Published on Monday, December 1, 2003 by CommonDreams.org
Bush and Iraq: Mass Media, Mass Ignorance
by Jeff Cohen
The president's secret Thanksgiving trip to Iraq prompted predictable gushing from major media. As we head toward a presidential election, mainstream media and their pundits are telling us Bush will be difficult to beat. What mass media don't discuss much is their own role in public opinion and public ignorance, two measures that run hand in hand.
Americans who are fundamentally misinformed about 9/11 provide the bulk of those tallied in polls as supporting Bush and the Iraq war. Subtract them from polls and Bush is an unpopular president -- widely seen as having accomplished a bait and switch, redirecting U.S. anger and vengeance toward a country that did not attack us.
The run-up to the Iraq war offers a case study in news bias: how mainstream media, especially television, were incapable of getting the truth out in the face of administration lies and innuendo about Iraq's 9/11 role and weapons of mass destruction.
Among experts internationally, there had been much debate and many doubts about Iraq being an imminent WMD threat. But there was little debate among the handpicked weapons "experts" who dominated U.S. television coverage in the build up to war -- and most of what they told us has turned out to be wrong. A media furor erupted over fictionalization in news accounts by New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, but not about the more momentous reporting -- illusory and scarily overstated -- by Times star Judith Miller on WMDs, both before and after the Iraq invasion.
News outlets ideologically allied with Bush have been happy to assist in confusing the public about who had attacked us on 9/11 and in morphing our enemy from Al-Qaeda to Iraq. The Fox News Channel runs its "War on Terror" banner whether discussing Afghanistan or Iraq. Other outlets promoted the Saddam/911 confusion less out of ideology than ineptitude -- during a live, pre-war news conference at which the chief of Homeland Security described new terrorist threats from Al-Qaeda, MSNBC ran its banner: "Showdown with Saddam."
While most of us who pay attention know who was and who wasn't behind 9/11, others get their news on the fly -- basically headlines and banners. But even Americans who say they're paying attention, at least to TV, are highly misinformed. A massive University of Maryland study found that most who get their news from commercial TV held at least one of three fundamental "misperceptions": that Iraq had been directly linked to 9/11, that WMDs had been found in Iraq or that world opinion supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Not unexpectedly, Fox News viewers were the most misled. But strong majorities of CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN viewers were also confused on at least one of these points. Among those informed on all three questions, only 23 percent supported Bush's war.
Ultimately, the Iraq war was a "Rush Limbaugh/Fox News War" -- based on the premise that in our current media environment if you tell a lie forcefully and frequently enough, the lie will triumph. Limbaugh rose to be the top commentator in our country while conducting a reign of error virtually unnoticed by mainstream media. Fox News, with its "fair and balanced" mantra, became the top cable news channel while mainstream TV writers solemnly debated whether the channel was biased or not.
The ideologues in the Bush White House apparently learned from watching the rise of Limbaugh and Fox News: When you invert or concoct reality, do so passionately and repetitively, and accuse anyone who challenges your reality of liberal bias...or treason.
The media problem, of course, goes way beyond Fox to a broader timidity and fear of offending conservatives. In February, with the Iraq war approaching, MSNBC terminated Phil Donahue's primetime show after an internal NBC report complained that Donahue offered a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.... He seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." The report, which was never supposed to go public, described a nightmare scenario in which the show becomes "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
If you watched MSNBC before and during the war, you know that it was second to none in waving the flag at every opportunity -- part of a strategy that others in TV news are trying: "Let's outfox Fox."
The spectrum of mainstream media discourse is so narrowly center-right that when major U.S. media finally started debating bias in their Iraq coverage this fall, the issue was not the obvious question of whether they've been war boosters instead of reporters, but whether their coverage was emphasizing the negative too much in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The media debate in recent weeks has not been over an exit strategy, but whether the U.S. should deploy more troops -- a view expressed by Bill Press, who has represented the American left on national TV for eight years.
The good news is that progressives are approaching next November's crucial election with eyes wide open about the biases of corporate-dominated media. Money is being raised to contact voters directly, especially minority and core voters, and for paid ads. Independent groups like MoveOn and True Majority are organizing through the Internet, and websites like CommonDreams are growing.
The key is to reach swing voters in swing states with information and arguments about Bush and the GOP they won't be getting from mainstream outlets -- and to counter the misinformation they will be getting.
Jeff Cohen is the founder of the media watch group FAIR (fair.org), who worked at MSNBC during the Iraq war buildup as senior producer on "Donahue" and on-air contributor.