The dumbest question on earth turned out to be the only pertinent one.
I was sitting at the anchor desk in San Francisco when President Bush delivered the State of the Union of 2003. We all expected an update on Afghanistan and instead the president pulled the now famous bait and switch. Magically, with no Democratic consensus, Osama became Saddam, and Afghanistan became Iraq. As the president was speaking, I called out to the camera people and the floor director in the studio. "I don't believe this, are you guys listening to this? Bush is preparing to go to war on another front without congressional approval." The president likened Saddam to Hitler and said Iraq had nuclear (Nuke-you-lure) weapons, biological weapons and chemical weapons. He used his 86 percent approval rating at the time to buy silence from the press and here's how that occurred in my life.
A camera person laughed and said, "Les, Bubba is about to rally the nation to another war. Wasn't Saddam Bubba Sr.'s nemesis?" The lights are bright, but I looked out into the dark studio and said, "Jesus, we have to say something. We can't just blithely sit here and pretend this is not worth discussing. The president is using 9/11 fear to start another war." The member of the Texas-Oil- Silver- Sperm- society is about to connect 9/11 to getting the oil fields and the enemy his father couldn't."
I waited, fearful that reporters from Washington would not speak up. I was fearful I would have to be the one to bring it up. Fearful that the new administration in our Fox affiliate would expect us to shut up and pretend we did not hear. I would later find out that's exactly what was expected of me. It was a new role for a loud-mouth girl from Texas, and one I did not know how to play.
Just a few years earlier, questioning power and asking fearless questions had earned our newscast the award of "Best Broadcast in the Nation," by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. PBS announced how rare we were and showed my picture. But, the good ole' boys in charge now did not really understand any of that. Now, in this fearful post 9/11 world, the new managers talked about Christianity, stared down those who cursed in the newsroom, and fired people so heartlessly they made them attend their own "goodbye parties" to save face. The other reporters had to watch this deceitful dance and were stricken with fear and loathed to speak up. I suppose that was the point. The world felt as if it was upside down, and I was now working for the "flat earth society."
When the president finally ended his speech, there was a recap by the reporters. It was stenographic in nature. There was no analysis, and no indication that another illegal war had been declared. I then opened my mouth. What I said next began the unraveling of a spotless 25 years of reporting.
"I did not hear any mention of the current war in Afghanistan or Osama Bin Laden." I said, hoping to prompt the seasoned reporter to point out the obvious and open discussion. Instead, he simply said, "That's right Leslie, the president did not mention Osama or Afghanistan." I sat there stunned.
As I left the studio, I was relieved to see that CNN was discussing the bait and switch that had just occurred. I left feeling a sense of dread. I found out the next day when I got to work, the feeling was justified.
As soon as I sat down at my desk the phone rang. The boss wanted to see me. This was the same boss who told me earlier not to make comments about global warming because he and the other bosses did not believe in it. I replied "As soon as the corporation figures a way to make money from global warming, they'll lead the charge against it." I am nothing if not a smart ass. I have since learned to suffer fools and pick my battles more carefully. But until then, I had never been censored in any way. Not on the air, and certainly not in the newsroom.
I walked toward the boss' office knowing the new ultra-conservative regime did not know my history as a reporter, and they did not care. I doubt any of them had read my resume. Controversy is the essence of news and they wanted no controversy. It cost them commercials.
"Hello, boss," I said. He got right to the point. "Never ask a question like that again. I've been fielding phone calls all day about it. Viewers felt it was unpatriotic."
So now, after 25 years of reporting from around the world, I was expected to be a stenographer. Again, I was a smart ass. "So, I said, perhaps we should change our promos from in-depth-coverage to See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil." He was pissed. He rose from his chair to dismiss me. I walked back to my desk as the newsroom watched. My crime was to ask a reporter's question following the State of the Union. I did not know the rules had changed and all questions following 9/11 were seen as unpatriotic. This same corporation had just banned The Dixie Chicks country band from their radio stations for making an anti-Bush statement.
Four years later, the nation wants to know where reporters were when it needed them most. I have heard a hundred times that the press has failed them. I, for one, was getting my ass kicked for merely pointing out the obvious.