Five O'Clock Follies: Then
Mark Hertsgaard, 1991
excerpted from the book
Stenographers to Power
media and propaganda
David Barsamian interviews
Common Courage Press, 1992,
DB: In your book, On Bended Knee, you cite Reagan Deputy Chief
of Staff Michael Deaver as saying that he knew all along that
the press would submit to censorship of the Grenada operation
without too great a fuss. What was the source of Deaver's confidence?
MH: Deaver had enormous confidence in
his own abilities, but I think he also had a very clear-eyed appreciation
that the media, at least, believed that they needed the White
House more than vice versa. In fact, that was a question able
assumption. Any time that the White House correspondents of the
three major networks wanted to make trouble for Ronald Reagan,
they usually could. But most of the time they refrained. In the
Grenada example, what Deaver saw that, as he put it: "This
was going to be a very positive story. As a result, it was very
unlikely that the media were going to take us on." At that
point the American public "was so hungry for a victory that
if we had found an island someplace with two natives on it, stuck
our flag on it and said, by God, it's ours, they would have supported
the idea." However, it's important to note in Grenada that
Deaver was very, very worried about preventing pictures being
taken of the reality of warfare on the ground. He did realize
that the American public, as we've seen again in the Gulf War,
needed to have a sanitized portrayal of warfare. If they were
forced to come face to face with the realities of war, that is,
that soldiers get their guts blown out and that civilians have
their heads blown off and entire villages are destroyed, then
public opinion would have turned around in a hurry. That's why
Deaver very strongly supported the decision to keep the press
DB: You write, Reagan officials had "a
campaign to transform journalists from independent professionals
into obedient functionaries of the national security bureaucracy."
I'd like you to look at your assumption there about "independent
professionals." The assumption is that the journalists covering
the White House beat are indeed independent and they were transformed
during the Reagan era.
MH: I think that, at least in theory,
they are supposed to be independent. The whole idea of the First
Amendment in this country and the ideal of a free and independent
press standing as a check and balance against the government is
that these journalists are going to stand apart, that they will,
in effect, stand in for the average citizen. The average citizen
doesn't have the time or resources to acquire all the information
necessary to make the kinds of choices required of a citizen in
a democracy. You can't go and hear the press secretary speak.
You can't attend the congressional hearings. You can't weigh all
the options. That's why we have reporters and a press. In that
sense, it's entirely accurate to say that these journalists were
supposed to be independent. The reality of the Washington press
corps, as I write in On Bended Knee, is that, for the most part,
they're a palace court press. They are not terribly independent.
In fact, they are highly dependent mainly on their sources within
Washington officialdom. What the Reagan people did was to intensify
the existing situation, in which the press at best criticizes
the president around the margins and very rarely stands apart
and offers truly alternative perspectives on what is I coming
out of the White House.
DB: Talk, if you will, about the first
Bush war, the invasion of Panama in December 1989. How was the
press coverage of that?
MH: In that case, I think that it was
essentially Grenada II, if you will. The PR, as far as I could
determine, was run mainly out of the Pentagon, again as it was
in Grenada. There was obviously collaboration with the White House
press office in Grenada, but the operative decisions were being
made in the Pentagon and the White House was then executing them.
For example, with Panama, it was the Pentagon which decided to
keep the press from coming to cover the invasion. When the media
finally did pull together a pool of reporters and get them down
there, they were basically kept incommunicado for the early hours
of the fighting, and after that were not let out to see anything
really important for quite a while. Again, that was just an extension
of what the government had learned in Grenada.
I must say, on the other side, that the
press didn't respond any better than it did during Grenada. Once
again, they were very understanding about the military's desire
for censorship. They did not resist it very strongly. Even when
the censorship was relaxed somewhat and there came to be more
reporters down there, very few paid any attention to stories other
than those the Pentagon wanted covered. The basic thrust of the
Panama coverage was "getting Noriega." Are we going
to get him or aren't we? As a result of some ineffectiveness on
the part of the U.S. military, the Panama invasion story got some
negative play for a few days because, if you remember, they couldn't
find Noriega. But it was all within the context of "Noriega
is the bad guy." Once again another parallel to Grenada.
The entire story was framed within a "good guys/bad guys"
context, very much along the lines of what the Pentagon wanted.
