Major news outlets continue to give scant attention to new evidence that President Bush knowingly misled the nation in making the case to go to war in Iraq -- and give even less attention to the consequences of those lies. Reporters had to be pushed, prodded, and pulled into covering the Downing Street memo.
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Major news outlets continue to give scant attention to new evidence that President Bush knowingly misled the nation in making the case to go to war in Iraq -- and give even less attention to the consequences of those lies. Reporters had to be pushed, prodded, and pulled into covering the Downing Street memo.
National Journal reporter Murray Waas has written the latest in a long line of explosive reports about the Bush administration's handling of prewar intelligence and the Valerie Plame leak. Waas's article reveals:
Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, cautioned other White House aides in the summer of 2003 that Bush's 2004 re-election prospects would be severely damaged if it was publicly disclosed that he had been personally warned that a key rationale for going to war had been challenged within the administration. Rove expressed his concerns shortly after an informal review of classified government records by then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley determined that Bush had been specifically advised that claims he later made in his 2003 State of the Union address -- that Iraq was procuring high-strength aluminum tubes to build a nuclear weapon -- might not be true, according to government records and interviews.
Hadley was particularly concerned that the public might learn of a classified one-page summary of a National Intelligence Estimate, specifically written for Bush in October 2002. The summary said that although “most agencies judge” that the aluminum tubes were “related to a uranium enrichment effort,” the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Energy Department's intelligence branch “believe that the tubes more likely are intended for conventional weapons.”
Three months after receiving that assessment, the president stated without qualification in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.”
“Presidential knowledge was the ball game,” says a former senior government official outside the White House who was personally familiar with the damage-control effort. “The mission was to insulate the president. It was about making it appear that he wasn't in the know. You could do that on Niger. You couldn't do that with the tubes.” A Republican political appointee involved in the process, who thought the Bush administration had a constitutional obligation to be more open with Congress, said: “This was about getting past the election.”
Waas's full article, available here, is essential reading -- particularly since you shouldn't expect other news outlets to give it the attention it deserves. Instead, they'll dismiss this new evidence as “old news” -- everybody knows Bush didn't tell the truth, move on, nothing to see here.
But everybody doesn't know the extent to which Bush and his administration misled the public and then covered up those actions. Plus, even if everybody did know everything, that isn't the whole story. As we've said:
And it is important to assess the consequences of the administration's lies about, and mishandling of, the Iraq war. Is the public less likely to believe the administration if it says we need to use force against Iran because of their false claims about Iraq? That's a question we've repeatedly asked; why don't reporters? Perhaps the third anniversary of the Iraq war would be a good time to finally include the question in a poll.
In articles on November 17 and 18, The Washington Post and The New York Times covered speeches by Vice President Dick Cheney, in which he attacked critics of the Iraq war, and by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA), in which he called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Glaringly absent in the coverage of Cheney's speech was a single word quoting -- or even paraphrasing -- Democrats' response to the attacks. Instead of providing both sides of the dispute, the Times and Post simply turned their pages over to the Bush White House, giving readers nothing more than a stenographer's recitation of the administration's attacks on its critics -- a performance that would have made Pravda proud.
To the extent that there are people who think the Democrats lack ideas or an agenda, [Paula] Zahn and her colleagues might want to examine why they think that. It certainly isn't because Democrats actually lack ideas or an agenda. HouseDemocrats.gov offers plenty of detail about the House Democrats' ideas and agenda; as do the websites of many progressive organizations, like the Center for American Progress.
If people think Democrats lack ideas, it is largely because news organizations ignore the Democrats' ideas. It's because Paula Zahn devotes an hour every night not to assessing the political parties' policy proposals, but to urgent topics like “Breast Milk Black Market” ; “Oprah Flip-Flops on Controversial Book” and “New Clues in Missing Honeymooner Case?” -- and those are all from a single edition of Paula Zahn Now. Other recent editions have focused on "A Life Changed By Cosmetic Surgery," the always-popular "Googling For Pornography," and the pressing question: "Can voodoo make a comeback?"
