In this 2003 episode of NOW With Bill Moyers, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed the startling story of how during the war in Afghanistan, the American government authorized the evacuation to Pakistan of thousands of enemy troops cornered by US forces. US forces were ordered to create a safe corridor for the November 2001 evacuation, which was orchestrated by Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf.
Then, Bill Moyers interviewed media experts John Nichols and Robert McChesney about the state of the media in the United States and how it affects democracy. McChesney, author of RICH MEDIA, POOR DEMOCRACY: COMMUNICATION POLITICS IN DUBIOUS TIMES and Nichols, Washington correspondent for THE NATION, evaluated the influence of corporate interests on the free press, which they contended were a major barrier to the exercise of democracy. And, having photographed different aspects of American culture over the prior 20 years, Jeff Brouws took NOW to a safe place, tucked away on memory lane. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW With Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
These may well be remembered as America’s days of obsession. Washington seems to have only Iraq on its mind. Not even North Korea, which actually has nuclear weapons, can divert the President’s preoccupation with Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, little is heard about Pakistan, which not only has the bomb, but a militant Islamist population whose wrath, if unleashed, could prove as devastating as an atomic explosion.
The dictator of Pakistan, General Musharraf, came calling on President Bush not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11.
He swore his country’s allegiance in the fight against Osama bin Laden, who may even be hiding in Pakistan.
But to many of Musharraf’s own people, bin Laden is a hero, and this makes for a fragile, volatile, and risky alliance.
No one has chronicled the Pakistan story better than the independent journalist Seymour Hersh, whose articles have been published in the NEW YORKER. Hersh won the Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and is one of America’s leading investigative journalists.
My colleague Jane Wallace talked with Sy Hersh in Washington.
WALLACE: Thank you for joining us.
HERSH: Glad to be here.
WALLACE: It might be safely said that the one country for whom the war on terror has been a bombless bonanza is Pakistan. In a matter of two weeks they went from being an international pariah, to being our new best friend.
The aid started flowing. It is flowing in the billions. Are they worthy of our friendship and our aid, the Pakistanis?
HERSH: In a perfect world, sure, it would be great if Musharraf, the head of the country can hold it together and they can become secular. And we can avoid having an Islamic republic with a lot of nuclear weapons. But it’s dicey.
WALLACE: What kind of dicey?
HERSH: I think it’s a losing game. I think it’s a losing game and I think there’s a lot of evidence that Musharraf is certainly much more interested in his own survival than ours. I can’t give you chapter and verse of things. He came to American when and when there was tremendous concern about the fate of Danny Pearl, the WALL STREET JOURNAL reporter.
And he was here about a week or so before it became known that Pearl was dead. And the whole time, we later learned, that he was here, when he was saying, you know telling us that he was doing everything he can. He was sure he was alive. He knew that Pearl was dead. We now know that. We knew he was deceiving us.
WALLACE: How do we know that?
WALLACE: Time of death on Pearl?
HERSH: More than that. There’s– we were able to unravel a lot of information, WALL STREET JOURNAL reporters and others about when he died. And there was, if you remember, there’s been a trial. And everything that showed up in the trial indicated that– witnesses told about telling the government things– weeks before we thought they had.
WALLACE: There is a man facing death, facing hanging, Saeed Sheikh, in the murder of Daniel Pearl. Saeed Sheikh is reported, in various quarters, to have been an ISI Pakistani intelligence agent.
HERSH: Asset. Yeah.
WALLACE: Do you believe that?
HERSH: This certainly is a case when he gave up, he turned himself in basically eventually to ISI and who, not right away, but pretty immediately. He turned a… he was made available to the ISI and they debriefed him first.
WALLACE: Why would he turn himself in to Pakistani intelligence as opposed to the police?
HERSH: There’s no question he has some connection. There’s no question he had some deep standing — longstanding connection to Pakistani intelligence.
WALLACE: Now let me draw the picture. If in fact he has a deep longstanding connection to Pakistani intelligence, we are supporting a government that has some responsibility in the murder of an American reporter?
HERSH: What can you do?
WALLACE: Let’s talk about Konduz. During the war with Afghanistan…
HERSH: Great story.
WALLACE: …you reported that during a key battle our side in that battle had the enemy surrounded. There were a reported perhaps 8,000 enemy forces in there.
HERSH: Maybe even more. But certainly minimum that many.
WALLACE: It’s your story, take it.
HERSH: Okay, the cream of the crop of Al Qaeda caught in a town called Konduz which is near… it’s one little village and it’s a couple hundred kilometers, 150 miles from the border of Pakistan. And I learned this story frankly through very, very clandestine operatives we have in the Delta Force and other very…
We were operating very heavily with a small number of men, three, 400 really in the first days of the war. And suddenly one night when they had everybody cornered in Konduz, the special forces people were told there was a corridor that they could not fly in. There was a corridor sealed off to the United States military sealed off a corridor. And it was nobody could shoot anybody in this little lane that went from Konduz into Pakistan. And that’s how I learned about it. I learned about it from a military guy who wanted to fly helicopters and kill people and couldn’t do it that day.
WALLACE: So, we had the enemy surrounded, the special forces guys are helping surround this enemy.
HERSH: They’re whacking everybody they can whack that looks like a bad guy.
WALLACE: And suddenly they’re told to back off…
HERSH: From a certain area…
WALLACE: …and let planes fly out to Pakistan.
HERSH: There was about a three or four nights in which I can tell you maybe six, eight, ten, maybe twelve more or more heavily weighted Pakistani military planes flew out with an estimated no less than 2,500 maybe 3,000, maybe more. I’ve heard as many as four or 5,000. They were not only Al Qaeda but they were also, you see, the Pakistani ISI was the military advised us to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. There were dozens of senior Pakistani military officers including two generals who flew out.
And I also learned after I wrote this story that maybe even some of Bin Laden’s immediate family were flown out on those evacuations. We allowed them to evacuate. We had an evacuation.
WALLACE: How high up was that evacuation authorized?
HERSH: I am here to tell you it was authorized — Donald Rumsfeld who — we’ll talk about what he said later — it had to be authorized at the White House. But certainly at the Secretary of Defense level.
WALLACE: The Department of Defense said to us that they were not involved and that they don’t have any knowledge of that operation.
