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Like most of my colleagues in the media world, I had been closely following what is now universally called the "run-up" to the war. You couldn't escape the shrill escalation of rhetoric in Washington about the danger posed by Mr. Hussein and his fearsome Weapons of Mass Destruction. You couldn't miss the Bush Administration's fanatical determination to kick Saddam's ass. Even before the war started, the Bush Administration launched a "decapitation" air strike (i.e., assassination attempt by cruise missile) that turned out to be, perhaps along with the war itself, a costly and big bloody bust. This debacle was a sign of what was to come but we didn't know it then.
At the time, I was blogging every day, as I still do for Mediachannel.org, and trying to dissect the details of a rush to war that had been validated, legitimated, and reinforced hourly and daily by media outlets, all of which seemed to be following the same script and echoing the same narrative. They asked few questions, and as we know now, they told many lies. (As a word, lies seems strident but the excuse that we didn't know better or "were operating on the best available information" is a contrived rationalization-weasely, wimpy and a cop out.)
Although blogs had become decidedly more popular, they were still nowhere near as widely read as the mainstream press or watched like network and cable TV news. I decided then to "embed" myself in front of my living room TV and at my computer as a disgusted witness to a media war that was then unfolding, and to catalogue what I saw. I compared and contrasted coverage across the spectrum of print and television both here and abroad. What I found was very disturbing. There was a patriotic correctness on the airwaves, and a uniformity in viewpoint that did more selling than telling about the war.
I heard only a few criticisms of the coverage, and they were mostly about reporting flaws by elite newspapers, even though 80 percent of the American people rely on TV for their news and the impressions gleaned from it. It seemed as if many anti-war activists focused their anger only on the reporting of the New York Times and Times reporter Judith Miller, as if she was single-handedly shaping coverage and was, in effect, responsible for the war. This personalized the problem and lacked a more systemic understanding. Focusing only on the Times gave its role too much prominence. The ongoing TV war was largely overlooked, perhaps because many on the left hate television news and don't watch it.
As the war drum grew louder, larger numbers of Americans and people around the world dissented, but their views were rarely seen and seldom heard. As I watched protesters rail at the government and pick at its rationalizations, it became clear that few in the big media-megaphone were listening.
It reminded me of the mascot seen on the old RCA Victor record labels, the little dog with its head in an old-fashioned speaker, listening to "His Master Voice." Despite our many channels and choices, there were few other voices. As I continued my immersion, digesting coverage from around the world, I saw many flaws in the media menu that the American public was being fed. It was apparent that American TV news was being driven by a clear political line posing as neutral information. It was as if a nominally competitive news system had transformed into organs of state media. Being continually tethered to the wall-to-wall coverage, it was hard to assess how any state-run system would have done it differently, if as well. A seamless on-air presentation is very effective at not calling attention to its techniques or behind-the-scenes influences.
Journalists all over the world commented on the way our war journalism (sic) was infected with jingoism. It was blatantly obvious to others, but many on the inside couldn't or wouldn't see it. News professionals seemed to be blindly inculcated inside a gung-ho news bubble that tended to automatically accept government claims as inherently true and unworthy of challenge.
In her book Bushwacked, Molly Ivins catalogued all the shifting official rationales that were duly reported on TV without anyone pointing out how surrealistic and contradictory they were: "First it was regime change, then disarmament, then he had a nuclear program, next he was suddenly in bed with al-Qaeda about to hand off anthrax to terrorists, then it was because Iraq was in violation of Resolution 1441 ... then it was dozens of UN resolutions, then it was weapons of mass destruction, then we couldn't back down because it would destroy our 'credibility' and then it was regime change again."
Around and around it went with media outlets acting like ad agencies marketing a new product.
The truth is that TV news loves war. It's an action-oriented, anything-can-happen, ratings-getting spectacle, not merely a boring replay of familiar news routines and the usual restrictive formats. Insiders consider it "great TV." As TV programmers know all too well, violence sells.
WMD includes a section on Vietnam, with the title "The Past Is Never Past." Before the war some Iraqi military leaders actually visited Vietnam seeking advice from the one country that had actually defeated the United States, according to a report in Asia Times. The Pentagon, in turn, wanted to avoid recurrence of the Vietnam press coverage that allowed journalists more access to the fighting that many military leaders still believe undermined their efforts in that war. Both sides looked for different lessons.