In covering the Bush administration's controversial decision to allow a company owned by the government of Dubai, a member state of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to run terminals at six U.S. ports, many news outlets have ignored long-standing demands by leading Democrats that more be done to secure U.S. ports.
NBC's Tim Russert even suggested that Democrats are talking about the port deal in order to exploit it for political gain and ignored the other possibility: that Democrats are talking about port security because they've been talking about port security for years.
If port security is not a topic that was on most Americans' minds until the current controversy, it isn't because Democrats haven't been pressing the issue. It's because Russert and his colleagues haven't been covering it. It's a pattern we see time and time again: First, the media ignore Democrats' ideas and proposals; then reporters accuse Democrats of not having any ideas -- or of discovering an issue only when they see the potential for political gain.
Over the past year, CNN hosts, anchors, and reporters have repeatedly commented on the Democratic Party's purported lack of a clear plan or concrete set of alternatives on issues ranging from Social Security to the war in Iraq. But on the day that Democratic leaders announced a broad national security strategy, CNN barely covered this development, instead devoting an hour and a half of uninterrupted coverage to a speech by President Bush on Iraq, his third in two weeks. Moreover, when CNN finally reported on the Democrats' national security plan, it omitted any details about the proposals put forth by the congressional leaders.
[D]espite repeatedly highlighting the Democrats' purported lack of such plans, when a large coalition of Democrats stood together on March 29 to unveil a unified national security platform, CNN largely ignored the news.
In the early afternoon on March 29, the Democrats held a 40-minute press conference announcing the release of their new national security agenda, "Real Security: Protecting America and Restoring Our Leadership in the World." The proposals in this set of policy papers include screening 100 percent of containers and cargo entering the United States, boosting the size of the U.S. Special Forces and National Guard, ensuring that troops have better body armor, providing more resources to first-responders, and allotting greater funding for veterans benefits.
A Media Matters for America survey of CNN's programming on March 29 between 6 a.m. ET and 4 p.m. ET found only one mention of the Democratic plan. It came at 2:23 p.m. when CNN's Live From ... aired a brief clip of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid [NV] speaking at the Democrats' press conference. The two-minute clip came directly after CNN had provided uninterrupted coverage of Bush's speech at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C., an event that spanned an hour and a half and largely mirrored the multiple foreign policy addresses Bush has given in recent weeks.
CNN ran its first full-length segment on the Democrats' plan during the 5 p.m. edition of The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. But in the report, CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash offered viewers no information regarding the specific proposals put forth by the Democrats during the press conference, instead she speculated on the Democrats' motives in releasing the plan at this specific time. As for the document itself, Bash held it up for the camera and merely noted that it included “some of the ideas that, frankly, we've heard before” and did not include a “clear plan for Iraq.”
Beyond its extensive coverage of Bush's speech and its two-minute segment on the Democratic national security plan, CNN found time between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. to air a report on the different helmets available for child athletes, a story about "a family whose reality turned into a nightmare" after appearing on a reality television show, a discussion of a recent poll on the use of profanity among Americans, and a review of the racy new TV show, The WB's The Bedford Diaries (The WB Television Network, 2006).
The New York Times published no reports in its March 30 edition about a national security platform that Democratic leaders released on March 29, in advance of the midterm elections. On March 29, the Times previewed the Democrats' security platform by reporting that "[m]ost of the proposals are not new" and relaying Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond's (R-MO) claim that "[i]t's taken them [Democrats] all this time to figure out what we've been doing for a long time." As Media Matters for America noted, that article made no mention that congressional Republicans -- including Bond -- have blocked the Democrats' “not new” security proposals for years.
There is no longer any real doubt that the media consistently give scant attention to Democratic proposals, particularly on security issues -- and, adding insult to injury, falsely assert that Democrats lack ideas.
The only remaining question is whether the people involved -- media, Democratic leaders, progressive activists -- are going to do something about it.