HERSH: That’s what Rumsfeld said when they asked him about it. And he said, “Gee, really?” He said, “News to me.” Which is not a denial, it’s sort of interesting. You know,
WALLACE: What did we do that? Why we would put our special forces guys on the ground, surround the enemy, and then fly him out?
HERSH: With Al Qaeda.
WALLACE: With Al Qaeda. Why would we do that, assuming your story is true?
HERSH: We did it because the ISI asked us to do so.
WALLACE: Pakistani intelligence.
HERSH: Yeah. That’s why. You asked why. Because we believe Musharraf was under pressure to protect the military men of — the intelligence people from the military, ISI, that were in the field. The Pakistanis were training the Taliban, and were training Al Qaeda.
When the war began, even though this is — again, you know, this is complicated. Musharraf asked, as a favor, to protect his position. If we suddenly seized, in the field, a few dozen military soldiers, including generals, and put them in jail, and punished them, he would be under tremendous pressure from the fundamentalists at home.
So, to protect him, we perceive that it’s important to protect him, he asked us, this is why when I tell you it comes at the level of Don Rumsfeld, it has to. I mean, it does. He asked, he said, “You’ve got to protect me. You’ve got to get my people out.”
The initial plan was to take out the Pakistani military. What happened is that they took out al Qaeda with them. And we had no way of stopping it. We lost control. Once their planes began to go, the Pakistanis began — thousands of Al Qaeda got out. And so we weren’t able to stop it and screen it. The intent wasn’t to let Al Qaeda out. It was to protect the Pakistani military.
HERSH: What else can you do? We need the idea of some sort of country as a bulwark to what’s going — look, Afghanistan is smoking today. You know if you want another reality, the reality that nobody wants to hear about is that probably from Khandhar to Jalalabad and all of the southern part of Afghanistan is cowboy and Indian territory.
It’s ISI. It’s Taliban. It’s Pashtun. Some Al Qaeda. You know you don’t find our troops a little bit in… on the coast near, you know in the north, the northern territories. We’re really at square one even in Afghanistan.
WALLACE: Okay, I’m gonna slow you down because you know your material very well. The northwestern part of Pakistan…
WALLACE: …that borders on Afghanistan now is where the Al Qaeda forces are said to be regrouped?
HERSH: Along with Kashmir. They probably are there too.
WALLACE: Yes. This is where some of our American troops — we have about 8,000 left in Afghanistan — are facing some of the heaviest fighting they’ve seen in a year.
HERSH: The forces that are seeing heavy fighting are a few special forces that are there and some elite units from the 82nd Airborne. Most of our troops are just guarding bases. But we have some elite units in contact. Yes.
WALLACE: What you’re saying is that then part of the forces our guys are facing are forces that are being supported by or intermixed with Pakistan intelligence which is a government we support. And al Qaeda, which is supported by a government we support. In other words we’re doing battle with ourselves to some degree?
HERSH: I’ll make it better. We have reason to think, from intelligence — I haven’t written this — that the Saudis are financing some of this all the way.
WALLACE: Financing what?
HERSH: Saudis put a lot of money into Pakistan to religious aspects. I’m not saying the Saudis necessarily — the Saudi government knows that the money they’re putting in is ending up supplying the forces that are in contact with our forces in the northern territories. But the fact is the Saudis are still a supplier of a great deal of funds to Pakistan. We’ve got a country that’s teetering on the edge, we don’t want Pakistan to go Islamic. We don’t want the weapons to get out of control.
WALLACE: How exactly did the Pakistanis acquire nukes?
HERSH: They stole the technology from Europe to, basically, they used enriched uranium. Enriched uranium makes as perfectly a good a bomb as plutonium without a big nuclear reactor that anybody can see and get intelligence on. They began turning out warheads. We now know I, as they say, we estimate up to 40 and that’s just a rough guess.
WALLACE: Forty warheads means what in terms of destructive power?
HERSH: Well, it depends. The average warhead probably takes out New York. A good chunk of New York.
WALLACE: So forty warheads is a lot…
WALLACE: …for a country the size of Pakistan?
HERSH: I would say one isn’t a lot if you can fire it. Yes, if you know how to do it and…it’s a lot. They…
WALLACE: So formidable, especially in a third-world country where we’re not entirely sure…
HERSH: It could…
WALLACE: …who’s in charge of the switch?
HERSH: Well, we’d like to think that the military and Musharraf is in charge of the switch. That makes us very happy to think that. That’s the whole issue. The issue is making sure and reinforce Musharraf being in charge of the switch, which…
WALLACE: But the…
WALLACE: …on the…
HERSH: …it’s a…
WALLACE: … issue…
HERSH: …it’s a crap game. It’s a roll of the dice. That’s what it is.
WALLACE: You reported recently that not only do the Pakistanis have the nukes, the international community knew that. That’s why they were ostracized for many years, because they wouldn’t stop developing their own nuclear program. So they were blackballed by the rest of the world. Forget it, we’re not trading with them anymore.
They were in that position when 9/11 struck. Not only do they have these nuclear weapons, but then they go one further to put it in our face and start helping North Korea develop the same cheaper, more efficient warheads. What is that about? These are our new best friends?
HERSH: Well, this started before they became our new best friends. This isn’t — this started in ’97. What I did is I wrote about an intelligence report that the White House had for, what, eight months before it became known.
I love the story that this administration does live in a sort of a web of it’s own sort of stories. The story they put out was last fall one of our guys goes to North Korea, the Pyongyang and confronts the North Koreans. And they admit they have it. And we’re stunned. They’ve admitted they have it. Something we’ve known they’ve had for a year.
What they did is in ’97, they buy missiles from North Korea. The North Korean government is insane. Half the people starve and meanwhile they have a tremendously efficient missile system. They… if the leader of that country decided that he wanted to get rid of the missiles and start spending money on food, they could all live. There’s enough there. But it’s a madness society.
And so the North Koreans are supplying missiles for Pakistan for years. And in ’97, Pakistan had some serious economic problems. And I can tell you right now if Pakistan’s economy is in the toilet, North Korea’s deep in the sewer.
So here they are. North Korea’s — one of their great exports is missiles for cash and then they sell some missiles to the Paks. And the Paks come to the North Koreans in ’97 and they say, “Hey guys, we can’t pay. We got no money. We’re broke too. But we’ve got something in kind. I’m giving you the most…” — this is actually an interpretation the community — intelligence community, same people in the American intelligence community.
