Dissent is so crucial to American democracy that its spirit was written into the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After assuring citizens of certain other freedoms, such as the “free exercise” of religion and “freedom of speech, or of the press,” the founding fathers were very explicit about “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
You may define dissent in many different ways, often depending on whether it occurs in war or peace, but its essence has always been clear: People in a democracy have an inalienable right to express their dissent, their disagreement or disgust with a government policy, and the government, in response, cannot, or should not, take any step to curtail dissent, even if it is tempted to do so. President George H.W. Bush, aware of his limitations in this regard, once portrayed himself as “one man” in fierce battle with a horde of lobbyists on Capitol Hill objecting to an aspect of his Mideast policy—they were, in fact, “peaceably” assembling and petitioning their government. The President, taking advantage of his bully pulpit at the White House, was trying to paint the petitioners into an uncomfortable corner of public opinion, as though by disagreeing with his policy they were somehow engaging in an unpatriotic action.
His son, President George W. Bush, masterfully seized the tragic events of September 11th to rally the country in a global war against terrorism, and for a time he succeeded, probably beyond his own wildest expectations. A tidal wave of patriotism swept across the land and much of the mood still remains. It is everywhere and regarded as a welcome relief from the dark skepticism of the Vietnam era. During the seventh-inning stretch at a World Series game, people rise in solemn unity and, with their right hands covering their hearts and American flags fluttering from poles, they sing “God Bless America,” and they seem to enjoy every cadence. Radio commercials extol the virtues of giving your “extra” car to veterans who might need one, and you get a tax deduction to add to the good feeling of helping someone in uniform. Bridges are bedecked with flags; trucks and cars sport them on back bumpers.
Not since World War II has there been such a warm rush of patriotism. Yet not since World War II has dissent seemed so problematic. It’s not that there hasn’t been dissent; in recent months, since the swift military victory over Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime in Iraq, dissent has risen throughout the land, as a wide range of problems unexpected in their breadth and depth has erupted, leading to a slow but steadily corrosive effect on public support for the administration effort. The daily casualty reports only compound the administration’s problems.
Critics who were very reluctant after September 11th to criticize the President, or his policy, for fear of seeming to be unpatriotic, have now emerged from the woodwork, some with full-throated criticism of both. “What went wrong with the intelligence?,” they ask. “Were we deliberately misled before the war about the extent of Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’?” “Was there in fact an ‘imminent’ threat, as we had been told?” Simply put, “Were we lied to?”
Journalism and the Iraq War
The administration knows that the postwar reality of Iraq does not make for pleasant reading or viewing, and it does raise serious doubts about U.S. policy. In response, President Bush has led an administration-wide counterattack, playing on a widespread conservative belief that the media, too “liberal” in its orientation, cannot be trusted to tell the truth. The President proudly asserts that he doesn’t read newspapers, acknowledging that he might occasionally glance at a headline but “rarely” reads the article. “The best way to get the news,” he explained during a lengthy interview with Fox News, “is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what’s happening in the world.” He wore a straight face while making this outlandish comment.
The President has been unhappy about news reports from Iraq that often highlight the negative and rarely accentuate the positive. “We’re making good progress in Iraq,” he insisted, during this same interview. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell when you listen to the filter,” the use of the word “filter” being his way of refusing even to mention the word “media.”
The White House is determined to control the message, which means it must try to exercise more control over the messengers—a strategic goal that has been tested by many other administrations with results that have always left much to be desired. Nonetheless, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has been put in charge of a new White House task force whose primary responsibility is to turn negative news about Iraq into positive news—a daunting task, almost certain to fail.