In the aftermath of The Washington Post's “Red America” fiasco, Post media reporter Howard Kurtz addressed the paper's decision to hire Ben Domenech. Under the headline “Media hiring bias?” Kurtz wrote in his March 28 online column:
One major issue in the hiring (and subsequent ouster) of former Bush administration aide and RedState.com guy Ben Domenech was whether he was the right guy for the job. In light of the pattern of plagiarism that came to light, I think the answer is pretty clear.
A second major issue was whether hiring a conservative activist as a blogger was a reasonable stab at “balance” when there was no self-proclaimed liberal blogging away, as opposed to left-leaning journalists. I think that's a fair point, but I don't want to see washingtonpost.com or any other MSM outfit abandon efforts to include voices from the right.
And that brings me to the larger question: Do the hiring practices of big newspapers, magazines, networks and Web sites tilt toward people of the liberal persuasion, thereby requiring hand-wringing about intellectual diversity?
In a span of three sentences, Kurtz conceded that the Post hired a “conservative activist” to write a blog, despite not having a single “self-proclaimed liberal” blogger on staff -- then suggested that this is evidence that “big newspapers” (including, presumably, the Post) “tilt toward people of the liberal persuasion.”
Nowhere did Kurtz explore, or even hint at, the possibility that the people who hired Domenech tilt toward people of the conservative persuasion -- which was, after all, the simplest explanation for Domenech's hiring.
To Howard Kurtz, the nation's most influential media reporter, the Post's decision to hire a clearly unqualified conservative blogger, when it had no liberal counterpart, is evidence of a “tilt toward people of the liberal persuasion” in media hiring practices.
Up is down. Black is white.
Bizarre conclusions like Kurtz's suggest that the media have so thoroughly internalized conservative assertions of “liberal bias” that they see liberal bias everywhere, even in the hiring of conservatives -- with predictable results.
In considering the supposed “tilt” in media hiring, Kurtz quoted a conservative (former Bush administration speechwriter David Mastio, who complained about the “literal conveyor belt from left-wing opinion journalism into straight news reporting and editing slots” ) -- but didn't include the views of a single liberal. That must be another example of the “liberal bias” we've been hearing so much about.
Given that we're now beginning Year Four of a war that was supposed to take closer to four weeks, it's hard to believe any thinking person would fall for the claims made by war supporters that the media are painting an unduly negative picture of the situation in Iraq, or that the media are responsible for violence there.
Unsurprisingly, many in the media have spent about a week giving every indication that they fell for it.
CNN aired a segment titled "Media to Blame?" in which CNN's Candy Crowley actually said the Bush administration's assertion that the media are responsible for violence in Iraq is “not wholly incorrect” :
CROWLEY: He [Bush] sees a symbiotic relationship between the violence in Iraq and the coverage of it, a cycle draining support for the war. It is a recurring theme in Bushville that negative news coverage is making the war worse. Not that direct, but close. The defense secretary also complains of news that is flat wrong.
DONALD H. RUMSFELD (U.S. Secretary of Defense) [clip]: The steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq.
CROWLEY: Critics dismiss the charges as the excuses of an administration in its darkest days. Still, it is not wholly incorrect. Click the remote.
ELIZABETH VARGAS (CNN anchor) [clip]: A major insurgent attack has dealt another blow to the struggling security forces.
CROWLEY: From one channel --
ZAIN VERJEE (CNN anchor) [clip]: Insurgents armed with rocket grenades and machine guns stormed a police station today.
CROWLEY: -- to another.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE [clip]: The prison in Sunni territory, killing 18 policemen and freeing all the prisoners --
And on March 23, CNN aired another segment on the topic, this one titled "Is the Media Too Negative?" which concluded with this exchange between Situation Room host Wolf Blitzer and Reliable Sources host and Kurtz:
BLITZER: Very briefly, is there any sign of a backlash against the mainstream media because of our coverage of what's happening in Iraq?
KURTZ: Yes, among conservatives, among military family members and others. A lot of people, as we saw that woman from West Virginia, blaming us for the situation there.