And by the way, there’s a lot of good people in our system. And awful lot. And they must be very frustrated with it, because I think things at the top — it’s a very strange world at the top of this government. It’s a cocoon. And no bad information invited. I’m talking about in the leadership.
WALLACE: What do you mean cocoon, no bad information invited?
HERSH: Oh, I just don’t think it was hard, I don’t think they could sell this story of the — I don’t think the intelligence community was able to get the President and the Vice President and other people to focus on North Korea for a year before it became known. It was just, they didn’t want to focus on it. They had other issues.
But the Paks then start giving the fruits of their 10, 15 years, 20 years of nuclear labor to the North Koreans. And you have to understand, to start with a centrifuge and some designs and get to the point where you can actually make bomb-grade material is a 12, 15 year process. The Paks…
WALLACE: It’s very sophisticated?
HERSH: Oh. The Paks cut it way down to a couple years, three, four, maybe five years.
WALLACE: So you could really spin ’em out?
HERSH: You can kick it out. You can put it in high gear. They gave ’em prototypes of the centrifuges that they made. They gave ’em prototypes of the warheads. They gave ’em test data.
There’s something called cold testing. You can actually test natural uranium in a warhead and it gives you a lot of information about the real stuff, enriched stuff would work.
WALLACE: So both third-world powers become more dangerous?
HERSH: To put it mildly.
WALLACE: Colin Powell did not deny your story. He did go out of his way to say, the Secretary of State, that Musharraf has assured the State Department that this is not happening now.
WALLACE: That’s all — well, what do you make of that?
HERSH: It’s the three-card Monty we have going, which is that, what are you going to do with this guy? Are you going to say, it’s clear that some of the help that Musharraf gave the North Koreans took place after 9/11. That is a continuum.
Musharraf’s answer to us was, you know, “Oh my god. There’s gambling on the premises?” You know, shades of Casablanca. And, “I’ll stop it right now.” And we say, “Great.” What else are we gonna do?
Are we gonna take a run at this guy and make him more vulnerable to his critics that are there already? The fundamentalists, the Islamic, the mujahadin? So we…
WALLACE: Or are we gonna pretend it didn’t happen or at least it’s stopped?
HERSH: We — the rationalization for pretending it didn’t happen or that it’s stopped — and it probably has stopped. The rationalization: first of all, why shouldn’t it stop? They’ve got what they need already.
The rationalization is that we can’t jeopardize Musharraf. We’ve got to keep him going. Prop him up as much as possible.
WALLACE: This is getting to be a very costly prop up.
HERSH: Absolutely. But you know, let me give you another theory. Why do you think Pakistan has only helped North Korea with nuclear weapons? Why haven’t they helped other countries?
WALLACE: I don’t know why.
HERSH: Well, the answer is, they probably have. They’re interested in spreading it to the Third World. How much control does Musharraf have?
WALLACE: Do you have any evidence?
HERSH: No, no. I’m just telling you, heuristically, I’m just telling you, I’m telling what I — my instinct tells me that in a perfect world, if our editor of the world’s newspaper, I would want to look at our — is Pakistan. I’d look at Pakistan and Iran, look at Pakistan and Indonesia. Look at Pakistan even and Lebanon. There’s a lot of ties that I’m interested in. Are they gonna be spreading nuclear technology into the Muslim world above and beyond their own country?
WALLACE: If we were really going after the people who sponsored Al Qaeda, wouldn’t we be bombing Pakistan?
HERSH: Well, it’d be attacking Pakistan is not like attacking Afghanistan, or Iraq. They have an air force. They have nuclear weapons, of course. They have a very strong powerful Army. We’re not gonna attack Pakistan. That would be that would be an impossible chore. If you said to me, “Are we better off in Pakistan or in Iraq in terms of beating terrorism?” I would say to you, if you’d asked me that question, I would say, “No question. Let’s forget about Iraq and let’s focus on Pakistan and start doing– the money we’re gonna spend if we go to war there, even in moving troops, if we tried to use some of that money in– in positive ways in Pakistan, we might be able to accomplish more than we are right now.”
WALLACE: The picture you are painting here is that we’re dealing with the devil.
HERSH: It’s not a perfect world.
MOYERS: Before you meet our next guests, I want to show you something. It’s been at the center of a controversy you may have heard about. Take a look at this:
This war against Iraq is the most irrational thing.
It’s a violation of international law.
Where’s the point?
To risk my life.
It will destabilize the whole….
Not in the best interest….
…self-appointed group of mercenaries.
It is pursuing a personal agenda.
I think we’ve got enough….
We can use those billions of dollars here.
MOYERS: Those were ordinary citizens voicing their objection to a preemptive war with Iraq.
A group called the antiwar video fund made a television ad out of their statements, and then bought the time to air it in Washington, D.C., on Comcast, the country’s biggest cable group. The ad was scheduled to run the week of the President’s State of the Union message.
At the last minute, Comcast pulled it. The company said the allegations in the ad were unsubstantiated.
The ad did subsequently run on the CBS station in Washington.
But whatever you think about the impending war, this episode reminds us how the exercise of free speech depends on who owns the microphone.
Now I want to show you something else you will not see on commercial television.
A real, live member of the Federal Communications Commission.
The commissioners came to New York last month for a hearing. One talked about the urgency of listening to all citizens on media’s role in democracy. This is Commissioner Copps.
COPPS: We need a huge diversity of input that goes beyond anything we have had before. We need to hear from stakeholders of every stripe.
When we’re dealing with the media, which is so central to our lives and democracy and when we’re dealing with the air waves which belong to the American people, every American is a stakeholder.
One thing’s sure, each of us is going to be living with the results of these decisions for a long time.
MOYERS: Now the commission was meeting just blocks from the studios of ABC News, CBS News, Fox, CNN, and a dozen other broadcast outlets. Not a single one of them showed up to report on the hearing.
What’s going on here? That’s the subject of this book: OUR MEDIA, NOT THEIRS by John Nichols and Robert McChesney.
They are leaders in a citizens’ movement that seeks a media more accountable to democracy.
Thank you both for joining me.
John Nichols, you call your book OUR MEDIA. What do you mean by that?
