Five O'Clock Follies: Then And Now

Mark Hertsgaard, 1991

excerpted from the book

Stenographers to Power

media and propaganda

David Barsamian interviews

Common Courage Press, 1992, paper


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 out.

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 story.

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 receive?

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 too close.

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 wholesome stuff.

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 this country.

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 media"?

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 programs?

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.

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