Neither Kurtz nor Blitzer seemed aware of the possibility that progressives, or people opposed to the war, might also be angry at the media. And that's a characteristic of nearly all of the media's navel-gazing about their coverage of the Iraq war -- the question addressed is almost always whether war supporters' claims that the media are too negative have merit. Where is the CNN segment exploring whether the media are adequately covering Murray Waas's revelations about the Bush administration's cover-up of evidence that Bush lied to the nation about the Iraq war? Where is the CNN segment about whether the media are sanitizing the war? As journalist and documentary filmmaker Gabriel Rotello wrote for The Huffington Post weblog:
Mr. Bush wants to know why the media don't publish more “success stories” about Iraq. I want to know the opposite: why the media don't publish photos and videos that -- in no uncertain terms -- show the blood-drenched truth.
Watching TV news or reading the papers, you'd think this was a war without human faces.
There are no victims, only numbers. “39 Killed.” “50 Dead.”
But where are the bodies? That's right, the mangled, gouged, decapitated, amputated, burned bodies?
I'll tell you where: On File. Locked away in the photo and video archives of the major news organizations. The supposedly “negative” media are deliberately holding back from actually showing us the negative human costs of Bush's war, and that puts the lie to any blather about how negative they really are.
It wasn't always this way. In Vietnam, three famous photos spelled things out: The photo of the little girl running down the street drenched with napalm. The photo of the Viet Cong captive having his brains blown out on the street, execution-style. The photo of the bodies piled up at My Lai.
I bet most of you instantly conjured those images just now. For good reason. They're iconic. They won Pulitzer Prizes and major journalism awards because they told, in an instant, everything you needed to know about what was happening.
Three years into Iraq, can you conjure any comparable images? I'll bet the answer's no.
Yet when the media assess their own performance in covering the Iraq mess, they don't talk about these things. Instead, they consistently focus on complaints from conservatives and war supporters -- complaints that their coverage is too negative, never that it's too positive.
Kurtz, for example, wrote a 1,300-word washingtonpost.com article on March 27 that began with the question "Have the media declared war on the war?"
Not one of Kurtz's 1,300 words addressed -- or even hinted at the existence of -- complaints that maybe the media aren't being critical enough in covering the war. Not a single word.
Post ombudsman Deborah Howell wrote her own column about coverage of the Iraq war. The expanded online version of the column ran to more than 3,900 words; the third paragraph read:
The Post's work (and that of other news media in Iraq) draws intense attention and a steady stream of complaints from readers, military and civilian, who say the coverage is excessively negative and too focused on violence.
For more than 3,900 words, Howell discussed the Post's coverage of Iraq in those terms -- as an issue of whether the Post is “excessively negative and too focused on violence” or just right. No discussion, no mention, not even a hint of the possibility that the Post's coverage of Iraq is excessively positive, or doesn't do an adequate job of illustrating the violence and chaos in Iraq.
The way Howell and Kurtz and Crowley and Blitzer and the rest of the media cover the coverage of the Iraq war, you'd think Rotello was all alone in his belief that the media are sanitizing the war. But he isn't. A CBS News poll conducted earlier this month found that 24 percent of Americans think the media are “making things in Iraq sound better than they really are,” compared to 31 percent who think the media are “making things sound worse than they really are.”
Imagine what the numbers might be if the media actually presented both sides of the debate.
Imagine what the numbers might be if progressive and Democratic leaders criticized the media as loudly and as often as their conservative and Republican counterparts.
And imagine what effect that might have on news coverage of the war.
Imagine this scenario: a participant in an ongoing contest writes new rules governing that contest. Some time later, he writes still more rules. A little while after that, he proposes to again change the rules, this time to undue the effect of his first rule change.
There may well be defensible reasons for the changes, but surely observers would at least begin to wonder if the participant is trying to rig the contest; to turn it into a game of Calvinball -- constantly changing the rules to his supposed advantage. Surely reporters, who often seem to pride themselves on their skepticism (cynicism?) about political figures, would be suspicious of any politician whose actions fit this pattern.