NICHOLS: The media in this country was intended by the founders of this country to be ours, to be something that served us as citizens.
MCCHESNEY: And what we’ve had happen to our media system in the United States in the past 50 years especially, is it’s increasingly become the province of private commercial interests to use — to suit their own naked self interest to advance their commercial concerns. And the political concerns and the social concerns of free press as a hallmark of democracy have been lost in the shuffle.
NICHOLS: I don’t think that the current structures of media allow journalists to do the job that Jefferson and Madison and the founders of this country, intended. Their concept was that you don’t restrain what people say. That you — and here’s the critical thing — Jefferson and Madison, I hate to inform Rupert Murdoch on this, that they weren’t thinking about him.
That was not their idea that some Australian press magnate could come to the United States and buy up media and create Fox, or do whatever. They were anticipating small farmers, small business people, coming together maybe to start a newspaper in their town. And…
MOYERS: But we don’t live in that world anymore.
NICHOLS: Well, we don’t live as far from it as we think. We have created structures that make it virtually impossible to do that.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
NICHOLS: Look at how our broadcast systems are structured in this country. Look at what we’re talking about…
MCCHESNEY: Giving all the air waves to a handful of firms to own. There’s nothing written in natural law that we have to turn over these lucrative monopoly licenses to our prime air waves to a handful of enormous transnational firms. There’s nothing in the First Amendment that says that. The press system is really the oxygen of a free society.
You can’t govern your own lives with a viable press system. The founding fathers, Jefferson and Madison, understood that. Their notion of freedom of the press was that the people of the country have to consciously construct a system that fosters diverse views and examination of policies, and draws people into social life.
MOYERS: So how is the media failing us in your judgment, in your estimate?
MCCHESNEY: Well, I think the problem we face is that the sort of drawing people into social life to understand issues, to understand how people in power operate, to keep them in check, and people who want to be in power, gets lost in the shuffle. That’s not where the most money can be made.
Unfortunately, where the money lies, where the profits are for the firms that own and dominate our media system, comes in sort of zeroing out the journalism. Because that’s too expensive to do the hard stuff. Gets you in trouble with people in power.
So you have a situation where the same companies that control our broadcast journalism, they’re going for the government, trying to get tax relief and deregulation, so they get bigger and bigger. Or are they gonna want to be tough on the same government they’re looking for special deals from.
MOYERS: Give me some examples of how you think journalism, corporate journalism, is failing us. Take politics. What’s an example?
NICHOLS: We had, in the fall of 2000, a political crisis in this country, and one that the whole world took very, very seriously. We had an unsettled Presidential election.
And yet, our media tended to cover that as purely a political fight between two parties. James Baker would get up and say the Bush line. Warren Christopher would get up and say the Gore line. And that would be accepted pretty much as the end of the story. There were too few people saying, “Look, we’re not gonna do stenography to power. We’re not gonna take this official source versus that official source. We’re gonna go for the truth. And I think that what we have in this…
MOYERS: Because truth would have been?
NICHOLS: The truth is, who won?
MCCHESNEY: Investigate what they’re saying…
NICHOLS: Yeah, let’s really get in there and…
MCCHESNEY: …balancing the two claims, investigate what they’re saying…
MOYERS: Some papers did that, don’t you think?
NICHOLS: Some did. And, but you know what the interesting thing is? That much of the best journalism about it — and this is, I think, broadly accepted — was done by British papers. What I’m saying is that the notion of a pox on both your houses is a healthy one for journalists to practice, to disbelieve both official sources, and to go for — suggest that, well maybe they’re both spinning us.
MCCHESNEY: You know, I think what happened is our whole electoral coverage has really deteriorated in the country. And if you look at the figures, the amount of coverage of electoral campaigns in broadcast media has plummeted. At the same time, what’s happened is the amount of campaign advertising has risen dramatically. So we’ve seen that the main unit for a candidate to run now is their political advertising.
MOYERS: You write in your book, “Elected leaders refuse any longer to address what the American people want to know about. But they will tell you, the media mavens will tell you, “We’re giving people what they want.”
NICHOLS: I wish they’d come out and talk to my mom.
MOYERS: Your mom?
NICHOLS: My mom, on Union Grove, Wisconsin. And…
NICHOLS: It’s about 3,000.
NICHOLS: And you know, my mom has pretty much, gotten pretty close to giving up on television news. She says, “You know, it’s just — this is just ridiculous.”
“I wanna know what’s going on. I wanna know real information about whether we should go to war. When the question of “why do they hate us” comes up, I want a real dialogue about that. I don’t want, you know, ‘Well, they must be crazy because they’re French.'”
MOYERS: But John, they wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t make money. They wouldn’t be making money if enough people weren’t watching to satisfy the advertisers.
MCCHESNEY: You know, you’re right. But the way to look at this, it’s not all demand driven. I think the crucial thing is much of this is supply driven.
The reason we don’t have international coverage, or hard investigative pieces on how power works in our society, isn’t that people aren’t necessarily interested in it. That basically isn’t done because it costs so much. It’s so much cheaper to have a couple of blowhards exchange insults…
MOYERS: Well now, let’s not get personal.
MCCHESNEY: Or so much cheaper to have people just sort of press release of what someone in power is than to go out and investigate the press release. So it’s really supply driven. It’s just inexpensive to do.
And then of course when people watch it, they say, “Well, we’re giving people what they want.” But let’s give them some really good investigative journalism, how power works in our society. I think people love that. They’re just not given a choice to vote for that in the marketplace.
MOYERS: What’s the truth we’re not getting right now from the press in the Iraqi buildup?
MCCHESNEY: Let me put this in one context. The United States has been in 7, 8 major wars in the last 100 years. World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Central American wars, the first Persian Gulf war. Those are the major ones. We now know historically that in each case the administration in power wanted to push a war and it was willing to lie, do whatever it took to get the support of the American people to do it.
So I think if you’re a working journalist, and I teach journalism, what you should go — any time there’s a government that says, “we’ve got to go to this war” and starts waving the flag and telling you, “we have to…have to…” and the more passion you get, the more you check for your wallet. The more you get skeptical, the more you say, “Well, wait a second, we’ve been down this road before. We’re journalists. We better get to the bottom of this and investigate all this and not take them at face value.” And that’s the starting point of good journalism when it comes to getting into war.
