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On a blustery Sunday morning outside the CBS studio in Washington, D.C., I shared a moment with veteran television journalist Bob Schieffer that spoke volumes about the sad state of democracy and journalism in the United States.
Schieffer was inside, behind the glass wall. I was outside on the sidewalk with an antiwar contingent organized by the women’s peace group “Code Pink” waiting to ask one of Schieffer’s guests on “Face the Nation” that morning — Secretary of State Colin Powell — questions about U.S. plans to invade Iraq.
For a brief moment, Schieffer approached the window to get a look at us. He smiled. I smiled back and pointed to my sign, “From the streets into the studio.” I gestured to him to come outside to talk. “I’ll explain my sign,” I said. He smiled, perhaps unable to hear me through the thick glass wall. “C’mon out,” I said, waving and smiling to reassure him we weren’t dangerous. “Let’s talk.”
Schieffer smiled again, waved, and walked away. Shortly after that Powell arrived, ignoring our request that he take a moment to talk with us. (At least Powell came in through the front door. We had started the day at ABC, where the guest for “This Week,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, entered the studio in a car through the garage to avoid us.) About 15 minutes later, Schieffer began his interview with Powell by saying:
“Yesterday we saw tens of thousands of demonstrators converge on Washington. A fairly large crowd, I would say, a very large crowd considering that the weather was in the 20s. They say we should not go to war against Iraq. I would just like to ask you this morning, what do you say those people who say we shouldn’t?”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. Schieffer was invoking the antiwar movement and its sizable protest the day before, yet evidently he couldn’t see a reason to take even a few seconds that morning to talk with real live antiwar demonstrators outside his door.
If Schieffer had come out, I would have told him that the phrase on my sign was a condensed argument for opening up the dialogue on public-affairs shows such as “Face the Nation” to include more than just the voices from the halls of power. No matter which network you tune to on Sunday morning, these talk shows offer up a steady parade of government officials, military officers, retired government officials, retired military officers and the occasional academics or “experts” who mostly parrot the official view.
The previous day (Jan. 18), those of us on the sidewalk had been among the 200,000 protesters on the Washington mall, with tens of thousands more in cities all over the country, exercising our rights to assemble and speak. But if Schieffer — and the other journalists making choices about whose voices get amplified on television — were doing their job responsibly, they would bring antiwar voices from the streets into the studios. In addition to news stories about our demonstrations, they would include such critical voices in their shows.
But, one might counter, can’t journalists — who claim to function as watchdogs of power — ask the tough questions that opponents of the war might ask? Yes, they could, but most often they don’t. Throughout the interview, Schieffer let Powell frame the issue and avoid difficult questions. Perhaps the single biggest failure of the interview was that Schieffer focused entirely on inspections, which implicitly accepted the Bush administration claim that a war against Iraq will be about the threat from weapons of mass destruction. Schieffer never questioned Powell about the desire of U.S. policymakers to consolidate control over the flow of oil and oil profits in the Middle East. Might it not be relevant to ask the secretary if the weapons issue could be merely a pretext for an invasion to establish a U.S. client state in Iraq? It’s a question most of the world is asking.
At the antiwar rally on Saturday, that analysis was explored in speeches from the stage and conversations all over the mall. It was a grand display of democracy in action; people engaged in spirited conversation about public policy. But in a society where the majority of people get most of their information from television, it is crucial that such a more expansive debate make it on the air, that critics are not just tolerated in the streets but invited into the studio.
Not surprisingly, Powell responded to Schieffer’s questions with the same pat answers that Bush administration officials have been using for months as they try to explain why we need a war that virtually the whole world opposes. And, also not surprisingly, Schieffer never offered a serious challenge to Powell.
What might have happened if Schieffer had stepped outside to talk to us on the street? What might have happened if he had allowed a representative of the antiwar movement into the studio to challenge Powell?
From my vantage point as a former newspaper journalist, a professor of journalism, and a citizen, I think Schieffer would have been doing his job more responsibly. And the American public would have learned more from such a show than they did from Schieffer’s polite, and mostly useless, interview with Powell.
Journalists often are willing to cover antiwar protests, and that’s important. But, especially on television, those stories almost never explore our evidence and arguments in sufficient depth. Perhaps that is why much of America thinks our analysis is about as deep as the slogans on a sign at a rally.
What if we were allowed routinely into the television studios to speak for ourselves? Not only might the public’s view of protesters and the antiwar movement change, but the debate over the war would be enriched and the American people would be better informed.
My advice to Schieffer and his colleagues: Next time you see a group of people willing to wait in the cold outside your studio to make a political point, take a chance and open the door. We don’t bite, and we’ve got a lot to say.
ROBERT JENSEN is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet “Citizens of the Empire.”
He can be reached at email@example.com.