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A Time to 'Earn This'

By Robert Parry
August 9, 2001

Near the end of Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, Capt. John Miller – played by Tom Hanks – lies dying, wounded after a desperate battle to defend a bridge in Normandy. He signals to Private James Ryan to come close and whispers a final message.

“Earn this,” Miller tells the young soldier. “Earn it.”

The admonition seems harsh. In the movie, Ryan – played by Matt Damon – had lost his brothers in the Normandy invasion and had fought bravely himself. He chose to stay with his unit to defend the bridge rather than leave his post for safety when Miller’s patrol arrived to “save” him.

Like many real soldiers who served in World War II, the fictional Ryan would seem to have done more than his fair share in the defense of his country and in the battle against tyranny. Yet, the message from a dying Capt. Miller to the young Private Ryan was “earn this.”

What a difference a generation or two can make!

As the U.S. today stumbles through one of the greatest affronts to its democratic principles – last year’s overturning of the popular choice for president – the political and media forces that enabled those events are unchastened. Many on the losing side also seem to have learned little from the experience.

Growling on the Right

Six months after George W. Bush moved into the White House, the political-media dynamic that paved his way has grown even stronger. Conservative influence continues to expand over all forms of communications – from newspapers, books and magazines, to television networks, talk radio and well-funded Web sites.

Along with its rightward drift, the national news media has gotten goofier, meaner and more disconnected from any larger sense of decency.

The creepy obsession with Chandra Levy’s disappearance is only the most recent example of the media’s skewed judgment. The punditry’s insistence that Bush is doing a great job is another, even as the economy sinks, the budget surplus disappears, traditional U.S. allies are up in arms and potential enemies are growing closer in defiance of U.S. policies.

Yet, as the conservatives smartly invest billions of dollars in their own media and draw the mainstream press ever more in that direction, the primary liberal response has been to launch a few home-grown Web sites.

While individuals have shown spunk in creating aggressive new outlets, such as smirkingchimp.com and mediawhoresonline.com, the Web sites remain a proverbial drop in the bucket when compared to the size and sophistication of the conservative effort.

Wealthy liberals mostly have stayed on the sidelines. After the election, Barbra Streisand issued a manifesto calling for a Democratic-oriented TV outlet to counter the conservative media. She also wanted Democratic politicians to show more spine. Yet, when her proposal encountered derision from the Washington Post and other bastions of national journalism, she backed down.

Nader's Lessons

Further to the left, Ralph Nader and his supporters remain in denial about their misjudgment in Election 2000 when they insisted that there was no meaningful difference between Republicans and Democrats.

In just six months, Bush has shattered that myth by proving the obvious – that within the extraordinary might of the U.S. government, the shades of gray in policies as well as in the competence of the leaders can be vitally important. Indeed, those shades of gray can make the difference between whether life on this planet continues or doesn’t.

As Bush has shown, a president has the power to sabotage international cooperation on key environmental issues such as global warming and to touch off a new arms race by backing away from treaties on nuclear and biological weapons. The White House also can begin dismantling the traditional forms of Social Security, Medicare and a host of other domestic policies that are important to many Americans.

Despite this freshly demonstrated reality, Nader still won’t admit that his white-male-dominated presidential campaign might have been wrong and the 90 percent of African-American voters who backed Gore might have been right.

Gore's Silence

The performance of leading Democrats has been mixed. Sen. Tom Daschle and a few others did orchestrate the narrow Democratic takeover of the Senate, giving the Democrats a chance to advance some of their agenda items, such as the patients’ bill of rights.

But other key Democrats, such as Vice President Al Gore, slipped into the reeds. In his self-imposed silence, Gore avoided confronting Bush at a time when millions of Americans were looking for someone with stature to show leadership.

Presumably, Gore felt that the country needed time to heal the wounds from the election. He also might have needed time himself to sort out his personal goals. Certainly, he bowed to the prevailing view from the Washington Establishment that he should accept Bush’s legitimacy and get out of the way.

In that sense, the silence demonstrated one of Gore’s greatest weaknesses as the kind of leader needed to confront today’s peculiar circumstances. Gore continues to show polite respect for the so-called “meritocracy” of Washington, especially as represented in the national news media.

