The Pens of August

Cry 'Havoc' and Get Paid Considerably More

The rapid-eye-blink crowd in the media is still trying vainly to pretend that Iraq possessed massive weapons. They are handicapped by lack of evidence, but they're used to that. Last August there was no crisis in Iraq, yet rightwing media from top to bottom began boosting a US invasion of Iraq.

George Will alone put out four columns in August 2002, aside from television commentary, pushing war: "A Vote for War" on Aug. 9, "A Mideast Specter" on Aug. 15, "Skeptics and Sketchy War Plans" on Aug. 22, and "Improvised War Etiquette" Aug. 29.

Charles Krauthammer weighed in on Aug.19 with "The Raines Campaign," attacking the New York Times for reporting doubts on war, following up with a column a week for the next SEVEN weeks, supporting war in either Iraq or Afghanistan. To be sure, Krauthammer had inveighed against Iraq earlier, but as part of his usual rotation. His sustained campaign against Iraq began in August.

The campaign was evidently kicked off by an article titled "The Coming War with Saddam," in William Kristol's Weekly Standard magazine. The article was flagged by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), a D.C. think tank dedicated to ruling the world, considerately telling "opinion leaders" what to say ( Starting then, either the Weekly Standard or the PNAC, or occasionally a "freelancer" in league with them writing for the Washington Post, ran an article once a week for the next 16 weeks, pushing war with Iraq. (

The ground was prepared for Vice President Cheney's Aug. 26 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, arguing for "preemptive military action." The point here is not just that a demented new "policy" was enunciated that no previous vice president or president had ever supported, one that many actual veterans oppose. The point is that a whole stream of journalists of a sort, in league with dubious and murky factions that compensate them in undisclosed ways, operates in concert with one branch of one administration, the Bush White House.

PNAC's war concept made its way from think tanks to Cheney's presentation to "mainstream" commentators in print and television, much as an expensive but ugly dress design gets synchronized from fashion house to topflight fashion shows into mid-level department stores. And as a dress style trickles down from passable versions in regular department stores to ultra-cheap polyester versions in floozy shops, suddenly last summer a US invasion of Iraq was being pushed by strident radio hosts and discredited televangelists.

Rush Limbaugh weighed in on Aug. 8, saying that 9/11 would be a good time to attack Iraq. Like Will, he kept up the barrage throughout August, arguing on Aug. 17 that Congress had already okayed war, and stating defiantly on Aug. 20 that "We want to destabilize the Middle East." Bill O'Reilly also launched on Aug. 8 "A Friendly Reminder," on "how America's alleged allies are dealing with the Saddam Hussein situation." Rev. Jerry Falwell held off slightly. His end-of-August commentary called for prayers for Bush; the next was devoted to "healing" after 9/11; and only on Sept. 14 did he swing into full battle mode. Rev. Pat Robertson showed even less enthusiasm for invading Iraq, to do him justice, but contributed to the war effort with fervent Islam-bashing and opposition-bashing.

These media personalities were reinforced by lesser known talk hosts and op-ed writers, organized and otherwise, some supported by the Rupert Murdoch, Rev. Moon, and Clear Channel news empires which also funded lavish overall displays.

Still, this vast rightwing campaign would never have worked, had it not been given prominence and respectability by traditional newspapers and television.

This is America, and if a commentator wants to engage in Hooters-level discourse, he has a right to do so, even if he's a bloodthirsty phony with no relatives in the military. But Hooters-style waitpersons have not taken over mainstream restaurant chains, any more than Frederick's-of-Hollywood or leather-whip outlets ("Makes all the rest look like Laura Ashley") dominate large department stores.

So what enables people who push an insolent stupidity, recklessness, and selfishness to dominate major news outlets, without even the degree of scrutiny or review a reporter would ordinarily receive for getting someone's age or birthday wrong? How does it happen that commentators with -&endash; literally -&endash; no expertise or credentials on the Middle East, from George Will to Charles Krauthammer to Bill Kristol, get air time to expand on views not even minimally respectable (let's attack a country, because a president wants to) without being questioned, while anyone on the other side of the argument is dismissed as "antiwar"?

The short answer would be money, or at least money is one component. George Will, for instance, is a major presence on the lecture circuit, whose speaking gigs include commencement addresses and religious association conventions. The roster of his speaker laurels, however, goes well beyond the schools and churches that give him pillar-of-the-community credentials.

Will was the keynote speaker at the National Asphalt Pavement Association's 48th annual convention; the National Managed Health Care Congress (NMHCC) annual conference (this March); the Association for Financial Professionals' (AFP) 23rd annual conference; the Engineered Wood Association's annual meeting; the Professional Liability Underwiting Society (PLUS) conference; the Greater Greenville (S.C.) Chamber of Commerce meeting; and the Greater Des Moines Partnership annual dinner. Coming up, Will is also to be keynote speaker at the annual conference of the powerful American Gaming Association (September 2003), in Las Vegas.

Other recent speaking engagements include the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in February, the Pasadena Convention and Visitors Bureau in April, and the National Council on Compensation Insurance in May. (This is an incomplete list.)

While Will's credentials on asphalt paving, engineered wood and gambling remain undisclosed, unfortunately so does the six-figure income he gets from these lobbying groups.

Suffice it to say that Will is not alone. Every "right-wing" commentator of any stature is also endowed with a lucrative career of manufactured prominence, dependent on his saying the right things. Krauthammer specializes more in appearances for foundations and think tanks (Middle East lobbies) than Will, less at professional associations. Limbaugh is an established keynoter and after-dinner speaker. O'Reilly, less established, is getting there; he will be a keynote speaker at this July's GOVSEC (Government Security Expo and Conference) in Washington, D.C. It goes without saying that the entities hiring these expensive speakers also contribute lavishly to political campaigns, and hire equally expensive lobbyists to Congress and the state legislatures. They also control a lot of people's jobs to start with.

Seldom does anyone on network television mention that Will, Krauthammer, and Kristol themselves do not have family members liable to be sent to Iraq. Do they have clauses in their contracts prohibiting mention of their lack of expertise, credentials, experience or personal stake in the topic?

Speaking of stakes, why aren't the networks, newspapers, and syndicates that pay commentators obliged to disclose financial ties between the commentators and their issues? Krauthammer and Will presumably have a right to accept large speaking fees, etc., from interest groups, but when those groups have a stake in topics discussed, shouldn't CBS and ABC let the rest of us know about it? What about the topics left undiscussed?

As a writer, I feel apologetic at calling this phenomenon "conservative," or even "right-wing." What we've got here is a loosely organized but highly synchronized syndicate, very nearly in control of setting agendas and priorities on major discussion shows and in newspaper opinion columns. And they seldom take any but the most destructive corporate line or support any but the most insidious policy emanating from Team Bush.

This is no more "conservative" than invading a series of foreign nations is "centrist."

Margie Burns is a freelance writer in D.C. Email

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