CNN/MSNBC reporter: Corporate executives forced pro-Bush, pro-war narrative

"The higher the president's approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives ... to put on positive stories about the president."

Published May 29, 2008 10:03AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

Jessica Yellin -- currently a CNN correspondent who covered the White House for ABC News and MSNBC in 2002 and 2003 -- was on with Anderson Cooper last night discussing Scott McClellan's book, and made one of the most significant admissions heard on television in quite some time:

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the press corps dropped the ball at the beginning. When the lead-up to the war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president's high approval ratings.

And my own experience at the White House was that, the higher the president's approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives -- and I was not at this network at the time -- but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president.

I think, over time...


COOPER: You had pressure from news executives to put on positive stories about the president?

YELLIN: Not in that exact -- they wouldn't say it in that way, but they would edit my pieces. They would push me in different directions. They would turn down stories that were more critical and try to put on pieces that were more positive, yes. That was my experience.

The video of that exchange is here. As noted in Update II below, Yellin today said that she was referring to her time at MSNBC.

Yellin's admission is but the latest in a growing mountain of evidence demonstrating that corporate executives forced their news reporters to propagandize in favor of the Bush administration and the war, and censored stories that were critical of the Government. Katie Couric yesterday said that threats from the White House and accusations of being unpatriotic coerced the media into suppressing its questioning of the war. But last September, Couric revealed even more specifically the type of pressure that was put on her by NBC executives to refrain from criticizing the administration, after she conducted a "tough interview" with Condoleezza Rice:

After the interview, Couric said she received an email from an NBC exec "forwarded without explanation" from a viewer who wrote that she had been "unnecessarily confrontational."

"I think there was a lot of undercurrent of pressure not to rock the boat for a variety of reasons, where it was corporate reasons or other considerations," she said in an interview with former journalist and author Marvin Kalb during "The Kalb Report" forum at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

In April of 2003, then-MSNBC star Ashleigh Banfield delivered a speech at Kansas State University and said that American news coverage of the Iraq war attracted high ratings but "wasn't journalism," because "there are horrors that were completely left out of this war." She added, echoing Couric:

The other thing is that so many voices were silent in this war. We all know what happened to Susan Sarandon for speaking out, and her husband, and we all know that this is not the way Americans truly want to be. Free speech is a wonderful thing, it's what we fight for, but the minute it's unpalatable we fight against it for some reason.

That just seems to be a trend of late, and l am worried that it may be a reflection of what the news was and how the news coverage was coming across. . . . I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I'm very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people's opinions. It was very sanitized.

Shortly thereafter, Banfield was demoted, then fired altogether, and -- as Digby put it in her great analysis of Banfield's speech -- "she's now a co-anchor on a Court TV show."

At the same time, MSNBC fired the only real war opponent it had, Phil Donahue, despite very healthy ratings (the highest of any show on MSNBC, including "Hardball"). When interviewed for Bill Moyers' truly superb 2007 documentary on press behavior in the run-up to the war, Donahue reported much the same thing as Yellin, Couric, and Banfield revealed:

BILL MOYERS: You had Scott Ritter, former weapons inspector. Who was saying that if we invade, it will be a historic blunder.

PHIL DONOHUE: You didn't have him alone. He had to be there with someone else who supported the war. In other words, you couldn't have Scott Ritter alone. You could have Richard Perle alone.

BILL MOYERS: You could have the conservative.

PHIL DONOHUE: You could have the supporters of the President alone. And they would say why this war is important. You couldn't have a dissenter alone. Our producers were instructed to feature two conservatives for every liberal.

BILL MOYERS: You're kidding.

PHIL DONOHUE: No this is absolutely true.

BILL MOYERS: Instructed from above?

PHIL DONOHUE: Yes. I was counted as two liberals.

A leaked memo from NBC executives at the time of his firing made clear that Donahue was fired for ideological reasons, not due to ratings:

The study went on to claim that Donahue presented a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war . . . . He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." The report went on to outline a possible nightmare scenario where the show becomes "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

NBC executives then proceeded to hire Dick Armey as an MSNBC commentator and give a show to Michael Savage. Michael Savage.

This is nothing less than compelling evidence that, in terms of our establishment press, our media is anything but "free." Corporate executives continuously suppressed critical reporting of the Government and the war and forced their paid reporters to mimic the administration line. The evidence proving that comes not from media critics or shrill left-wing bloggers but from those who work at these news outlets, including some of their best-known and highest-paid journalists who are attesting to such facts from first-hand knowledge despite its being in their interests not to speak out about such things.

* * * * *

Yesterday was actually quite an extraordinary day in our political culture because Scott McClellan's revelations forced the establishment media to defend themselves against long-standing accusations of their corruption and annexation by the government -- criticisms which, until yesterday, they literally just ignored, blacked-out, and suppressed. Bizarrely enough, it took a "tell-all" Washington book from Scott McClellan, of all people, to force these issues out into the open, and he seems -- unwittingly or otherwise -- to have opened a huge flood gate that has long been held tightly shut.

Network executives obviously know that these revelations are quite threatening to their brand. Yesterday, they wheeled out their full stable of multi-millionaire corporate stars who play the role of authoritative journalists on the TV to join with their White House allies in mocking and deriding McClellan's claims. One media star after the next -- Tom Brokaw, David Gregory, Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams, Tim Russert, Wolf Blitzer -- materialized in sync to insist that nothing could be more absurd than the suggestion that they are "deferential, complicit enablers" in government propaganda.

