Let’s say you’re a senior news editor at a prestigious national newspaper. Let’s say you’re savvy, experienced, and have an intellectual capacity superior to that of, say, a pile of gravel. Now let’s say that one of your political reporters comes charging in to your corner office waving e-mail printouts. The conversation might go something like this:
“Looky looky, boss! My sources say that POW Bergdahl was a traitor! Gave classified information to his Taliban buddies! Wore a keffiyah! Smoked opium! Yelled ‘Death to America’!”
“Wow, that could be huge. Who are your sources?”
“Soldiers he served with!”
“Okay. Did you go out and find them?”
“No, they called me. A whole bunch of them, right out of the blue!”
“Hmmm. Did they say who gave them your number?”
“Some PR firm, I didn’t pay much attention to that part. But come on, boss! Deserters! Terrorists! Mooslims! We gotta run this!”
So, pop quiz time. If you’re that senior editor, which one of the following actions do you take?
- Go into full-blown J. Jonah Jameson mode, chomp down on your cigar, and yell, “Stop the presses!”
- Treat the story with suspicion and send one of your less credulous reporters out to find more info on the marketing firm having soldiers call your staff with juicy, unsolicited stories about how Bowe Bergdahl is a jerk and maybe a traitor.
If you chose B), congratulations. You’re qualified to edit newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Those newspapers’ senior editors should let you take over and pursue alternate careers in the food service industry.
Republican political marketing strategist Richard Grenell is running this particular show from his firm, Capitol Media Partners, where he is a partner. Grenell used to be an aide to the Ambassador of Crazy Town, neo-conservative hero John Bolton, and was a senior foreign policy consultant to the Romney presidential campaign until the rest of the campaign a regular on Fox News.
The Times did acknowledge that “Republican strategists” set up an interview with some soldiers who served with Bergdahl in Afghanistan. The Post went further and identified both Grenell and Capitol Media Partners. The same soldiers gave interviews to the Post, the Los Angeles Times, and four bastions of conservative journalistic integrity: the Weekly Standard, the Daily Mail, the Wall Street Journal, and (please don’t act surprised) Fox News. The soldiers gave essentially the same interview to all six outlets.
For example, Spc. Cody Full told reporters he thought it was weird that Bergdahl wouldn’t drink beer and eat barbecue with them, and doubly weird that he actually wanted to learn some of the languages spoken in the region. Another tidbit that Full believed indicated Bergdahl’s penchant for treason was the fact that he used to look at the mountains around them and speculate if he could get to China from their location. I know, right?! Other soldiers said that Bergdahl wrote “Jason Bourne-type novels in which he inserted himself as the lead character.” (As a writer myself, my first reaction upon reading that was, “Novels? How much time did he spend over there before being captured?”) Sgt. Evan Buetow provided details that indicated Bergdahl may have been planning to go AWOL. And another soldier, medic Joshua Cornelison, told the Post that he flatly considers Bergdahl a deserter.
The Times even spread the soldiers’ speculation that the Taliban launched at least one attack because it “knew” that soldiers would be out hunting for Bergdahl and the base would be undermanned — speculation the Defense Department says is entirely unfounded.
Full tweeted after the news stories were published:
I want to thank @richardgrenell for helping get our platoon’s story out.
Grenell didn’t blush or call Full with a demand to keep his name out of it, instead he retweeted the post and called Full a “true American hero.” Because true-blue American soldiers publicly vilify their mates after learning that they’ve been released from a POW camp.
Grenell’s business partner Brad Chase calls the firm’s PR strategy in publicly smearing Bergdahl just another business deal:
Obviously Ric is a well-known Republican and these guys found him on Twitter and reached out asking for help in getting their story out. Ric obviously saw that this is something that needed to be told and came to me and others in our firm, and I and some of the others determined that this was a story that we wanted to work on.
Chase went on to say that the Times was wrong to label them as “Republican strategists,” because he himself is not a Republican. But a producer for a conservative radio show confirmed that Grenell, the proud GOP operative, was the one who actually set up the interviews. Grenell himself says he is “just providing administrative help forwarding along emails,” is merely offering his firm’s services pro bono, and not actually coordinating the well-coordinated PR assault. And if you believe that, I’ve got a great new product that both degreases your motorcycle engine and serves as a tasty dessert topping. (Actually, I do believe that Grenell and CMP are not being paid for the efforts. The good will the firm has generated among the far right will keep them in cabernet and Chateaubriand for pretty much the rest of their careers.)