And if you start there, I think John, you can field this, but in the claims that we’re being given, a lot of them are just taken at face value and not being investigated.
NICHOLS: Now one of the things in this incredible period is the way that we treat the French. There is sort of this line of, “well the French must be crazy.” You know how could they not be with us? And how can the Germans not be with us? And what’s with this ‘old Europe’?
Well, the fact of the matter is, it’s a good question folks might ask. Could it possibly be that the French and the Germans know more than we do? Like they have learned a lot more over a number of recent years certainly, about Afghanistan and about Iraq and about those parts of the world.
And more importantly, might they have had experiences that would be worthy of pondering? And I think good journalism would go and ask, you know, “why aren’t you with us?” And I would also look at one other thing that I think has really been lost. And that is, that in every country in the western — every western democracy, there’s a huge debate about this war.
Let’s actually go beneath that surface level, are you with us or against us? And look at what’s really going on in all of these countries.
MOYERS: But the United States government ostensibly has intelligence sources that say there is a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Maybe the French intelligence don’t have that or the German intelligence don’t have that. Are you saying we shouldn’t give our leaders the benefit of the doubt when they say that we have this information and you need to trust us?
NICHOLS: Of course not.
MCCHESNEY: Of course not.
NICHOLS: Why would you ever give any — this is…
MCCHESNEY: In the matter of war and peace given the track record of our leaders in war and peace this century?
MOYERS: These people are trying to kill you and you and me. These terrorists who struck one mile from here on the 11th of September.
NICHOLS: The war on terror is a terrific example of where, I think, media has failed us. But it didn’t fail us after September 11th. It failed us before. If you remember the summer before September 11th, think about what the big story of that summer was. There were two of them actually.
One was Gary Condit’s sex life. And boy, the cable channels were going back every night. You know we found he maybe tied somebody to a bed. We knew more details about Gary Condit’s sex life than our own.
MOYERS: And the audiences were way up.
NICHOLS: Oh they were. And the other big story was shark attacks off Florida. Now it turned out there weren’t any more shark attacks than any other year but it was a fun story to do. And so again and again reporters on the beach talking about shark attacks.
Well, you know what? Maybe if during that period we had devoted — we in the media, and I count myself as a part of it — if we’d devoted a little more of our resources to just checking the official terrorism warnings, to listening to Gary Hart and Lorne Rudman who had put in quite a remarkable report.
MOYERS: Former Senators who were…
MOYERS: …who were heading this commission on…
NICHOLS: They’re saying that there’s a — we are looking at a potential terrorist attack. Maybe if we’ve done what much of the rest of the world’s media do, which is actually spend some time in Afghanistan. Look at some of the ‘churn’ that was going on there. And maybe if we asked the question of, “well, why did we send planes over to bomb Afghanistan a few years ago? What’s there that we’re so concerned about?” Maybe if we’d done a better job before September 11th, at the very least, if September 11th had happened, we wouldn’t have had ordinary citizens the day after saying, what’s going on here? Why do they hate us? I think George W. Bush has every right, and indeed a responsibility, to ‘spin’ this situation and to talk about this situation as he believes is proper. As he believes we should go.
But I think good journalism takes George W. Bush and his opinion and then takes other opinions. Mixes it all up. Gives people access to a lot of that dialogue, to a lot of that debate and let’s the American people make some decisions. Remember, this is not just about the President. This is about the people.
MOYERS: Now you say in here that the system that has created our media is one of the most corrupt you can imagine. What do you mean by that?
MCCHESNEY: Well, just go back to the founding period again. The debates over the postal act and the printing subsidies were public debates, passionate. People were involved in it. They understood the importance and the significance.
We have similar policies today that set up our current media system. All our largest media companies today — and they’re very large — are built on government regulations, subsidies, monopoly rights, the spectrum, the cable systems, copyright. But the crucial policies that created these aren’t done with public involvement. They’re not out in the open with people debating it in Congress, newspapers and media covering it.
They’re all done behind closed doors in the most corrupt manner imaginable. These powerful lobbies duke it out, with no public recognition, to get these enormous monopoly subsidies. The whole system is built in our name, but without our informed consent. It’s their system, but it should be ours.
MOYERS: Even as we talk, the Federal Communications Commission is considering yet another move toward further consolidation. What’s going on?
NICHOLS: Well, what they’re talking about a series of rule changes. One of the changes they’re talking about would remove a very old barrier in this country that says that you can’t own T.V., radio, and the newspaper in the same town. Can’t be one guy that owns it all. And the reason for that is common sense, I think.
That, number one, you want a diversity of voices. And the diversity of voices is fostered by different owners, at best. Two, we have one owner of everything, and that’s what would happen if you blow out this cross ownership rule.
You have one owner of everything in town.
MOYERS: Is it conceivable that if these rule changes are made by the FCC, that a Rupert Murdoch, or a Ted Turner, could own the newspaper, the T.V. station, the radio station, in Madison, Wisconsin?
NICHOLS: It’s totally conceivable.
MCCHESNEY: Not only conceivable…
NICHOLS: It would happen.
MCCHESNEY: It’s almost positive it would happen. Because that’s where the money is. You can have one newsroom service an entire community, instead of having three newsrooms. Think of the savings if you’ve got one set of reporters serving all your news media in a town, instead of having to pay for three different sets.
MOYERS: At what cost?
MCCHESNEY: Well, the costs socially are enormous, which is exactly why we should be very concerned, because it violates every core liberal principle. When in doubt, it’s always better to have more voices than fewer voices in media. That’s the sort of — you start from there.
NICHOLS: And if you believe in a free market, if you really believe in a free market, you ought to believe that there should be a lot of different people competing within that, and maybe trying to be better than the other.
If you have one individual, or one company, really more likely a stockholder driven corporation, owning all of the media in a community, well, there’s not a competition to be better per se. And because of the way media structures exist today, it’s very hard to create new media there.
So the result is that you are gonna go toward those commercial values. You’re gonna go to that lowest common denominator, because it’s cheaper, and yeah, it appeals at some basic level.
MOYERS: I think you say in your book that about a dozen companies own the greatest percentage…
MOYERS: …of radio, television…
MCCHESNEY: An overwhelming majority.
MOYERS: …music, everything.
