Listening to retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, you sense his intense loyalty to the military. He commanded the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, capping a 31-year Army career. So why did CBS News fire him as a paid news consultant? A straight answer from CBS seems as elusive as those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The short answer: Batiste appeared in a television advertisement sponsored by VoteVets.org, a nonpartisan group that advocates for veterans. In the 30-second spot, he said, in part: "Mr. President, you did not listen. You continue to pursue a failed strategy that is breaking our great Army and Marine Corps. I left the Army in protest in order to speak out. Mr. President, you have placed our nation in peril."
Batiste is one of the six retired generals who called for the resignation of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the spring of 2006. Of those generals, he alone both served at a high level in the Pentagon and commanded 22,000 troops in Iraq. Despite a promised promotion to three-star general, which would have made him the second-highest-ranking officer in Iraq, Batiste made the difficult decision to retire and speak out.
In his book and documentary War Made Easy, media critic Norman Solomon explains the impact these retired TV generals have on the national debate:
"In the run-up to the war in Iraq, the failure of mainstream news organizations to raise legitimate questions about the government's rush to war was compounded by the networks' deliberate decision to stress military perspectives before any fighting had even begun. CNN's use of retired generals as supposedly independent experts reinforced the decidedly military mind-set even as serious questions remained about the wisdom and necessity about going to war."
In 1999, when the United States was bombing Yugoslavia, I asked Frank Sesno, vice president of CNN: "Why pay these generals? And have you ever considered putting peace activists on the payroll? Or inviting them into the studio to respond to the drumbeat for war?" He replied: "We've talked about this. But no, we wouldn't do that. Because generals are analysts, and peace activists are advocates."
That's not far from the reason CBS gave for firing Batiste. According to a cbsnews.com blog, CBS News Vice President Linda Mason explained, "We ask that people not be involved in advocacy." Generals, it seems, are analysts when they agree with the war plan, and advocates when they oppose it. Political blog the Horse's Mouth reported that CBS News consultant Michael O'Hanlon clearly advocated for President Bush's troop surge but didn't get tossed. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, told the Horse's Mouth he "would be personally gratified to see Batiste back on CBS."
CBS is not alone in icing out perspectives critical of the Iraq War, especially when it mattered. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watchdog group, did a study analyzing the major nightly newscasts for the two weeks surrounding then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech for war before the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003. On the major evening newscasts on ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS, FAIR found 393 interviews on the issue of war, of which only three were with anti-war leaders. This, when a majority in the United States either opposed war or supported more time for inspections. This is not a mainstream media, but an extreme media, beating the drums for war.
When I spoke with Batiste, he shied away from political commentary. He was focused on the issues: the safety of the troops, the situation in Iraq. He says we need "a comprehensive national strategy," including "the tough diplomatic, political and economic measures." Instead, he says, the United States is "depending on our military almost entirely to accomplish this ill-fated mission in Iraq."
Batiste is a lifelong Republican. His father and both his grandfathers were in the military. "You see, we got this war terribly wrong. I'm not anti-war at all." Moveon.org circulated an online petition demanding CBS restore Batiste, which more than 230,000 people signed.
Batiste's crime is obvious: He dared to dissent, directly contradicting the endlessly repeated assurances reported by the network news that Bush takes his military advice from his generals on the ground, not from Congress or public-opinion polls.
CBS News has reached a new low when it censors even a pro-war Republican retired general merely for criticizing the president. The power that the broadcasters have amassed, their craven servility to the Bush administration and its failed wars, and their refusal to offer airtime to dissenters all amount to a direct threat to our democracy, a far greater threat than Saddam's imagined WMDs.