The Corporate Media in Wartime

by Amy Goodman and David Goodman

International Socialist Review, May-June 2005


On August 5, 2004, the U.S.-backed government of Iraq responded to a growing insurgency in Iraq by blaming the messenger: it shut down the Arab media networks Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, insisting they were inciting violence. This was hardly surprising behavior for the Americans, or their Iraqi proxies. When former U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer took over Iraq in 2003, one of his early acts was to ban independent Iraqi newspapers that he deemed too "radical."

The message was clear: In U.S.-occupied Iraq, the press is free... to support the U.S.

Journalists that report inconvenient truths about the U.S. occupation-such as broadcasting unsanitized footage of war, or reporting from besieged Iraqi cities like Fallujah-have become targets of censorship, banning, or worse. Tareq Ayyoub learned this the hard way. Al-Jazeera's chief correspondent in Baghdad was killed by a U.S. bomb in April 2003, despite his network having provided the U.S. military with the precise coordinates of its Baghdad bureau. Ayyoub's murder followed on the heels of months of harassment of the network, including the bombing by U.S. planes of Jazeera's offices in Basra and Kabul, Afghanistan and the repeated arrests of its staff. Ayyoub's widow, Dima Tahboub, has since sued the U.S. in a Belgian court, charging it with war crimes in the murder of her husband.

The Bush administration is hoping that Arab journalists will be as helpful as the American press has been in acting as a megaphone for official lies. But even America's own soldiers are increasingly unable to muster the necessary enthusiasm for their task as the justifications for war now unravel in spectacular fashion.

That is why, on December 6, 2004, Jeremy Hinzman, a 26-year-old soldier with the U.S. Army's elite 82nd Airborne Division, explained to a packed hearing room in Toronto, Canada, the reason that he fled the United States.

"When I took my oath as a soldier it was to defend and uphold the constitution of the United States," he testified, as he explained why he was seeking refugee status in Canada. "I was faced with being deployed to Iraq to do what the infantry does, kill people, and I had no justification for doing so."

"They said there were weapons of mass destruction. They haven't found any," continued the sharp-jawed, crew cut paratrooper from Rapid City, South Dakota. "They said Iraq was linked to international terrorist organizations. There haven't been any links." Hinzman told Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board that the war in Iraq was illegal arid that he would have become a war criminal by fighting in it. Hinzman's contention was supported by Marine Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey, who testified as a witness at the hearing that he and his platoon killed "30-plus" innocent civilians in one 48-hour period in Iraq.

"What they were doing was committing murder," said Massey, a former Marine recruiter. It was a devastating synopsis of the lies that have passed for truths during the Bush administration. Hinzman and Massey are not alone: More and more American soldiers have been speaking out and protesting against fighting a war that was based on fraudulent claims-and conveyed to the public by an uncritical media. By the end of 2004, the Pentagon reported that 5,500 American servicemen and women had deserted since the start of the war.

As President George W. Bush travels the world lecturing other leaders about democracy and freedom, he has made torture a centerpiece of American policy. Maher Arar found this out the hard way. Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was abducted by American authorities at New York's Kennedy Airport in September 2002 while in transit to a flight home to Canada. He was interrogated for ten days by American officials, then secretly flown to Syria, where he was imprisoned in an underground cell and tortured for nearly a year. The U.S. accused him of being a terrorist, but he was never charged with a crime because there was no hard evidence against him. "Extraordinary rendition" is the name the Bush administration gives to this policy of exporting suspected terrorists-namely, Arabs-to foreign countries where they can be tortured with impunity. Ironically, Arar was released by Syria in 2003 in part because Bush was threatening to invade Syria-for allegedly supporting terrorists and abusing human rights.

The corporate media has failed in its role as a watchdog of government, and instead has acted as an echo chamber for officialdom. No one has paid a higher price for this failure than American servicemen and women and the long-suffering people of Iraq. By early 2005, over 1,500 U.S. soldiers had died, and as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in a war that has devastated Iraq. A conflict that Bush administration officials predicated would be "a cakewalk" is now ravaging a new generation of soldiers. Nearly 20,000 American soldiers have been medically evacuated from Iraq, and some 17 percent of all returning Iraq war veterans show symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, more U.S. soldiers have been injured in Iraq than during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, or the first five years of the Vietnam conflict.

The escalating scale of this preventable catastrophe and the official admission that there were no weapons of mass destruction-finally moved a few members of the American media establishment to take a closer look at how they are doing their jobs during the past couple of years. It's about time: With no credible evidence to back up the spectacular prewar falsehoods that the media so helpfully trumpeted on the front pages, a little introspection was in order.

But those looking for a soul-searching mea culpa from the corporate media will have to wait. Here's what the editors of the New York Times had to say about their Iraq War coverage in May 2004: "We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been."

With thousands dead and dying in Iraq, the Times confession, buried on page Al 0-in contrast to two years of front-page treatment for bogus government claims-was an insult to all those on both sides of the conflict who have paid with their lives for the Bush administration's lies.