MCCHESNEY: That’s right. And we’re in a situation where we can actually look at an industry that was sort of deregulated just a few years ago, radio. In 1996, in the Telecommunications Act the radio lobby was able to get a clause put in there. It was never debated by Congress. Wasn’t discussed at the community level, which lifted the cap of how many radio stations a single company could own nationally in the United States. It used to be, before that it was 40. And for years, you probably remember coming up in media, was only seven, and then 12 stations, no more than two in a single community.
And they lifted the total nationally a single company could own. And they said you can own up to eight in a single community, in the largest communities. And what’s happened since 1996 is radio’s been turned upside down. Something like 60, 70 percent of the stations have been sold.
A single company based in your home state of Texas, Clear Channel, owns over 1,200 stations. And radio’s, I think fair to say, unless you’re a shareholder in the Clear Channel company, the consensus of everyone else in this country is radio’s a disaster area.
Localism’s been wiped out. There’s almost no local news coverage. We’re getting sort of piped in announcers in the communities. There’s more advertising than ever in radio. So this is an example of what we’re gonna get if we do this in the rest of our media, that’s our future.
MOYERS: Obviously, Michael Powell, the chairman, is an ardent believer in deregulation. He says that if you take off government restrictions, you will let a thousand flowers bloom. You’ll have the internet, you’ll have DV— you’ll have a lot of other choices out there.
MCCHESNEY: That’s right.
NICHOLS: One of the big problems is that the debate on…
MCCHESNEY: …if that’s right.
NICHOLS: Yeah. It’s…
MOYERS: You agreeing with Michael?
NICHOLS: Well, I think he’s agreeing with Mao, who is the hundredth, at least. But the thing to understand about the debate on media in this country is it’s perhaps the most unhealthy debate imaginable.
There are a handful of very interested parties who are deeply engaged, who think about it every day, who hire lobbyists, who spend a great deal of money, not nearly to lobby Congress, but also, to lobby the FCC.
MOYERS: Who are they?
NICHOLS: The companies themselves, as well as The National Association of Broadcasters.
MCCHESNEY: The trade association.
NICHOLS: Trade associations. And they’re in there fighting among themselves a little bit. “We want this structure. These guys want that structure. But it’s all agreed that we’re the ones at the table, we’re the ones who will decide.”
MCCHESNEY: “It’s our system.”
MOYERS: It is a closed meeting when they get together to discuss…
MCCHESNEY: That’s right.
MOYERS: … “what do we want?”
NICHOLS: And there’s a lot of closed meetings before, all along the way. And what we’re suggesting is that the reason that the debate takes the shape it does is because so many other doors are shut. So much of it is inside dialogue.
Ordinary Americans, real people, my mom, your cousin, whoever, they don’t even know that these debates are being — that they’re taking place. And they also don’t know, I think, that they have a right to be a part of them.
MOYERS: When the Telecommunications Act in 1996 passed, which made this big giveaway, Bill Clinton signed it, Al Gore was there. Republicans, Democrats…
MCCHESNEY: That’s right.
MOYERS: …all glowing at this accomplishment. I mean both parties, are they not…
MCCHESNEY: They’re both in bed with this.
MCCHESNEY: Absolutely. And I think…
MCCHESNEY: This is the…
NICHOLS: There’s some corruption.
MCCHESNEY: This is the question…
MCCHESNEY: Pure corruption. This is really where big money crowds everything else out. The way to understand how policy makers make media in this country, communications, there’s a great movie, THE GODFATHER, PART TWO.
There’s a scene early in the movie where all the American gangsters are on top of a hotel roof in Havana. It’s a classic scene. Hyman Roth and Michael Corleone. And they’ve got a cake being wheeled out to them.
And Hyman Roth is cutting up slices of the cake. And the cake’s got the outline of Cuba on it, giving each gangster a slice of Cuba. And while he’s doing this, Hyman Roth’s saying, “Isn’t it great to be in a country where we have a government that respects private enterprise, they let us own the country. And that’s how media policy…
MOYERS: So they divided up Cuba.
MOYERS: You’re saying the big media dividing up…
MCCHESNEY: Of course.
MOYERS: …the country of…
MCCHESNEY: …of the United States.
NICHOLS: Our air waves.
MOYERS: …for the world.
NICHOLS: Our air waves.
MOYERS: Our air waves.
MCCHESNEY: And what they’re doing, though, is that they’re fighting among each other. They’ve got these huge lobbies like Hyman Roth and Michael Corleone, they each want the biggest slice.
But what they all agree is that no one else gets a slice. It’s their cake. The door is shut, no press coverage, no public awareness of these policies.
MOYERS: I think that’s realistic but it’s very pessimistic. What would you have done? Would you have the government take over the media?
MCCHESNEY: Well, the government makes the media as it is. These policies are government policies. The question is whose interests are they gonna represent? Private interests, commercial interests in our name, or actually our involvement? The argument is that people need to participate in these policies. We give 50 to 100 talks a year around the country. And we find people are really interested in this issue. This is an issue that cuts very close to them. Not just in terms of journalism, but sort of the commercial tidal wave that’s overwhelming people’s lives.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
MCCHESNEY: Well, we see advertising and commercialism not just increasing in sort of the number of advertisements you see on television and our media. But also, permeating the editorial content, both in journalism and programming.
MOYERS: More and more commercials…
MOYERS: …more and more…
MCCHESNEY: Product placement.
MOYERS: …commercial values, and share…
MCCHESNEY: And I think that people are deeply concerned that this is corrosive to sort of the integrity of our public culture, that this is a real problem. It’s not a left-right issue. It’s — there’s some people who personally benefit by — who made money off it, and there’s everyone else. It’s much like the environment.
NICHOLS: What we really need in this country is a movement not unlike the environmental movement of the early 1970s, that accepts the notion that, as with the environmental movement, it wasn’t that the government took over every bit of land, and every sea, and every lake, and stuff like that, but it was that government regulation was seen as something that citizens ought to be a part of, not just the corporations that were regulated. And that begins to insert a public voice in this debate.
And the interesting thing is we find, in talking to members of Congress, that a lot of them are actually more interested in this than you think for an intriguing, very self serving, perhaps, reason. Members of Congress are noted, saying that in this churn of media ownership, they don’t get paid attention to at the local level, either.