Unless, of course, that politician was Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
A quick refresher:
2000: After a group called Republicans For Clean Air, incorporated under section 527 of the tax code by backers of Bush's presidential primary campaign, ran television ads that helped Bush defeat McCain for the Republican nomination, McCain introduced legislation that mandated disclosure of donors to 527s. At the time, McCain described his legislation as closing the “527 loophole” and clearly stated that he wasn't trying to stop 527s from raising and spending money for political purposes; his legislation simply required disclosure:
[T]his amendment in no way restricts the ability of any individual or organization from spending money to influence the political or electoral system. It protects free speech. But it recognizes that the public has a right to know who is speaking.
After McCain's legislation passed, he declared on NPR's Talk of the Nation: “We've cured one of the most outrageous, and most evil, kinds of practices, which requires full disclosure of people who contribute to a loophole in the tax code called 527. And we were able to force full disclosure of those people who contribute to it.” The media joined him in applauding the legislation. Roll Call, for example, ran a celebratory editorial headlined, simply, “Hooray!”
2002: The McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation passed Congress and was signed into law by Bush. McCain declared that the legislation would “eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars of unregulated soft money that has caused Americans to question the integrity of their elected representatives.” Because Republicans had been more successful at raising hard money than Democrats had, and Democrats were more reliant on the soft money banned by McCain-Feingold, the legislation was seen by many as likely to hurt Democrats.
The legislation did not prevent 527s from raising or spending money. Indeed, Roll Call reported on March 14, 2002: “As the Senate inched closer to a vote on the comprehensive campaign finance reform proposal he has championed, McCain pledged yesterday that he and reform partner Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) would 'resist strongly' any effort to make sweeping changes to the 527 law.”
The possibility that McCain-Feingold would result in massive amounts of money flowing through 527s instead of party committees was widely understood; a year before passage of the bill, The New York Times reported:
Lewis M. Eisenberg, an investment banker, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and longtime Republican contributor, said he would favor some changes in the system, but only if they did not tread on the First Amendment. Like others, Mr. Eisenberg said he expected more donors to begin using loopholes like that provided by Section 527 of the federal tax code, which allowed tax-exempt groups to raise and spend money on political activities.
Many of the donors predicted that whatever rules were put in place, the parties and some donors would find ways around them.
“Where there's a will, there's usually a way,” Mr. [John] Moran, the former Republican committee official, said. “And I've been around long enough to know that some ingenious ideas surface from time to time. So I suspect that if and when a campaign finance reform bill does pass, people will begin immediately to think about how they can get around it.”
Sure enough, that happened, surprising only the incredibly naïve. The Washington Post reported in an October 17, 2004, article headlined, “Super Rich Step Into Political Vacuum; McCain-Feingold Paved Way for 527s” :
This was going to be the year -- thanks to the 2002 campaign finance law -- when big money lost its influence in American politics.
But if the election comes down to which presidential candidate is better at getting supporters to the polls, the huge donations of a handful of wealthy liberals named Linda Pritzker, Stephen L. Bing, Peter B. Lewis and George Soros could determine the outcome. Together, they have given more than $26 million to help finance the most extensive get-out-the vote operation in history, the goal of which is to make John F. Kerry president.
The recipient of the largess, America Coming Together (ACT), is one of the so-called 527 organizations playing a crucial role in the presidential campaign. Named after a section of the tax code, the 527 groups are doing much of the advertising and field work traditionally left to party organizations.
This election year, the groups have become the main way for the wealthy to affect events. Six of the top 10 donors to 527 groups are billionaires, and all are on Forbes magazine's list of richest Americans. Eight dollars out of every $10 collected from individuals by Democratic-leaning 527 groups have come from donors who have given at least $250,000 each, according to an analysis by The Washington Post of data on 527 donations maintained by Center for Public Integrity.
These big donors have stepped into the vacuum created by the continuing controversy over the role of the 527s. By banning the use of large “soft money” contributions to party organizations, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law essentially made 527s the only conduit for unregulated and unlimited contributions.
Let's pause here to recap:
1) After a 527 attacked him, McCain wrote legislation in 2000 that allowed 527s to continue to raise and spend money, as long as they disclosed their donors.
