The Media in a Time of War
by Dina Roy
International Socialist Review,
The justification for imperialist wars
waged by the U.S. has often hinged on one or two big lies. In
1898, the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine, whose cause still remains
a point of debate, was used to make a case for war with Spain.
Many newspapers, particularly those owned by William Randolph
Hearst, accused Spain without proof and beat the drums of war.'
In a replay of history, the Johnson administration concocted the
"Gulf of Tonkin" incident in 1964. It claimed that the
Maddox, an American destroyer, was fired at by the North Vietnamese
in an unprovoked incident while it was on routine patrol in international
waters. This turned out to be a lie, but it gave President Johnson
the congressional resolution he needed to prosecute the Vietnam
War. Prior to the Gulf War of 1991, the Bush administration rallied
behind the fabricated story of Iraqi troops pulling babies out
of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals. So, it should come as no surprise
that Bush Jr. would resort to similar mechanisms to win support
for the invasion of Iraq. This time around, instead of one or
two lies, the American public was barraged with a whole slew of
lies and deceptions.
The propaganda war began shortly after
9-11. For the hawks in the Bush administration, 9-11 was a blessing
in disguise which gave them an excuse to declare a blanket "war
on terror" that would justify the U.S. waging war on any
country it deemed an enemy. However, tying Iraq to 9-11 and to
al Qaeda posed somewhat of a challenge. James Woolsey, former
director of the CIA, was assigned to come up with the evidence.
Woolsey traveled to Europe where he "discovered" that
Czech intelligence had information that Mohammed Atta, the alleged
leader of the September 11 attacks, had met with an Iraqi agent
in Prague in April, 2001. The report was dismissed as not credible
by U.S., British, French and Israeli intelligence agencies. However,
this did not stop Woolsey from appearing on several talk shows
and writing op-ed pieces in major newspapers, repeating the lie.
Woolsey even argued that Saddam Hussein was behind the World Trade
Center bombing of 1993 and the anthrax scare. Even though these
allegations were discredited, the job was done. Polls taken at
the end of 2002 and in early 2003 found that almost half of all
Americans believed that there was a connection between Iraq and
9-11. Polls also showed that many Americans believed that several
of the hijackers were Iraqi, though none were.
If the first part of the propaganda campaign
involved tying Iraq to 9-11, the second was to show that it was
a threat to the U.S. The Iynchpin of this argument was that Iraq
had "weapons of mass destruction" (WMDs) and was willing
to use them. In a joint press conference on September 7, 2002,
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and George W. Bush declared
that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had issued
a new report stating that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons
project. Bush claimed, with his usual rhetorical eloquence, "I
would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq
and were denied-finally denied access [in 1998], a report came
out of the Atomic-the IAEA that they were six months away from
developing a weapon." "I don't know what more evidence
we need," he added. Three weeks after this press conference,
Mark Gwozdecky, the chief spokesperson of the IAEA, stated that
no such report exists.
Not to be outdone, Blair provided his
own brand of proof supporting the claim that Iraq had WMDs. On
September 24, 2002 Blair released a 50-page "dossier"
on Iraq's weapons program. This was reinforced by the hawks with
at least two other pieces of "evidence." The first was
that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes to build, in a matter of
"six months," the dreaded nuclear bombs that would wreak
havoc upon the world. And the second was that Iraq had tried to
buy uranium from the African country, Niger. The proof for this
was based on a series of letters that administration hawks claimed
was the "smoking gun." It was in this context that Bush
was able to win a congressional resolution on October 11, 2002
giving him a blank check for war on Iraq. Shortly after this resolution
the truth began to surface.
On December 6, 2002, 60 Minutes broadcast
an interview with former UN weapons inspector David Albright,
who stated that the aluminum tubes were most likely meant for
conventional weapons. One month later, Mohammed El Baradei, head
of the IAEA, confirmed this report and declared the tubes had
no relation to a nuclear program. In February 2003, the British
Channel 4 News revealed that large chunks of the Blair dossier
were plagiarized-simply cut and pasted- from a University of California
graduate student's thesis. In early March, nuclear weapons experts
revealed that the letters demonstrating that Iraq had bought uranium
from Niger were hoaxes. These forged letters were even disowned
by the CIA; the agency also stated that they had communicated
this information to the administration as far back as 2001.
Yet, the Bush administration saw no problem
with presenting these forgeries as evidence that Iraq has WMDs.
Neither did the problems with the aluminum tubes story deter Secretary
of State Colin Powell, who went before the UN Security Council
on March 7, 2003 singing the same tune. Going into the second
week of March, Bush and Blair had not really made a case for war
even within the framework of their own twisted premises. Far be
it for the truth to get in the way of a propaganda campaign-especially
if the warmongers can rely on the mainstream media to amplify
the lies and hush the truth.
Media and war propaganda
George Bush is the president, he makes
the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, whenever he
wants me to line up, just tell me where. -- Dan Rather
With few exceptions, the bulk of media
coverage on the front pages of major newspapers and headline news
on television simply parroted the administration's line before
and during the war. As Tom Wicker, a 30-year veteran journalist
observed, "Bush administration spokesmen have made several
cases for waging war against Iraq, and the U.S. press has tended
to present all those cases to the public as if they were gospel.""
