has got the lessons of Vietnam exactly wrong. In a great democracy, a policy of honesty and openness with the public and the press is probably the only way to win the war on terrorism. It is important for reporters to ask difficult, even unpardonable questions of people in authority, in order to keep themselves and the rest of us informed. We should all know the answers to the questions that are not being asked, or are not being asked often enough. Otherwise, it is difficult to imagine any other result than another long, expensive, frustrating, fruitless, and divisive war.


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