2) In 2002, McCain said he didn't want to make sweeping changes to the 527 law, and his campaign finance overhaul allowed 527s to continue to raise and spend money.
3) That legislation was seen by many as hurting Democrats more than Republicans.
4) That legislation was seen by many as guaranteeing that large amounts of money would flow through 527s and other groups rather than political party committees.
5) What happened? Things played out largely as expected: large amounts of money flowed through 527s during the 2004 campaign. But Democrats weren't hurt as badly as expected by the changes in campaign finance law, largely because of the success of progressive 527s in raising money to offset the party's inability to raise soft money.
So, now that McCain is again preparing to run for president, where are we? Well, McCain is yet again proposing a change in the rules -- and, conveniently, that change would “affect Democrats more,” according to The Washington Post. In fact, that's the headline: " '527' Legislation Would Affect Democrats More." The Post reported:
In 2001, when Karl Rove first outlined plans for a $50 million get-out-the-vote program, his PowerPoint presentation made one point clear: The effort would be a “joint project of the White House and the Republican National Committee.”
Rove's declaration points to a crucial difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Less than a year later, top Democratic strategists began moving in precisely the opposite direction. During the Bush years, voter mobilization in large measure has been run by what analysts call a “shadow Democratic Party” -- consisting of outside groups operating independently from the Democratic National Committee and the party's top office seekers.
The difference between the two approaches explains why the Democrats are a lot more worried about proposals to impose sharp limits on spending by tax-exempt, non-party political groups.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is sponsoring legislation that would restrict donors to giving just $5,000 annually to “527” groups (named after the section of the tax code they operate under). In recent years, tycoons such as George Soros and T. Boone Pickens have given millions to such groups.
In 2002, the legislation commonly known as McCain-Feingold imposed a ban on “soft money” -- large, party-raised contributions on which Democrats, more than Republicans, had become heavily dependent. This led to a blossoming of 527 groups, orchestrated by such veteran liberal operatives as Harold Ickes, an aide to President Bill Clinton; Ellen Malcolm of the feminist group Emily's List; and labor organizer Steve Rosenthal; and funded by such people as Soros and insurance millionaire Peter Lewis.
In the first election in recent memory in which Democrats raised nearly as much as Republicans, the 527s flooded the 2003-04 election cycle with $424.8 million. The money favored pro-Democratic groups, which outspent their pro-Republican adversaries 2 to 1, or by $110 million.
How many times can McCain try to change the rules governing elections in a way that is expected to benefit his party before reporters begin to wonder if his own electoral aspirations may play a role? If McCain were just about any other politician, there would be at least a few among the relentlessly cynical media who would suggest that perhaps he isn't trying to reform the system -- he's trying to rig it.
Instead, McCain is so revered by the media, they treat him as an independent, all-knowing authority on ethics issues, as Media Matters explained:
During the March 29 broadcast of the CBS Evening News, contributor Gloria Borger reported on the disappointed reaction of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to the lobbying reform bill that was passed by the Senate that day. Passage of the bill, which McCain voted against, followed the initial investigation by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs into disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Borger noted McCain's assertion that continued investigations by both the Indian Affairs and Finance Committees “should light a fire under [McCain's] colleagues.” However in reporting McCain's pledge to “light a fire under his colleagues,” Borger ignored reports that, as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, McCain steered the investigation into the Abramoff scandal away from examining any potential wrongdoing by his Republican colleagues. According to a March 10, 2005, report by Roll Call, McCain assured Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) they would not be caught up in the investigation into how Abramoff bilked $82 million from the American Indian tribes he represented, stating, “We stop when we find out where the money went.”
This is not the first instance in which Borger has suggested McCain is a paragon of lobbying reform. As Media Matters for America previously noted, during a February 6 Evening News report on a dispute over lobbying reform between McCain and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), Borger uncritically presented McCain's version of the dispute. Noting that McCain accused Obama of distancing himself from McCain's reform proposals for “partisan reasons,” Borger proclaimed: “It's very clear that lobbying reform is a very personal issue for John McCain. It's very important to John McCain.”
Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.