MCCHESNEY: More and more commercial values. And I think people are deeply concerned that this is corrosive to sort of the integrity of our public culture. That this is a real problem. And I…
MOYERS: If there were this movement, what would it be asking? What would it want?
MCCHESNEY: Well, there’s a whole range of issues we can work on let’s have fewer stations that one company’s allowed to own, for example. It’s silly to let one station own 1,200 stations.
A tangible thing. Let’s say ten stations per owner, so we get more community owners. Let’s come up with something to reduce the amount of commercials that we bombard our kids with. What we’re doing to children in this society is absolutely obscene.
Most other democratic societies in the world, most — many in Europe — prohibit, or sharply limit, the amount of advertising on television to children under 12. It’s just irrational.
MOYERS: In the interest of?
MCCHESNEY: Of the children. That we can’t… it’s just, they take a two year old and marinate their brains in 30,000 T.V. ads a year, with the most sophisticated, psychological thinking done to go in to get them to brand imprint brands and their names is just an outrageous thing to do to children in society.
MOYERS: But the media executives would say, “Look, that’s for the parents to do.”
MOYERS: “That’s not for the government to… ”
NICHOLS: You know, they’d said that about cigarette advertising, too, at one point. The fact of the matter is that in this country, we accept regulation of advertising. We accept there be a public role in this.
It’s just that what we’ve been told up to this point is in some narrow little public health areas. Well, I would suggest that we ought to take a look at the public health of our democracy.
Majority of Americans don’t vote in most elections. We have every civic group — you go talk to the Rotary, you talk to the Lion’s Club. They’re all saying, “You know, there’s just this decline in civic life. There’s a decline in connectedness in this country.”
And we know that the dominant part of most of our lives, as regards communication, is media. I think that we can suggest that media ought to have a role in making our civic life work better, and that that oughta be a part, not the whole of it. It can be entertaining. It can even make money for folks. But a part of it ought to be more civic.
MOYERS: But you’re flying in the face, are you not, of a business culture?
MCCHESNEY: This is serious business. You’re absolutely right. This isn’t a– a tangential or marginal thing. We are going exactly at some of the crucial institutions in our society.
And I think we have to look around and look at the caliber of our democracy. It’s deeply troubled. And it’s not gonna take a band aid. And the founding fathers, not to keep harping on them, but I think their legacy here is very rich.
They understood that setting up a diverse, well funded media system with a broad range of viewpoints was the essence of building of the oxygen for democracy. And it took conscious policies. It didn’t happen naturally. You had to work at it.
And we’ve gotta return to that principle and get public participation in the policies. There’s nothing natural about our media system.
MOYERS: These corporations will tell you that they earned their success and their power the old-fashioned way, the American way, by winning the robust competition of the marketplace.
MCCHESNEY: Nonsense. They, the most important comp… look, they do compete. Don’t get it wrong. And the people who make movies and T.V. shows are trying to get the most viewers. That’s true.
But the most important competition these companies have is behind closed doors in Washington, getting these valuable monopoly licenses. Once you’re given a monopoly license to T.V. spectrum in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and Washington, a trained orangutan could become a billionaire. It’s no great genius then.
But once you win that fight, the rest is a downhill slope. So I mean, yes it’s true they do compete but at the same time, the most important issue is this whole system’s set up by government policy. Those policies are made correctly once you win the policy behind those closed doors, the rest of it’s easy.
MCCHESNEY: But no one else is allowed to play but the people who win those policy fights.
MCCHESNEY: When you said that you can own eight radio stations in a single market, when you said that you can own as many radio stations nationally as you like, that decision allowed Clear Channel to win in the public marketplace. It didn’t — there wasn’t some sort of competition…
MOYERS: You’re saying these decisions that are discussed in economic terms…
MOYERS: …are really political decisions.
MCCHESNEY: That’s right.
MOYERS: Is that what you’re saying?
MCCHESNEY: That’s absolutely right. With tremendous social implications.
NICHOLS: Made by — well, the decisions are made by the FCC or by Congress. I mean they’re made the same way every political decision is. The problem is that, for instance, you referenced before the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Where was the robust national debate on really what is our media environment?
MOYERS: There’s a wonderful moment in that debate.
MOYERS: I remember when John McCain…
NICHOLS: Of all people.
MOYERS: …spoke up and said, “You will not see this on television.”
MCCHESNEY: That’s right.
NICHOLS: And he was right! And the incredible thing was that, when we go around the country, you know, we did town meetings in places like Montpelier, Vermont and you know, the amazing thing is we did one about a year ago. The room was packed. You literally — there were people standing along the side to talk about media and democracy. What the heck is that? And yet, the interesting thing is that when we started talking about that debate, people were amazed. This was a first blush for many of them.
They were saying, “You know, in 1996, they made all this stuff.” And they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I think I might a heard something about that.” Well, that’s ridiculous. That would be, to do an equivalent, that would be saying, “You know, I think I might have heard something about the Clean Air Act,” or, “I think I might a heard something about, you know, just…”
MCCHESNEY: Civil Rights.
NICHOLS: “…Civil Rights Act.”
NICHOLS: This is absurd. This is, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was a fundamental, structural shift in the way we live our lives.
NICHOLS: And yet…
NICHOLS: Because we, the average American spends, is it 11 hours?
NICHOLS: Twelve hours in contact with some kind of media. When you radically reshape who controls that, how it works, how it’s structured, that affects our lives.
MOYERS: Are you saying that in the name of deregulation we’re creating monopolies?
NICHOLS: Absolutely. We call it deregulation.
MCCHESNEY: It’s not.
NICHOLS: It is not deregulation.
MCCHESNEY: Yeah. It’s regulation on the behalf of private interests, versus regulation…
NICHOLS: It’s regulation…
MCCHESNEY: …on behalf of the public.
NICHOLS: It is regulation to pick winners. We are picking winners. Now the winner, the people who get picked are the ones who have great lobbyists, and a huge push in Washington, and they do all the right things. But we are picking winners. And I can tell you, we’re also picking losers.
MCCHESNEY: That’s right.
NICHOLS: The losers are our communities. The losers are — is our democracy. In fact, when John McCain had a hearing on this just in… end of January.
MCCHESNEY: Late January.
NICHOLS: There was a wonderful gentleman from Syracuse, New York there, a small town radio station owner, talked about how he was forced out. You know, that he was just… that advertising pressure and all sorts of things were brought upon him that he had to sell out.