There are, of course, various strategies to try to address this task. One is to tighten control over news sources in Iraq, to reduce the number of officials who talk to the media; another is to limit access to normally newsworthy places, such as hospitals, police stations, and army depots. On one occasion, ABC News’s footage in Iraq was confiscated on a flimsy pretext. Still another approach is to send prominent U.S. officials to Iraq for the purpose of doing TV interviews from Baghdad joyfully proclaiming that the progress they see everywhere is mighty impressive. Of course, the message loses much of its power when these same officials are hustled to Kuwait in the evening for “security” reasons. Once, when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz decided to overnight in Baghdad, rockets slammed into his hotel, and a U.S. soldier was killed in a weekend of violence. Yet another way to sell the “positive” message, foolish in the extreme, is to encourage troops in Iraq to sign and send the exact same draft of a letter of support for the war to different hometown newspapers, apparently in an effort to suggest that if the troops support the war, then every American ought to, as well.
The White House is learning that control of the message was easier before the war. Then, reporters seemed reluctant to criticize the President or his policy. Patriotism stifled the urge to ask penetrating questions of senior officials or, on the omnipresent talk shows, to voice skepticism about the buildup to the war. Now, in the aftermath of a brilliant military campaign, the Bush administration faces huge problems in Iraq that were simply unanticipated by the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. Each of these problems, punctuated by violence, represents hard and unavoidable news, and the tone of coverage has decidedly changed—too much to suit the White House—and the White House is fighting back.
There is, undeniably, a rising chorus of dissent against the President’s poli-cies—abroad and at home. Critics might argue that there is not enough dissent, that the administration has been suffocating dissent, but it exists. Read any newspaper. Watch any television report. Listen to any radio talk show. The debate is everywhere, and it is intensifying as the opening of the presidential campaign draws near.
Questions About Dissent
“The Press and Coverage of Dissent”
– Excerpt from “The Media and the War on Terrorism”In “The Media and the War on Terrorism,” a book I edited with Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, we included a chapter called “Dissent.” Its content emerged out of a seminar held on this subject on February 27, 2002, six months after the September 11th terrorist attacks. With Iraq then on the horizon, the war in Afghanistan was a prime topic of discussion; agreement existed among our five experts that the war was “so popular, so swift, and so successful” that there was no “room or time” for a “broad, vigorous dissent.”
Pollster Peter Hart, a participant in this seminar, asked in one of his public opinion surveys whether dissent weakens the nation’s defense or strengthens it. Forty-nine percent of those he polled said it strengthened the nation. In a 1985 poll, 57 percent supported the right of dissent, even during war. Hart felt the figures indicated little real difference. I disagree. There has been a noticeable drop in support of dissent during the war on terrorism.
Other seminar participants spoke to issues related to the media and dissent. Boston Globe media reporter Mark Jurkowitz raised the question, “Who should decide what should be published during wartime about military operations?” A Pew Center poll revealed that two out of three Americans favored Pentagon oversight, in effect revealing the obvious: Many Americans didn’t trust the media. Columnist Geneva Overholser decried the fact that in her view too few voices of dissent were being heard, too few questions being asked. She inferred that when the voices are heard and the questions are asked, it might prove to be too late. National Public Radio anchor Robert Siegel noted that in the past journalists usually produced the “first draft of history.” Now, he said, that responsibility has been assumed by the Pentagon’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose daily briefings have set the tone for national coverage of the war on terrorism.
In the bloody aftermath of the Iraq invasion, there is a strong sense this is all changing. With serious problems in Iraq and with the economy hovering between recovery and continuing uncertainty, the Bush administration no longer fully controls the message nor the news, as it looks ahead and sees a reelection campaign that months ago seemed like a cakewalk now appearing more like mortal combat. It sees spreading dissent and open disagreement, even within its own party, and the media have begun to give more coverage of the political opposition and to antiwar critics. The administration might yet prevail, but if it prevails, it will only be after a vigorous debate with those who are now taking fuller advantage of their constitutional right to express their patriotic dissent.
Marvin Kalb is a senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and faculty chair for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government’s Washington, D.C programs. An award-winning reporter, he worked for 30 years for CBS and NBC News, as chief diplomatic correspondent, Moscow bureau chief, and host of “Meet the Press.” His most recent book, “The Media and the War on Terrorism,” coedited with Stephen Hess, was published by the Brookings Institution Press in the fall of 2003.