Wretch-Stained Ink

Facing the offal truth about Bush's propaganda machinery

Most of the time these days, when I scour the "media" looking for a sign of hope about mankind, I inevitably trip over a discouraging spew of waste matter passing as news of importance. Historically, the name we give this offal is propaganda. Its spewers are often reporter-impersonators. The Defense Department, CIA, and White House have been hiring these performers in large numbers lately to spread the gospel of a puppeteer named Rove.

Some of the impersonation journalism actually comes from failed reporters who are still not admitting they embarrass the profession. Just the other day, I came across a story that said Judith My-WMD-Sources-Were-Wrong-It-Was-All-Their-Fault Miller was now on a cruise-ship gig in South America. The brief report said the former New York Times employee is lecturing unsuspecting tourists on why protecting the identity of rumor-mongering sources must be journalism's first commandment.

But most of the spew is government waste, like the latest string of road show speeches from President Bush, who confessed that all the "secret" intelligence that led him to invade Iraq was wrong, but then he said, Never mind, folks, the war was still the right thing to do, and anyway most of the critics of my war are "defeatists." That kind of sophistry was called horse manure back in the mill town where I grew up.

Though this hazardous propaganda does litter the press landscape and confuse many Americans, honest newspaper people and other disciplined reporters continue to produce a steady flow of principled journalism. Still, one is forced to wonder whether a populace bone-tired of bad news is even interested in separating the honest journalism from the fake; after all, the voters have twice elected the crowd who are producing the faux information—and whose radical policies have produced much of the bad news.

In any event, as a change of pace, I thought I'd take a reporter's walk through a few of the artifacts I came across this past week in the theater of the absurd that is the news business at the moment.

Robert Novak was back in the news. He's the Republican conduit who broke the cover of CIA operative Valerie Plame in a 2003 column, apparently as part of a White House effort to discredit her war-critic husband, Joe Wilson. This led to the still-running Plamegate investigation. Novak has never publicly revealed the source who passed him Plame's identity. He has also not been indicted. So far, that honor has fallen solely on I. Lewis Libby, who was Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff and is now awaiting trial. (Also, the above-mentioned Judith Miller, then a New York Times reporter and now rusticated with a severance package, was found in contempt of court, a civil offense, and spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal her source, who turned out to be Libby.)

About Novak, it seems he was down in Raleigh, North Carolina, last week, giving a luncheon speech during which he suggested that people stop asking him to name his White House source and ask President Bush instead. Novak said: "I'm confident the president knows who the source is. I'd be amazed if he doesn't. So I say, don't bug me. Don't bug Bob Woodward. Bug the president as to whether he should reveal who the source is." (Coincidentally, a few days later, Novak announced that he was leaving his position as a political commentator on CNN for a similar role at Fox News, a more Republican-friendly setting.)

The White House said it was dumbfounded by Novak's claim that the president must know the source. "I don't know what he's basing it on," said spokesman Scott McClellan, who would say nothing more. (But if the president really doesn't know the source's identity, then his marionette strings are truly showing.)

The overarching story that encompasses all this misinformation is the government's propaganda machine. Multimillion-dollar contracts have been awarded to public relations companies in Washington to place stories in the Afghan and Iraqi press. The Rendon Group and the Lincoln Group are two of the companies working for the Pentagon. Both say they are forbidden by their contracts to talk about the details of their work. The Pentagon insists that all the stories they produce contain accurate information. No one can be surprised about propaganda efforts, since they've always been used in wars and occupations to counter adversarial or false information in the local press. But if the stories are factual, as the Pentagon says, why the secrecy?

The Bush administration—including Bush himself, Dick Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—regularly accuse the press of failing to give a complete picture of what's taking place in Iraq. That's laughable—the laughter of the theater of the absurd. If they want us to enlarge the portrait of Iraq, then please open some doors and let us see the whole picture. And not just in Iraq, but on domestic policy as well. The Bush White House team has turned this presidency into the most sealed-off, secretive regime in American history.

I and many other career journalists have written often about the White House's war on the independent press. When a presidency sets up a huge public relations machine to create and promulgate a rosy, Potemkin village substitute for the actual gritty and sometimes lethal reality on the ground, then the press, to retain its credibility, is forced to push back hard and strip away the fantasy tableaux of Karl Rove and company.

The Bush circus train now is easy to describe—its crew members are still running an election campaign, with all the bells and whistles: the carefully selected audiences, the president's incessant stump speeches, the stage props, and the billboard-like slogans. This is more like a sales campaign for a new line of gas-guzzling SUVs than a competent government leadership team wrestling with matters of war and peace and the travails of ordinary people.

To this White House, apparently, everything is merely an issue of image, of getting a soothing message up on some giant screen. Example: His handlers, remember, took President Bush to devastated New Orleans, placed him in a historic square and framed him in messianic blue lights with his collar unbuttoned like a regular person. Then, in a nationwide television speech crafted to mask the shame of how his government had bungled the rescue and relief effort after the gargantuan Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast, he promised the survivors that he would spare no expense to restore their dwellings and their towns and cities.

"We will do what it takes," he said. "We will stay as long as it takes . . . "

That was the night of September 15. Three months have passed, but major decisions about rebuilding are still stalled by vacillation and red tape. According to a Brookings Institution study published on December 7, more than $21 billion has been "allocated" to New Orleans alone, and $19 billion of that has been spent. Half has gone to "administration" and "general operations." Meanwhile, only one—yes, one—of New Orleans's 116 public schools is open. Two-thirds of the 276,000 applications for low-interest home-rebuilding loans—earmarked for low-income families—have yet to be reviewed. Worse, of those reviewed, more than 80 percent have been rejected, on the grounds that applicants' incomes or credit ratings were too low.

Protests from the hurricane victims have multiplied. What does the White House do? It announces that it will "allocate" another $1.5 billion to rebuild the breached levees. That should mute the protests from the legions of Gulf Coasters now living as refugees in trailer parks and motels. All aboard the Public Relations Express!

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