The editors of the New York Times blame the newspaper's lapse of judgment partly on being "perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper." But the problem goes deeper, and continues today: Official claims are considered true until proven false, and grassroots movements-especially the peace movement-are caricatured or ignored.

Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz quantifled just how lopsided his own newspaper's prewar tilt was. "From August 2002 through the March 19, 2003, launch of the war, the Post ran more than 140 front-page stories that focused heavily on administration rhetoric against Iraq," wrote Kurtz in August 2004. "Some examples: 'Cheney Says Iraqi Strike Is Justified'; 'War Cabinet Argues for Iraq Attack'; 'Bush Tells United Nations It Must Stand Up to Hussein or U.S. Will'; 'Bush Cites Urgent Iraqi Threat'; 'Bush Tells Troops: Prepare for War."

Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, whose investigations once helped take down President Richard Nixon, offered this astonishing excuse for why his newspaper failed to challenge government falsehoods: "We had no alternative sources of information."

Woodward might have found an alternative view had he thought to ask any of the leading critics of war or government dissidents. Or for a dissenting viewpoint, the Post could have sought out any one of the millions of Americans protesting against the war. Instead, voices for peace were once again frozen out of the media, leaving the same group of pro-war pundits, government officials, and retired generals to hold a one-sided debate.

Post Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks was candid in explaining his newspaper's failures, "There was an attitude among editors: 'Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?"

That helps explain why half of Americans still believed in late 2004 that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaeda-notions that by then had been thoroughly debunked by everyone from the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee to both of Bush's hand-picked weapons inspectors, Charles Duelfer and David Kay.

Americans believe these things not because they are stupid, but because they are good media consumers. As the Pentagon has learned, deploying the American media as its megaphone is more powerful than any bomb. The explosive effect is amplified as a few pro-war media moguls consolidate their grip over the majority of news outlets.

Going to the voting booth in November 2004, did the average American even know that the Iraq War has been a catastrophe? Not if they rely on the corporate media, especially TV, for news. Trotting out the same retired generals who confidently parroted the administration line before the war, the networks now turn to them for an assessment of how things are going. And what a surprise: From where they sit, the war is right on track. The only problem is that for some bewildering reason, the rest of the world hates America. Consider this exchange on CNN, as reported by Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books:

On October 15 [20041 former General George Joulwan discussed with Wolf Blitzer the need for Americans to do a better job of explaining to Muslims how much they'd done for them over the years. Blitzer agreed: "I don't think a lot 0f Muslims understand that over the past fifteen years, every time the U.S. has gone to war, whether in Kuwait, or Somalia, or Kosovo, or Bosnia, or Afghanistan or Iraq, it's to help Muslims."

Joulwan: "We've saved tens of thousands of them. We need to understand that, and so do our Muslim friends."

During the 2004 election, where were the Democrats on the Iraq debacle? They were crippled. Senator John Kerry and his running mate, Senator John Edwards, and most Democrats supported Bush's move into Iraq, even promising to send more troops into the quagmire if elected. Kerry infuriated many of his supporters and delighted the Republicans when he stated in August 2004 that had he known in 2002 what he knew today, he still would have voted to authorize Bush to use force.

The media dutifully reflected this narrow spectrum of "debate" between Democrats and Republicans about war and peace in 2004, and once again largely froze out alternative voices. Kerry appealed to Bush's base, assuming that war opponents would have no choice but to support him. He lost on both counts: Bush's base preferred the real Republican. People opposed to war were left with no major party candidate who spoke for them. One result: Less than 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2004; Bush "won" with a mere 30 percent of the eligible votes. For a nation that equates elections with democracy, U.S. voter turnout ranks dead last among the leading industrialized countries. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the United States places 139th out of 172 countries for average voter turnout, lagging behind countries such as Italy, Albania, Namibia, and Mongolia, all of which boast voter turnouts of over 80 percent. As for Americans under the age of thirty, half of them chose not to vote at all in 2004. Rather than galvanize his own base, Kerry ran away from them.

Supreme Court Justice William 0. Douglas once warned: "As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air-however slight-lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."

America is now in that twilight zone. But people of conscience all around the world are starting to act. The oily politicians and the media that love them are confronting the limits of their power. They find it in soldiers such as Jeremy Hinzman and Jimmy Massey, who are refusing to kill or be killed for a lie. They find it in courageous reporters such as Tareq Ayyoub, who will never be silenced.

Democracy works only when people can fully inform themselves and debate issues freely. When the people feel betrayed by those they trust to tell them the truth, they rebel. That is a good and hopeful thing: Democracy dies hard. People are tuning out the propaganda and turning to independent media and unembedded voices

A new generation is becoming-what the media should be-the exception to the rulers.


Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now! She is coauthor of the national bestseller The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media That Love Them, written with her brother, David Goodman.

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