On August 6, as her 15 minutes of fame was just beginning, Cindy Sheehan used an odd term in a TV interview with Mark Knoller of CBS. She referred to the foreign insurgents and terrorists in Iraq as “freedom fighters.” Knoller cut those words out of his report, he told me, because he “really wasn’t interested.” He should have left them in. In fact, alarm bells should have rung in his brain. First of all, it’s startling that an antiwar mother would talk that way about people who blow up children and who may have killed her own son. Second, “freedom fighters” in this context is the telltale lingo of the hard, anti-American left. When the grieving mother starts talking that way, it’s news.
Knoller recalls that other reporters on the scene were watching his interview that day in Texas, but apparently they weren’t any more interested in Sheehan’s little linguistic adventure than he was. Apparently none bothered to report it. The “freedom fighter” remark reached the public only because an antiwar group, Veterans for Peace, filmed the CBS interview. It was picked up by an anti-Cindy Sheehan website, sweetness-light.com, where bloggers and conservative commentators noticed and circulated it.
Sheehan, before and after her arrival in Texas, said a great many colorful things that failed to interest mainstream reporters. Some of her acid comments registered with the public mostly because of George Will’s powerful column of August 25 and his similar comments on the Sunday ABC TV news show This Week. A few made it on to cable news. Others simply failed to make it into the mainstream media. It’s worth reviewing what she said: The neocons deliberately allowed the terrorist attacks of 9/11. American soldiers are “being sent to kill innocent people” in Iraq. Her son, Casey Sheehan, “died for oil” and was “murdered” by President Bush. The United States is “not worth dying for.” The president, who “stole the election,” is part of the “Bush crime family,” a “lying bastard,” a “führer,” a “filth spewer,” “the biggest terrorist in the world,” and an “evil maniac” who is guilty of “blatant genocide.” Sheehan also compared Lynne Stewart, the radical lawyer convicted of aiding terrorists, to Atticus Finch, the heroic lawyer who battled racism in the book and movie To Kill a Mockingbird. She has been accused of making vaguely anti-Semitic remarks, but she attributes those remarks to her political opponents. On Hardball, she said the American attack in Afghanistan was “almost the same thing” (i.e., just as evil) as the invasion of Iraq.
Extreme politics. The mainstream media’s lack of interest in these little verbal grenades is astonishing. According to a computer search, not one of them made it into news coverage by the New York Times. The Times has a public editor, or ombudsman, who might want to ask why. One explanation for the news failure is that the media wedded themselves early to a simple narrative line-the president, holed up on his ranch, refuses to meet with and comfort a grief-stricken mother. This narrative became frozen in cement when columnists of the left began talking about the “moral authority” of a parent who loses a son in war. This story line-moral mom versus stone-hearted president-didn’t allow much room to note Sheehan’s great contempt for America. There is also the vituperation she has been showering on Bush for years. She campaigned against him in 2004, vigorously promoting his impeachment, not seeking a meaningful heart-to-heart chat with the “evil maniac.” Nor did reporters point out that Bush would set himself up for more abuse if he sat down with Sheehan, probably in the meeting and surely in the press conference afterward. By sticking to the anguished-mother story line and declining to publish her outlandish verbal abuse, mainstream reporters protected the public from an inference that would otherwise been obvious: that Sheehan had either gone around the bend psychologically or, more likely, had simply thrown in her lot with the extreme America-hating left. Whenever the mainstream media inched toward actual information about what Sheehan was up to, they employed the familiar “conservatives are claiming” construction, not directly reporting Sheehan’s odd comments and extreme politics.
On the whole, the mainstream media depicted Cindy Sheehan as a moral figure without blemish. Maybe reporters and editors felt paralyzed by the “absolute moral authority” rhetoric or justified by polls showing declining support for the war. Some reporters, of course, detest Bush and oppose the war. For whatever reason, they weren’t able to break from the original soft narrative line about a mother’s grief and tell us what was really going on.