As leading anti-war organizer Leslie Cagan says in the film, such underreporting was not the problem: "What there was not decent coverage of was the analysis. What we were trying to say about what was wrong with the war, why we never should've gone to war, why the war needed to end, what was driving-the motor force behind the war. That analysis never got into the mainstream media."
Orville Schell, the head of the journalism department at the University of California, Berkeley, explained that that's because media outlets "not only failed to seriously investigate administration rationales for war, but little took into account the myriad voices in the online, alternative, and world press that sought to do so."
The "group think" cited by the Senate as the reason for our "intelligence" failures was not confined to government agencies. This apt phrase could as easily be applied to the one institution charged with scrutinizing official failures: the media. I was pleased when former CBS correspondent Thomas Fenton agreed in his book Bad News (2005) that "our industry has too long suffered from a case of 'group think.'"
To the list of institutional failures that led to war, we can now add the failures of the powerful U.S. news industry, which gave the war its legitimacy and organized public support for it by a pattern of over-hyped and under-critical reporting.
In the post-9/11 news world, all too many editors, journalists and anchors nodded in agreement as President Bush urged the terrorists to "bring it on." When they finally did, they bemoaned the growing loss of American lives. Across the dial, "Count Us In" became the mantra as a macho military culture went on display and patriotic "America United" or "America Fights Back" slogans branded the programming. Dan Rather of CBS went on TV after 9/11 and said, "I am ready to do what my commander- in-chief orders." American flags sprung up on the lapels of just about every newscaster and infiltrated the TV graphics. TV news often resembled a USA #1 pep rally: Fox animations had eagles flying off to battle; MSNBC promos would later proclaim, "God Bless America."
As local police staged bio-war drills in the security-obsessed environment of post-9/11 America, government officials led by the W-in-chief stoked the threat warnings and beat the war drums, insisting there was only one choice: to side with him or the terrorists. Forget the evidence. Forget debate. "We" were going "in" and it was better to get in line and accede to the inevitability of it all than to question a narrative that had captured every TV channel and newspaper. It was a consensus. A Washington Post editor would later tell his colleagues who complained about their coverage that war was "inevitable" so why not just go along and get on top of the story.
Fear hyped by TV news became a political weapon, and polarization became its main effect. We were told that we either had to stop "them" in Iraq or we would have to fight "them" in our own cities and towns. Prime Minister Tony Blair's white paper claimed London was only 45 minutes away from impending doom by an Iraqi missile.
Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor to the President, invoked the specter of a mushroom cloud. The oft-used White House "bully pulpit" now had a real bully in command. As President Bush saddled up to lead what he called a new "crusade" based on instructions from God and a cabal of neocons, the big guns of the American media moved into his amen corner.
The Pentagon rolled out a sophisticated new strategy of "information dominance." Media control was what it meant, involving the careful shaping of the information they disseminated to mould American and global public opinion. That strategy used a savvy PR message machine, embedded journalism and "perception management." It has remained in effect since 2001. There is no denying its success in winning support for the war and winning over most of the U.S. media from the early days of "the showdown with Saddam" through the Iraqi elections of 2005.
Embedding was designed to put more eyes on the ground to discredit the enemy. Explained Victoria Clarke, who ran the program, in a talk to the Brookings Institution in 2003:
I knew with great certainty if we went to war, the Iraqi regime would be doing some terrible things and would be incredibly masterful with the lies and the deception. And I could stand up there at that podium and Secretary Rumsfeld could stand up there and say very truthfully: the Iraqi regime is putting its soldiers in civilian clothing so they can ambush our soldiers. Some people would believe us and some people wouldn't. But we had hundreds and hundreds of credible, independent journalists saying the Iraqi regime is putting their soldiers in civilian clothing.
There were many debates about embedding and related issues. Questions like these were raised by a panel at Washington's Brookings Institution, but were not picked up or pursued more widely in our media:
Were reports from journalists embedded with various units overly-sympathetic toward their military companions?
My Answer: Yes.
Were non-embedded journalists who attempted to cover the war impeded by the Pentagon?
My Answer: Yes.