Even though all the information discussed above was readily available,
not to mention countless interviews with former weapons inspector
Scott Ritter who had stated repeatedly that Iraq was 90-95 percent
disarmed, the media chose to present certain "facts"
and ignore others, lest they contradict the administration's propaganda.
Two examples are worth noting. When the
British newspaper, the Observer, broke the story about the U.S.
spying on UN Security Council representatives in early March,
the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post did their best to
play down the significance of the matter, while other media, including
the networks, didn't even bother to cover the story. In the weeks
leading up to the crucial Security Council vote on the war on
Iraq, U.S. officials listened in on phone conversations and read
the emails of UN Security Council representatives from Angola,
Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea and Pakistan who were stationed
in New York. Yet for the lapdog media, the practice of spying
on other nations is not newsworthy. Perhaps more damning is the
attitude towards the exclusive Newsweek story featuring an Iraqi
defector run on March 3, 2003. The article stated that Hussein
Kamel, the highest-ranking Iraqi official ever to defect from
Saddam Hussein's inner circle, had told CIA and British intelligence
officers in 1995 that after the Gulf War Iraq had destroyed all
its chemical and biological weapons. Bush, Powell and other administration
officials, however, had repeatedly cited "Kamel's defection...as
evidence that 1) Iraq has not disarmed; 2) inspections cannot
disarm it; and 3) defectors such as Kamel are the most reliable
source of information on Iraq's weapons." Here was information
that could blow major holes in the Bush argument, but the mainstream
media chose to ignore the story and it was buried.
In addition to downplaying facts that
would refute the administration's case for war, the media also
went out of their way to create a climate supportive of the war.
They did so in two ways-first, by stacking the deck with pro-war
guests and "experts" and second, by firing reporters
and talk show hosts who upset this scenario. A study of the three
networks' evening news shows and PBS conducted over a two-week
period in February found that 76 percent of the guests were either
current or former government or military officials. Ninety-eight
percent of them advocated a pro-war stance. On the other hand,
less than 1 percent of the guests were associated with the antiwar
movement, even though large demonstrations involving hundreds
of thousands had already taken place in the U.S.
Phil Donahue's show was cancelled by MSNBC
in February because, according to a leaked internal report, the
show presented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time
of war." The report went on to add that Donahue "seems
to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and
skeptical of the administration's motives." While the official
excuses for dropping the show had to do with ratings and profits,
in reality Donahue's show averaged more than 446,000 viewers and
was the top-rated show on MSNBC, outperforming Hardball with Chris
The message was clear: If you want to
keep your job, fall in line. This message came not only from media
bosses, but also from the White House. As journalists Russell
Mokhiber and Robert Weissman note, White House press passes are
hard to come by if you are known to be a reporter who asks tough
questions. A vivid display of the results of these tactics was
to be found at Bush's prime time news conference on March 6, 2003.
The press conference was so tightly controlled that even compliant
White House journalists were irate. Bush called on only those
reporters he wanted from a predetermined list, while he followed
a tight script repeating the same points again and again and emphasizing
9-11. Bush had gone too far in exposing the degree of media subservience
and some journalists were annoyed. But not much would change.
In fact, if media complicity with the Bush administration's pre-war
propaganda was nauseating, the worst was yet to come.
Reporting the war on Iraq
I don't think. . . there has ever been
the degree of press coverage as you have seen in this instance.
-- Donald Rumsfeld
Reporters love troops. Put us with these
18-year-old kids...we just turn to jelly. -- Parnela Hess, United
Under the guise of giving journalists
unprecedented access to the war on the ground, Donald Rumsfeld
and the Pentagon came up with a novel way of restricting press
freedom- the "embedded" journalist. Unlike the 1991
Gulf War, this time journalists were going to be allowed to witness
the war first hand. However, in order to be where the action was
reporters had to sign a contract with the military agreeing to
a 50-point program about what they could and could not report.
A close reading of this program shows that it had inbuilt mechanisms
of scrutiny, which would reveal themselves as the war progressed.
There were about 900 reporters, mainly
U.S. and British, embedded with the troops. Those who were not
embedded, were termed "unilateral" journalists (few
reporters seem to have caught the irony) and they didn't have
access to transportation and other facilities. Perhaps most important,
"embeds" (a telling joke circulated during the war calling
them "in-beds") were protected by the military while
unilaterals were on their own. Given that the main threat was
U.S. and British forces, this was less about protection and more
a threat-a threat that the military would soon act upon.
