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US Media Poodles
Despite bouts of superficial self-criticism, when it comes to war, the US media excel at following the White House line
At times, long after laying the big flagstones on the path to war, mainstream US media outlets resolve to be more independent next time. And why not? As Mark Twain commented, "It's easy to quit smoking. I've done it hundreds of times."
When the president and his team set out to prepare the media ground for war, they can rely on a repetition compulsion that's widespread in the American press. Major outlets seem unable to resist White House agenda-setting for war. Cases in point span decades, from Vietnam and the Dominican Republic to Grenada and Panama, to Iraq and Yugoslavia, to Afghanistan and Iraq again - with Iran likely to join the list next year.
Along the way, beginning with the 1991 Gulf war, the better performances of the British press compared to the American media - high jumps over low standards - have not prevented the British government from requiting the worst aspects of the special relationship by supplying troops and weaponry for US-initiated war efforts based on deception.
The political feasibility of waging these tragic wars can be largely traced to the US media's reflexive capitulations to the administration in Washington - providing stenographic services far more often than tough scrutiny.
In the US, superficial self-critiques have become periodic rituals at big news organisations. But the basic and chronic failures to engage in independent journalism routinely elude serious examination, whether by the "public editor" at The New York Times or by The Washington Post's in-house media columnist, Howard Kurtz, who has long double dipped as a punch pulling media critic on the CNN payroll. Such media institutions have no use for analysing deep-seated patterns of war reporting.
The belated and fuzzy outlines of the US media's second thoughts are apt to appear long after the realtime coverage has aided and abetted Washington's war planners. So, today, with few murmurs of concern from the powerhouse US media, the quality of reporting on the Iranian "threat" is scarcely more of a departure from the official White House line than what we were getting five years ago in countless stories about the menace of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Since its release last summer, the full-length documentary film, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death (based on my book of the same name) has been unanimously avoided by every one of the media outlets that it criticises, including CNN, Fox, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS, NBC and ABC. None opted to air a moment or print a word about the film, which is narrated by Sean Penn and includes stunning archival footage that undermines the pretensions of the nation's most prestigious news organisations. The documentary's critique is fundamental, and so is its indigestibility by the media that it takes on.
A pivotal assumption continues to hold in America's high journalistic places: if you're pro-war, you can be objective; if you're anti-war, you're biased.
Thus, as shown with network footage in War Made Easy, the widely esteemed then-ABC correspondent Ted Koppel intoned from the front line on camera at the outset of the Iraq invasion in March 2003: "I must say, I was trying to think of - I was trying to think of something that would be appropriate to say on an occasion like this, and as is often the case, the best you can come up with is something that Shakespeare wrote for Henry V, 'Wreak havoc and unleash the dogs of war'."
Very few eyebrows are raised when the most highly-touted US journalists cheerled the latest US war effort in the course of their reportorial duties. As I note in the film, "A news anchor will get no flak at all for making statements that are supportive of a war and wouldn't dream of making a statement that's against a war."
The first UK public screening of War Made Easy is set for the evening of Tuesday November 27 at the Frontline Club in London. The documentary will also be shown on the following night at a cinema in an event sponsored by the Stop the War Coalition. (Days later, the film makes its debut at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.)
British viewers may be taken aback to see the grotesque extent to which US presidents and American news media have jointly shouldered key propaganda chores for war launches during the last five decades. But complacency would be ill-advised. The American media may be in a particularly degraded and craven state while covering the great issues of war and peace, but the tandem machinations of George Bush and Tony Blair - and indications that the current British government is unwilling to challenge the war cries from Washington now aimed at Tehran - do not attest to overall political or journalistic health in either country.
Norman Solomon's new book "Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America's Warfare State" has just come off the press. For more information, go to: www.MadeLoveGotWar.com. The documentary film "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death" is based on Norman Solomon's book of the same title. For information about the full-length movie, narrated by Sean Penn and produced by the Media Education Foundation, go to: www.WarMadeEasyTheMovie.org
© 2007 The Guardian