I've been in this business for the best part of thirty years now, and for most of that time, I've been proud to be a tiny, relatively inconspicuous part of something called the "American news media."
I was not very proud last night. Yesterday evening, I happened to watch a few of the network TV news broadcasts, focused as they were, primarily, upon Tuesday's UN speech by President Bush, and upon another interesting news development, one datelined Guantanomo Bay, Cuba.
Most of you saw reporting about that, I'm sure; but in case you missed it, here's the transcript of the BBC WorldNews's 5 pm CDT lead on Tuesday:
A US airman who worked at the detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been charged with espionage and aiding the enemy, the Pentagon has said.
Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, who is in jail at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, was charged after recently serving as an interpreter at the base, said Pentagon spokesman Major Michael Shavers.
All the American networks played this "big," this particular item rivaling George W. Bush's UN speech for top billing. On CNN, for example, Wolf Blitzer was positively breathless about this "new development in the War on Terror."
The BBC World Service also played the Al-Halabi indictment large, making it their second news item, after a summary of UN head Kofi Annan's opening remarks to the General Assembly. But unlike the BBC, most of the others skimmed over this little detail, also taken from the transcript of the BBC's live 5 pm CDT telecast:
Mr Halabi faces more than 30 charges relating to espionage, aiding the enemy, disobeying orders, and making false official statements. Mr Halabi was arrested on 23 July but news of his detention only emerged this week. The BBC's David Bamford, in Washington, said defense officials would not say why they had kept the two arrests quiet.
Interesting. Al-Halabi was arrested on July 23rd, and the Pentagon just "happened" to announce his indictment two months to the day later, on the same day as a potentially controversial Presidential speech at the UN?
I'm sorry. Call me a jaded journalistic skeptic, but I smell a rat.
Particularly since September 23rd's news was already due to be tilted in a direction possibly unfavorable to the Bush administration. A story on a major "War on Terrorism" breakthrough, one that hits the wire simultaneously with Bush's UN speech. Why do I see the hidden hand of Karl Rove behind this?
No, not because I'm paranoid, although this administration will do that to you. I suggest this news nugget about Al-Halabi was released on that very day because (a) the President was delivering a bound-to-be-controversial address at the UN, (b) French Premier Jacques Chirac was also speaking, and would likely -- from the Bush perspective -- have nothing good to say, and (c) Iraq Administrator Paul Bremer was being grilled by Senate Democrats, a news development also unlikely to "come out" positive.
I'm not surprised that the Pentagon coincidentally decided to release the news of Al-Halabi indictment at the same time all these other things were happening. Not surprised, and not bitter, in the least. Hey, the Bush PR flacks are just doing their job, and doing it well. If they can make the Blitzers and Rathers of the world hop when they say hop, more power to them.
My problem is not with the Bushies, at least not here. My problem is with the national-media guppies, who swallowed yesterday's Al-Halabi gambit hook, line and sinker. This is nothing new, of course. The national news media has been following the administration's lead at every step of the way with its Iraq war coverage. But there was something particularly galling, and shameless, in yesterday's treatment of the Al-Halabi incident.
I think the Bush Administration owes a lot to its shills in medialand, to the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world. Thanks to this continuous right-wing bombast, a mood of uncertainty has been created, at the highest media levels. Constant harassment from the right about "liberal media bias" has left national TV news leaders afraid of their own shadows. Calling attention to details like those surrounding yesterday's indictment certainly won't play in talk-show circles.
And so on Tuesday, the Pentagon spoke, and TV news listened. All the networks fell in line, speaking with one voice, about the Al-Hamani indictment. Not a one among them had the courage or independence to move this manufactured "scoop" down the charts, on the grounds that it was a two-month-old story simply being released at the administration's convenience. Not a one.
However the Al-Hamani story was reported, that critical timing issue should have been front and center, as it was in the BBC report. September 23rd was not the day this story "broke." It was the date the Pentagon had the story "broken." And our broken media just went happily along for the ride.
(Kenneth Neill is publisher/CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., the parent company of The Memphis Flyer