While reporting from the scene of battle
is not new, what was new about this war was the live footage from
the actual battles. Far from making the war more realistic, it
positioned viewers, quite literally, to witness the skirmishes
from the point of view of the military. If you are shooting the
action from the side of the U.S. and British forces, it becomes
very clear who the "good guys" and "bad guys"
are and whom to root for. Far from objective reporting, the reporters
were telling the story both physically and ideologically from
the vantage point of the U.S. and British troops. Ideologically,
the journalists seemed to identify with the soldiers. This would
seem natural; after all they ate with them, they slept together
and they even wore the same clothes. When setting this system
up it must have been clear to the war planners that this situation
would surely create identification with the soldiers and lead
to voluntary self-censorship by the journalists. Had the war progressed
longer this system could have backfired. Already at the start
of the war a number of soldiers had expressed their antipathy
towards the war on Iraq and Bush's agenda. Had the war dragged
on and the guerrilla fighting persisted, leading to more U.S.
casualties and fatalities, this sentiment would likely have spread
as it did in Vietnam after 1968. In such a context, the journalists
would have been positioned to report on the discontent among those
being asked to sacrifice their lives for oil and empire, and it
would have been a powerful message for the antiwar side. But as
it worked out in this war, footage of the actual battlefield had
a human interest angle to it and served to get the home front
to identify with "our young men and women in harms way"
thereby bolstering the "support the troops" argument.
To add to this, reporters saw only what
the troops did and lacked the mobility to travel elsewhere or
to witness the havoc created in the aftermath of an attack. The
result was images of sophisticated machinery, bombs and wreckage-and
play-by-play descriptions of troop tactics-but little of the human
consequences. We didn't see the horrific pictures of Iraqi casualties,
the dead and the destruction of their homes and cities. This was
a deliberate decision by network executives-the footage was available
to them but they declined to air it. This is not new. Even during
the first Gulf War, the military and the White House ensured uniformly
antiseptic and clean war coverage. Then too, most of the grisly
pictures of the real impact of the war were the work of independent
Media shock and awe
This time, however, the embeds did show
real images of the action and the superior fire power and artillery
of the U.S. and British troops, unlike the military simulations
of the 1991 war or the fireworks-like display in the night sky.
This was not because Bush administration hawks had suddenly recognized
the importance of press freedom. Rather, this was part of a plan
of psychological warfare. As CNN's Bob Franken noted as he passed
through Kuwait, "One of the reasons we have been allowed
to show all this noise, all the chaos, all the intensity is that
it is so close to Iraq." Michael Ryan, a former editor for
Time, noted that the "American media, essentially, have become
an extension of the military psychological operations, with Rumsfeld
hoping they can help to scare the daylights out of Iraq."
The media were enlisted in the U.S. "shock and awe"
A large part of the psychological operations
was the spread of misinformation. The constant demand for new
information on the 24-hour news channels meant that often military
claims would be relayed without taking the time to check the facts.
An update from a military official would receive wide publicity,
only to be retracted or modified later. The British newspaper,
the Guardian, and the BBC tracked these claims and counter-claims.
The extent of the deception and lies is stunning. As one senior
BBC news source commented, "We're absolutely sick and tired
of putting things out and finding out they're not true. The misinformation
in this war is far and away worse than any conflict I've covered,
including the first Gulf War and Kosovo."
On the first day of war, military spokespersons
claimed that Iraq had fired Scud missiles into Kuwait. This story
received much play in the media. Three days later, U.S. General
Stanley McChrystal stated that no scuds had been fired. On March
21, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce and Donald Rumsfeld reported that
Umm Qasr has fallen to "coalition" forces. This was
not true. In fact Umm Qasr was officially reported "taken"
nine times before it was actually taken. On March 25, British
military sources claimed that there had been a popular uprising
in Basra against Saddam Hussein's troops. Embedded journalist
Richard Gaisford reported that the troops were trying to aid in
this effort by bombarding mortar positions. Again, there was widespread
media coverage of the uprising despite reports by the Qatar-based
Al-Jazeera network that there was no evidence of an uprising.
The next day, a British spokesperson claimed that he did not "have
a dear indication of [the] scale and scope" of the uprising.
An NPR interview on April 24 revealed that there was no evidence
of such an uprising.
On March 27, Tony Blair in a joint press
conference with Bush declared that two British soldiers had been
executed by the Iraqis and that this was proof of Saddam Hussein's
"depravity." The next day the prime minister's spokesperson
stated that there was no "absolute evidence" that the
soldiers were executed. A relative of one of the British soldiers
reported that she was told by British military officials that
her brother had been killed in action, not executed. On March
29 an explosion in a market in Baghdad killed at least 50 civilians.
The official spokespersons for the U.S. and Britain claimed that
they had nothing to do with the incident. The media ran this story
without question. A few days later Robert Fisk, of the British
Independent newspaper, found shrapnel that identified the cause
of the explosion as a U.S. missile. Over the course of the war,
there were a series of claims that troops had found evidence of
chemical and biological weapons, only to declare shortly after
that there were no such weapons.
Some have argued that these claims and
counter-claims were genuine mistakes made in the heat of war.
As one BBC official stated, "I don't know whether they [the
Pentagon] are putting out flyers in the hope that we'll run them
first and ask questions later or whether they genuinely don't
know what's going on-I rather suspect the latter." This was
disingenuous. The history of using the mainstream media in psychological
operations is both long and well-documented. As Lieutenant Commander
Arthur A. Humphries, an advocate of press control, argued over
two decades ago, "The news media can be a useful tool, or
even a weapon, in prosecuting a war psychologically, so that the
operators don't have to use their more severe weapons." In
fact, military officials spread lies. This is a calculated plan
whose rationale was explained in another context by Peter Teeley,
George Bush, Sr.'s press secretary when he was vice president:
"You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million
people hear it." If it happens to be untrue, "so what.
