Prominent Journalists and Citizens
MARCH 3, 2003
Prominent Journalists and Citizens
Ben Bagdikian, 510-848-2226
Robert McChesney, 217-344-2545
William Serrin, 212-998-7997
Robert Weissman, 202-387-8030
Prominent Journalists and Citizens Criticize
Media Coverage of Iraq Disarmament and War Preparations
- March 3 - Following is an open letter to the media from journalism
professors, independent editors, journalists and authors, on media
coverage of Iraq disarmament and war preparations:
"this is no time for relying solely on official sources and their
supporters," more than two dozen journalism school deans and professors,
independent editors, journalists and authors today sent an open
letter to major media editors, publishers, producers and reporters.
the letter include: retired New York Times columnist Tom Wicker,
former New York Times reporter William Serrin, Ben Bagdikian former
dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California
at Berkeley, author Studs Terkel, independent journalist and filmmaker
Barbara Koeppell and author Ralph Nader.
highlights six patterns of poor media coverage which have characterized
war-time reporting during Gulf War I and the present run-up to
war in Iraq:
1. The Horserace
Syndrome & Highlighting Tactics Over Political Analysis: "Endlessly
repeated news features with titles like 'Showdown with Saddam'
present a grave matter as though it were a high-stakes sports
contest," the letter says. It goes on to highlight major news
stories the media has failed to cover adequately as they obsess
over military tactics.
to Protest Government Control of Information: The government has
frozen out the media and carefully controlled their access to
information. Newspapers and TV news have underreported this freeze
out, and failed to contest it aggressively.
to Maintain an Arms-Length Relationship with Government: " State-controlled
media comes in many garbs," warns the letter, noting the overreliance
of TV news in particular on government-approved retired military
and intelligence consultants.
to Question the Official Story: "The media should never confuse
patriotism with obeisance and a rubber-stamp mentality," the letter
to Present a Diversity of Viewpoints: "There is a duty to seek
out and quote the many experts who express skepticism about claims
by the state, rather than simply to rely on the same pundits repeatedly,"
the letter states. It calls as well on "editors, publishers and
producers to see that their op-ed pages, letters-to-the-editor
sections and talk shows are open to a vigorous diversity of viewpoints."
6. Radio: "Years
ago, radio actually acknowledged the concept of orderly debates
with widely varying viewpoints," the letter states. "It should
do so again."
concludes by calling on the major media to "do your duty to our
March 4, 2003
Publisher, Producer, Reporter:
We are writing
to convey a level of heightened expectation in your forthcoming
coverage of the U.S.-Iraq situation.
and coverage of the period preceding war, test the reliability
of our news media. Access to truly independent sources of information
is essential, given the government's control of knowledge, data,
pictures and other information during this period. The media's
display of all significant points of view is especially important
because of the tendency of our top officials to equate patriotism
with uncritical support of official policy. Precisely for this
reason, the public expects its media to meet this challenge by
maintaining its independence for the good of the country. It is
your professional duty and your obligation to our democratic ideals.
objectivity and critical questioning of official sources, which
is a measure of your separation from officialdom, have not been
true in war-time reporting during Gulf War I and during the present
proposals for Gulf War II.
as readers, viewers and listeners of print and electronic media
has given us concern for a repetition of the following patterns:
1. The Horserace
Syndrome: Highlighting Tactics Over Political Analysis
In the period
before and during war, newspapers and the electronic media tend
to cover the diplomacy and military engagements as if they were
covering a horserace. In the questions about a possible war, the
media too frequently limit themselves to details of tactics, weapons
and military maneuvers, abandoning the critical balance that is
journalism at its finest. The government has exploited this tendency,
providing graphic material and features that limit reporting to
is already discernible in current media coverage of the crisis
over warmaking decisions, particularly among the electronic media.
Endlessly repeated news features with titles like "Showdown with
Saddam" present a grave matter as though it were a high-stakes
sports contest. The result has been to obliterate broader concerns
of consequences over security within the United States and globally.
There are numerous
examples of the confrontation with Iraq that the media have underplayed.
