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Needed NBC Series: 'Catch a Cheney'

By Jeff Cohen
February 17, 2009

Editor’s Note: It’s a favorite concept of American TV to hold accountable everyone from sexual perverts to foreign dictators, just not U.S. leaders who have committed grave crimes against people all over the world.

In this guest essay, media critic Jeff Cohen suggests that his former employers at NBC treat U.S. war criminals like they do sex perverts:

I have a plan to get NBC out of last place in the ratings. I’m promising blockbuster audience and international buzz. As a once disgruntled ex-employee, I now just want to be positive and help NBC, which needs all the free advice it can get.

Here’s my idea: A series of NBC News primetime specials featuring spectacular ambushes of big-time criminals lured into what they expect to be pleasurable surroundings.

But, with hidden cameras whirring, the startled villain is dramatically confronted with the evidence of his massive crimes as millions of viewers look on in scorn and righteous amusement.

If it sounds familiar, it’s because NBC News has scored huge ratings with its “To Catch a Predator” sleaze-fest – in which potential sex offenders by the bushel were lured via the Internet to what they thought would be sex with kids and instead got caught by NBC cameras and cops in hiding.

But my proposal doesn’t involve sex abusers. I’m talking about men who’ve launched illegal war, mass murder, torture, dictatorship. And they’re household names.  

Before you laugh off my proposal for “To Catch a War Criminal,” check out last week’s New York Times report by Brian Stelter: “On Trail of War Criminals, NBC News Is Criticized.”
NBC is already at work – “To Catch a Predator”-style – on a two-bit version of my idea, and not surprisingly, they may be screwing it up. For over a year, a camera crew has been on the trail of alleged war criminals; in December, an NBC producer confronted a Maryland foreign language professor who NBC sources accuse of war crimes in Rwanda.

But there are problems – as often happens when you leave the “news” to NBC. Human Rights Watch questions the evidence against the professor, who’s been seeking asylum in the U.S. A journalistic ethicist questions NBC’s close relations with Rwanda’s government.

So here’s my advice: Go big. Go after superstars and only well-documented, slam-dunk cases of war crimes.  

Coming to NBC next week: “To Catch a Cheney.”  Next month: “To Catch a Kissinger.”

How do you lure such big names to an NBC News lair for their ambush interview? You simply invite them.

Given the soft treatment they’ve received over the years, they’ll come running quicker than a Net perv to Lolita. Trust me: the element of surprise is on NBC’s side – since these uber-officials are confident their crimes will remain eternally off-limits.

To lure Dick Cheney from his undisclosed location, NBC’s “To Catch a War Criminal” producers could pretend to be booking “Meet the Press.” Cheney has been as comfy on that show as Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live.”

It came out under oath in the Scooter Libby trial that Vice President Cheney’s office viewed “Meet the Press” as “our best format,” a program in which Cheney could “control the message.” Putting him on that show, testified his communications chief, “was a tactic we used often.”

It was on “Meet the Press” after 9/11 that Cheney warned: “We have to work the dark side, if you will. We’re going to spend time in the shadows.”

So Mr. Dark Side shows up at NBC studios expecting another puff job, and instead is confronted on camera with witnesses, documents, victims of his various war crimes. It’s riveting television and real journalism as his violations of the Geneva Conventions of War in matters of torture and kidnapping are detailed.  

The program climaxes big-time with Cheney cross-examined about Iraq and his lead role in committing the ultimate war crime (as described by the Nuremberg tribunal): launching an unprovoked attack upon another country.

And what about Henry Kissinger? His participation in crimes of war, murder, mayhem and military coups is neatly packaged in Eugene Zarecki’s 80-minute documentary (award-winner at Amnesty International Film Festival): “The Trials of Henry Kissinger.”

Think he’s too old to spring into NBC’s trap? Actually, the spry 85-year-old still appears frequently on NBC channels – assured that his criminal past will never come up.

Invite him. Kissinger will come.

And he’s not old news. Just as there’s no statute of limitations on murder, there’s none for Kissinger’s crimes. Remember that military dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ended democracy in Chile thanks to Kissinger’s crucial help, was arrested in England for international crimes many years after leaving office.

Besides ratings, my “Catch a Major War Criminal” idea delivers something else for NBC: It’s fairly cheap to produce.

The New York Times reports that NBC News has spent a year chasing down foreign war criminals and “possible perpetrators of human rights abuses in several countries.” Going after big-name U.S. war criminals is quicker and more cost-effective – with so many documents, archives and witnesses in or around D.C.

In truth, there’s one main reason my proposal will never launch on NBC: It’s the longstanding nationalistic, ethnocentric (even racist) bias in our country that blocks serious scrutiny of “our” criminals.

That bias allows “objective” journalism to refer matter-of-factly to “Saddam’s torture rooms,” but not “George Bush’s torture rooms”; to “mass murder” of Kosovars and Rwandans, but not “mass murder” of Guatemalans or Salvadorans or Vietnamese caused by U.S. officials; to “terrorism” from homemade bombs and IEDs, but not the far more lethal terror against civilians from advanced, aerial bombardment.
War criminals tend to have funny names, dark skin and wear foreign garb. They can’t be powerful Americans in tailored suits.

This giant illusion is fostered by major U.S. news media that are allergic to discussing deadly U.S. interventions in the context of Nuremberg principles, Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners of war and noncombatants, and the United Nations Charter, especially articles 41 and 42 on the initiation of armed force. These international laws and treaties are the law of our land – as clear as laws against murder.
So NBC News will traipse the globe in search of Rwandans – while Dick and Henry sleep like babies tonight. And then appear tomorrow on U.S. television offering their exalted opinions on international affairs.  

Maybe NBC should stick to catching sex offenders. Any pretense that they want to seriously track down war criminals is a farce.

Jeff Cohen is an inactive lawyer and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). His latest book is Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.

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