Maybe 200 people read [the correction] or 2,000 or 20,000."
Cynically, some in the military tried
to blame the misinformation on reporters. Gaisford, the BBC embedded
reporter mentioned earlier replied, "We have to check each
story we have with [the military]. And the captain, who's our
media liaison officer, will check with the colonel, and they will
check with the Brigade headquarters as well." So much for
the embedded system being free from military censorship! What
this reveals is not only the extent of control and censorship
imposed by the military, but the willingness of reporters to be
part of such a system.
But the censorship and control did not
stop at this level. The White House set up an agency known as
the Office of Global Communication in January 2003 which has played
a key role in the war propaganda. This office has acted as a public
relations agency for the Bush administration. Its tasks included
issuing daily talking points to U.S. spokespersons around the
world. Its role has been to coordinate the messages from the Pentagon,
the State Department and the military officials in the Middle
East, so that the comments from these sources are approved in
advance by the White House and are consistent with the official
line. The Office also trains and provides former military personnel
to be interviewed by the media. Chicago Tribune reporter Bob Kemper
notes that so "controlled is the administration's message
that officials from Bush on down often use identical anecdotes
to make their points." Even the choice of words was thought
out. For instance, the office sent directives to the military
briefers not to refer to Iraqi troops loyal to Saddam Hussein
as the "Fedayeen" since this term held a positive association.
Instead, spokespersons were asked to refer to these troops as
"terrorists," "death squads" or "thugs."
Even the best designed public relations
campaign, however, can fail if other sources of information that
contradict the official line are allowed to flourish. Thus, when
the war on Iraq proved not to be a cakewalk in its first several
days, journalists who pointed that out had to be disciplined.
Peter Arnett, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was fired
from MSNBC for admitting on Iraqi television that things weren't
going as planned for the U.S.
The Iraqi television station in Baghdad,
which had contradicted many of the claims made by U.S. and British
officials was bombed. Rather than express horror at this bombing,
many reporters at Fox, CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC and other
media outlets supported the bombing. Fox News's John Gibson wondered:
"Should we take Iraqi TV off the air?
Should we put one down the stove pipe
there?" Fox's Bill O'Reilly agreed: "I think they should
have taken out the television, the Iraqi television.... Why haven't
they taken out the Iraqi television towers?" MSNBC correspondent
David Shuster offered: "A lot of questions about why state-run
television is allowed to continue broadcasting. After all, the
coalition forces know where those broadcast towers are located."
On CNBC, Forrest Sawyer offered tactical alternatives to bombing:
"There are operatives in there. You could go in with sabotage,
take out the building, you could take out the tower."
Journalists also became targets in this
war. On April 1, the radio show Democracy Now revealed that four
unilateral foreign journalists had been detained, beaten and threatened
by the U.S. military. The biggest assault on reporters who did
not toe the U.S. Iine began on April ~ when a U.S. missile hit
the Baghdad office of Al-Jazeera, which had devoted considerable
coverage to the deaths of Iraqi civilians. The attack killed Tareq
Ayub, a 34-year-old Jordanian journalist. The same day, the U.S.
fired at the Palestine Hotel where most foreign journalists not
embedded with the military were staying. The attack killed two
more journalists. Even the New York Times was forced to admit
that these events raise "concerns" and "bring accusations"
that the military was deliberately targeting journalists. Arguably,
this was part of the plan. Weeks before this incident, veteran
BBC reporter Kate Adie was told by a senior Pentagon official
that if unilateral broadcast satellite links were detected they
would be targeted, even if the journalists were still at the intercepted
It appears that the overall media strategy
of the war makers had several fronts: the use of embedded journalists;
the spread of misinformation; threats, bombings or even death
for journalists and media outlets hostile to the U.S., and a central
propaganda coordinating mechanism, i.e. the Office of Global Communication.
Again, such a level of planning and strategizing is not new. Governments
have always tried to control their respective media, both in times
of peace and war.
History of media control
After the Vietnam War, sections of the
American right came to believe that media coverage of the war
led to the U.S. defeat. They argued that television distorted
the war by showing graphic images of the dead, turning Americans
against the war. While television did show some images of casualties
it was nowhere near the volume that the right claimed. One study
shows that between 1965 and 1970, only about 3 percent of all
evening news reports from Vietnam showed heavy fighting with dead
or wounded. Another study found that TV war stories featuring
images of casualties were brief-such as a soldier being lifted
onto a helicopter-and were a minority of all reports filed. Right
up to 196S, media coverage of war was as propagandistic and jingoistic
as one might expect. This changed after 1968, mainly because of
the Tet offensive, which showed quite clearly that the U.S. could
not win the war, the growth of the antiwar movement and the fact
that several prominent congressmen publicly criticized the war.
Regardless of the reality, the myth that
the media cost the U.S. the war gained ground. Future war planners
decided that they could never again risk uncensored media coverage
of wars. Britain showed the way with the Falklands war against
Argentina 1 9S2. A handful of reporters were placed in various
"pools" on Navy ships and were subject to strict censorship.