The only criticisms that you heard from the press were essentially
logistical criticisms: how well are they carrying out this goal
of getting Noriega? The fact that the U. S. military destroyed
an entire neighborhood, E1 Chorrillo, in the process of doing
that got very little attention. Very few reporters cared very
much about civilian casualties. You and I were just sitting here
watching Fred Francis on the NBC Nightly News. It happens that
Francis was the TV reporter in that pool. Afterwards, I was doing
a story on the Panama coverage for Rolling Stone, and I asked
Francis why there wasn't more coverage of the civilian casualties.
He said, "Look, I'm a military correspondent, and this was
a war. In a war involving 25,000 American troops, the fact that
there are 300 or 400 civilian casualties to me does not constitute
a major story."
When you have a so-called independent
journalist who has that as a working assumption, you don't have
to work very hard if you're the government propagandist to make
sure that he reports the kind of stories you want to see.
MH: I One great failing of the media ... is that they're too close
to their Washington sources, that for all intents and purposes,
most members of the Washington press corps might as well be on
the government payroll. They are popularizing whatever the government
line of the moment is. So, when Noriega is seen as the bad guy,
95 percent of the coverage repeats that. Then there is the 5 percent
coverage of the independent-minded journalists and the lone reporter
here and there who say, "Wait, wait, by the way, we were
paying him $200,000 a year from the CIA all these years."
Likewise, in the case of Saddam, you did
get these dribbles of stories like, "Wait, wait, we've been
giving him money all this time and encouraging him and we sided
with him against Iran and when Ambassador Glaspie was in that
meeting with him, didn't she say that we didn't care how he resolved
his border disputes?" But, as Izzie Stone once said, it's
not as though those alternative stories never run. They do. But
they're on the front page one day and then they're gone. The official
line bullshit, as he put it, gets regurgitated day after day,
and that takes over in the public mind.
This raises an interesting point, one
of the key insights that Deaver had about how you control public
consciousness. I don't think he was even specifically aware of
it, but it came from his own advertising mentality, which is a
very intelligent and acute realization about the way information
functions in a modern society. If you're going to have a real
impact on how the public thinks, repetition is essential. In an
information saturated society, the only thing that pierces the
static is the information that gets repeated day after day after
day. It doesn't matter how bad a story breaks on Monday. If it
is not repeated and doesn't become part of the news cycle, there
are going to be other kinds of stories that come on Tuesday, Wednesday,
Thursday; by Friday the public is no longer aware of it. Most
of them never heard it the first time. Most people have jobs,
families, all other kinds of responsibilities. They might have
missed the news that day, maybe they were washing the baby at
that point in the newscast and didn't quite hear it, and boom!
the next day it's gone. What Deaver understood was that every
day you have to keep putting out a different variation on the
The first eighteen months of Reagan's
presidency, Deaver said we are not going to push anything but
the economy and economic reform. The reason is that it's going
to take that long for us to get control of the public agenda and
keep it there. So he would overrule all other kinds of initiatives
from elsewhere in the government. Everybody in the government
wants the president to speak out for their policy. If they're
in education, foreign aid, transportation, they're all pushing
the White House to please have the president come speak for this.
Deaver cut everyone off at the knees and said, we're going to
talk about the economy only. As a result, they got very good penetration
of their message. They understood the way that information works
in this society.
In that regard, to swing back to your
question, it is absolutely essential that the media be complicit.
They don't necessarily even have to be conscious of it. But as
long as they keep coming in there every day and they're `\ happy
to take those pictures and put on the story that Deaver wants,
even if they snipe a little bit around the | margins, the White
House doesn't care. Essentially ( they've gotten out the story
that they want.
DB: Where is that crusading journalist
at a presidential press conference, who may be totally opportunistic
and cynical and not believe what's he's going to ask the president,
standing up and saying, "OK, you're against naked aggression
when Iraq invades Kuwait. What about the U.S. invasion of Panama?"
MH: Where is that journalist? If such
a journalist existed, it would be very hard for him or her to
ask that question. Anyone to whom such a question would occur,
it would probably be evident in their reporting long before that.
As a result, it would be very unlikely that he or she would be
invited to such a briefing in the first place and almost inconceivable
that he or she actually would be called upon. Somebody like Sam
Donaldson of ABC or Helen Thomas of UPI always gets a chance to
ask their questions. Occasionally, they would ask at least an
apparently, and sometimes a genuinely sharp-edged question. My
beef then is that nobody else in the press follows up. Any politician
worth his salt is going to be able to dodge a question once. But
when you're on live television it becomes quickly apparent if
you dodge it twice or three times. The problem is that the reporters
don't follow up each other's questions.
