Toothless: The Watchdog Press that Became the Government’s Lapdog

In May 2004, the New York Times, while claiming it was aggressive in pursuing stories about the Bush-Cheney Administration, slipped in an apology for acting more as the mouthpiece for politicians than as a watchdog for society. “Coverage was not as rigorous as it should have been,” the Times admitted. Part of the problem, the Times acknowledged, was that “Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper.” The Times concluded it wished “we had been more aggressive.”

Almost three months later, the Washington Post, one of the most hawkish papers for invading Iraq, finally acknowledged its own pre-war hysteria and lack of journalistic competence and courage. “We were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration’s rationale,” wrote Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

During President Bush’s second term, especially after his popularity had begun to sink, several major newspapers, including the New York Times and Washington Post, became more aggressive, publishing several major investigations into the War in Iraq, the government’s use of torture and apparent violation of the Geneva Accords, violations of due process, extensive spying upon Americans, the failure to provide combat troops with adequate body armor, the silencing of government scientists who disagreed with Bush-Cheney beliefs and values, the classification of 55,000 documents in the National Archives that had previously been declassified, the use of propaganda to support doctrine, and problems at Guantanamo Bay.

A New York Times investigation by Tim Golden and Don Van Natta Jr. revealed “government and military officials have repeatedly exaggerated both the danger the detainees posed and the intelligence they have provided.” That same investigation also revealed a CIA report in September 2002 that questioned the arrests. Most of those picked up in Afghanistan and transferred to Guantánamo Bay, according to the CIA investigation, were low level recruits or innocent men.

Among other reporters from the Times who broke major stories were Elisabeth Bumiller, Douglas Jehl, James Risen, and Eric Schmitt, who wrote about secret prisons and rendition; and James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, who wrote several articles about the government’s illegal spying upon American citizens. Times editors, however, had kept the stories about the government’s spying out of the newspaper for about a year, in deference to the Administration’s hysterical claims before the November 2004 election that breaking news about unconstitutional activities might somehow be aiding and abetting the enemy; the reality was that the Times was duped into protecting the Administration against a vote drain.

For the Washington Post, Stave Fainam wrote about abuses by extramilitary private contractors in Iraq; Dana Priest wrote about secret prisons and controversial parts of the Bush-Cheney counter-terrorism tactics; Jo Becker and Barton Gellman investigated the growing influence of Dick Cheney into national policies; and Dana Priest, Anne Hull, and Michael duCille in several articles exposed the medical and psychiatric neglect of returning combat soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Although the Post‘s Bob Woodward fully believed Bush-Cheney Administration claims about the need to invade Iraq, he still produced the most in-depth reporting about Bush and his decision-making process. His four books in six years were all best-sellers.

The Los Angeles Times published a series in 2006 about Iraq’s descent into civil war following the U.S. invasion. Outstanding reporting about the impact of the war upon soldiers and civilians was done by several reporters, including Borzou Daragahia and David Zucchino of the L.A. Times; and Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman of the Hartford Courant. However, for the most part, reporters accepted what they were given. Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, condemned much of the American press corps in Iraq for “hotel journalism,” writing stories based upon what they were told in press conferences without going into the field.

At the Boston Globe, Charlie Savage did solid reporting about President Bush’s use of signing statements to bypass federal and constitutional law.

Much of the best in-depth reporting about the Bush-Cheney Administration, especially its fixation upon invading Iraq, was done by reporters for national magazines.

Seymour Hersh’s powerful series about the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and several articles about the war in Iraq first appeared in the New Yorker. Hersh had broken the story about the massacre at My Lai and its cover-up during the Vietnam War; it was this willful murder of civilians by the U.S. military that other reporters knew about but didn’t report that earned Hersh the Pulitzer Prize. However, after Hersh’s series was published, the establishment media could no longer ignore the story. Not much changed in the four decades since then. Perhaps Hersh’s greatest honor is that a senior Bush advisor called him “the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist.”