Drawing the lessons from that experience, Lieutenant Commander
Humphries argued that the formula should be "[c]ontrol access
to the fighting, invoke censorship and rally aid in the form of
patriotism at home and in the battle zone." He added that
it was not enough merely to censor the media but also to provide
pictures that supported the government's case.
The first test of this policy would be
the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. There was an almost complete
news blackout because the press was kept in the dark about the
invasion until an hour after it began. Over the next few days
the Reagan administration did everything it could to keep journalists
from getting to Grenada. As a result, little is know about the
casualties and social cost of that invasion. Shortly after Grenada,
in response to media protests, the National Media Pool was created
to allow for better coverage of wars. The rationale was to create
a small pool of trusted and knowledgeable reporters who could
be taken to the scene of war at short notice.
However, that was not how it worked in
the next major U.S. invasion, Panama in 1989. Then-Secretary of
Defense Dick Cheney insisted on a Washington-based pool, which
meant that the most knowledgeable reporters-those with some experience
and knowledge of Panama-would not be in the region. Then he decided
not to inform the press of the invasion until a few hours before
it began. As a result, as with Grenada, journalists could not
reach Panama on time. Once they arrived they were held captive
by the military for another five hours. Ultimately, journalists
found that they had little information and no pictures other than
what the Pentagon had provided them. This was perfect for the
war makers-it was a tightly controlled propaganda campaign, with
little or no coverage of the thousands of civilians killed by
the military. Lacking any real information, the media faithfully
reported the Pentagon's estimated casualty count, which was in
the low hundreds, while human rights organizations put the figure
close to 4,000. Conveniently, no reporters were on hand to tell
the story of how the U.S. had completely destroyed the impoverished
El Chorillo district of Panama City.
By the time of the Gulf War of 1991, the
system of media censorship had been all but perfected. Dick Cheney,
expressing his thoughts on the media, would say after the war:
"Frankly, I looked on it as a problem to be managed. The
information function was extraordinarily important. I did not
have a lot of confidence that I could leave it to the press."
Cheney was drawing from his own experiences at skillfully managing
the press, i.e. restricting access and then providing images that
aided the war effort.
The pool system allowed the military to
control the movement of journalists and to restrict where they
went and what they saw. Journalists were taken to selected sites
and not allowed to interview soldiers without a military minder
present. Additionally, reporters were not allowed to pass on stories
until they were inspected by the military. In the absence of direct
access to the war, reporters were treated to press briefings with
images of precision bombing and laser guided missiles hitting
their target. Media scholar Douglas Kellner notes that such "control
of press coverage was unprecedented in the history of U.S. warfare."
The military presented the war as a new
form of warfare in which civilians would not be harmed because
"smart" technology allowed for "surgical strikes."
This was a lie. Only 7 percent of the ordnance was "smart."
And the smart technology wasn't all that smart, as 70 percent
missed its targets. Both smart and dumb bombs killed civilians
and destroyed the infrastructure including electrical power, water,
sanitation and communication facilities. This was not an accident,
but an avowed goal of the campaign. Over 200,000 people died as
result of that war. Yet very little of this made it into the mainstream
media. After the war, one reporter commented,
[The Pentagon] figured out a way to control
every facet of our coverage. They restricted access to a point
where we couldn't do any of our own reporting. They fed us a steady
diet of press conferences in which they decided what the news
would be. And if somehow, after all that, we managed to report
on something they didn't like, they would censor it out... It
amounted to recruiting the press into the military.
But this was not the only form of censorship
that reporters who wanted to tell the truth would face. Award-winning
journalists Jon Alpert and Maryann DeLeo had video footage of
the actual destruction that had taken place and the civilian casualties.
NBC and CBS refused to air their videotapes. The media also squelched
reports of "friendly fire" casualties.
In the current war on Iraq, the media
have been equally cooperative in spinning the Washington line.
They accepted the embedded system and paraded a string of generals
and ex-generals on television. The overall framing was completely
present-centered and focused on the war as it played out; there
was no space to question the war itself, let alone bring up the
history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. This outcome
is not surprising. In the aftermath of 9-11, Bush advisers Karl
Rove and Mark McKinnon met with the heads of Viacom, Disney, MGM
and others to discuss how the media could "help" the
government's efforts. Before the start of the war, CNN set up
a system of "script approval" where reporters had to
send their stories to unnamed officials in Atlanta before they
could be run. In case the military missed anything, CNN monitors
would be sure to catch it. Rupert Murdoch, who owns the multibillion
dollar conglomerate News Corporation, has been a staunch supporter
of the war. Coincidentally, so have all 175 editors of his worldwide
newspaper empire. Fox, which is owned by News Corporation, has
taken a rabid pro-war stance even going so far as to ridicule
the antiwar protesters.
Why the media spread war propaganda
We have no obligation to make history.
We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make
a statement. To make money is our only objective. -- Michael Eisner,
CEO of Disney
The media line up with the government
on fundamental matters not because of any conspiracy or backroom
deals- though backroom deals do happen-but because the media themselves
are huge corporations that share the same economic and political
interests with the tiny elite that runs the U.S. government. The
bulk of mass media in the United States and around the world are
owned by a handful of large corporations-AOL-Time Warner, Disney,
Sony, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi and Bertelsmann. These
multibillion dollar conglomerates are all global in reach and
scope. In order to succeed and to make a profit the owners of
these corporations look to the governments of their own countries
to protect their interests domestically and internationally. With
the conquest of Iraq, U.S.-based media conglomerates and telecommunications
giants are better positioned to dominate Middle East markets.
