By now, it’s old news that the Pentagon used its influence to get military experts to parrot its talking points on the major news networks, as the New York Times reported Sunday. I wish I could say I am generally surprised at the Pentagon’s psyops operation against the American people. The level of involvement in manipulating the media, however, was striking. I hope now that when people see military “experts” on TV talking about how Iran is the greatest threat to American interests in Iraq, they will wonder where their talking points came from and whether they will be praised for their performance at an intimate dinner at the Pentagon.
A lot has been said recently about the public’s lack of interest in media coverage of the war. The Pentagon’s efforts to sanitize the war have helped make it just another news story that is being left to pundits and politicians. Dana Milbank writes in today’s Washington Post about another way the Pentagon is trying to keep the real cost of war from the American public and minimize the interest and outrage. He reports that even when military families grant media access to funerals in order to highlight the impact of the war, the Pentagon makes sure there isn’t much of a story:
It had the feel of a throwback to Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, when the military cracked down on photographs of flag-draped caskets returning home from the war. Rumsfeld himself was exposed for failing to sign by hand the condolence letters he sent to the next of kin. His successor, Robert Gates, has brought some glasnost to the Pentagon, but the military funerals remain tightly controlled. Even when families approve media coverage for a funeral, the journalists are held at a distance for the pageantry — the caisson, the band, the firing party, "Taps," the presenting of the flag — then whisked away when the service itself begins.
Nor does the blocking of funeral coverage seem to be the work of overzealous bureaucrats. Gina Gray, Arlington’s new public affairs director, pushed vigorously to allow the journalists more access to the service yesterday — but she was apparently shot down by other cemetery officials.
Media whining? Perhaps. But the de facto ban on media at Arlington funerals fits neatly with an effort by the administration to sanitize the war in Iraq. That, in turn, has contributed to a public boredom with the war. A Pew Research Center poll earlier this month found that 14 percent of Americans considered Iraq the news story of most interest — less than half the 32 percent hooked on the presidential campaign and barely more than the 11 percent hooked on the raid of a polygamist compound in Texas.
Despite the cover-ups and aggressive messaging by the Bush administration, the war in Iraq is immensely unpopular, but the visceral reality of it does not come across in our daily lives. As someone who has been working since 2003 to end this war because of the profound human cost, and who thinks about it every single day, it is still a jolt at times to remember what it is we are really dealing with. It’s a lot easier for politicians to say we need to wait for a new president to change course in Iraq when the war is something that is fought in the halls of Congress and the Sunday talk shows, and not on the real-life battlefields in Iraq. While there are many courageous leaders in Congress who are working as hard as they can to end this war, I have to feel there is a profound disconnect when ending this human tragedy is not worth the potential damage to a political career.
Morally high-minded arguments aside, I also think the political calculus of most members of Congress is just wrong. Democrats stood their ground on FISA and the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and the sky isn’t falling. Taking on a president whose disapproval rating is the highest ever recorded, and a war that the majority of the American public opposes, should be a fight opponents of the war are eager to take on to demonstrate their superior leadership and their ability to deliver for the American people. As the fight over the $170 billion in supplemental funding for the war happens in the next few weeks, I would love to see congressional war opponents with an aggressive, proactive strategy to make their case to the American public that they need to be as stubborn as President Bush has been and refuse to cave to his demands for another blank check.
I have spoken to so many people who are frustrated with the lack of progress, and I am certainly at the top of that list. These reminders of why we are actually working to end this tragic mistake in Iraq and save American and Iraqi lives are what keep me going and motivated to make the pressure on our leaders is as intense as we can make it this election year.
Photo courtesy of the New York Times.