Did the Pentagon withhold bad news and exaggerate, or even create, good news?
My Answer: Yes.
Did the corps of retired military officers, hired as commentators by TV networks and cable channels, offer any real insights?
My Answer: Not many.
If media reports had shown more death and devastation, would public opinion have turned against the war?
My Answer: It did in other countries.
How will the experience in Iraq affect press coverage and Pentagon press policies in future wars?
My Answer: It already has.
The U.S. government has invested millions of dollars not only in managing media but in creating and subsidizing media outlets to carry and echo its spin. It would be wrong to think that their propaganda efforts are always successful as the Sunday Herald in Scotland reported in December 2004:
The Pentagon has admitted that the War on Terror and the invasion and occupation of Iraq have increased support for al-Qaeda, made ordinary Muslims hate the U.S., and caused a global backlash against America because of the "self-serving hypocrisy" of George W. Bush's administration over the Middle East.
The mea culpa is contained in a shockingly frank "strategic communications" report, written in late 2004 by the Defense Science Board for Pentagon supremo Donald Rumsfeld. On "the war of ideas or the struggle for hearts and minds," the report says, "American efforts have not only failed, they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended."
So here we have a case of government media-making faulted by the same government that much of the media continued to rely on as a principal source of information even as it was increasingly clear that it lacked credibility-even by its own standards.
Bear in mind, that this was nothing new, just a far more elaborate effort than we have seen before. Veteran CBS correspondent Thomas Fenton admits in his book Bad News, "most of the time, in truth, most of the media take their cues from the government [emphasis his] in deciding which foreign news stories to cover." The group think that Fenton finds so pervasive has a consequence: it "reduces all the news into a homogenous repetitive gray sludge," he argues.
Many TV journalists reported being pressured, even "spooked." ABC's Peter Jennings told Fenton: "'World News Tonight' was regarded as the most critical of the networks, and it made some people in the shop a little bit nervous, because the vocalness of the conservatives in the country is very considerable and it spooks some people a little." ABC News was clearly spooked when government officials misled its producers as to when the war would begin and ABC was the only network without its anchorman on duty when the fireworks started. Network insiders told me they believed they had been deliberately embarrassed as payback for a critical program aired the week before the war began.
In its efforts to cultivate public opinion, the Bush Administration also relied on 24/7 support from several well-managed private and partisan media assets including Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting's right-wing TV programs, websites, an echo chamber of talkradio hosts, bloggers and media organizations that served to reinforce its views and attack its enemies. The approach was strongly supported by formerly centrist mainstream media outlets that did not challenge the shift to the right. Those who did not go along sheepishly were baited as biased and denounced as "liberal" media. The mainstream media system soon became a willing servant for the President's War on Terror. A leading conservative media group would give CBS its top award for war coverage.
In the two plus years since the war began, there has been a continuity in media coverage. Even as the evidence used to make the case for going to war failed to materialize, even after the President himself acknowledged that there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMDS) in Iraq and no link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, even as major media organizations admitted their coverage had been flawed, the daily drum beat of propaganda posing as news has allowed for more stories questioning how the war is being fought but has not deviated from the necessity of fighting it.
In the spring of 2005, studies surfaced reporting on blatant government censorship and media self-censorship. American University's School of Communications reported that "many media outlets self-censored their reporting on the Iraq invasion because of concerns about public reaction to graphic images and content, according to a survey of more than 200 journalists by university researchers."
The study also determined that "vigorous discussions" about what and where to publish information and images were conducted at media outlets and, in many cases, journalists posted material online that did not make it to print. One of the most significant findings was "the amount of editing that went into content after it was gathered but before it was published," the study stated.
Of those who reported from Iraq, 15 percent said that on one or more occasions their organizations edited material for publication and they did not believe the final version accurately represented the story. Of those involved in war coverage who were in newsrooms and not in Iraq, 20 percent said material was edited for reasons other than basic style and length. Some 42 percent of those polled said they were discouraged from showing photographic images of dead Americans, while 17 percent said they were prohibited. Journalists were also discouraged from showing pictures of hostages, according to 36 percent of respondents, while only 3 percent reported being prohibited from showing them.
Excerpted from When News Lies by DANNY SCHECHTER Copyright © 2006 by SelectBooks, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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