This happens domestically as well. In
radio, Clear Channel, which owns 1,225 radio stations, dominates
the audience share in 100 out of 112 major markets. This level
of concentration of ownership has been facilitated by laws, such
as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed many of
the regulations on media ownership. Prior
to 1996, a media corporation could not own more than 40 stations.
Since then, companies like Clear Channel have been able to take
advantage of the atmosphere of deregulation to increase their
holdings. Recently, when Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the
band Dixie Chicks, criticized Bush, Clear Channel led the attack
on the band. Clear Channel, which has close ties to Bush, organized
a number of pro-war rallies and pulled Dixie Chicks songs from
some of their stations. These examples illustrate the interconnections
between large corporations and the government and their shared
interests and goals. It is therefore not surprising that these
media corporations have little incentive to be the watchdogs of
NBC, for instance, is owned by General
Electric, a major military contractor. But even news media that
aren't directly tied to the military-industrial complex have a
stake in the system. They are businesses that make profits from
selling advertising. Newspapers, television and radio all make
their money by selling audiences to advertisers-and they know
that their bottom line will suffer if they pursue stories that
might damage advertisers. General circulation magazines obtain
about 50 percent of their revenues from advertising, newspapers
75 percent, and broadcasting nearly 100 percent. Advertising is
thus the backbone of the media industry, and it is estimated that
about a quarter of a trillion dollars a year is spent on advertising
in the United States. Because of its dependence on advertising,
the media industry tailors its content and structure to suit the
needs of advertisers. When the Tribune Company bought the Times-Mirror
Corporation, the logic was to "create a network of regional
media hubs where advertisers are matched with audiences through
newspapers, television broadcasts and Internet sites." It
follows that the news media rarely print or broadcast anything
that might be offensive to advertisers.
A for-profit media industry is geared
around increasing revenues and decreasing costs, which leads to
a situation where profits trump journalistic ethics. The "Fox
effect" shows how this works. The Fox news channel has emerged,
over the course of the war on Iraq, as the most watched source
of news on cable. Fox's approach to the war is blatantly biased,
patriotic and pro-war. They have chided antiwar voices and abandoned
any pretense of neutrality and objectivity. Even though this goes
against the core of what journalism is supposed to stand for,
Fox has received high ratings, so other channels have taken steps
to emulate Fox.
If advertising increases revenues and
profits, then laying off workers is a way of cutting costs. As
a result, over the last few decades large numbers of reporters
have been laid off. Those that remain, with the exception of celebrity
journalists, make fairly paltry wages. The impact that this has
had on news media organizations is that they have now become more
reliant on cheap or free sources of information. The two main
sources of such information are corporate public relations departments,
and the state, with its various departments from the Pentagon
to the White House. Vast amounts of information reach the news
media through these two sources. The Pentagon alone employs thousands
of people, and spends millions of dollars on its public relations
every year. The amount of resources allotted by the Pentagon to
public information not only exceeds those of the average individuals
or groups who dare to resist but the resources of all such groups
in this country. Additionally, not only does information from
these sources inundate the news media but reporters are also stationed
in locations where news is known to happen through what is known
as the "beat" system. In this system, reporters are
assigned beats, that is, they are sent to established locations
such as the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and
so on to routinely cover events. All this gives these sources
enormous power to manipulate the news. This is especially true
of foreign affairs and national security issues, where the Pentagon
exercises considerable control and where much of what happens
is kept secret.
Information from corporate public relations
departments also saturates news media organizations. It is estimated
that anywhere between 40-70 percent of the news is based on press
releases and PR-generated information. In addition to expanded
public relations departments, corporations have cultivated experts
on various issues who are routinely contacted by the media for
their expertise. Corporations have co-opted experts by putting
them on their payroll as consultants, funding their research and
organizing think tanks that will hire them to help spread their
message. This was part of a media strategy developed by corporate
America during the 1970s and 1980s to ensure the dominance of
corporate ideology and to overturn the movements of the previous
decades. It included setting up think tanks such as the Heritage
Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and the Olin and Scaife
Foundations. But business-related individuals aren't the only
experts one finds in the news. So are current and ex-government
officials. During times of war, military officials dominate the
In addition to think tanks, corporate
America also sponsored the creation of media watch groups such
as Accuracy in the Media, the Media Institute, the Center for
Media in Public Affairs, the American Legal Foundation and Capital
Legal Foundation. These media watch groups were created for the
explicit purpose of harassing the media if they strayed from the
corporate agenda. This harassment or "flak" can range
from letters and phone calls to lawsuits and speeches before Congress.
Think tanks and flak organizations have been successful in reaching
the goals of their corporate sponsors. One study found that of
all the think tanks that were cited in the media in 1999, conservative
or right-leaning think tanks were cited 51 percent of the time,
centrist think tanks 35 percent of the time and progressive or
left-leaning ones 13 percent of the time. So much for the liberal
bias in the media.
