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WPA poster of Statue of Liberty
1.31.03
Politics and Economy:
Transcript: Bill Moyers Talks with Rick MacArthur
Transcript

MOYERS: Almost 100 years ago, Mark Twain made a speech in New York. He said, "There are two forces that carry light to all corners of the globe — the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here."

These days, it's radio and television that carry a President's words to all corners of the globe. Naturally, every President tries to influence how reporters see the light. So on Tuesday, President Bush invited 11 television anchors and correspondents to lunch in the family quarters of the White House. He fed them well and tipped them off to what he was going to tell the world that night.

Dan Rather was there, Peter Jennings, Judy Woodruff and Wolf Blitzer, Tom Brokaw, Brit Hume and Jim Lehrer. John R. MacArthur was not there, and that's no surprise.

John MacArthur, he's called Rick, is publisher of "Harper's Magazine," the oldest political journal in the country. He's also the author of this book, SECOND FRONT: CENSORSHIP AND PROPAGANDA IN THE GULF WAR. In it, he looks at how the government tried to shape the news coverage during the first Gulf War. He joins me now.

Welcome.

MACARTHUR: Thank you.

MOYERS: Full disclosure. I was, as you know, the press secretary in the first 18 months of the Vietnam War. My job was to put the best face on our efforts there. I am not, therefore, mentioned very favorably in your book.

But I came away from that experience with an even deeper concern for the importance of language in describing what's happening in a war. What's happening to the language in the build up to this war?

MACARTHUR: Public relations and advertising techniques have taken over the political discourse, especially when it concerns military matters, to a degree I don't think the founding fathers could have imagined possible.

So now we talk about things like collateral damage, surgical strikes, regime change, flipping countries.

This is Newspeak. This is what George Orwell was describing in 1984.

And it's become so pervasive now that the news media parrots it. They regurgitate it. And it deceives people.

"Well, collateral damage doesn't really kill anybody. It's not really bloody." What they're talking about, of course, is dead civilians.

A regime change is overthrow of governments — invasion and overthrow.

MOYERS: I want to show a very good report that aired earlier this week on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.

It's by an able Pentagon correspondent, David Martin, and it goes right to this issue of language and reality.

Here it is.

MARTIN: If the Pentagon sticks to its current war plan, one day in March, the Air Force and Navy will launch between three and four hundred cruise missiles at targets in Iraq. More than were launched during the entire 40 days of the first Gulf War.

On the second day, the plan calls for launching another three to four hundred cruise missiles.

There will not be a safe place in Baghdad, said one Pentagon official, who has been briefed on the plan.

The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before.

The battle plan is based on a concept developed here at the National Defense University.

It's called "Shock and Awe," and it focuses on the psychological destruction of the enemy's will to fight, rather than on the physical destruction of his military forces.

MOYERS: What do you think of as you watch that piece?

MACARTHUR: I look at the two words "shock" and "awe." And "Shock and Awe" to me sounds like an advertising slogan designed to distract you from the idea that we're going to have a firestorm in Baghdad that could kill tens of thousands of people.

If they really did what they're contemplating doing in that report, you're talking about tens of thousands of dead civilians. But "Shock and Awe" makes it sound like they're just going to be standing there shocked and awed by the might of American power.

MOYERS: I was home on election night last November, and at 9:00 just as the first returns were coming in up on my cable channel news that was watching came two ads out of nowhere. I'd never seen them before, haven't seen them since. But they were designed to air at just the moment the maximum political audience was watching.

Here they are.

[TELEVISION COMMERCIAL BEGINS]
ANNOUNCER: Even when the weather turns ugly, the forecast remains strikingly clear. Precision strike, Northrop Grumman, defining the future.
[COMMERCIAL ENDS]

[NEXT TELEVISION COMMERCIAL BEGINS]
ANNOUNCER: Pulsing sounds bent on total destruction. What a cool game. If it were a game. Information warfare, bring it on. Northrop Grumman, defining the future.
[COMMERCIAL ENDS]

MOYERS: What do they say to you?

MACARTHUR: Oh, it's depressing. It's treating people like children or babies. It's saying to them that war is a video game, war is almost fun. And war is, of course, clean and bloodless.

It has nothing to do with war. But it has everything to do with people's impression of the American style of doing war now. And it is, again, an example of what I would call subversion of the democratic process, because this sort of image is so pervasive now that people are beginning to believe it's real.

MOYERS: It is real in the sense that it has true consequences.

I want to show you a report from the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw about the use of some of this precision bombing, some of this modern warfare with real consequences. Take a look at this.

This is Pentagon footage from Afghanistan. People begin emerging from the mosque. That's one right there, a human being.

The signal is given...the button is pushed. There you go.

MACARTHUR: The misleading thing about that, again, is that, I'll remind you, this is also something that people just don't know. 90% of the bombs dropped in the first Gulf War were dumb bombs, conventional bombs. The real story of the first Gulf War is carpet bombing, from B-52s, Vietnam-era B-52s.

And these are facts that the Air Force will not dispute. Anybody who wants to call up can ask them.