Like many other prominent liberals, Gore resists the conclusion that the Washington press corps is approaching moral, ethical and professional bankruptcy. The positive liberal view of the press comes from the past, a quarter century ago when reporters exposed serious crimes of state in the Watergate scandal, the Pentagon Papers and the secret records of the CIA.

Similarly, Gore put his faith in the court system and the rule of law during the Florida recount battle. He discouraged his backers from taking to the streets, even as the Bush campaign flew right-wing hooligans to Florida to mount violent demonstrations.

To the bitter end, Gore professed to believe that the U.S. Supreme Court would defend the fundamental right to vote in America, rather than simply render a partisan judgment. He was wrong in his assessment.

The Beard

Gore efforts to ingratiate himself with the Establishment have gained him little. He certainly won no favors from his media tormentors who now are ridiculing his not-so-usual decision to grow a beard on a summer vacation.

In a reprise of the wacky elite journalism that characterized last year’s campaign, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd seized on the beard as a way to peer again into Gore’s psyche.

“The beard is magnifique,” Dowd wrote. “So Continental, so Pepe Le Pew. In all those pictures from Europe, the newly hirsute Al Gore, looking like Orson Welles, strolls contentedly after a repast in Rome with Tipper. He has a sly, freshly liberated expression that you usually see only on guys of 18, when they’re finally old enough to escape from their parents, principals and guidance counselors, go off on a trek to Europe and grow a goofy-looking beard. …

"With his Hemingway growth and Heineken girth, all Mr. Gore needs is a pack of Gitanes and an earth-tone beret." [NYT, Aug. 5, 2001]

In her clever writing style and her emphasis on the personal, Dowd has become the avatar of the new hip-nihilistic press coda that “nothing is everything and everything is nothing.” She is a columnist who holds dearest the belief that a smartly turned phrase is the height of the journalistic experience.

Though Dowd holds a Pulitzer Prize for her commentary, her tendencies are really not so different from the TV pundits who less eloquently mocked Gore for his beard. ABC’s This Week simply showed a photo of Gore’s beard, as the pundits uttered comments like “a gray beard” and “Al Gore. What do you make of this?” and dissolved into laughter.

The Chandra Case

Nor is the silliness over Gore's beard very far from the repellent TV obsession over Chandra Levy’s disappearance.

On Aug. 1, in a classic sequence, the major TV news networks made a madcap dash of helicopters and satellite trucks to Fort Lee, Va., south of Richmond. The spare-no-expense race was in reaction to an anonymous tip published on a Web site that the body of the missing intern had been “shrink-wrapped” and buried in a Fort Lee parking lot.

The next day, the tip turned out to be a hoax, but the networks still broadcast live stand-ups from Fort Lee. Fox News – the conservative news network that has devoted hours and hours a day to the Chandra Levy case, even consulting psychics – did its Fort Lee updates under the slogan, “Fox on Top.”

The pretense behind the media’s interest in Levy’s disappearance was always a heartfelt concern to help her parents find their missing daughter. It was a fortunate byproduct that the disappearance gave the TV news shows a chance to gossip about the young woman’s sexual affair with Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif.

The Chandra Levy case also brought the old cast from the Monica Lewinsky scandal back in force, with conservatives Barbara Olson, Ann Coulter and William Bennett reprising their roles as the nation’s moral arbiters. In one dissonant question, CNN interviewer Larry King asked Bennett about hypocrisy on the part of Republicans who had embraced Condit as a conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat before the Chandra scandal and then disowned him.

Bennett, the author of the book, The Death of Outrage, explained the moral relativism: “Look, hypocrisy is better than no standards at all.” [CNN, July 10, 2001]

As the Chandra obsession wore on, some media defenders argued that the intensive coverage was driven by the summer news doldrums. But the explanation didn’t wash, since other news events were underway in Washington, as Bush pushed a wide range of policy initiatives and the Democrats countered with some of their own.

On Capitol Hill, however, it was Condit’s arrival at routine committee hearings that brought news-flash interruptions of regular programming.

Round-the-clock Chandra coverage also couldn’t be dismissed as some seasonal aberration, since similar stories had become the national news media’s preferred fare year-round. If not Chandra, then Jon Benet or Monica or Marv Albert or O.J. or Princess Di or some other celebrity to serve as fodder for the cable-news talk shows.

CNN's Pilgrimage

The commercial reality behind cable TV was underscored in another way when CNN’s new president Walter Isaacson made a pilgrimage to meet with Republican congressional leaders.