Reporters are trained in journalism school
to accept this system as the natural order of things. They are
trained through the logic of professional journalism to trust
those in positions of authority, such as government officials
or CEOs. As media scholar Robert McChesney explains,
To avoid controversy associated with
determining what is a legitimate news story, professional journalism
relies upon official sources as the basis for stories. This gives
those in positions of power (and the public relations industry,
which developed at the exact same time as professional journalism
[in the early part of the 20th century]) considerable ability
to influence what is covered in the news. Moreover, professional
journalism tends to demand "news hooks"-some sort of
news event-to justify publication. This means that long-term public
issues, like racism or suburban sprawl, tend to fall by the way
side, and there is little emphasis on providing the historical
and ideological context necessary to bring public issues to life
for readers. Finally, professional journalism internalizes the
notion that business is the proper steward of society, so that
the stunning combination of ample flattering attention to the
affairs of business in the news with a virtual blackout of labor
coverage is taken as "natural."
While practicing the journalistic code
of conduct, reporters rarely recognize that far from "objective"
they in fact perpetuate the status quo. While they are taught
to be skeptical and critical of the world around them, in practice
this applies only to sources that aren't in official positions
of power. For example, when the group Voices in the Wilderness,
an anti-Iraq sanctions group based in Chicago, approached the
American news media to cover a visit by American antiwar teachers
to an Iraqi school, they declined. As media critic Norman Solomon,
who was present when this took place observes,
I was there when Kysia [a member of Voices
in the Wilderness] handed the press release to a TV crew. As soon
as he left, the crew didn't even bother to read the entire press
release before declaring that it was propaganda. They considered
Voices to be outside the reign of legitimate sources, and therefore
it could be safely ignored.
Also, journalists are no different than
other people in our society. They accept, to a greater or lesser
extent, the dominant ideas of society. And the higher up you go
in the ladder, the greater the identification with ruling-class
interests. Celebrity journalists, such as Tom Brokaw, aspire to
be part of the class of people who wage wars and therefore identify
with them. Norman Solomon notes that most "journalists who
get plum foreign assignments already accept the assumptions of
empire. I didn't meet a single foreign reporter in Iraq who disagreed
with the notion that the U.S. and Britain have the right to overthrow
the Iraqi government by force."
If reporters cross the line and challenge
those in power the, are inevitably disciplined. Sydney Schanberg,
a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was forced to leave the New
York Times when he refused to back down from writing about corporate
power and corruption. Schanberg was one of the journalists involved
in filing the lawsuit against the Pentagon in 1991. Gary Webb
was fired from the San Jose Mercury News after he exposed the
connections between the CIA, the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua
and the import of cocaine into the U.S. When producers April Oliver
and Jack Smith ran a story that suggested that the U.S. army might
have used the nerve gas Sarin on deserters during the Vietnam
War, CNN fired them after retracting the story. In May 1998, the
Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story that exposed criminal practices
in the Chiquita Banana Company in its South American operations.
Chiquita then successfully pressured the paper to fire the reporter,
Mike Gallagher, and print a front-page apology and pull all copies
of the story, on the grounds that the reporter had illegally obtained
company voice mails. Though Chiquita admitted that the voicemails
on which the story was based were authentic, the Enquirer agreed
to announce that the report was "false and untrue" and
pay $10 million to the company.
Thus, the rational choice for a journalist
is to report favorably on those in positions of power and wait
to be rewarded through the occasional "leak" which leads
to his or her story being given importance. Additionally, these
sorts of cases have a chilling effect and most regular journalists
recognize that they have to play by the rules if they want to
keep their jobs.
Dennis Mazzocco, who worked for 20 years
at ABC and NBC, observes that media workers
learn to adopt the owners' views in order
to succeed, even when their paychecks or political and social
connections may be those of ordinary citizens. No media worker
who wants to keep his or her job will ever admit this publicly.
Nor will anyone who wants to succeed in U.S. broadcasting publicly
confirm that management investment decisions are made to protect
the firm's political-economic power and inevitably affect the
company's on-air programming.
The result is self-censorship. Helen Thomas,
a long-time White House reporter, told an audience at MIT recently:
"I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter."
Even celebrity journalists like Dan "tell-me-where-to-line-up"
Rather have to admit this. In a BBC interview in 2002 he stated:
"What we are talking about here-whether one wants to recognize
it or not, or call it by its proper name or not-is a form of self-censorship.
I worry that patriotism run amok will trample the very values
that the country seeks to defend." The end result is a media
system that easily becomes the propaganda wing of a war effort.
Limits of the media and war propaganda
It is important to note that the media
are not all powerful. Despite its ubiquitous nature, people can
and do see through the media's propaganda. Also, when ordinary
people organize and start to protest this can have an affect on
the media; they can be pressured to be less subservient to the
interests of the ruling class. There is a long history of grassroots
movements and struggle impacting the mainstream media, not to
mention the flourishing of alternative media outlets in these
periods. A recent example is the UPS strike of 1997. When 185,000
workers around the country went out on strike, the initial coverage
of the strike was predictably biased in favor of corporations.