To name three:
risk of terrorism due to a war. The October CIA letter to Congress
received little more than one-day's coverage in most news outlets.
The letter had a startling message: Iraq poses little if any terrorist
threat to the United States, but a war would pose a real risk
of inciting such terrorist activities. This alone should be the
topic of far more reporting and analysis. This is a real threat
to the security of the United States -- brought on, not prevented
by war. Surely, this demands further inquiry by the Fourth Estate.
-- Oil and
the war. While it is surely an oversimplification to say a war
with Iraq would be only about oil, it also be misleading to deny
the fundamental importance of oil to the present conflict. It
is not credible that there would be such a strong push for war
if there were no oil in Iraq. Nonetheless, there has been very
little reporting focused on the extent to which obtaining control
of oil has motivated the administration or informs their geopolitical
strategizing, the posture of the oil industry toward a war, possible
discussions between the administration and the oil industry related
to Iraq, and scenarios for how Iraqi oil would be controlled in
the event of a U.S. invasion and who would benefit.
-- U.S. transfer
of weapons of mass destruction materials to Iraq. The process
by which the U.S. edited the December Iraqi 12,000 page submission
to the UN before permitting it to be shared with all of the members
of the Security Council -- and edited out references to U.S. corporate
transfers of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials to Iraq
-- received very little attention in the United States. By contrast,
the editing and the transfer of WMD materials to Iraq by Western
firms was a major story in Europe, and a German newspaper released
the names of the U.S. companies that sold these materials. A 1994
Senate banking committee report also documented U.S. transfers
of biological agents -- including stock for anthrax and E. coli
-- to Iraq. Saddam Hussein's use of chemical and biological weapons
against Kurds and Iranians was criminal, but surely more present-day
references to these acts as justification for a war in the media
should be accompanied by reference to the U.S. role in facilitating
Iraq's acquisition of such weapons.
of course, that some outlets have done some digging in these areas.
For every issue we highlight in this letter, there are exceptions.
But, in general, we believe it is safe to say -- and Lexis searches
confirm -- that there has been, relatively, very little reporting
and analysis in these areas.
Government Control of Information
Prize winner Pat Sloyan has written, the government's information
policy during the Gulf War was to freeze out the media both logistically
and substantively from what was going on. This pattern was repeated
during the military operations in Afghanistan. The media cannot
allow this to recur without sustained and high-level protest.
One key issue
is the number of Iraqi casualties in event of war, particularly
but not only among civilians. The Pentagon resists releasing its
estimates of combatant and non-combatant casualties, but journalistic
challenges to this practice are rarely heard. One legacy of the
media coverage of the Gulf War is that many Americans believe
only a very small number of people died in the conflict -- when
in fact a small number of U.S. soldiers died, but tens of thousands
of Iraqis perished.
an Arms-Length Relationship with Government
The media must
keep an objective, arms-length relationship with the government.
A separation of state and the fourth estate was lost in 1990-91,
most notably with the presence of government-approved retired
military and intelligence consultants shoulder- to-shoulder with
network anchors. State-controlled media comes in many garbs.
the Official Story
Vietnam war, for example, the finest journalists were the ones
who trusted their public to know the truth and who refused to
repeat misleading, false, and manipulative allegations transmitted
from official sources. The media should never confuse patriotism
with obeisance and a rubber-stamp mentality. Patriotism in reporting
the news is searching out and conveying what is factual, relevant
In the lead-up
to the Gulf War, manufactured and widely publicized stories about
Iraqis throwing babies out of incubators in Kuwait helped build
support for war. Those stories were later shown to be fabrications.
Gulf War, the media repeated the U.S. military claims of its high-tech
weaponry success -- replaying videotapes showing targets being
hit, as part of its high-tech coverage -- though the alleged accuracy
of the Patriot and success of other "smart" weapons was later
shown to be untrue.
In the present
run-up to war, there has been as well more than the standard reliance
on unnamed "officials," an always undesirable practice that is
even more questionable in war or during wartime preparations.