The point is, is that people are treated to images of the 10% or the 15%. Maybe it'll be a higher percentage this time of the precision bombs, some of which do work, many of which do work, that always hit their targets. And never show any blood, and never tear people's bodies apart and never kill women and children.

MOYERS: Now, what we just saw happened in Afghanistan. We have the video given by the Pentagon, ostensibly, to the Nightly News. But no reporter could go to that village, could get there and see whether that... those bodies, were those terrorists, Al Qaeda operatives? Or whether they were ordinary worshipers coming out of the mosque.

MACARTHUR: Right. Now we're onto the subject of censorship.

There is now change, of course, since Vietnam days when Lyndon Johnson permitted open coverage. There was no censorship to speak of in Vietnam. We've gotten to a point now where the American people cannot get a clear view of what happens in wartime because our government will not permit them to. They will not permit reporters to go to the front and see what happens in wartime.

MOYERS: You said in the SECOND FRONT that almost... that very few journalists got to see what was actually happening until much after the fact. They were in Saudi Arabia getting briefings from Schwarzkopf and others everyday. But they rarely left their hotels.

MACARTHUR: They rarely left their hotels. And the ones that went out in pools, as they called them, of reporters, got to see nothing.

They never managed to see any actual fighting. One reporter, John Balzar, of the Los Angeles Times got to watch a video of Iraqi soldiers being killed. It was an accident. He wasn't supposed to see it. He wrote the story up and got in a lot of trouble. They never let him see any other videos because people back in Los Angeles got very upset by his description.

That's, of course, what they're trying to avoid, getting the American people upset about the consequences of fighting a war. Not just killing civilians, but killing soldiers, seeing our own soldiers killed or maimed. It's all very upsetting. And it gives people a real notion of what our army is doing in our name.

This is a fundamental right, I think, in the American — it's not written in the constitution — but it's a fundamental right for Americans to know what the American military's doing in its name.

MOYERS: The Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, they're all saying that they've learned something from your book from the first Gulf War and they're going to let journalists get up and see what's happening at the front.

MACARTHUR: I think this is utter nonsense and you have to look at what they do, not what they say.

Look what they did in Afghanistan where there was no coverage, no front line coverage of combat and where even when reporters tried to go into villages that we bombed after the bombing, they were, in some cases like Doug Struck, of the Washington Post, held at gunpoint for hours.

MOYERS: By?

MACARTHUR: By American army officers saying, "You are not allowed to come in and examine the damage that the American Air Force did." Now, some reporters did get in.

MOYERS: Can you have freedom of the press in a war?

MACARTHUR: Sure you can. You had it in Vietnam, or at least you can have rules governing the press that permit them to see the action and report it in a reasonable way. Reasonably rapid fashion.

MOYERS: But the difference, Rick, is that we're in a war were terrorism. I don't deny that. I mean, these people want to kill us. This is a different kind of war we're fighting now. Doesn't national security prevail here?

MACARTHUR: Well, that's, of course, what everybody says in wartime, that this is special.

That's what they said in World War I when they passed the Espionage Act and during the Palmer Raids after World War I when they were rounding up left-wingers and so on and so forth.

This is special. Do we change the Constitution? Do we subvert the Constitution every time there's a war, there's a special circumstance? I would think not.

I would think that the glory of the United States and what makes us better, and certainly even from George Bush's point of view, better than the sort of world that Saddam Hussein wants to live in or that Osama bin Laden wants to live in is the very notion of self-government.

That we're responsible enough and intelligent enough and free enough to look at the information and make an informed judgment about what's best for our country. And I don't see that happening now.

I see a compliant media that just doesn't fight back.

MOYERS: What grade would you give the American press in separating the spin from the facts?

MACARTHUR: I'd give the American press an "F," a resounding "F."

MOYERS: If you give the press an "F," that means the propaganda must be working, the spin-meisters are working so you'd have to give the administration what, an "A"?

MACARTHUR: I'd give the administration an "A-plus."

Not even Ronald Reagan does it as well as President Bush and Reagan was a natural actor.

With Bush you're working with a guy who's not a natural actor and they've managed to turn him into a great statesman and a great war leader and a guy who's on the verge of launching a very, very risky military enterprise.

MOYERS: I thought that the President was very effective tonight in using plain language and simple terms to portray Saddam Hussein for the evil deeds that he has done. He didn't seem to be making anything up on Tuesday night.

MACARTHUR: Yeah. There's no question that his delivery has improved. But the veracity of his claims has not. The propaganda campaign this time you can date really from September 7th when Bush and Tony Blair come out and say, "There's a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that says that Saddam Hussein is six months away from building a nuclear weapon." And Bush says, and I think I'm quoting, "I don't know what more evidence we need."

BUSH: We just heard the Prime Minister talk about the new report. I would remind you that, when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied, finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic... The IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon.

I don't know what more evidence we need.

MOYERS: What happened to that evidence?

MACARTHUR: Okay, that story is floated over millions of television sets, and it takes three weeks for a newspaper to refute it. And of all newspapers, it's not the New York Times or the Washington Post. It's the Washington Times, a very conservative newspaper, right-wing I guess you could say, run by Sun Myung Moon.

