Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been unhappy with the criticism of their war effort by former military men appearing on television. So am I, but for a different reason. The top people at the Pentagon are wondering why these ex-military talkers can't follow the company line on how well the war has been fought. I'm wondering why these spokesmen for militarism are on TV in the first place.
Here's a list: Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, Lt. Gen. Don Edwards, Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, Col. Tony Koren, Lt. Col. Rick Francona, Maj. Jack Stradley and Capt. Chris Lohman.
Did I miss anyone? All have been offering analysis and commentary on the war in Iraq.
That the news divisions of NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox sanctioned this domination by military types was a further assault on what the public deserves: independent, balanced and impartial journalism. The tube turned into a parade ground for military men -- all well-groomed white males -- saluting the ethic that war is rational, that bombing and shooting are the way to win peace, and that their uniformed pals in Iraq were there to free people, not slaughter them. Perspective vanished, as if caught in a sandstorm of hype and war-whooping. If the U.S. military embedded journalists to report the war from Iraq, journalists back in network studios embedded militarists to explain it. Either way, it was one-version news.
Why no dissenting voices to say what millions of people around the world proclaimed in the streets: that this U.S. invasion was illegal, unjust and unnecessary? Why were pacifists from such groups as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi USA, Peace Action and the American Friends Service Committee not given airtime to counter the generals? Why were leaders from Veterans for Common Sense or Veterans Against the War in Iraq not brought in to offer their analysis and view: that what the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell-Wolfowitz war machine has been doing to the people of Iraq is brutal and criminal and that political, legal and moral alternatives to violence exist? Why have no social workers or teachers from America's inner cities been invited to sit across from the generals and give their views on military spending -- more than $11,000 a second? In wartime, presumably, the message to peace activists is shut up or shut down.
Not entirely, though. C-SPAN, as always, let the cameras roll on the widest range of voices. It has televised news programs from the Middle East, Asia and Europe and taken phone calls from anyone patient enough to wait for an open line. C-SPAN offers the left wing, the right wing and the whole bird. It was on C-SPAN, not the networks, that a three-hour antiwar forum was aired on March 22 in which the director of Veterans for Peace said that hours after Congress endorsed a resolution to support the troops in Iraq it proposed cutting $25 billion from health, education and disability programs for veterans.
In their cordial hosting of military men, the corporate networks provide still one more revolving door for the ex-brass to stride through. Viewers are not told of possible conflicts of interest -- that this general or that one is on the payroll of this or that military contractor. Nor are they given information on whether the retired generals are paid for their appearances.
If the stateside studios are dominated by militarists, coverage from Iraq also offered mostly the military perspective. Whether it was celebrity news people such as Ted Koppel or Brian Williams roughing it by donning helmets, gas masks and goggles, or Geraldo Rivera gushing from Afghanistan that "we have liberated this country" -- "Hallelujah," shouted his anchorman back at Fox -- the media are tethered to the military. They become beholden, which leads not to Pentagon censorship, as in 1991, but a worse kind: self-censorship.
George W. Bush lectured the world that you're either with us or against us. America's networks got the message: They're with. They could have said that they're neither with nor against, because no side has all the truth or all the lies and no side all the good or evil. But a declaration such as that would have required boldness and independence of mind, two traits not much linked to America's television news.
The writer, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace.