“Complicit Enablers”: UK Media Ignores US Whistleblowers

In April 2006, George Bush bade farewell to his outgoing White House press secretary, Scott McClellan:

“One day he and I are going to be rocking on chairs in Texas talking about the good old days and his time as press secretary.”

The rocking chair plans will have been shelved for good after the publication of McClellan’s new memoir, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.

McClellan describes how Bush relied on a “political propaganda campaign” rather than the truth to sell the Iraq war to the American public. The invasion was “unnecessary”, he suggests, a “strategic blunder”, with Bush having made up his mind early on to attack Saddam Hussein. The way Bush managed the issue “almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option.”

McClellan adds:

“In the permanent campaign era, it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president’s advantage.”

The claim that Bush decided early in his presidency to attack Iraq is supported by earlier exposés. The leaked minutes of a highly confidential Downing Street memo dated July 23, 2002 records the words of Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of the British intelligence service MI6. Dearlove commented on a recent visit to Washington where he had held talks with George Tenet, director of the CIA:

“Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”1

This was eight months before the invasion, but the decision to attack had been taken much earlier. In January 2004, former US Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill revealed that the Bush administration had come to office determined to topple Saddam Hussein:

“It was all about finding a way to do it. The president saying ‘Go find me a way to do this’… From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go.”2

O’Neill reported seeing one memorandum preparing for war dating from the first days of the administration. Another, marked “secret” was titled, “Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq.”

According to McClellan, Bush has little time for policy detail. He prefers to follow his gut feelings on foreign affairs, about which he knew next to nothing when he took office. Since then, he has lived in a kind of “bubble” that isolates him from the real world. As McClellan put it in a recent interview, “only as you leave the White House bubble, can you take off your partisan hat and take a clear-eyed view of things”.

Squashing Dissent

McClellan has also rounded on the media, calling them “complicit enablers” in Bush’s campaign to manipulate public opinion.3

Several journalists have backed his criticisms. CBS news anchor, Katie Couric, said last month that the lack of media scepticism ahead of the war was “one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism.” Couric disclosed that, while working as a host of Today on NBC, she had felt pressure from “the corporations who own where we work and from the government itself to really squash any kind of dissent or any kind of questioning of it.”

Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources commented:

“Couric has told me that while she was at NBC… she got what she described as complaints from network executives when she challenged the Bush administration.”

Jessica Yellin, who worked for MSNBC in 2003 and now reports for CNN, said last month that journalists had been “under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation.”

Yellin added: “And my own experience at the White House was that, the higher the president’s approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives… the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president.”

She explained that media bosses “would edit my pieces. They would push me in different directions. They would turn down stories that were more critical and try to put on pieces that were more positive, yes. That was my experience.”

As we reported in March, pieces critical of Bush-Blair claims on Iraq were also rejected in the British media.

Phil Donahue was host of Donohue on MSNBC from 2002-2003. Despite having the highest ratings of any show on MSNBC, the programme was cancelled on February 25, 2003. A leaked NBC memo described how the show presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war… He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.”

Bill Moyers interviewed Donahue in 2007:

Moyers: You had Scott Ritter, former weapons inspector. Who was saying that if we invade, it will be a historic blunder.

Donahue: You didn’t have him alone. He had to be there with someone else who supported the war. In other words, you couldn’t have Scott Ritter alone. You could have Richard Perle alone.

Moyers: You could have the conservative.

Donahue: You could have the supporters of the President alone. And they would say why this war is important. You couldn’t have a dissenter alone. Our producers were instructed to feature two conservatives for every liberal.

Moyers: You’re kidding.

Donahue: No this is absolutely true.

Moyers: Instructed from above?

Donahue: Yes. I was counted as two liberals.

Senior journalists very rarely admit that their employers pressure them to follow a political line; it is a pressure that is supposed not to exist. And yet there has been only one mention of Yellin’s comment (in the Independent), and none of Couric’s, in the entire UK press.

Smearing the Whistleblower – It’s All Cisterns Go!

As was the case with Paul O’Neill before him, references to McClellan’s whistleblowing have tended to focus on abuse directed at him by critics, mostly former colleagues. Tom Baldwin of the Times, for example, published a classic smear:

“Scott McClellan sought yesterday to justify writing a excoriating tell-tale account of his time as one of President Bush’s closest aides, saying that he had been guided by a ‘higher loyalty‘.

“Critics, including close colleagues and friends, have accused the former White House press secretary of betraying Mr Bush. Others have described his book as ‘pathetic’ or a desperate effort to make some money having become virtually unemployable since leaving his post.”

Trent Duffy, who worked as McClellan’s deputy, was quoted:

“Here’s a man who owes his whole career to George W. Bush, and here he’s stabbing him in the back. He appears to be dancing on his political grave for cash.”