So when Helen Thomas asks, in May of 1982,
as she did, "Why are you opposed to a freeze of nuclear weapons?"
and Reagan says something to the effect of, "Well, you know,
the Soviets are ahead of us in nuclear armaments production,"
somebody else needs then to stand up and say, "Mr. President,
wait. Nobody else in the government believes that. What's your
source of information?" When Reagan stands up and says, "You
can always call back a nuclear missile once you've shot it,"
somebody needs to stand up and say, "Mr. President, did you
misspeak yourself when you said that?"
But that doesn't happen. It's because
the crusading journalist is really not what the system produces.
It doesn't produce that within the news organizations, and if
it does, that journalist finds it very difficult to operate within
the government. The press secretary does not return your calls.
He does not respond to your requests for information. You've got
to be able to do the routine stuff as well as the crusading stuff.
So I think it's almost impossible to expect that kind of journalism
on a consistent basis.
DB: Erwin Knoll, the editor of The Progressive,
tells the story of how, when he was the White House correspondent
for The Newhouse Newspapers in the mid-1960s, he did indeed have
the temerity to ask Lyndon Johnson some questions on his policy
in Indochina. That was the end of his career, essentially, as
a Washington correspondent. So that goes again to the whole process
of socialization that is at work here, a cultural process. What
are the perks, not to mention the high salaries, that these journalists
MH: Let's mention the high salaries that
these journalists receive. One of the things that Mike Deaver
said is, look, we knew that they were going to take the stories
we wanted because these White House correspondents are getting
paid very handsome six-figure salaries. Their networks are not
going to keep paying them that if they don't get pictures of the
president on every night. Those men and women want to be on the
tube every night. If that means that essentially you've got to
do the story Mike Deaver's laid out for you, OK. You'll do your
best to get a balancing sound bite from a Democratic politician,
but in essence you're going to be talking about what the White
House wants you to talk about. That's part of it. Also, just the
proximity to power. You're just too close to power, and you're
in that Washington world where everybody goes to the same dinner
parties and cocktail parties and tries to trade access. Brit Hume,
who is now the White House correspondent for ABC News, was a reporter
who started with Jack Anderson and did some real investigative
work many years ago. Now he plays tennis with the President. That's
DB: Let's talk about media coverage of
the Gulf War. You called it "a 1990s version of the 5 o'clock
follies." What do you mean by that?
MH: The 5 o'clock follies were this exercise
in propaganda that occurred during Vietnam when, at 5 o'clock
every afternoon, the U.S. military briefers would get the reporters
together and feed them a lot of generally inflated information
on what was going on in the field. They were called the 5 o'clock
follies because, at a certain point, reporters just began to laugh
at what they were being told. The reason I said that about the
Gulf War is that is seems to me that much the same thing was happening.
You would see these reporters standing up, and they all had the
same backdrops. They were all on the top of the same hotel in
Riyad and there they were, with their flak jackets and safari
jackets, trying to look the part of the dashing foreign correspondent
and giving us all this information, but not having the candor
to admit that, essentially, it was all government and military
supplied information. For all we knew, the military briefer was
standing 20 feet off camera. So that's why I say that it was very
much like the 5 o'clock follies. We got essentially the military's
version of this war.
MH: ... [Gulf War I] was still very definitely a living room war,
except it was made into a great TV mini-series instead of a living
room war that was disconcerting to the viewers. In a way, what
they learned from Vietnam was, OK, if we're going to have a living
room war, let's have it be a war where we're the good guys, there's
no blood, and we win really easy. That's what they did. They kept
the American public from the horror and carnage that are the reality
of modern warfare. They kept everything very clean, very abstract
and quite bloodless. They talked about .2,000 sorties a day."
They used all of the military terminology. That's why I say it
was a very military view of the war. I saw so many of these stories
that had the sort of "gee whiz" aspect, like "Well
look at this, we can actually refuel our planes on the way to
combat. Look at this wonderful tank and how that works."
I'm sure in the mind of the military PR guys that it was very
But it had almost nothing to do with what
was really going on there, which was essentially a massacre. The
American journalists never used words like "massacre"
to describe what was going on. They never used words like "carpet
bombing," another Vietnam term. If they had, I think there
would have been more of a possibility that the American public
would have had to come face to face with what their tax dollars
were doing in Kuwait and Iraq. Instead, once again, it was framed
as a good guys/bad guys morality play in the context of stopping
Saddam and his aggression.
