(updated below - Update II - Update III)
Several months before he was named as moderator of Meet the Press, David Gregory went on MSNBC to categorically reject Scott McClellan's accusations that the American media failed to scrutinize the Bush administration's pre-war claims. Gregory vigorously praised the job which he and his "journalistic" colleagues did in the run-up to the Iraq War -- the period which Salon's Gary Kamiya called "one of the greatest collapses in the history of the American media." Proclaimed Gregory, with a straight face: "Questions were asked. I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the President. Not only those of us in the White House Press Corps did that, but others in the media landscape did that." Most revealingly of all, Gregory said:
I think there are a lot of critics who think that . . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you're a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn't do our job. I respectfully disagree. It's not our role.
Indeed. Perish the thought that a reporter should point out when government officials are making "bogus" claims and are lying a country into a war. That is "not their role," says the New Tim Russert (and, unsurprisingly, the Old Tim Russert wholeheartedly agreed). I don't know whether Gregory's public advocacy for a meek and polite press corps that would never be so rude as to point out when government leaders are lying is what sealed the deal for his new promotion to Meet the Press -- a show which centrally depends on having powerful politicians know that they can come on and, as Dick Cheney's top communications aide put it, "control the message." But I'm quite sure that it didn't hurt.
To see what Cheney aide Cathie Martin meant when she explained that Cheney knew he could go on Meet the Press and "control the message" -- and to see in action David Gregory's model of sycophantic, unchallenging "journalism" -- one could do no better than to examine Gregory's embarrassingly deferential "interview" yesterday with Israel's Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. It's a perfect template for how our American press corps (with some rare exceptions) functions.
Whatever one's views are on Israel's attack on Gaza -- pro, con or otherwise -- there's no denying that it's an extremely controversial matter -- at least it is in the world that exists outside of mainstream American political discourse. Even within Israel, there are scathing criticisms of what the Israeli Government is doing -- on both strategic and moral grounds. Yet none of those objections made their way into David Gregory's interview of Livni. He didn't present her with a single argument against the Israeli attack. He didn't challenge a single word she uttered. He was even more sycophantic with her than the average American journalist is with the average American political leader.
Here, in unedited and verbatim form, are all of the "questions" asked by Gregory of a top political official of a country that just launched a brutal and highly controversial military assault -- one which, given the integral U.S. support for Israel, will have a profound effect on American interests:
- How long will the offensive last?
- A lot of people are watching what's playing out, this air assault, and wondering why now?
- What is Israel's goal right now? Is it to re-establish the cease-fire, or is it to invade Gaza and remove Hamas from power?
- Foreign Minister, aren't you making the case for pushing Hamas from power? The cease-fire, according to Israel, simply hasn't worked. It hasn't stopped the bombing of Sderot and Israel in the southern areas. So only the replacement of Hamas by Fatah, by more moderate leaders, appears to be the only answer.
- Is it acceptable to Israel for Hamas to remain in power in Gaza?
- I know you were in Egypt this past week, you met with Hosni Mubarak. What did you hear in the course of those meetings--the foreign minister of Egypt has criticized Hamas--and what is your message to the Arab world this morning?
- The Bush administration has been supportive of the campaign so far in Gaza but has warned Israel about avoiding civilian causalities. What kinds of consultations have you had with Secretary of State Rice?
- But if the goal is to change realities on the ground, to change the behavior of Hamas, how much international condemnation is Israel prepared to accept and at what level of civilian casualties?
- Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, thank you very much for your time.
Actually, the only time Gregory challenged her at all was, in essence, to demand that Israel take even more aggressive action than they're talking already. He was essentially pushing her into invading Gaza and deposing its democratically elected government ("Aren't you making the case for pushing Hamas from power? . . . . only the replacement of Hamas by Fatah, by more moderate leaders, appears to be the only answer"). It was almost as though his goal were to make Israel appear excessively restrained and pacifistic.
That behavior is quite redolent of the way in which Gregory "challenged" George Bush before the Iraq War. As Oliver Willis pointed out after Gregory proudly heralded the "tough questions" the media asked of Bush in the run-up to the war, here was the initial and follow-up questions Gregory asked of Bush at the March 6, 2003 Press Conference -- a highly scripted and deferential affair that was held less than two weeks before the U.S. attacked Iraq:
Q Mr. President, good evening. If you order war, can any military operation be considered a success if the United States does not capture Saddam Hussein, as you once said, dead or alive?