Among several outstanding hard-news reports about the Bush-Cheney Administration, especially its fixation upon invading Iraq and of subsequent constitutional violations, were those of Michael Isikoff in Newsweek, David Corn in Mother Jones, Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, and James Bamford in Rolling Stone.

With a few blips for courageous reporting, the American press, according to media critic Norman Solomon, continued to blindly accept the Bush-Cheney doctrine as truth. “The American media establishment,” wrote Solomon in August 2007, “continues to behave like a leviathan with a monkey on its back- hooked on militarism and largely hostile to the creative intervention that democracy requires.”

However, reporters for one establishment news agency consistently represented the highest ideals of an uncompromised press.

John Walcott, the Knight Ridder bureau chief in Washington, and bureau reporters Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, were aggressive in publishing well-documented stories that challenged Bush-Cheney claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the need for the invasion. When McClatchy bought out Knight Ridder in 2006, Walcott continued as bureau chief, and Landay and Strobel become senior correspondents. They continued to challenge the propaganda, and proved that their organization was doing everything the Founding Fathers demanded when they said the primary function of the media is to act as a watchdog on government. When other media disregarded the anti-war dissidents, Walcott’s reporters interviewed them; when other media gave Guantanamo Bay coverage little more than “he said/she said” coverage, the McClatchy bureau dug into the story to present the truth and not the spoon-fed lies. When other media took down what they were told at press conferences and private meetings with senior Bush-Cheney officials, Walcott’s reporters listened, but went to innumerable professionals and lower-level staff in the Defense and State departments to get the truth.

“Journalism is not stenography,” says Walcott, winner of the first I.F. Stone medal for journalistic independence. The role of the journalist, he says, isn’t to record what people say, but to question it in the search for the truth. “One of the reasons we pressed so hard for the case for the war in Iraq,” says Walcott, “is that what they [the Administration] said simply made no sense.” The primary focus for Walcott’s reporters was “how were the decisions being made in Washington, [by] many who had never been to war, would affect the men and women” in the military.

“On the whole, the Bush Administration did not put out the welcome sign for us,” says Roy Gutman, McClatchy foreign editor. On even routine stories, the White House planted its leaks with friendlier organizations, and tried to isolate the Knight Ridder/McClatchy bureau from the other media. Publicly, the Bush-Cheney Administration issued no retort; by maintaining silence, the Administration knew the establishment media would also ignore a competitor’s reports.

“We were alone at the beginning,” says Walcott, “and are still fairly lonely at the end.”

Walter Brasch, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, and his latest Fracking Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on February 20th, 2009 at 10:10am #

    however, even the dissident (corporate) media objects to invasion of iraq because the stated reasons (causes?) for the invasion “made no sense”.
    but have not espied the fact that stated goals, reasons, or causes may or may not be even similar to actual reasons (rationalization) let alone the same.

    this begs the question, in what schools have these dissenters been educated?
    and to make matters even worse, the MSM dissenters or ‘truth seekers’ do not object to the invasion on any panhuman principle but on expedience, perceptions, fears, etc.
    whether invasion of iraq made sense or no sense ought to have never been an issue even for a second; that no country has the right to attack another under no known circumstance is one of our dearest desireable principles and shld have been brought to the attention of the world.
    which, of course, also obviates collective punishment.
    and dissenters in the corporate media don’t know this? i think they do.thnx

  2. Don Hawkins said on February 20th, 2009 at 2:40pm #

    The watchdog press, hello. It has become a sideshow in many way’s and propaganda in others. It’s a joke a sad joke but a joke.

  3. Hue Longer said on February 20th, 2009 at 4:55pm #

    I echo Bozh on this one…it’s all in the framing. You can prevent a pot from exploding by letting steam out through a valve on the top. I wouldn’t say these people took the lid off anything, they are the lids and get used appropriately. As an example, how many libs ran around talking about Walter Reed after the story made it to 60 minutes? 60 minutes effectively contained the broader story of apathy in Empire, credit was give to the folks at the Post who “broke” it, and the controlled viewer emotion was administered. How the fuck could a story like that NOT get broken and why was that the only place it was? How many patients are in there complaining to whom? If it’s not in the Post it’s not happening?

