“A PR debacle." "A very difficult sell." "A fiasco." Those were among the terms used to describe the Ohio State "town meeting" on Iraq broadcast on CNN February 18—used not by the Clinton administration, but by the news media.
In the days following the raucous event, at which audience members peppered three administration officials with pointed questions about U.S. policy and anti-war chants, reporters across the country tended to focus not on whether military action was warranted or whether it would be supported by the public, but on a more important topic: how the government failed to sell war to the American people.
Viewers at home might have been forgiven for assuming that the point of the exercise was to answer questions, not circumvent them. Presented as a "town meeting" for senior officials Madeleine Albright, William Cohen and Samuel Berger to address questions surrounding what then seemed to be an inevitable U.S. bombing of Iraq, the event was open to the public, albeit a pre-selected slice thereof: 1,000 floor seats were distributed to local civic and veterans' groups, and to such student organizations as the Young Republicans and College Democrats. Five thousand general admission tickets were also made available to the general public, though only the privileged "red tickets" would earn the bearer a shot at asking a question.
Even the notion of putting public officials before the public, according to media post mortems, was an unforgivable mistake. The New York Post may have been the only paper bold enough to splash "No Way to Run a War" across its front page (2/19/98), but other media outlets' sentiments were similar. "Unruly, disorganized and badly staged," summarized Dan Rather (2/18/98), with fellow CBS reporter Scott Pelley sympathetically quoting a "senior administration official" bemoaning that the event was "a disaster. Badly scripted."
Such sentiments were echoed through the news media, which seemed determined to critique the event as if they were PR consultants for a pro-war media campaign. The meeting was derided as "unruly democracy" (Bergen [NJ.] Record, 2/19/98), a "PR disaster" (Time, 3/2/98) and, most damning of all, "very bad television" (Chicago Tribune, 2/20/98). Time essayist Andrew Ferguson (3/2/98) dissed the forum as "worthless as a means of preparing the country for war," and the magazine's news coverage in the same issue agreed: "That homey, Yankee tradition of a folksy town meeting is great for campaign rallies and safe issues like health care or job training. It's no way to sell a war."
A CNN Event
Given that both White House and media readily acknowledged that this was meant to serve as a PR event for a planned military action, it's remarkable that a news organization was sharing the billing. "We cannot be just a vehicle for the administration," CNN's Frank Sesno had told the Associated Press before the town meeting. Not, that is, without getting something in return: "We made it clear," Sesno explained, "that, for editorial purposes, this had to be a CNN event"—i.e., exclusively on that network.
The White House agreed, and as a result viewers were treated to an administration war rally hosted by CNN anchors Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff, who dutifully shushed audience members who showed too little respect for the officials. Shaw announced, for the benefit of the TV audience, that "there are only about 12of you who are shouting." (Earlier shots had seemed to show several dozen, but after Shaw's remark the cameras were determinedly pointed at the lower tiers.) Later, evidently befuddled by his joint role as journalist and master of ceremonies, Shaw shouted at an audience member during a commercial break, "This program lasts 90 minutes and you are not going to be allowed to disrupt it!"
Denied co-hosting rights by the exclusive CNN deal, other networks had to scramble for their own angle, but still found ways to serve the war cause. In contrast to the "abuse" (as it was called on World News Tonight, 2/18/98) the officials were subjected to by audience members, Nightline later that night presented the proper way of questioning government officials, airing the results of Ted Koppel's daylong trek with the OSU Three. On an Ohio-bound plane, Koppel prompted both Berger and Cohen, "What is it that you see in the newspapers that ticks you off?" (The two officials had few complaints.) After the town meeting, Koppel repeatedly wondered aloud to the trio whether the tumult had given Iraq the wrong idea about American resolve.
"The dissenters asked tougher and better questions than the national security advisers get from Congress or [the] press corps," noted Cleveland Plain Dealer TV critic Tom Feran (2/21/98), who wrote that the "hecklers left the moderators, CNN anchors Bernard Shaw and Judy Woodruff, looking panicked, upset and almost like official presenters for policy they are supposed to be covering."
Others took a dimmer view of antiwar dissenters. Ever since Ronald Reagan popularized 'Vietnam Syndrome" as an explanation for the U.S. public's distaste for war in the early '80s, the media have been dismissing anti-war activists as mere throwbacks to a past era, a myth only bolstered by the near- blackout of the massive anti-war protests during the Gulf War. The OSU protestors were portrayed as "reminiscent of the anti-war protests of a generation ago" (Newsday, 2/19/98), "hippie-era catcalling" (Washington Times, 2/23/98), "the type of vocal protest not heard since Vietnam" (ABC World News Tonight, 2/18/98), "Berkeley and the '60s fast-forwarded to 1998" (Time, 3/2/98). "It began to sound at times like an anti-war teach-in during the Vietnam era," noted Koppel, an odd analogy given that the "teachers" were uniformly pro-war U.S. officials.
Worse yet, some reporters charged, these students may have been guilty of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The dissent "must have been music to the ears of Saddam Hussein," reported Pentagon correspondent David Martin on CBS (2/18/98)—adding parenthetically that "one of the big three" had confided that "he remembered better protests from the '60s." Boston Globe columnist Thomas Oliphant (2/22/98) summed up the hecklers as "a few Saddam apologists and Israel-haters."
Little wonder, then, that hawkish veteran Mike McCall, who asked if the U.S. planned to "finish the job" or "do it half-assed," was the lone audience member invited onto the Today show (2/19/98) to debate Albright. Meanwhile, Jon Strange and Rick Theis, the two most articulate anti-war audience members, were limited to the much smaller audiences of Pacifica Radio.
When all these themes were brought together, coverage devolved into a thick stew of buzzwords. The grand prize went to the Philadelphia Daily News, which in one rhetoric- packed editorial (2/19/98) referred to "60s-style chants" and "college kids emulating 1960s movies"; called the event "The Mother of All Television Fiascoes," "an unruly circus" and, inevitably, "a PR debacle"; and compared the proceedings to Oprah, Rosie O'Donnell and "a Jerry Springer show on transvestite strippers."
The talk-show metaphor was a popular one—"Oprahfication" was the word repeatedly used by an oft-quoted GOP representative—in part because it allowed commentators to reject whatever public sentiment had been expressed without seeming to reject the public outright. But when Time's Ferguson (3/2/98) called the televised town meeting "the offspring of Phil Donahue," he was making his political preferences clear: He hailed the undemocratic aspects of the U.S. political system for their ability to "quiet the mob" and "create a space for sober decision-making by people the voters had chosen to make decisions for them."
Not many were so blunt as to describe those expressing unauthorized opinions as a "mob," but that was the subtext of much coverage. The New York Times' Elaine Sciolino (2/22/98) reported of the Ohio meeting that "President Clinton dismissed the event as an exercise in old-fashioned democracy." One gets the impression that both Clinton and much of the media would prefer a more newfangled democracy: the kind where no one disagrees.
Neil deMause is the co-author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit (Common Courage).