The Buffalo News has revealed that a former spokesman for President Bush has been encouraging U.S. newspapers to run news stories from Iraq written by two combat veterans who are now embedded reporters in Iraq. The veterans are from a pro-war group called Vets for Freedom that has ties to the Republican Party. We speak with John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy. [includes rush transcript]
The Buffalo News has revealed that a former spokesman for President Bush has been encouraging U.S. newspapers to run news stories from Iraq written by two combat veterans who are now embedded reporters in Iraq.
The official — Taylor Gross — has pitched the stories as "balanced and credible viewpoints gained directly from those closest to and most affected by the Iraq War."
But it turns out the veterans are from a pro-war group called Vets for Freedom that has ties to the Republican Party.
The group is now running website hosted by a firm that previously worked for the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Questions about ties between Vets for Freedom and the Republican party were first raised by the group PR Watch and citizen journalists at PR Watch’s website SourceWatch.
AMY GOODMAN: John Stauber joins us now from Madison, Wisconsin. John is Director of the Center for Media and Democracy and co-editor of the publication PR Watch. He’s co-authored several books, including Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
JOHN STAUBER: Thanks, Amy, it’s great to be on.
AMY GOODMAN: John, can you talk about this group, Vets for Freedom, and what it means, what their connection to the press is?
JOHN STAUBER: Well, Vets for Freedom is a very interesting organization. I call it a Republican front group. It might be more accurate to call it a Republican-financed, pro-war group geared toward helping the Republicans keep control of Congress and the Senate this November. It portrays itself as a nonpartisan organization of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are very concerned about the way the media has distorted the image of the war here in the United States and who want to set that record straight. Its founders have been vigorously attacking Democrat John Murtha for his position advocating withdrawal from Iraq. And as the Buffalo News reported just this Sunday, Terry Gross [sic], who was a spokesman for President Bush until last year and is now a P.R. operative and who managed the 2000 Florida debacle for the Republicans, managed their media in the Florida recount —
AMY GOODMAN: Taylor Gross?
JOHN STAUBER: Did I say — Taylor Gross, correct. He approached the Buffalo News way back in April, trying to place a couple of the founders of this Vets for Freedom organization as embedded reporters for the Buffalo News. Those two Vets for Freedom members were, and are, Wade Zirkle and David Bellavia. They’re now in Iraq, reporting on the Vets for Freedom blog. Apparently at least one of them will soon be back in the United States. So I think what we’ve got here is a pro-war organization.
Its financing is very mysterious. I suspect that, like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, with which it shares a consulting firm, the Donatelli Group, if we knew who was really funding this organization, it would probably be well-heeled people within the Republican Party. I think it’s also very possible that this is part of the bigger propaganda campaign that has received hundreds of millions of dollars of public money over the last few years, money that’s gone to organizations like the Lincoln Group and other P.R. firms to sell the war.
AMY GOODMAN: We invited on Vets for Freedom to the program, but the group’s vice chairman, Owen West, said that no one could join us today. I want to play a clip of the group’s founder, Wade Zirkle, speaking on the Hugh Hewitt Show, explaining why he formed the group. Zirkle is a former Marine lieutenant, who served two deployments in Iraq.
WADE ZIRKLE: You know, when I came home, I was injured. And I came home, and, you know, I was watching on TV and on the radio, listening to politicians do their grandstanding spiel, and I realized that, you know, what is being reported to the American people is not what I know from firsthand experience what’s going on in Iraq. And I felt like no one was speaking for us.
AMY GOODMAN: John Stauber, your response?
JOHN STAUBER: Well, this is part of the line that this organization has, that we have to stay the course, we have to support the Bush administration’s global war on terror, we have to push forward, that we owe it to the veterans who’ve died and who’ve suffered so much, and that the only patriotic course is one of total support for the Bush administration’s global war on terror.
I think there was a really important part of the puzzle regarding Veterans for Freedom and what their role is in this election year provided by the New York Times last week, when last Wednesday, in a front-page article, the New York Times reported that the Republican strategy for winning in November is going to be to strongly embrace exactly this pro-war position of Vets for Freedom. And Vets for Freedom is represented by a very sophisticated Republican public relations firm that Taylor Gross founded, called the Herald Group. I think what they understand is that getting vets out as advocates for staying the course, as critics and attackers of anyone who says we should withdraw troops from Iraq, is going to be a very powerful card to play.