One of the ... problems with the press
is that they bring virtually zero historical perspective to these
conflicts. With the combination of that and how close they are
to American government policy, the American public had no sense
of the hypocrisy of the official American position here, no sense
of the utter double standard that American policy represents in
the Middle East. Therefore, the American public had no understanding
of why the Arab world distrusts America and why they may, at some
points, have been supportive of Saddam. You never heard a full
and candid explanation of how the United States stands behind
Israel. One of the great things about the Gulf coverage, the happiest
reporters out of the Gulf coverage had to be the U.N. reporters,
because suddenly their superiors discovered the U.N. again. In
Panama, you may remember, the U.N. voted 85 to 20 to condemn the
invasion as a flagrant violation of international law. On December
29, 1989, I turned on my evening news. NBC: no mention. CBS found
time to lavish a full ten seconds on that story.
You compare that with how much we heard
about the U.N. and Iraq and Kuwait, and suddenly the U.N. has
been transformed from this non-existent backwater at the time
of Panama or, God knows, the war on Nicaragua into the most august
and morally upstanding body in the world. That is an example of
the press following the ideological lead of the American government
and leading to a rather distorted impression of what was really
going on there.
You want to talk about U.N. resolutions,
let's not just talk about Kuwait. Let's talk about Cyprus. Let's
talk about how for sixteen years the U.N. has said that Turkey-an
American ally, a NATO ally, very important in the coalition against
Iraq-Turkey was supposed to pull out of Cyprus sixteen years ago.
Israel was supposed to pull out of the occupied territories 23
years ago. Or, if we're against aggression, what about what China
did to Tibet just months before what happened in Iraq? The American
media simply do not bring up these kinds of countervailing perspectives.
Supposedly to do that would be ideological, editorializing. They
say, "we can't do that. We're supposed to be down the middle.
The only way we can report that is if the opposition party says
that." I think that's the worst cop-out there is. People
around the world have died and would be willing to die to have
the kind of freedoms that we take for granted in this country,
and for the press to not live up to its responsibilities in that
regard is nothing short of shameful.
DB: ... to cite something that Ben Bagdikian talks about, the
"zones of silence," literally areas where journalists
never tread-not fear to tread, but just don't enter-specific areas
of examining the structural relations of power and privilege in
MH: No, they don't talk about that.
DB: Why not?
MH: Because it pretty quickly becomes
communicated to you that that's not what your editors and your
producers want to hear. That is seen as-and I've heard a lot of
them in regard to my own reporting-"that's predictable,"
"you're whining," "you have an ideological bent."
Why is that? I think it's very clear. It has to do with the role
that the news organizations play in this society. They are central
pillars of the establishment. For the most part they are owned
by very wealthy people or wealthy corporations who have an abiding
interest in the status quo. Nobody who has an abiding interest
in the status quo is going to want to pay reporters to go out
and challenge that. There are countervailing factors to that in
much the same way as there are with a democracy.
Let's take the Democratic Party. The Democratic
Party always has a contradiction between its mass base and its
elite funders. The elite funders basically want to move the party
to the right, but if the party is going to win any elections it
has to placate the mass base. You can look at a newspaper publisher
and editor in much the same way. An editor has to serve his publisher,
who is generally a conservative person. At the same time, he has
to be selling newspapers. If most of the people in his community
are out of work or can't find adequate health care, to some extent
if he's going to be selling newspapers he has to have some reflection
of the social reality out there. It's a very difficult tightrope.
So you'll have reporters who occasionally do stories that step
beyond the envelope, but for the most part, the overwhelming majority
of coverage is going to be coverage that supports the status quo.
DB: Do you think most journalists are
aware of what is called the "political economy of the mass
MH: No, of course not. Most journalists
are mainly worried about getting ahead. That means getting the
stories in on time and fighting with their editors. They are aware
of the political economy of the mass media in a visceral sense.
They're usually not very conscious of it, but they're swimming
in it every day. But their consciousness of that usually is not
terribly good. Especially with the elite papers and networks where,
to some extent, they've been bought off. They are now members
of the social elite, the upper-middle class. In Washington in
particular, most reporters at the big quality newspapers or the
networks are making $60,000 or $70,000 a year. That puts you immediately
in the top 10 percent of the population. And yet, I can think
back to countless times when those very reporters would be talking
about how they're having trouble making enough money. That is
going to make it very difficult for you to truly empathize with
the average person to do a good job of reporting their reality.