However, as the strike progressed a majority of Americans came
out in support of the striking workers - 55 percent of the public
sympathized with the issues raised by the workers, despite pro-corporate
coverage in the media, and thousands joined the picket lines in
a show of solidarity. This put tremendous pressure on the news
media to be fair in their representation of the strike. After
all, the media claim to be objective and to tell both sides of
the story. With increased public attention on the strike and the
issues surrounding the strike, the media felt obliged to give
labor's side a hearing. The result was that during the second
week of the strike, some media outlets like the New York Times,
The Washington Post and ABC were forced to switch the tone of
their coverage to one that was sympathetic to working-class issues.
Thus, even though the news generally has a pro-corporate bias,
it can be shaped and influenced during periods of struggle.
This is important for antiwar activists
to keep in mind. Media coverage of the Vietnam War improved dramatically
after 1968 because of the strong, organized and loud antiwar movement,
coupled with the setbacks faced by U.S. forces in Vietnam. The
three networks shifted the tone of their coverage to include an
equal number of pro- and antiwar guests. After 1970, antiwar guests
outnumbered the pro-war guests. Editorials went from four to one
in support of the war, to two to one against. The media weren't
only reflecting the pressure of popular opinion. By the 1970s,
whole sections of the ruling class had come to the conclusion
it was time for the U.S. to cut its losses in Vietnam. A New York
Times editor explained the shift in media coverage as follows,
As protest moved from the left groups,
the antiwar groups, into the pulpits, into the Senate-with Fulbright,
Gruening, and others-as it became majority opinion, it naturally
picked up coverage. And then naturally the tone of coverage changed.
Because we're an establishment institution, and whenever your
natural constituency changes, then naturally you will too.
In the present war there were few establishment
figures who took a bold anti-war stance. While several Democratic
presidential candidates did come out against war with Iraq, their
opposition was somewhat muted and marginal. We did, however, see
debate in the media on a few issues. Last summer when separate
wings of the ruling class were trying to determine if the war
on Iraq should be conducted "unilaterally" or "multilaterally,"
this disagreement was reflected in the media. Also, during the
early stages of the war when things weren't going as planned (i.e.
the take over of Iraq proved not to be a "cakewalk")
there was debate among the ruling elite about tactics and strategies,
and again this was represented in the media. However, these sorts
of "debates" should not be mistaken for genuine debate.
In both cases, the right of the U.S. to go to war with other countries
and pulverize them was not in doubt.
Yet, despite the lack of genuine debate
and the intense pro-war media barrage, public skepticism of the
current war on Iraq was high, much higher than before the start
of the Vietnam War. Additionally, demonstrations before the war
began drew far greater numbers than at the same point before the
Vietnam War. What is significant is that even though Americans
were led to believe that Iraq had something to do with 9-11, polls
showed that a majority preferred a diplomatic solution and did
not want to see a rush to war. Significant numbers of Americans
also wanted the government to focus on domestic issues, such as
the economy and unemployment. The patriotic hype served to deflect
attention away from these issues during the war. However, the
level of support for war was, arguably, nowhere close to the jingoism
and flag waving during the war on Afghanistan. A Zogby poll taken
a month before the outbreak of war found that just over half of
the population supported war, while a substantial 41 percent opposed
it. That figure dropped to 35 percent once the war began, but
that's still millions of people. In New York, fewer than half
the population supported the war before it began, and this figure
did not change even after the start of the war. According to an
early-April poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 44 percent
of African-Americans considered it a mistake to go to war against
We can understand this level of skepticism
if we look at what life is like for the vast majority of Americans.
Unlike the 1960s when the policy was one of "guns and butter,"
today there is no butter for us. Instead, not only are we seeing
increased attacks on wages, benefits and social programs, minorities,
women, and gays and lesbians have also been targeted by the Bush
administration. Many people see and recognize this state of affairs.
We can rejuvenate the antiwar movement and build opposition to
the occupation of Iraq by drawing the connections between the
wars that the U.S. plans to wage abroad and the war at home. A
well organized antiwar movement can force the corporate media
to give our side more of a hearing to a certain degree, but corporate
media cannot completely change its character. It will always reflect
the interests of the status-quo-of profit and patriotism. Hence
there is the need for our movement to create alternative press
that not only can tell the truth, but can provide the analysis
and lessons of struggle to help propel our struggles to success.
Hermann Goering, Hitler's right-hand man,
once remarked about war propaganda: "Why, of course, the
people don't want war.... Voice or no voice, the people can always
be brought to the bidding of the leaders.... All you have to do
is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists
for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It
works the same in any country."
War propaganda has a habit of repeating
itself. Ships like the U.S.S. Maine and the Maddox, become justifications
for war. If "remember the Maine," was the cry of the
war makers over a century ago, today it is "remember 9-11."
Then, as now, the mainstream media could be relied upon to be
the official propaganda arm of the war effort. Yesterday, there
was William Randolph Hearst, today there is Rupert Murdoch. But
while their side has plenty of money, PR agencies and pliant media
outlets, our side has something greater-our numbers, our grassroots
democratic organizations and, not least of all, the truth.
Dina Roy is a member of the International
Socialist Organization in Greensboro, N. C.
Media's Threat to Democracy