AMY GOODMAN: The Vets for Freedom website now features dispatches from Iraq written by these former soldiers who were in Iraq as embedded reporters. The top story on their blog is headlined "Positive Development from Down South." It was written by Vets for Freedom’s executive director, Wade Zirkle. Last week the group’s vice chair, David Bellavia, wrote about being embedded with the Iraqi military in Ramadi. He describes the experience like this: "Seeing these men in action is amazing. The people of Ramadi trust them. They give them bread and tea. Kids are playing soccer and riding donkeys in the street." This description of Ramadi stands in stark contrast to the other reports coming out of Ramadi, which Iraqis fear will be the site of the next Fallujah. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that thousands of families are reportedly trapped in the city and facing a mounting humanitarian crisis. Food and medical supplies are running low." John, your response to these reports?
JOHN STAUBER: I think these so-called "news reports" coming from David Bellavia, one of the Vets for Freedom founders, is exactly what this organization is all about. When Bush’s former spokesperson, Taylor Gross, pitched the Buffalo News and the New York Post and other papers to have Zirkle and Bellavia of Vets for Freedom reporting for them as embedded journalists, I believe this was an effort to be able to portray these pro-war Republican advocates as journalists. And again, they state clearly on their website, which is maintained by the Donatelli Group, the same organization that provided similar services to the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, they maintain on their website that they are all about changing the media coverage of the war in Iraq to make it pro-war, pro-mission coverage, now, we see, even to the point of trying to portray themselves as embedded journalists.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you know of any news organization who has taken their reports?
JOHN STAUBER: Well, I think it’s interesting that there was no real reporting about Veterans for Freedom until we at Center for Media and Democracy began looking at them this month. And then the Buffalo News came forward and broke this big story on Sunday, about how the former Bush spokesperson, Taylor Gross, was pitching them back in April to make these guys embedded reporters for the Buffalo News. As far as we know, according to Taylor Gross in the Buffalo News article, no paper used them as embedded journalists. That’s a good sign.
But it’s interesting to note that when Taylor Gross was pitching these guys, he didn’t say to these papers, "Hey, I’m Taylor Gross. I was a spokesperson for President Bush until last year." He simply said, "I’ve got some brave vets, and they can provide nonpartisan, unbiased coverage for you on the cheap from Iraq. Would you like them as embedded reporters?" So I think that was really an effort — remember, this was back in April — again to be able to have these Vets for Freedom, pro-war advocates say, "Not only are we combat veterans." And these are guys, many of whom were very wounded in combat. There’s no questioning their valor or personal passion or commitment, but I think this effort to embed them and get them reporting for papers like the New York Post and the Buffalo News was actually an effort to provide them a veneer of journalism. And it’s all fallen apart, because the Buffalo News has revealed it.
What I think is extremely disturbing is that except for this report right now on Democracy Now!, no other national news media has picked this up. There’s been no legs to the Buffalo News story, no wire services have picked it up. And yet, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, the New York Times, have all run op-eds from these guys, without any reporting on who they actually are.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting. This is what we call engaging in trickle-up journalism. Maybe viewers, listeners now, people who are reading the transcripts, will call their news organizations to ask for more coverage of this. John, I also wanted to ask you about video news releases, a follow-up. Your organization, Center for Media and Democracy, revealed in April that at least 77 TV stations around the country have been caught airing corporate-sponsored propaganda disguised as news. The report accuses of TV stations of actively disguising the content to make it appear to be their own reporting, even though the spots were actually paid for by companies like General Motors, Panasonic and Pfizer. What’s been the response to the study since you put it out and we broadcast it?
JOHN STAUBER: The response has been extremely heartening, because the Federal Communications Commission, based on our fake TV news report, has launched a formal investigation of these 36 stations that we caught red-handed airing corporate propaganda disguised as news stories. What the result of that investigation will be, of course, we don’t know. But that was a tremendous development. And now, we’re urging people to contact the FCC and to demand that the FCC enforce regulations on the books that require the — [inaudible]
AMY GOODMAN: John Stauber, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy. Looks like we just lost that satellite feed, but we do want to thank Public Television in Madison, Wisconsin, WHA-TV, Channel 21, for hosting John today. John is co-editor of the publication, PR Watch, and has written a number of books, including Weapons of Mass Deception.