  4. Tennessee-Chavizta said on February 20th, 2009 at 8:13pm #


    From One Assault on the Constitution to Another
    Bill of Rights Under Fire

    The US Constitution has few friends on the right or the left.

    During the first eight years of the 21st century, the Republicans mercilessly assaulted civil liberties. The brownshirt Bush regime ignored the protections provided by habeas corpus. They spied on American citizens without warrants. They violated the First Amendment. They elevated decisions of the president above US statutory law and international law. They claimed the power to withhold information from the people’s representatives in Congress, and they asserted, and behaved as if, they were unaccountable to the people, Congress, and the federal courts. The executive branch claimed the power to ignore congressional subpoenas. Republicans regarded Bush as a Stuart king unaccountable to law.

    The Bush brownshirt regime revealed itself as lawless, the worst criminal organization in American history.

    “Gun violence” is not something committed by the vast majority of gun owners. “Gun violence” is the preserve of the criminal elements, such as gangs fighting over drug turf. Criminals are already prohibited from owning guns, but criminals pay no more attention to this law than they do to laws against robbery, rape, and murder. Why do Democrats think that disarming law-abiding citizens will disarm outlaws? For how many decades have drugs been banned? Does any Democrat think that the ban on drugs has succeeded?

    All the ban on drugs has done is to make the drug trade profitable. Now people fight over it. How can guns be successfully banned when the war on drugs is a failure? All a gun ban would do is to create a new criminal activity.

    Many progressives oppose gun ownership because they have sympathy for animals and oppose hunting. However, most gun owners are not hunters. Most members of gun clubs are content to shoot holes in paper targets or at clay pigeons. They enjoy hand-eye coordination, the study of ballistics, and reloading for antique rifles. An outing is really just a chance to get together, to talk about history and the load they are working up for their 1873 Winchester, and to enjoy each other’s company.

    The progressive canard is that the Second Amendment, unlike the rest of the amendments to the Constitution, is not a constitutional right for citizens. Rather it is a right for a defunct organization known as the militia. Why in the world would the Founding Fathers, when laying out the rights of individuals, confound the point by sticking in among individual rights a right for a military organization?

    Americans have exercised Second Amendment rights for 234 years. Regardless of the meaning of the Second Amendment, the right of adverse possession makes gun rights final. To assault such a well grounded right is an act of tyranny.

  5. Beverly said on February 21st, 2009 at 7:26am #

    The “watchdog” press hasn’t watched anything for years. Review the past few decades and one finds a crapload of stories ignored by the press or publicized long after the damage was done. Even when publicized, the corporment (govt + corporation) spin usually got prime coverage over dissenting opinions and facts.

    The lapdog press continues licking the butts of govt during the Obama reign with the usual mix of misinformation, disinformation, and infotainment. Check out the Bush III, er, Obama’s first press conference and get all the evidence needed to know the more things “change,” the more the remain the same old shit.

    P.S. Anyone heard of Alex Jones’ 3/15 DVD release of The Obama Deception? Anyone heard of Alex Jones? The YouTube promo for the DVD sounds intriguing and sounds like required viewing for your kool-aid drinking neighbors and friends.