Baldwin could have quoted any number of anti-war commentators who would have been happy to praise McClellan for his honesty. Media Channel’s Danny Schechter, for example, wrote:

“It’s easy to put McClellan down… but, at least, he had the courage, these many years later, to confirm what I and others have been saying for years.”

Not one comment of this kind has been cited anywhere in the UK press praising McClellan. The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, for example, also focused solely on critics heaping opprobrium on McClellan. Christopher Hitchens wrote in the Sunday Express:

“When President Bush’s Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill defected from the Cabinet in 2002… Michael Kinsley observed that the President deserved all he got from the book. Anyone dumb enough to hire a fool like O’Neill in the first place ought to have known what to expect.

“So it goes with the ludicrous figure of Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary. I used to watch this mooncalf blunder his way through press conferences and think: ‘Exactly where do we find such men?

“’For the job of swabbing out the White House stables, yes. But for any task involving the weighing of words? Hah!’”4

In discussing the story, the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Mirror, the Evening Standard and the Sunday Express all failed to mention McClellan’s key reference to the media as “complicit enablers”.

This silence links to one of the great pillars of modern thought control: namely, that the media’s claim to impartiality must not be subject to serious discussion. The public is to understand that the media offer neutral windows on the world. The idea that these windows might all be framed, structured and oriented to present essentially the same view of the world favouring the same powerful interests is a thought too far.

The “fact” of totalitarian levels of thought control in our society is clear — the precise mechanism by which that control is achieved in an ostensibly free society, is complex and interesting, but of secondary importance.

  1. Michael Smith, ‘Blair planned Iraq war from start,’ Sunday Times, May 1, 2005. []
  2. Julian Borger, ‘Bush decided to remove Saddam “on day one”’, Guardian, January 12, 2004. []
  3. Jennifer Loven, ‘White House calls McClellan’s book sour grapes,’ Associated Press, May 28, 2008. []
  4. Hitchens, ‘Bush is brought to book,’ Sunday Express, June 8, 2008. []
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on June 12th, 2008 at 7:37am #

    US had no right to invade iraq. it is, to me, irrelevant what US thought/felt/said ab iraq.
    saddam was a war criminal. but has US the right to collectively punish iraqis because iraqi gov’t was responsible for crimes?
    don’t we have ICTY to deal w. war criminals?
    had ICTY issued warrant for his arrest and a ransom put on his head of bns, what would saddam have done having ‘only’ ab 6bn enemies?
    he would have run to world court for protection.
    but US knew or ought to have known (US is not a moron) this.
    however, by avoiding this legality and desirability, US obtains an enormously important real estate.
    so, why r amers still talking ab iran as they thought/felt/said ab iraq.
    cannot US get the world court to deal w. alleged crimes by ahmadin, et al? why again punish colllectively innocents? thank u
    that was obvious to most peoples and except americans. or, was everyone in US delibarately played stupid?
    the iraq invasion is not a blunder/mistake but a serious crime.
    and iraq invasion was based on truth. the truth being, Get iraq and not saddam. thank u

  2. hp said on June 12th, 2008 at 9:14am #

    How many times (look at Clinton’s body count) have whistle blowers and potential whistle blowers ended up, as the old saying goes, not just “whistling by the graveyard”, but in the graveyard?

  3. Lloyd Rowsey said on June 12th, 2008 at 8:03pm #

    What’s really chilling? Hitler tried to keep the extermination camps secret from the German public, a homocidal maniac’s gesture to the possibility of effective protest. No such worries concern the homocidal maniacs running the present Administration.

  4. hysperia said on June 13th, 2008 at 8:29pm #

    Why is it not critical, in fact, to determine the mechanism of control of the media? If it really is some kind of totalitarian thought control, that might mean that we simply have to get rid of the controllers and their subjects. The corporate media and their employees then. But if it isn’t actual thought control, if it’s just the logical result of a much wider system of exploitative and coercive control and legitimation, then surely much more profound,radical transformation is called for?

  5. Lloyd Rowsey said on June 15th, 2008 at 9:31am #

    the problem, hysperia, is not the political economy of the media. it is the political economy of secrecy. but if you think it is the narrower problem, you might mosey over to Monthly Review and purchase Robert W. McChesney’s new “The Political Economy of the Media.” conglomerated in one book, thirty years of ignoring the pervasive and doctrinal secrecy pervading free enterprise capitalism and focusing instead on The Media.

    and guess what. now, the media’s a joke too.

  6. Lloyd Rowsey said on June 16th, 2008 at 6:51am #

    *delete “pervasive and”

    The “media” has been over-analysed to death, hysperia. The left’s critique of the broader, secrecy problem however is as moribund as it was in the 1970’s. The major areas for systematic investigation and reportage are international affairs, of course, corporate secrecy, the criminal justice system, and electoral politics. The question is not whether this is a virtually impossible-sounding task; it is whether progressive change CAN occur before the task is undertaken.

    More later.

    moc.liamtohnull@yeswordyoll