I have little doubt that they would be telling the truth if they denied what Yellin reported last night. People like Williams, Gibson and Gregory don't need to be told to refrain from reporting critically about the war and the White House because challenging Government claims isn't what they do. And amazingly, they admitted that explicitly yesterday. Gibson and Gregory both invoked the cliched excuse of the low-level bureaucrat using almost identical language: exposing government lies "is not our job."

Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson and company are paid to play the role of TV reporters but, in reality, are mere television emcees -- far more akin to circus ringleaders than journalists. It's just as simple as that. David Halberstam pointed that out some time ago. Unlike Yellin, Donahue and Banfield, nobody needed to pressure the likes of Williams, Gibson and Russert to serve as propaganda handmaidens for the White House. It's what they do quite eagerly on their own, which is precisely why they're in the corporate positions they're in. They are smooth, undisruptive personalities who don't create problems for their executives. Watching them finally describe how they perceive of "their role" leaves no doubt about any of that.

* * * * *

This is the most vital point: this is not a matter of mere historical interest. This is not about how the media operated five years ago during an aberrational time in our history. This is about how they functioned then and how they function now. The same people who did all of this still run these media organizations and it's the same coddled, made-up personalities still playing the role of "journalist."

That's what makes the NYT "military analyst" story so significant, and it's why it's so revealing that the establishment media black-out of that story continues. Not just in 2003, but through 2008, the networks relied upon Pentagon-controlled propagandists to masquerade as their "independent analysts." Those analysts repeatedly spouted patently false government propaganda without challenge. The numerous financial incentives and ideological ties these analysts had were concealed. And these networks, now that this is all revealed and even with multiple investigations underway, still refuse to tell their viewers about any of it.

Clearly, if these network media stars think they did nothing wrong in the run-up to the war and in their coverage of the Bush administration -- and they don't -- then it's only logical to conclude that they still do the same things and will do the same things in the future. As people like Jessica Yellin, Katie Couric, Phil Donahue and Scott McClellan are making clear, these media outlets are controlled propaganda arms of the Government, of the political establishment generally. For many people, that isn't a new revelation, but the fact that it's becoming clearer by the day -- from unimpeachable sources on the inside -- is nonetheless quite significant.

UPDATE: The central excuse offered by self-defending "journalists" is that they didn't present an anti-war case because nobody was making that case, and it's not their job to create debate. This unbelievably rotted view found its most darkly hilarious expression in a 2007 David Ignatius column in The Washington Post. After explaining how proud he is of his support for the attack on Iraq, Igantius explains why there wasn't much challenge made to the Administration's case for war (h/t Ivan Carter):

In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn't create a debate on our own. And because major news organizations knew the war was coming, we spent a lot of energy in the last three months before the war preparing to cover it.

They were "victims of their own professionalism." It's not up to them to create a debate where none exists. That's the same thing Charlie Gibson, David Gregory, and Tim Russert -- among others -- have all said in defending themselves.

The idea that journalists only convey statements from politicians rather than "create debates" is the classic Stenographic Model of "Journalism" -- "we just write down what people say. It's not our job to do anything else." Real reporting is about uncovering facts that the political elite try to conceal, not ones they willingly broadcast. It's about investigating and exposing -- not mindlessly amplifying -- the falsehoods and deceit of government claims. But our modern "journalists" (with some noble exceptions) don't do that not only because they can't do it, but also because they don't think it's their job. That's because, by definition, they're not journalists.

But beyond that, this claim is just categorically, demonstrably false. As Eric Boehlert and Atrios both demonstrated yesterday, Ted Kennedy in September, 2002 "delivered a passionate, provocative, and newsworthy speech raising all sorts of doubts about a possible invasion." Moreover, Al Gore (the prior presidential nominee of the Democratic Party) and Howard Dean (the 2003 Democratic presidential frontrunner) were both emphatically speaking out against the war.

Thus, three of the most influential voices in the Democratic Party -- arguably the three most influential at the time -- were vehemently opposing the war. People were protesting in the streets by the hundreds of thousands inside the U.S. and around the world. In the world as perceived by the insulated, out-of-touch and establishment-worshiping likes of David Ignatius, Brian Williams, David Gregory, and Charlie Gibson, there may not have been a debate over whether we should attack Iraq. But there nonetheless was a debate. They ignored it and silenced it because their jobs didn't permit them to highlight those questions. Ask Jessica Yellin. She'll tell you. She just did last night.

UPDATE II: Yellin clarifies in a post today that her comments "involved [her] time on MSNBC where [she] worked during the lead up to war" and that she was referring to "senior producers." She says that "many people running the broadcasts wanted coverage that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the country at the time." That, of course, is the same network that fired Ashleigh Banfield and Phil Donahue, and where David Gregory, Tom Brokow, Brian Williams and Tim Russert all now insist that they performed superb journalism in the run-up to the war.

On a different note, contrary to the standard establishment journalist excuse that there were no real anti-war advocates for them to include in their coverage, there were ample politicians and experts speaking out against the war. Aside from the numerous examples listed above, many of the nation's leading international relation scholars were forced to pay for ads in places such as the The New York Times to make their anti-war case because the media would not -- and still will not -- include them in its coverage. Numerous non-liberal factions -- from foreign policy scholars at the Cato Institute to former Reagan defense officials -- were vehemently against the war. But the networks featured an endless stream of know-nothing war cheerleaders while almost completely excluding actual opponents of the war.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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