  6. Terry Grinnalds said on February 21st, 2009 at 12:07pm #

    The traditional press was blindsided by the emergence of the conservative media. For years, news figures of prominence attempted to maintain some semblance of impartiality. Their education, and long experience with the workings of politics, with the powerful and with the regular citizen, tended to give them a distrust of the entrenched and powerful and a willingness to listen to the disenfrachised that made them seem “liberal” to conservatives. While conservatives were disorganized, and their complaints likewise, news broadcasters and reporters did not feel particularly threatened. Then, suddenly, Ross Murcock and Rev. Moon began buying major newpapers and establishing television news programs with a far-right agenda. Part of that agenda was to say with conviction, over and over, that the traditional press was profoundly liberal and biased, and that conservatives were the real Americans. The traditional press found itself in a philosophical bind. To counter the new one-note conservative press, they would have had to actually move further left and themselves become biased on the left end of the spectrum. Not surprisingly, they were unwilling to do this, and the situation did not self-correct because the hatred, anger and selfishness turned out to play better than reason and balance, which don’t lend themselves to dramatic presentation.The problem was compounded by some misplaced guilt on the part of some press that perhaps they actually had had some liberal bias, failing to recognize that making judgment calls on some political positions and some politicians (e.g. Murrow and McCarthy; Woodward, Bernstein, Hersch and Nixon) was not the same as bias, and they have failed, and continue to fail, to confront and denounce the far-right mouthpieces. Consequently, through the Reagan years and two Busch administrations, we have had a news spectrum that runs from the middle to the right only. The problem remains. Traditional press have, in the past year, been foolish enough to actually apologize for being more interested and more enthusiastic, in the last presidential campaign, about Obama and his appeal to our better instincts as opposed to McCain and his defense of the status-quo. Unless and until the non- conservative press finds the courage to recognize the validity of their own values and to stand up for them professionally, this imbalance will continue to the detriment of the best instincts of our nation.

  7. Moonrider said on February 21st, 2009 at 12:17pm #

    Mainstream media is wholly corporate owned, the only stories they will give the populace are those their corporate masters want them to cover, everything else will be quashed and ignored. Their corporate owners pretty much control who gets on our ballot, especially in the presidential race, they tell the people who is or is not “electeable” long before the public has even had a chance to do an research into the candidates. If they’d just stay off the subject of who is electable until after the primaries and conventions, we might actually get a couple, or even a few candidates who are truly worth voting FOR! Most people nowdays, vote against, as in “choosing the lesser of two evils”. Why do we let the media place before us as the only two “viable” candidates, two candidates whom at least half the voters believe are evil? Don’t we as individual voters get a chance to say who is viable and who is not?

  8. Michael Kenny said on February 21st, 2009 at 1:53pm #

    The only thing that would be surprising about this is that anyone might be surprised. Press ethics died some quite a while ago. The present generation of journalists are either shills for whoever pays them or mere gratuitous mischief-makers. Or both! On the other hand, once you bear that in mind and always ask yourself “why would this person want me to swallow this story”, then you can spot all kinds of interesting things in the cracks between the lines!

  9. Ramsefall said on February 22nd, 2009 at 9:01am #

    All that’s really needed to further dupe the kool-aid consumers is that the media confess their sins for inappropriate and complacent behavior during Bush/Cheney, even though their irresponsibility goes back decades further, then all the sheep go back to their grazing. Evidence of this behavior — the Obama Bandwagon that adheres to the dysfunctional proposal of nothing more than Band-aid therapy and more of the same disguised as historic change under the premise of a black/white man being elected as Commander in Chief (Thief).

    For anyone interested in indigenous perspectives, according to the Mayan coalition, the window for great, and truly real change which will likely be devastating according to most standards, opened in June 2008. They claim that the next seven years will bring about undeniable change that neither the media nor irrational Westerners will be able to obscure.

    I, for one (call me crazy if you choose), tend to put more faith in the ancients who actually knew how to construct structures built to stand the testing elements of time, than anything spewing forth from the so called and self-proclaimed contemporary saviors.

    The Elder Brothers, otherwise known as the Kogi of the Colombian Sierra Nevada, have been criticizing the reckless and unsustainable behavior of Little Brother (those of us humans who indiscriminately pollute and rape the Earth) for decades. Now that the tallest, coastal peak on the planet at 5,775 meters is undergoing an unprecedented withdraw of the lower sierra’s fresh water supply via melting ice, the entire sierra’s ecosystem is in jeopardy, as well as one of the world’s most isolated groups of people who have lived in harmony with their environment for centuries. Who knows better, we who generally have no historical sense of reality, or those who walk the walk and maintain their heritage sustainably?

    Best to all.

  10. mcthorogood said on February 23rd, 2009 at 9:40pm #

    To quote RFK Jr., “We’re the most entertained and least informed people on the planet.”