Chase may well not be a registered Republican. But the senior partner in the firm, Grenell, is a Republican activist. And Chase routinely uses Twitter to bait and antagonize Democrats and trumpet his support for, among other things, fracking, slashes in Medicare, “clean coal,” and the Keystone XL pipeline. Hmmm.
Full himself is a proud hard-right conservative, posting tweets about “libtards,” celebrating Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay his grazing fees, and denigrating low-wage workers who want raises. As Gawker reporter Adam Weinstein wrote,
That’s enough to question his opinions, if not the basic facts of the situation he describes in Afghanistan.
It didn’t take long for the strategy to itself become media fodder. LA Times reporter David Zucchino acknowledged that he had contacted Grenell for the story, and Grenell made Buetow available to him. Helene Cooper of the NY Times soon admitted that Grenell contacted her. And before either of those eminent news outlets had published their stories, Grenell was on Fox News blasting the Obama decision to swap five Guantanamo detainees for Bergdahl and talking about Bergdahl’s comrades feeling all icky about him. The day after Grenell’s Fox appearance, CBS national correspondent David Martin said the soldiers were “using a public relations firm” to push their version of events surrounding Bergdahl, and called it “a coordinated effort” which is “being organized by a public relations firm.” Oddly enough, Martin didn’t tell CBS viewers any of this; he told it to PBS’s Charlie Rose, who runs a wonderful hour-long interview show that gets less viewership than reruns of Manimal.
MSNBC writer Steve Benen poses the most rhetorical of rhetorical questions:
What exactly is going on here? The release of an American POW from his Taliban captors in Afghanistan has become a political operation in which Republican strategists direct reporters to specific sources?
Well, yes. It has become just that.
Weinstein sums the situation up quite nicely:
The preponderance of the evidence suggests [Bergdahl] probably deserted his Army post, and the search for him cost American materiel and lives. But rather than waiting for a military process to answer those questions and pronounce judgment on Bergdahl — the Army’s top general, in fact, said today that charges are still possible — several of the soldiers have agreed to participate in a GOP-run dog-and-pony show, swift-boat style, for electoral advantage.
As for Grenell’s insistence that none of this is designed to play well with Republicans, Weinstein dismisses that out of hand:
They simply gathered all these soldiers to trash Bergdahl and the DOD and President Obama out of their desire to get the truth out, because there was clearly no possible way that could have happened without them.
I expect nothing less from Fox News, the Weekly Standard, and the rest of the right-wing scream machine. There literally is no depth to which they will not sink, individually and collectively, to smear Democrats, particularly Obama and future almost-certain presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. I expect little more from the editors and publishers of the nation’s “mainstream media” outlets — they have repeatedly shown that they are little better than kittens fascinated by the glowing red beam of the laser pointer. I do expect more from experienced professional journalists such as Zucchino, Cooper, and the NY Times’s Charlie Savage. They should know better.
I am disgusted at the actions of the soldiers. I am appalled that they would put their politics ahead of their loyalty to their fellow soldiers, even if they are personally and professionally suspicious (or more) about the circumstances behind Bergdahl’s capture and imprisonment. Disgusted, appalled, but not surprised — I well remember the “loyal soldiers” who lined up in 2004 to besmirch presidential candidate John Kerry’s war record as part of the infamous Swift Boat campaign.
The Kerry campaign allowed the lies and character assassinations of the Swift Boaters to derail it, and (I believe) paid for its tardy and supine response by losing the election. So far, I don’t see either Obama or Clinton making the same mistake. The proxy attacks on Obama and Clinton via Bergdahl are unraveling, as Americans of all political stripes are reacting with horror and disgust at the increasingly hateful attacks on Bergdahl and his family by right-wing mouthpieces and lawmakers. If the attacks were conceived as something the right could thrash Democrats with in the 2014 elections, the attempt is misfiring. If anything, the right will pay the price at the polling places for its unconscionable and hateful attacks on an American soldier for political gain.
Let us know your thoughts at the Liberal America Facebook page.
Published writer since 2001, focusing on politics, history, Web development, and other topics. First book is coming soon.
edited by tw