But he told this wonderful story of how, just a few years ago, he was on there, and he was beating Clear Channel. He was doing a great job. And he was doing local reporting, and all sorts of stuff, creating it right now, in this media era, and doing a great job. The only way, as he said, that he got beat, was that they finally just said, “Well, we own all the other stations,” and they made all these deals for advertisers, that it finally became impossible for him to compete.
MOYERS: What does it say to you that recently when the FCC, all the commissioners, came to New York to have a hearing on the rule changes here in the heart of the media universe, only one camera showed up and it was not from the corporate media?
MCCHESNEY: It was quite striking. And I think it’s always been one of the problems is that the news media that we depend on to cover important public policy issues is conflictive. There’s an extraordinary conflict of interest, because our news media are owned by firms which benefit by certain types of policies. And they have no stake in engaging the public in these.
MOYERS: Do you think your mother’s watching right now? I didn’t…
JOHN NICHOLS: Oh she will be if I tell her that… yeah.
MCCHESNEY: She watches PBS all the time.
JOHN NICHOLS: She does. She’s obsessive about it.
MOYERS: Look at your mother in the camera and tell her if she really wants to join a movement and do something practical what can she do right now?
JOHN NICHOLS: It’s a very simple thing. Write to your Congressman, mom. And write to your Senator. This is a really important reality of what happens in media as regards the structures and the rules and regulations, is driven by Congress. At this point we have a dawning recognition among a lot of members of Congress that things are amiss.
My mother’s U.S. Senator, Russ Feingold from Wisconsin, has introduced a quite good bill as regards radio consolidation and some things that need to be done. I’d hope my mom and people, other people in Wisconsin would cheer him on. I’d hope other people around the country would cheer him on. I think that we are at a point where dialogue can begin to be had. And there have been some wonderful people in Washington. Good activists who have been working at this for years and have done — who’ve put the seeds there. They’ve laid a lot of the groundwork.
Now we need the American people to come riding to the rescue. No change in this country has ever come out of Washington. It always comes when ordinary folks say, as they did with the environmental movement, or the anti-war movement, you know we don’t like where it’s headed. And members of Congress need to hear that. And members of the FCC need to hear it when they go around for these hearings around the country.
If they do, I think we have a chance. Not a certainty, but a chance to begin to kind of turn some of this around and we need to. It’s what our country needs.
MOYERS: A footnote to this conversation on how media use the public’s airwaves.
NBC is owned by General Electric; G.E. and Microsoft own the cable news network MSNBC; and MSNBC has just hired Michael Savage to do a new television program.
Mr. Savage is the host of an ABC radio show called SAVAGE NATION. MSNBC says Michael Savage will provide “compelling opinion and analysis with edge.” Now, what does that mean?
Well, let’s look at the record: Michael Savage is known to speak on the air of non-white countries as — you may want to cover your children’s eyes — as “turd world nations.”
Open your door to immigrants, he has said, and “the next thing you know they are defecating on your country and breeding out of control.” He has said that while Latinos, in particular, “breed like rabbits” and whites don’t, homosexuals “are part of the grand plan to cut down on the white race.”
When student volunteers distributed food to San Francisco’s homeless, Mr. Savage said “the girls can go in and maybe get raped because they seem to like the excitement of it. There’s always the thrill and possibility they’ll be raped in a dumpster while giving out a turkey sandwich.”
When the Million Mom March called for gun control, Mr. Savage said children killed by guns “are not kids, they’re ghetto slime.”
Never mind. Apparently such ideas strengthen the arsenal of democracy. For Michael Savage says: “We need racist stereotypes right now of our enemy in order to encourage our warriors to kill the enemy.”
So a SAVAGE NATION is now safely nestled in the bosom of big media, courtesy of G.E. and Microsoft.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW, while we’re fighting against terrorism, is the U.S. government protecting your constitutional rights?
HENTOFF: Ashcroft went to the University of Chicago Law School, very good law school. But the Bill of Rights never quite reached him.
ANNOUNCER: Civil liberties and what’s happening to them in the name of national security. That’s next week on NOW.
ANNOUNCER: And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org. Learn more about the history and politics of the mass media. Follow Seymour Hersh on a reporter’s journey. Sign up for our email newsletter. Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
MOYERS: Between orange alerts and U.N. debates and the beat-beat-beat of war drums in Washington, it’s hard to know how to quiet the nerves.
Perhaps a little dose of nostalgia is in order, a side trip off the beaten track.
Who among us doesn’t remember our first carnival ride, or the cotton candy stuck to our chin, or the two-bit prize that made you feel like a million dollars? The photographer Jeff Brouws takes us to a safe place tucked away on memory lane.
BROUWS: When I was a child, you know, this was about when I was 10 or 11 years old, I spent one whole summer hitchhiking out to Playland at the beach, which was a seaside amusement park.
My mother had repeatedly warned me not to kind of go there. So as a child, naturally that’s the first place I wanted to go. I think what was so fascinating for me about the whole midway experience, was that there were elements of risk and chance.
I have often been asked about why there aren’t more people in my photographs. And actually, I contend that the photographs have a very strong human presence. Somehow that emptiness of many of the images spoke more to me of the human presence than having people actually in the frame.
But I was also very much interested in capturing a sense of place, a sense of loss or passing or decay that I experienced in these places. Maybe even a feeling of alienation, of loneliness, because I think for some reason it’s a very American feeling.
It’s the same kind of feeling I get reading Jack Kerouac ON THE ROAD, or it’s the same kind of feeling I get from any Bruce Springsteen songs. That there’s this… this restlessness. There’s this feeling of not being able to quite achieve what you want to achieve.
One of the great things about photography is you can take photographs and they’re like wine. I mean, they seem to get better with age. Because as you get farther and farther away from the date of when the photograph was made, these things disappear. They vanish. They’re no more.
So I really think I was taking these shots because I do feel that they are passing and they will vanish and they’re important places for us and I wanted to record that. I wanted to document it. I wanted to get it down on film.
Sometimes the photograph ends up being the only existing document of what was.
MOYERS: Oh, to be young again, and back at the East Texas state fair on a crisp September evening. That’s it for NOW. Thanks for watching.
I’m Bill Moyers. Good night.
This transcript was entered on March 24, 2015.