Roll Call, a newspaper about politics on Capitol Hill, reported that Isaacson “huddled with House and Senate GOP leaders last week to seek advice on how to attract more right-leaning viewers to the sagging network.” Isaacson met with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.; Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.; House GOP Conference Chairman J.C. Watts, R-Okla.; and others.

“I was trying to reach out to a lot of Republicans who feel that CNN has not been as open covering Republicans, and I wanted to hear their concerns,” Isaacson explained. [Roll Call, Aug. 6, 2001]

The pilgrimage was galling to some liberals who feel that CNN has long bent over backwards to accommodate conservatives, while offering the usual “balance” of hard-line conservative activists debating centrist journalists. CNN has given right-wing columnist Robert Novak prominent roles as both a commentator and a reporter as well as providing a home for the likes of Pat Buchanan and Mary Matalin.

What apparently has angered some conservatives is that CNN was founded on the notion that it should be an international network – not just an American one. So it seeks to temper its generally pro-U.S. slant on foreign stories with an awareness that other nations have different views. That ambivalence has drawn the wrath of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who calls CNN the “Communist News Network” and has urged a Republican boycott.

Rather than defend CNN’s news gathering on principle, CNN’s new leadership seems interested in placating the Republicans by giving CNN more of a conservative bent along the lines of Fox, although Isaacson denies that is his intent.

Jack Welch's Call

The news media’s catering to conservative interests surfaced in another way with an exchange of letters between Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Andrew Lack, president and chief executive of NBC.

Since February, Waxman had been pursuing allegations that Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric, NBC’s parent company, had visited NBC’s decision desk on Election Night, cheering news favorable to Bush and hissing at gains by Gore. According to Waxman’s information, Welch even asked the decision desk, “What would I have to give you to call the race for Bush?”

Waxman said two cameras had filmed action around the decision desk during the night for planned use in promotional advertisements for NBC and that those videotapes might shed light on Welch’s behavior.

Initially, in sworn testimony before Congress, Lack agreed to supply the tapes, while denying that Welch had influenced NBC’s decision to call the election for Bush. “You’re certainly welcome to the tape,” Lack assured Waxman during a congressional hearing in February that had been called by Republicans.

In subsequent letters, however, Lack withdrew his offer, insisting that “there can be no videotape showing” Welch influencing NBC’s election call because, Lack said, he – not Welch – was in charge. Lack’s carefully worded letter did not specifically deny that videotape of the alleged scene existed nor did it exclude the possibility that Welch might have displayed pro-Bush sentiments on Election Night, only that Welch did not dictate the pro-Bush call and that therefore no videotape would show him doing so.

As the letter exchange escalated, Waxman reminded Lack that he was under oath when he promised to supply the tape. In an Aug. 2 letter, Waxman gave Lack a Sept. 4 deadline for producing the videotape and threatened to “seek other means of compelling the production” of the tape if he didn't.

Normally, a confrontation between a senior member of Congress and a major news network over alleged media bias would make for big news, especially given Welch’s high profile as one of the world’s most renowned CEOs.

The allegation that Welch had behaved with such bias – even if his comments were made in a lighthearted fashion – also would support an analysis of how the so-called mainstream news media tilts to the right, following the political persuasions of the corporate chieftains who own the networks.

But the Waxman-Lack story drew little interest from the news media. The exchange of letters was posted at a Web site called Inside.com on Aug. 3 and got some scattered attention, mostly in the trade press. Beyond that, the curious story of the CEO and NBC’s Election Night call failed to make the grade as important news.

'Earn This'

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the Washington news media is more concerned about demographics than democracy. It's a different time and ethos from the one depicted in Saving Private Ryan.

Fifty-seven years ago, American soldiers were battling their way across Europe, contributing to the end of one of history’s most tyrannical regimes. That victory gave rise to democratic aspirations around the world, fueling the hope that all nations might finally accept the founding American principle, that governments must derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

At the end of Saving Private Ryan, the scene of Ryan on the bridge in France merges into the face of Ryan as an old man. He has returned to Normandy and searched out the gravestone of Capt. Miller.

Fighting back tears, Ryan says he has tried to live a good life and has thought every day about Miller's admonition to "earn this." He says it is his greatest hope that "I’ve earned what all of you have done for me."

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