In a Q&A with media reform activists last night, Bill Moyers highlighted three factors that led to the media's near wholesale "buying" of the White Houses' case for war in Iraq.
The catastrophic march to war by outlets including the Washington Post, CNN, the New York Times, Fox News Channel and the Wall Street Journal should serve as an object lesson for hard scrutiny of a system that frequently undermines the best interests of us all.
Moyers makes his case:
1. The Failure of Objectivity
The first factor was the loss of perspective among journalists, beginning in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
"Too many journalists suspended their critical faculties because they were emotionally involved," Moyers said during a teleconference with attendees of nearly 150 house parties convened by my media reform group, Free Press, on Wednesday night.
For his latest PBS special "Buying the War," Moyers interviewed former CBS anchorman Dan Rather, who put up a sheepish defense of his teary-eyed comments on the September 17, 2001, David Letterman show, in which Rather infamously pledged:
"George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where."
During last night's broadcast, Rather admitted: "I don't think there is any excuse for, you know, my performance and the performance of the press in general in the roll up to the war. There were exceptions. There were some people, who, I think, did a better job than others. But overall and in the main there's no question that we didn't do a good job."
2. Blind Partisanship
A second factor that led to the spectacular media failure, according to Moyers, was the "fierce ideology and partisan loyalty of the right-wing press."
"The right wing ideological press... see themselves as amplifiers and megaphones of the White House and the Republican Party," Moyers said. "They had a vested interest in promoting the war, not only did they spread the message, not only did they monger for war, but any of us who rose above the trenches and tried to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, there's a different story here,' they came down on, they opposed, they slandered, they smeared."
The viciousness of the right-wing media attack on Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, from the Malkin-Coulter fringe to the more mainstream op-ed pages of the New York Post, is just one example.
3. Big Media Elitism
Moyers third factor was that the "promiscuous, incestuous relationship between the media elites in Washington and the political elites led to a groupthink that resulted in this war."
"The Washington press corps is a clique, it's a claque," Moyers said, pointing to a few exceptions like the award-winning reporting of Knight-Ridder correspondents Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, who are among the very few media figures profiled favorably in "Buying the War."
"The Poobahs of the press in Washington, the stars and the celebrities, they all have a stake in access, they all have a stake in keeping happy the people who they want on their shows and from whom they want the leaks and the access."
One prominent example of such elitism is Viacom chief executive Sumner Redstone, who, while calling himself a "liberal Democrat," threw his support behind President Bush in advance of the 2004 elections. His explanation: Access to power is good for business. Declaring his allegiance before some of America's and Asia's top executives in Hong Kong, Redstone said: "I look at the election from what's good for Viacom. I vote for what's good for Viacom. I vote, today, Viacom."
Solution: Transform Democracy by Reforming Media
Many of the pundits and boosters for the war are still flourishing in the media. During his broadcast, Moyers profiles Bill Kristol and Peter Beinart, who are now regular contributors of commentary to TIME magazine -- at a time when the publication's parent company, Time Warner Inc., is laying off dozens of reporters.
Worse, media giants that foist these absurd White House apologists before the camera -- often at the expense of more centrist or progressive or simply skeptical viewpoints, as ably demonstrated by media monitoring group FAIR -- is still currying favor with a narrow clique of Washington's most powerful.
The worst symptom of Big Media's Beltway-vision is myopia to the issues that really matter to the rest of America. As Moyers once again demonstrates with last night's broadcast and discussion, it's time we demand a media that sheds light on issues of real public concern, even if it means chipping away at the edifices of the powerful.
As Congress and the FCC are deciding on a number of media issues - from Net Neutrality and the allocation of our public airwaves to how many local outlets Big Media should control -- the question before us is simple: Should the public remain passive before a media system that fails us on so many fronts?
Fortunately, people are waking up to what's at stake, and their voices are growing louder by the day. Those who assembled last night to discuss "Buying the War" with Bill Moyers are just a small sampling of a media reform movement that's fighting to take back the media in our name.
As millions more learn the facts from Moyers show and about the work of those in the movement, our message is spreading: We must reform the media to transform our democracy.