Finally a reporter there does his job and calls a spokesman at Indiana for the IAEA And he says, "Not only was there no new report saying that Saddam Hussein was six months away from having a nuclear weapon; we've never issued any such report."

But the spin meisters, the P.R. guys at the White House know that if they put a story out like this, they can count on the media being very slow to refute it, very slow on the uptake.

But at the time, it sowed panic and it drove the Congress more than anything else into voting for an open-ended war resolution.

MOYERS: There was also the story about the aluminum tubes and that proved not to be the case. What was that story?

MACARTHUR: Well, the day after the press conference we just watched, the White House leaks a story to a willing recipient, Judith Miller of the New York Times, saying that the Iraqis are acquiring aluminum tubes that are destined for a nuclear weapons program. Dick Cheney is on all the talk shows.

It's called "blocking" in advertising terms, where you buy time on all the networks for products at the same time, so that everybody sees the same message at the same time.

The difference is that the White House gets it for free. They put everybody on the talk shows saying, "Aluminum tubes, aluminum tubes." We're heading towards a nuclear Armageddon because of the aluminum tubes. Now, it took, again, two, three months for this story to be refuted.

MOYERS: Both of these stories were false...

MACARTHUR: They were false, orů

MOYERS: And yet, the Senate... the Senate acted, in part, on those two stories?

MACARTHUR: Right. Senators and Congressmen were voting on false information.

MOYERS: But you know, there is great outcry about the press's role in all of this. Maybe people don't want a skeptical truth-telling press. Maybe they just want Americans to win the war.

MACARTHUR: Well, it's one of those chicken-and-egg things.

If you ask people today: are they sorry that the American press was in Vietnam and told us at least part of the truth about Vietnam — because they didn't tell us the whole truth about Vietnam they couldn't — but they did tell us part of it, substantial parts of it.

Are we sorry that he we pulled out of Vietnam finally, in part thanks to the press? Are we sorry that one reporter stayed in Mogadishu in 1992 and took the photograph of the dead army ranger being dragged through the streets, which changed our policy, caused Bill Clinton to pull out of Somalia? Are we sorry that that photographer was there? We don't know what we don't know.

We can't make a judgment about whether we need to know this information unless we've got it.

MOYERS: I saw this video of President Bush talking about Osama bin Laden last year.

Take a look at this:

BUSH: I want justice. And there's an old poster out west, as I recall that said "Wanted: dead or alive."

MOYERS: It has occurred to me that all the talk about getting Saddam Hussein means nobody's asking where's Osama bin Laden?

MACARTHUR: You saw in the State of the Union address that Bush mentioned Osama bin Laden not once.

He has disappeared in media terms and in public relations terms they've decided that he's a nonperson and they've simply shifted the focus to Saddam Hussein.

They've also successfully shifted the focus away from Saudi Arabia.

MOYERS: You're a journalist. You're also an American citizen, you're a father, you're a husband, you're all these things. How do you feel about all of this?

MACARTHUR: I feel very, very angry. And I also feel very unhappy because I did grow up during the Vietnam-Watergate era when I really did believe... you know, people say things are terrible now. I think things were worse in the '60s between the race riots and Vietnam and all the trouble we had domestically. But we saw, as a people, that we could change the policy of our government, we could change leaders, we could stop a crazy war, we could address some issues dealing with race that would improve society.

And the journalists were part of the process. Seymour Hirsch and Woodward and Bernstein, just to name three, were the sort of people you could count on to go out and get the story, come hell or high water, and without fear of favor and inform the American people to help them make a change in their political lives.

But I'm also, as a citizen, I'm very angry because I don't want to see my sovereignty and the sovereignty of the people I ride the subway with every day subverted.

I don't think they're getting a fair shake.

I think they're getting... they're being sold a bill of goods by slick advertising and P.R. people.

MOYERS: What if the President of the United States is right about Saddam Hussein?

MACARTHUR: Well, if the President of the United States is right, he's right.

And I'm wrong, although I don't think I disagree with the President of the United States about the fundamental character of Saddam Hussein. I think we disagree about other things, about process, about whether it's right to invade or not.

But what if the President of the United States is wrong and we don't know it? What if he's wrong factually, he's wrong morally and he's wrong politically? On all these grounds, he's wrong.

I hope, and I sincerely hope that Carl Rove, his political advisor, has a second scenario written, which goes like this. It says, "We declare victory. The Bush Administration has put steel in the spine of the UN Weapons Inspection process for the first time in memory. And we're going to leave the inspectors in Iraq semi-permanently. And now let's move on to North Korea. Let's move on to Iran. Let's expand the power of the UN rather than just focusing on Saddam Hussein." That's something I would approve of. I think that's something that everybody would approve of.

And I'm hoping that in the next few days or the next few weeks that the democratic debate is revived to a degree that the administration says to itself, "You know, it might be better to declare victory and not invade Iraq." But that, I'm afraid, is not likely to happen.

I think it's gone too far now.

MOYERS: Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine and author of SECOND FRONT: CENSORSHIP AND PROPAGANDA IN THE GULF WAR. Thank you very much.

MACARTHUR: Thank you.


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