MSNBC Goes to Bat Against 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
Cable news' self-described "place for politics" covered the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" administrative policy six different times between July 27 and July 29. Opponents of the current policy were able to state their case unchallenged, while network anchors made it clear that they were themselves in favor of allowing openly homosexual men and women to serve in the armed forces. Not one defender of the current policy appeared in any of the conversations about "don't ask, don't tell."
Conversations about the policy, which bans openly gay men and women from serving in the military, were keyed around the actions of Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Penn., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Murphy, the first Iraq war veteran to serve in Congress, kicked-off a seven city tour sponsored by the gay rights' activist group Human Rights Campaign to increase public support for his bill that seeks to allow homosexuals to serve in the armed forces. Gillibrand announced that the Senate Armed Services committee agreed to hold a hearing on the policy in the fall, the first since 1993, when former President Bill Clinton instituted the policy as a compromise.
Reality Where None Exists
Commonly thought to be a law that allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military, "don't ask, don't tell" was never voted on by Congress. It was an administrative policy formulated after the passage of Section 654, Title 10, which declared gays and lesbians ineligible to serve in the Unites States military. The policy itself directly contradicts the intent of the law and was not fully explained during any of MSNBC's coverage.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness told the Culture and Media Institute that MSNBC engaged in "perception management" with its recent "don't ask, don't tell" coverage. That is, the network is "creating reality where no reality exists."
Anchors repeatedly hyped a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll that found 69 percent of American adults favor allowing openly gay men and lesbian women to serve in the military. Donny Deutsch, guest host of "MSNBC Live" on July 28, even implied that proponents of the policy were brainless. "Is there any argument from anybody with a brain that says we shouldn't be repealing this at this point?"
Yes, there are plenty of arguments from people "with a brain" in favor of the ban. MSNBC audiences just won't hear them.
For example, a July 30 Washington Times article reported that a survey conducted by the Military Officers Association of America, an organization made up of active-duty officers, reservists, military retirees and veterans, found 52 percent of respondents "supported an outright ban on military service by homosexuals." Even more, 68 percent said changing the law to allow openly gay service members would have a negative effect on troop morale and military readiness.
Unsurprisingly, MSNBC failed to report that study, or other any other evidence of military officers' support for the current law. In March 2009 more than 1,000 retired flag and general officers signed a statement of support for the 1993 law. The only play the letter received on MSNBC was a brief mention by retired Army General Barry McCaffrey on the July 28 "Morning Meeting."
Issue of ‘National Security'
The most repeated talking point in favor of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" was the argument that discharging gays negatively affects national security.
Jonathan Capehart, a Washington Post editorial writer and frequent MSNBC guest, told "Morning Meeting" anchor Dylan Ratigan on July 28, "While it has been put in to the whole gay rights agenda if you will, this is really an issue of national security. We are booting people from the military, Arab linguists for instance, who could be on the frontlines of the war on terror, who aren't there because of this crazy rule."
Nathaniel Frank, author of "Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America," echoed Capehart's claim later in the broadcast. Frank stated, "Over 13,000 service members have been discharged under this policy and that includes about a thousand mission critical specialists, 300 linguists and 60 Arabic linguists. So this is a national security emergency."
But Frank is also Senior Research Fellow at the The Michael D. Palm Center, a research outlet based at the University of California at Santa Barbara that advocates for gay, lesbian and trandgender inclusion in the U.S. armed forces. MSNBC didn't note that affiliation.
Deutsch also stated, "Since [Obama's] been in office, 267 folks in the military have had to leave because they're gay. We are a less safe country."
Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, also repeated that argument to a receptive Rachel Maddow on her July 29 television broadcast. "This law negatively impacts our national security...we cannot afford at all not to have language speakers with the paucity of language speakers we have in the intelligence community."
Statistics used to highlight the national security concerns of "don't ask, don't tell" are misleading, according to Donnelly's 2008 Congressional testimony about gay and lesbians in the military. She outlined this with regard to the discharge of Arab linguists:
Another round of news reports and hand-wringing commentaries centered on the loss of "54 Arabic linguists" trained for military service. This number is in a column of personnel losses noted by the General Accountability Office (GAO) in 2005. The referenced number is broken down, however, by type and level of proficiency of the language trainees, which varied considerably.
Donnelly also pointed out that, had the 1993 law been enforced, those linguists would never have been trained, since they were ineligible to serve anyway.
Other Countries Do It, Why Can't the U.S.?
Another popular argument set forth on MSNBC was the notion that gays serve in the militaries of other nations with few problems.
Capehart noted during his July 27 "Morning Meeting" appearance, "It's good enough for Great Britain and it's good enough for Israel, then it damn well should be good enough for the United States." Hall and Deutsch followed suit later that day with this brief exchange:
TAMRON HALL: We have 20 other countries including Great Britian who have gays serving in the military.
DEUTSCH: And Australia, Israel, everyone.
Again, as Donnelly pointed out in her testimony, America is not like other countries. Great Britain was forced to allow openly gay people into its military by the European Court of Human Rights, not through a vote of its own government. Also, as she noted, "European newspapers have reported recruiting and disciplinary problems in the British military" following the acceptance of open homosexuality in the military.
As for Israel, unlike the United States, every citizen must serve in the military. Donnelly also reported, "Israeli soldiers usually do not reveal their homosexuality and are barred from elite combat positions if they do."
Insults Levied at ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Defenders
MSNBC didn't just refuse to air another viewpoint on "don't ask, don't tell," it also allowed guests to insult the arguments of those who agree with the ban on open homosexuality in the U.S. military.
"All these arguments about military effectiveness, whether the military wants to do it or not, are irrelevant," said retired Army General Barry McCaffrey on the July 28 "Morning Meeting." For McCaffrey, the issue revolves around one question, "Is private homosexual consensual behavior legal or not." But as Donnelly explained to CMI, there is "no such thing as private behavior in the military."
Deutsch, who implied the defenders of the ban on gays were brainless, labeled arguments about homosexuality hurting military readiness and recruitment "stupid" and that "the fact that we are in the year 2009, that this is even still a discussion is - we should be ashamed of ourselves as a country."
To Deutsch those arguments might be "stupid," but as the MOAA survey indicated, they are very real concerns to the people whose lives depend on readiness and morale. Forty-eight percent of the respondents believed that allowing open homosexuality would result in a "very negative" effect on troop morale and military readiness. Another 20 percent agreed that a change in policy would have a "moderately negative" effect.
A 2008 Military Times poll found that 58 percent of respondents oppose the repeal of the current law. MSNBC anchors and their guests failed to note these statistics.
Foster Discussion, Not Propaganda
A distinct problem occurs when a news anchor or host of a news programs agrees with the program's guest, as both Tamron Hall and Donnie Deutsch did on July 28.
Deutsch stated on July 28 that the two guests he spoke with, both in favor of removing barriers to gays and lesbians serving in the military "are right." His co-host Hall appealed for rescinding the ban as well, "What about the fact that we had a guest on our show, and he's been on Rachel [Maddow] and others, he speaks Arabic, a wonderful serviceman, because he is gay he suffers and falls under this ‘don't ask, don't tell.' Instead of looking at this falsity about morale, look at the number of strong men and women who could be serving this country."
This, Donnelly told CMI, is "not journalism, but advocacy."
If MSNBC cared about even the appearance of journalistic ethics, it would also report the polls of military personnel that indicate strong support for the law as it currently stands. Instead, MSNBC has positioned itself as not the "place for politics" but as the "place for liberal propaganda."