I'm not saying that just because you make a lot of money you can
no longer empathize with the working class. I think Bruce Springsteen
is an example of how that's simplistic. But for the most part,
if you're making that much money, you don't care very much about
the average person. I think you have much more of an ideological
predisposition to accept the rather mean-spirited policies of
a Ronald f Reagan or a George Bush, who at least covers up the
L mean-spiritedness with the rhetoric of compassion.
DB: Let's talk about this seeming inability of the media to look
at causes of symptoms. For example, the New York Times does in
fact report that infant mortality rates are increasing in the
United States. It's front-page news. It does report that the level
of illiteracy in the United States is increasing rather dramatically
in the last few years. But there are no connections made as to
root causes. It's just offered as raw information, like "the
temperature today is 56 degrees and the wind is blowing from the
southeast at twelve miles per hour."
MH: I think that's one of the greatest
failures of our media and one of the most frustrating. Why that
is, I can give you some explanations, but they never quite satisfy
me. The explanations are: that's the kind of reporting that raises
very serious and pointed questions about the way our society is
organized, about power relations in our society, about the advantages
of and problems with a capitalist system. It raises real questions
about the status quo. Those questions are not going to be asked
on a consistent basis within news organizations that are owned
by corporations that have every interest in maintaining the status
quo. Those corporations are not going to hire individuals to run
those organizations who care about that kind of reporting. Therefore,
those individuals are not going to hire reporters who do that
kind of reporting, and so you're not going to see it. If a reporter
somehow does come along and try to do that kind of reporting,
he/she will get stopped. He or she gets told, that's not what
we want, or, that story doesn't quite work, or, you're too close
to that story, or, you have an ideological bent, or, this is getting
somewhat predictable. I've heard all of these things, and I know
reporters who have heard all of them. Sometimes the most interesting
part of that comes from reporters who have not been socialized.
Generally, if you start as a reporter early in your career you
pick up the messages and it becomes almost instinctive. You don't
even realize all of what you've given up, all of the small compromises
that you've made along the way.
Ray Bonner, for example, who did some
marvelous and very brave reporting for the New York Times on El
Salvador in 1981 and 1982, really broke a lot of the stories about
the military violations of human rights there, the death squads;
part of the reason that Bonner did that reporting was that he
came to journalism as a second career relatively late in his life.
He was in his late thirties. He left a career as a Washington
lawyer and just started to do reporting and suddenly found himself
stringing for the New York Times. He had never been socialized
within the New York Times structure. He didn't know what was against
the rules until it was too late and he eventually lost his job.
So when you ask why they don't go for more structural explanations,
it's because that sort of thinking is leached out of you long
ago in the socialization process within the media. It's very much
like what happens in the other areas of the consciousness machine
in this society, the universities or the educational system. That
kind of critical thinking is not encouraged.
DB: ... Nightline and MacNeil-Lehrer. What's your take on those
MH: I do watch MacNeil-Lehrer quite a
bit, but that's mainly because it's on in the hour between CBS
news and ABC. I think that MacNeil-Lehrer, every once in a while-
and I would say the same for Nightline-every once in a while they
have something excellent. MacNeil-Lehrer occasionally picks up
very good reports from British television. They'll do a 20-minute
piece on famine in the Horn of Africa. They were on to that long
before the networks.
But having said that, I would say that
for the most part, MacNeil-Lehrer is the worst example of this
loony idea of objectivity and balance run amok. You will have
two sides to everything. There is one person who says that mass
destruction is a terrible thing and another who says the weapons
of mass destruction are a wonderful thing. Let's talk about it.
As if every issue has to have the two sides. Both of those shows,
as the FAIR report says, have an appalling fealty to Washington
officialdom. Very Washington centric. It's such a problem. They've
gotten a little bit better because of FAIR's tweaking of at MacNeil
- Lehrer. But for the most part, what you hear on MacNeil-Lehrer
reinforces something that I wrote during the Gulf coverage, which
is that we do not have a government run press in this country,
thank God, but we do have a government friendly press. For the
most part, the people that you see on MacNeil -Lehrer are giving
you the government line. Thank you very much, but I can get that
from commercial television. I want to see something that's alternative,
something a little bit broader. Again, the same thing goes for
Nightline. Every once in a while there will be something quite
excellent, about one night out of five or ten. For the most part
it's the same tired faces giving you the same line of bullshit.