Q Sir, I’m sorry, is success contingent upon capturing or killing Saddam Hussein, in your mind?
In other words: are you going to get or kill Saddam? Don't you have to? Those are the tough questions which Gregory posed to Bush at his Press Conference immediately before the American attack on Iraq. As pitiful as those "questions" were, they actually look adversarial compared to the reverent, P.R.-hack-like chat which Gregory yesterday hosted with Livni.
There are good reasons why the media's reverent 2003 treatment of Bush matches its 2008 deference to Israeli claims. In 2003, claims about Iraq from the Bush administration -- just like claims from Israel now -- were not aggressively challenged or disputed in good company; their pronouncements were mandated orthodoxy, pieties of the highest order. And the one thing our media stars are good at doing -- what, above all else, they're programmed to do -- is to amplify and pay homage to prevailing establishment pieties. To do otherwise, as Gregory revealingly explained, "is not their role."
UPDATE: Do you think David Halberstam would have done this?
On a mostly unrelated note, this sort of emotionally manipulative nonsequitur from George Mason University Law Professor (and Israel obsessive) David Bernstein -- "Boy, am I already getting tired of hearing [complaints about Israel's 'disproportionate' response] . . . Hell, I'll personally pay for Glenn Greewald's Sderot vacation" -- is the kind of irrational swill that typifies discussions of Israel. That "argument" is the same as saying to someone who objects to Hamas' suicide bombs or rockets: "I'll personally pay for your Ramallah or Gaza City vacation, so you can see what it's like to live imprisoned by walls, under a 40-year foreign occupation, with blockades that cause your children's growth to stunt and to be denied basic nutritional and medical needs."
The fact that the people of Location X are suffering doesn't mean that anything and everything their government directs to the general vicinity of those inflicting the suffering is justified. Haven't we learned that lesson over the last eight years? Conversely, to object to the actions taken by a government (e.g.: torture, warrantless eavesdropping, attack on Iraq) is not to deny the legitimacy of the original grievance in response to which those measures are ostensibly undertaken (e.g.: the 9/11 attacks). Isn't that basic by now? Those who haven't learned that lesson have no basis ever for objecting to war criminality, or excessive or reckless military actions, or any other means employed by those with legitimate grievances.
UPDATE II: Many of our nation's most grizzled super-tough-guy cheerleader/warriors -- the ones who insatiably crave those sensations of vicarious power from play-acting the role of warriors from a nice, safe distance -- are responding to my post of yesterday by beating their chests, swaggering around, and citing General Sherman to explain (in their best John Wayne voices) that War is Hell. All good warriors (like them) know that anything and everything done to those who "start a war" is justified.
Of course, if you ask Hamas why they blow themselves up in pizza parlors and shoot rockets at homes in Southern Israel as a response to the 40-year Israeli occupation and recent blockade, they'll tell you the same thing. If you ask Hezbollah why they kidnap Israeli soldiers and lob rockets into Israel in response to Israeli incursions into Lebanon, they'll make the same claim. If you ask Al Qaeda why they fly civilian-filled airplanes into civilian-filled buildings in response to American hegemony (and endless military actions) in their region of the world, they'll explain that jihad is hell and anything done to advance it is justified. You'll hear the same thing if you ask Russians why they destroyed Chechnyan residential blocks, or if you ask Serbian leaders about their genocide, or if you inquire with Rwandan tribal leaders about the brutality of their attacks, or if you ask virtually any other war criminal why they had to resort to such extremes.
In comments, sysprog points out that Professor Bernstein is either ignorant of or "pretending not to know the difference between jus ad bellum (justifiable war) and jus in bello (just action in war)." That distinction, at least since Nuremberg, has ostensibly been central to Western justice. But just like Hamas and Al Qaeda, many blindly loyal cheerleaders for any American and/or Israeli war -- as the last eight years conclusively demonstrated -- simply don't believe in it. It's clarifying of them to say so this explicitly.
UPDATE III: Jane Hamsher has some interesting observations about how (and why) the rules inside the U.S. for discussing Israel are changing. Philip Weiss, who has been writing for years about the role of Israel in American politics, largely agrees with Jane's views.