Quoting anonymous officials conveys to readers that these sources
are trustworthy and authoritative, without equipping the reader
with any basis for independent determination, and moves the reporter
closer to the role of simply reporting the government's press
releases. Unless government employees are offering views that
are contrary in some way to the government's official line, there
is no justification for quoting them anonymously.
a Diversity of Viewpoints
attack on Iraq would be a pre-emptive one rather than our country
responding to an attack, there is an increased obligation of the
news media to report the variety of dissenters from a wide variety
and massive numbers of citizens of our country. The media must
not march in lock-step the moment military action begins. Such
a dismissal of the public's right to know in a full and timely
manner weakens the meaning of the First Amendment and the pride
a democracy has in keeping open channels of public response.
is not achieved alone by having the intrepid reporter on the scene.
It also requires courageous and independent editors and publishers
who conform to the importance that Thomas Jefferson placed on
a free and inquiring press in times of strain, crisis or governmental
What is required
is not just a matter of covering the antiwar movement, or reporting
on demonstrations, advertisements and other signs of public opposition
to the war. There is a duty to seek out and quote the many experts
who express skepticism about claims by the state, rather than
simply to rely on the same pundits repeatedly. There are numerous
retired diplomats and high-ranking military officers who are expressing
deep reservations about the Bush administration arguments, but
who are receiving little media attention. Many critical experts,
though by no means all, are identified by the Institute of Public
Accuracy on their Web site, http://www.accuracy.org.
It is incumbent
on editors, publishers and producers to see that their op-ed pages,
letters-to-the-editor sections and talk shows are open to a vigorous
diversity of viewpoints.
Radio, in particular,
has sunk into a pronounced pattern of bias and ideological performance.
This extends beyond the opinion of the talk show host to the choice
and rude treatment of the occasional guest with an opposing viewpoint.
"Shout" radio should remember that it is using public property
-- the public airwaves -- and that the 1934 Communications Act
that guarantees this public ownership is still the law. Years
ago, radio actually acknowledged the concept of orderly debates
with widely varying viewpoints. It should do so again.
What we are
requesting in the final analysis is a journalism that rises to
the occasion and satisfies the finest journalistic standards and
practices. This requires considerable review and introspection,
with due regard to the fine and insightful advice of your own
colleagues who know how "better and best" can be defined. This
is no time for relying solely on official sources and their supporters.
Now is the time to do your duty to our democratic society. Too
much depends on which course you pursue.
(Professor of Journalism, American University) Ben Bagdikian(
former Dean of Graduate School of Journalism at University of
California at Berkeley and author of Media Monopoly) David Bollier
(Author) Robert Boynton( Professor of Journalism at New York University)
Pat Choate (Author and Economist) Susan Mango Curtis Phil Donahue
(Journalist/Talk show host) Mark Dowie (Investigative Reporter)
Ben Franklin (Editor of the Washington Spectator) Saul Friedman
(Columnist) Amy Goodman(Host of Pacifica Network's "Democracy
Now") William Greider (National Affairs Correspondent, The Nation)
Edward S. Herman (Professor Emeritus of Finance, Wharton School,
University of Pennsylvania) Nicholas Johnson (Former FCC Commissioner)
David Kairys (Professor of Law, Temple University) Naomi Klein
(Author) Barbara Koeppel (Washington-based freelance journalist)
Nick Kotz (Journalist and Author) Arno Mayer (Dayton/Stockton
Professor of History Emeritus, Princeton University) Robert McChesney
(Professor of Communication, University of Illinois, Urbana, Champaign)
John Moyers (Editor, TomPaine.com) Ralph Nader (Consumer Advocate)
James Ridgeway (Reporter, Village Voice) Matt Rothschild (Editor,
the Progressive) Jon Rowe (Writer) William Serrin (Faculty, New
York University School of Journalism) Patrick J. Sloyan (Reporter)
Carol Sternhell (Associate Chair, New York University Department
of Journalism) Studs Terkel (Author) Nina Utne (Chair, UTNE Magazine)
Gore Vidal Robert Weissman(Editor, Multinational Monitor) Mary
Ann Weston (Associate Professor, Medill School of Journalism,
Northwestern U.) Tom Wicker (Retired) Ellen Willis (Professor
of Journalism, New York University)
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